07 July 2011

The Desolation of Pag Island

Pag Island, people are fond of saying, looks like the moon. Certainly, that's not a bad description. Rock and water meet in pure forms here, with little vegetation and a simple duality of color: blue and white. It has the longest coastline in the Adriatic, with many switchback arms and deeply cut bays. Most of its shores are completely, utterly desolate.
There are pockets of people scattered everywhere, though, taking in the fine beaches and beautiful water. There is nothing on Pag to separate the ground from the sun; sunbathing is a direct intake activity, where heat and light seem to be part of the atmosphere itself. We stopped at the head of this bay, where a thin line of gravely earth gave way to smooth pebbles and white stone. The water is intensely salty in these coves, and especially clear.
The salt is the reason why Pag is inhabited at all. Or, it was until the advent of Croatian tourism. For almost three thousand years the people of Pag have harvested salt in giant pans that stretch up the protected, central slit of sea. Pag Town, the capital and original settlement, was once famous for this bounty, and has some beautiful marble buildings and bright-white streets. It's nestled into one of the only green spaces on the island, protected from the salty winds and cordoned off from the greater seas.
Nowadays, Pag has a reputation for wild partying, with the northern town of Novalja becoming known as "the Croatian Ibiza," which is why we avoided it. Tourism here skews young and wealthy, and is centered on a few beaches on one stretch of coast. There is one main road that travels the length of the island - taxis rushed along it, ferrying vacationers up through nothingness to their clubs and hotels.
Little of that energy has permeated the rest of the island, though, and it can feel like a desert at noontime. The boats that cruise through the water are piloted mostly by lone, sun-darkened men who have been dried and wrinkled by the elements. There is an unrelenting harshness to the landscape, and it's a place only for the hardy - one senses that a few days here would be a trial and that a lifetime would be difficult. Though it looks like paradise from some angles, there is nothing here except rock and salt.
Somehow, in this wasteland, amazing food abounds. Besides salt, Pag is known for two things: the local sheep cheese, Paški sir, and lamb. The cheese is delicious, with a spare, hard-edged sharpness that perfectly mirrors the landscape. The lamb is supposedly even better - I saw it being grilled, whole, over a wood fire, stuffed with herbs and slick with drippings and olive oil. It smelled delicious, but we ate fish instead.
Perhaps the best seafood that we have eaten on the trip - and maybe the simplest - these four hake were swimming in olive oil, their skin crisp with salt and heat. We ate them ravenously, sitting on a porch between the sea and the road, using our fingers as much as our forks. Our hostess was very proud of us for ordering them, though she couldn't convey much to us across the language chasm.
We left feeling a kind of simple melancholy, as though the day we'd spent there had drained us of emotion. The sun is tiring, of course, and the landscape invites an emptier mind, rather than contemplation. Driving back to Zadar across the causeway, it felt as though the surrounding elements had doubled - sea and rock giving way to vegetation and buildings.


  1. Great Post, you've captured the atmosphere well though it isn't all baron and rocky on the island. You must have missed the fertile fields by the village of Kolan in which there's an abundance of wild life and 'Kolanski Blato', a nature reserve and resting place to many African birds of migration. Also there's so many hidden coves and archaeological treasure along the beautiful coast that even the locals couldn't name all of them, it really is a place for exploration not just passing through. Novalja too, although you see it as a tourist trap it still manages to capture the culture of the island and is a far cry away from the Greek islands or Spanish coastal resorts. At the southern tip there is also the beautiful bay of Lun with so many local producers of gastronomic delights, not to mention the mysterious olive forest there which has many trees older than 1500 years old, a place not to be missed. So much more I could go on and on, but you did manage to taste the cheese though which is the true essence of the island. Have a look at our blog for some great pictures and more about the cheese.


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