Like many others I had never heard of Pag and that it's an island that is part of Croatia which officially became part of the EU as of July 1st. I love travelling to new places and even better when I learn they have a growing reputation as a foodie destination, but I must admit I'm torn between sharing this gem of a place and keeping it a secret just a little longer.
The hidden treasures of Pag
Croatia's island of Pag is a foodie tourist's dream, and yet it's still undiscovered and unspoilt. Full of award winning cheese's, mouth watering lamb (because of the mix of herbs and grasses the sheep eat), sage scented honey, olives from 1,500 year old olive trees, very fresh seafood and seriously good wines.
My adventure began with an early morning start of 4.30am in Worcestershire, needing to drive to Stanstead for my flight.
Some hours later I exited Zadar's small air terminal looking for the chap I was supposed to meet, a worker for the cheese maker who had invited me to the island. The warm afternoon Croatian sunshine greeted me, it was clear that summer had already started in mid May.
Dario greeted me with a warm friendly smile, he explained I need to follow him in my hire car for the hour's journey back to Pag. He told me not too worry and that he would drive slowly, which he did at first until we were out of the car park.
Steep mountainous roads and overtaking aren't my favourite mix but I was following the guy that knew the way what choice did I have but to keep up and it definitely added a sense of adventure to the beginning of my holiday.
The road to Pag was itself worth the flight, a mixture of its different Mediterranean influences as we left the outskirts of Zadar and into the countryside.
Once we had left Zadar the vista constantly changed, lush landscapes scented with pine trees, then a majestic view of mountains. We crossed the new bridge onto the island itself as the mid afternoon sun shimmered on the calm Mediterranean water. Winding down the windows I could from time to time enjoy the different scents from the herbs and the wild flowers.
Equally striking were the barren baked hills on parts of the island in stark contrast to the island's greener pastures. This barrenness is cause by the often warm winds the locals call Bora (northern winds) Far from being a bad thing the wind brings the sea salt which influences the flavour of the grasses and the herbs which lie at the heart of the secret of its cheeses and lamb.
I was based at a wonderful boutique hotel called Boskinac which is located in the countryside a couple miles from Novalja, which is the main town on the island. The hotel is owned by Boris Suljic who is not only a seriously good chef but also a much respected wine producer.
In the early evening after a long day, I dined on the large veranda which overlooks the sloping vineyard. The sun helped light up the wonderful backdrop and the birds still played and sang in the trees, a warm gentle breeze gave a welcome respite. My waiter suggested that I tried the chef's tasting menu and each delicious course was accompanied with a different wine which was thoughtfully chosen. The hotel also has a popular taverna which also doubles as the wine shop. Here you can eat more cheaply and sample the wines, perhaps buy a few bottles to bring home. Having only 11 bedrooms I would definitely recommend booking your rooms well in advance at http://www.i-escape.com/hotel-boskinac/overview. The site has more details about this little gem including room rates.
Paski Sir Cheese
My first experience with Pag cheese came in 2010 at The World Cheese Awards where I sampled Paski Sir made by the Gligoran family. Made from only local sheep's milk from 200 small herds, one of which I watched being milked in the field early the next morning. Paski Sir is a natural hard rind cheese similar to Spanish Manchego but with a richer fuller flavour, a slight graininess that becomes more pronounced as the cheese matures and just a hint of the herbs that the sheep were grazing on.
This cheese is hard to find outside of Croatia because the cheese is made in limited quantity because it's strictly made using only milk of the autochthonous sheep on the island. Paski Sir is the most awarded ewes milk cheese in all of Croatia.
In fact since 2002 Paski Sir has won many major awards including 3 Gold medals at the World Cheese Awards 2010 and judged to be in the top ten cheeses of the world. 2011 saw them win ITQI awards in Brussels for the fourth year in a row receiving the maximum 3 stars as a world beating product. For more information about the artisanal cheeses
made at the Gligora Dairy together with wine pairings http://paskisir.wordpress.com.
The Gligora dairy do tours by request in (small numbers)and the dairy is well worth a visit for their daily cheese tastings and then you can buy your favourites in the dairy's shop. http://www.sirena.hr/en/dairy-gligora-s1.htm
As a contrast to the largest and most famous of Pag cheese producers the next day my guide took to a small family producer who made cheese in her kitchen. We spend the next couple of hours watching the process as she made Paski Sir this time from un-pasteurised milk. Later she made fresh cheese which is similar to Ricotta from the whey, this secondary process creates a soft cheese that is then hung up outside in cheesecloth to drain.
Being fairly neutral in flavour we tried this cheese with both sweet and savoury accompaniments of first local olives and then sage honey. They sell their fresh cheese to other locals but their Pag Cheese will be matured and then sold on the roadside shop during the tourist season.
Many of the locals are still very connected to the land, often the family have a second job growing almonds, figs, sour cherries and making speciality items for the tourist to buy.
Such was the case of ----- whose husband owns a restaurant. We tasted a selection of her delicious hand made treats and my favourite was the dried figs made with almonds, orange and lemon rind, spices and a little splash of olive oil.
The well-known master beekeeper who lived close by was kind enough to talk to us after a long day tending his bees. A very vigorous and active working man of 76, he claimed his long life and good health was down to a regular diet of Pag honey and he certainly looked well on it. He explained that the bees got lots of the nectar from the sage flowers hence the hint of sage in the delicious taste.
The Ancient Forest of Lun
A trip to Pag would not be complete without a trip to the legendary olive tree forest at Lun. Lun is a small village of some 337 inhabitants in the far northern tip of the island. Lun is a small village half a mile in from the coast with a few scattered restaurants and bed and breakfast places open during the season. There is also a port at Lun which is called Tovarnele which a sleepy little fishing port so if your looking to get away from everyone this could be the place.
Lun Forest is one of only three locations in the world to still have a large concentration of wild olive trees (Olea oleaster). Seeing so many ancient olives trees in one place is a breath taking and magical sight, it really conjured images of ancient Rome and the Holy land. Lots of the trees date back 1,500 years and yet they are still producing a crop every year. Many of the islanders own an olive tree or three and each year they gather as a family in November to harvest the olives. The harvested olives are then taken to one of Pag's pressing plants for turning into olive oil. The owner of the plant presses the olives into oil in return he keep a percent of the oil to sell himself. This year Lun olive oil won gold medals at the prestigious competition in Krasici.
For more information on Lun and the surrounding area click on this link http://www.lun.hr/ which also offers an English translation.
I travelled from Standstead to Zadar, an airport on the Croatian mainland which is an hour's drive from Pag itself. I would recommend hiring a car from the airport so you can fully explore Pag. Taxis are available but buses are few and far between, so to explore and enjoy the rugged and out of the way places on the island, a car is essential.
Places to Stay
As I mentioned earlier, I stayed at a wonderful boutique hotel and vineyard called Boskinac, an oasis of peace with wonderful food and wine. If you're on a tighter budget there are plenty of apartments to rent or a large well appointed camp site Strasko, which is located right on the beach at Novalja. You can also rent a static caravan, pitch your own or rent a tent. The friendly people at the shop on the site can rent you a fridge, bike, scooter, kayak or even a boat.
Most of the islands beaches are clean, safe pebble beaches and often in the low season it is easy to find your own little spot to relax in peace and quiet. The island has 27km of beaches, the most famous being Janjece vode and Tri glave and most of the beaches are accessible by car.
Sports and Recreation
Lovers of active holidays can hire bikes to enjoy the rugged natural vistas, with 115 km of biking trails that were developed on what used to be the ancient shepherd's trails.
If you want to explore the exceptionally marine life around the island, scuba diving equipment can be hired by certified divers in Pag town. Sailing and windsurfing can also be enjoyed in and around Pag Bay. In the Lokunje area there is also the Olympic Center which has tennis courts, 5 a side soccer pitch, basketball court and a volley ball court on the beach.
Extra photos from my Trip
On the quayside in Novalja, usually parked outside the hotel Liburnija you find an excursion boat or two that offer three different excursions including one they call the "Dolphin Trail”.
An hour from the island is Croatia's biggest National park called Kornati. It's a wonderful archipelago of little islands. The north on the Croatian mainland is Plitvicka Lakes, where you can walk through the lush pine forests and see the magnificent falls.
Just like the little known great foods from the island uncovering its history is a long project and one that is relatively just begun. During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC the Roman state expanded across the Adriatic Sea, quelling the numerous rebelling Illyrian tribes. The Romans built an island network of wells and an Aqueduct across the island to transport and share the water resources. Part of the aqueduct was tunnelled through solid rock and it's entrance can still be seen in the basement of the museum in Novalja.
Over centuries many of the stones from Roman buildings got reused several times, walking around Novalja you can spot roman column remnants in garden walls, which I guess these days would be considered pretty green. The museum also holds an interesting collection of amphora that where recovered from a 1st century BC shipwreck. The merchant ship was discovered in 2004 by Drazen Peraniae in Vlaska Mala bay. The wreck continues to be researched in situ and is now protected by an iron cage. Between 1443-1474 the town of Pag was moved to its current location. Before that time the inhabitants of Pag had lived in the old town which an archaeological site today.
In the summertime there is a number of cultural events held in the town of Pag the most famous being Pasko Ljeto (Pag Summer) which a music and arts festival which include musical performances, theatre and art exhibitions. Another event worth looking out for is
Summer Pag Carnival in which the town's brass band play music as locals dressed in traditional costumes perform the Pag wheel dance in Petar Kresimir IV Square. Folk songs and plays are also performed.
To the people at the Gligora Dairy in Kolan who made my whole trip possible, in particular Simi Gligora who is now taken over as the driving force behind the dairy's many award winning cheese's and to the tireless work of Simon Kerr.
Also to the i-escape site who kindly let me use some of their photos and the Croatian Tourist board.
Just like other little known parts of Italy, France, Greece and Turkey the people of Pag are wedded to the land, through tradition, through passion through their love for their island and they love to share their magical island with visitors. Go and have a great time, respect the land and it's people but let's keep it our secret .....just a little longer please.