An Education on the Island of Pag

My pre-teen boys have introduced me to a new three strikes rule: The first time you go somewhere, it’s cool. The second time, it’s OK. The third time? That’s boring.

That is why they did not want to take Sarge to the village of Preko over the weekend. They deemed the beautiful little fishing town on the island of Ugljan “too boring” for a third visit. Sarge hasn’t been there yet, but we have. Twice. It is an idyllic little island a 15-minute ferry ride from where we’re living in Zadar. It’s everything I dreamed of last winter when I was freezing my tail off in the States – beaches with turquoise water; the remains of a Roman villa; pretty, narrow streets and stone houses; little to no wifi — the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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The last time we were there, we filled our time finding sea glass and skipping stones. Clearly, I need to introduce my boys to hard labor on this, their last week of summer break before their international school starts. Their European summer has been filled with such boredom.

I took their complaints as a challenge over the weekend and searched for an equally close island where we could go and hang onto the last bits of summer.

We found something new for all of us on the island of Pag, a kind of barren place that looks like not much more than sand-colored limestone mountaintops sticking out of the sea.

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It had a few things going for it: 1) We could get there quickly by car from Zadar. There’s a bridge that leads to the island. 2) It has uncrowded beaches, even in August, except for evening “party” beaches, which didn’t seem to apply to us. And 3) Cheese. It’s known for its cheese, “paški sir,” a goat’s milk cheese said to be one of the best in the world. We had to have some.

Also, upon consulting my guidebooks, they all listed the same restaurant to check out. I decided we must visit Bistro Na Tale and have spit-roasted lamb, or maybe seafood.

So we set off, and we checked everything off the list.

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1) The road to Pag is so interesting. We arrived on an arched bridge from the mainland, and I enjoyed spotting little prayer grottos property owners place along the road.

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The landscape changes from bushes and trees and crops in Zadar to what looks almost like a desert on Pag, where salt fields line the water’s edge in big, rectangular plots. We tried some of the local salt at Bistro Na Tale, one of our first stops, where the lamb and seafood lived up to the travel guide listings.

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2) The tourbooks also listed Zrće Beach in the town of Novalja as a popular spot. My GPS also listed it as “festival” grounds. I’m thinking that probably meant music festival grounds, and this would be the equivalent in the U.S. as a kind of Daytona Beach hotspot for Spring Breakers. Here’s a sampling of how that went down:

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My 11-year-old: “Mom, I think we’re too young for this beach. I saw people making out.”

I thought about replying: “Honey, I think I’m too old for this beach. I saw people making out.”

Instead, I tried to explain why the 20-something girls next to us (not the lovely women in the above photo) had their bikini tops off and were taking pictures of themselves. I told him they were just European and it was a cultural thing, but taking selfies looking naked was a bad idea by any cultural standard.

On the family friendly side, we rented a little red paddle boat with a slide. It was great fun. The water was cold, and the beach was full of pebbles. I wonder which part of our trip the boys will remember!

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3) Cheese. We had to make a couple of stops before we found a roadside vendor with a cheese sign who actually had cheese. The first guy was sitting in a chair next to a kiosk set up for wine tasting looking blissful as the sun was about to set. He looked like he’d had a few tastes. But no cheese. As we drove away, Sarge made up a story about what the guy must have told his wife about having to stay sitting by the coast selling the last of their cheese while he was really sitting there drinking the last of their wine. And that’s how we ended up buying cheese from a guy selling his wares of his white van. At least he had coolers. And samples of cheese and olive oil. It was good. We bought some of both.

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Pag made for a great day, even if it was a little more educational for our sons than I had bargained for. Looks like we have one trip left there before they put it in the “boring” category. Somehow, though, I don’t think they ever think of Pag as boring.

 

Farmers’ Secrets

The secrets of life may be discovered by talking to the farmers who run the fruit stands along the scenic Adriatic Highway along the coast between Split and Dubrovnik.

One of the treasures from our weekend road trip to the southern tip of Croatia is a piece of scrap paper tucked in my purse. On it, a farmer’s wife from the Neretva River valley mapped out a centuries-old olive grove to find the best olive oil, her favorite restaurant to have lamb and her recommendation for a sandy beach where we wouldn’t step on too many stones.

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Between offering us skewers of cantaloupe, sips of freshly squeezed orange juice and spoons of jam from the fruit in their fields, the English-speaking Croatian couple we met at their roadside produce stand offered advice on health and wellness and the benefits of a slower pace of life.

Earlier in the day, “W,” my 10-year-old, picked me a flower near the restaurant where we had lunch at the cable car stop high above the walled city of Dubrovnik. I fashioned his gift into a corsage and tied it around my wrist. I had forgotten about it by the time we got to the fruit stand, but the farmer’s wife saw it and picked a yellow flower to go with it.

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Her husband explained that the fragile yellow Mediterranean plant is known as “the immortal,” and it contains a sought-after essential oil. His wife said people come to isolated islands along the coast just to pick it. The farmer told me to soak the flower heads in olive oil for 40 days and then rub it into my skin. Maybe he knows where to find the Fountain of Youth, too.

In his next breath, the farmer switch topics to beer and gave Sarge the local perspective on the merits of Ožujsko over Karlovačko. Then he gave us more samples: peaches for our boys and fresh candied orange and lemon peels that had been drying in the sun for us.

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At one roadside stand, we got an unexpected culinary lesson and a glimpse into the lives of people who do backbreaking work to really bring the farm to people’s tables. Tourism is their livelihood, and the relationships they make with people who stop in mean the difference between making a sale or being passed up.

We didn’t leave empty-handed. The bottles of fruit syrup were too pretty to pass up. We got an assortment of items and some candied fruit the sellers suggested we have with coffee instead of adding sugar to our coffee.

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Before we could head back to the car, the farmer filled another bag with peaches and figs and handed it to me while he shoved a fig in my mouth. He told us go down to the sandy beach, sit in the water and eat peaches and figs. That, he said, would be the perfect way to experience Croatia.