Thursday Column - Croatia Lifestyle 6: Driving
You can divide the two schools of thought on driving in Croatia quite clearly by gender. The men seem to love it and women tend to dig a lot of holes in the upholstery with their fingernails – daring adventure versus self preservation! The scenery is picturesque and the traffic is generally light, as long as you stay at home in July and August, but there are a number of white knuckle rides and a series of hazards.
As you may imagine, this article is written from a female perspective so lets be fair and put the macho view first. As I understand it, it’s touring driving like it used to be with plenty of overtaking and bends, not too many traffic lights and, especially inland, some good long straight overtaking places. And of course, around every corner is a magical village or a spectacular view. Until last year if you wanted to get quickly from Split to Zagreb, you were confined to the single lane coast road but now the first motorway has been built and that makes it a lot quicker and safer. Although I’m trying to be generous and unbiased, that’s pretty well it on the upside as far as I’m concerned.
On the downside, it’s difficult to know where to start. I would say that, on the whole, Croatian drivers are quite considerate, but they’ve grown up with their road system and that makes them necessarily a little aggressive by English standards. On some stretches of road, there is little opportunity to pass completely safely. Faced with the choice of having to stay behind a lorry for three miles of hairpin bends, or creating an opportunity from nowhere, the decision is normally to overtake, regardless of how near the approaching bend might be. As someone with an imaginative mind, I’ve often wondered what choice I would make, faced with a driver approaching me on the wrong side of the road, and a sheer drop about six inches away from the passenger’s side of the car, often with no crash barrier.
Such was the mesmerising effect of the bends, on the final leg of our otherwise gentle 5 day journey from London, when we first came over, that I was eventually only appeased at a speed of 20 miles an hour. The ravines, so close by for so long, gave me the first real vertigo attack I have had. The feeling, though dampened by time, still stays with me every time we take the coast road, though my confidence has grown considerably over the three years we have been here. On that final long day of our journey, we took the inland road to Trogir. This is a long straight Roman Road but it was dark and raining. Cats eyes have not been heard of in Croatia, white lines fade very quickly and when it rains it can really rain. So, tired and wanting to get to our new home, we drove in pitch black at speed, through deserted villages, and managed to stay on the road. I’m still not sure how though John’s remarkable driving vision had something to do with it.
Unfortunately, there are other hazards to watch out for. Many roads have uncovered ditches at the side for drainage and we’ve seen the odd vehicle get stuck in them when driving rain has camouflaged them as puddles. The lack of pavements in many places also means you need to watch out for pedestrians, particularly at night. As for the main coast road, there are more left turns off it than seeds in a pomegranate, so never get too close to the car in front. The Croatians are excellent at indicating but their lights don’t always work. You’ll need a good map as well, as the signage on the older roads isn’t that great, and be prepared for nice wide roads to suddenly shrink so there’s maybe just enough room to squeeze your car between two old stone houses.
Finally, just to depress you further, you’ll need to watch out for the police. They’re generally a fairly friendly bunch, though with limited English, and a belief that tourists are fair game to replenish the coffers. Croatia has recently introduced zero tolerance for drinking and driving, compulsory seat belt wearing, and compulsory dipped headlights at any time. All sensible measures but there’s a policeman round most corners waiting to catch you either for foe something. Even given the roads, the speed limits seem to be quite low and it’s easy to be caught off guard for speeding which means paying cash for an instant fine. If there is an accident, it seems to be standard local practice not to move the vehicles, however obstructive they are, until the police arrive on the scene.
Please take all the above with a strong pinch of salt. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a nervous driver but I’m not that used to being a passenger and you tend to think a bit more when you’re not at the wheel. I’ve also spent most of my pre Croatian life in London so country roads are a dim distant memory. However, when you’re driving in Croatia you do need to compensate for what other people might be doing a little more than in the UK. Croatia is well aware of the fact that its roads and road safety need attention and the government has already taken a number of steps in that direction. However its difficult to see where they will find the land to build pavements where they might be needed and more overtaking places on the coastal roads. Crash barriers are however going up in a number of places and traffic lights are popping up from nowhere in a few days. Other positive signs, on the first ever motorway, are the good netting of rocky areas and the general high standards of build and signage. It’s truly an amazing engineering feat given the proximity of the mountains to the coast and indentation of the mainland, requiring every conceivable combination of tunnels and bridges.