The beautiful, almost desolate island of Pag is one place that seems to be off Croatia’s tourist radar. Unless, of course, the summertime clubbing hotspot of Zrće is on your annual beach party agenda.
For us regular, non-party folk, there’s hiking, birdwatching, secluded beaches and ancient olive groves to enjoy. Or you can simply relax.
The island’s largest centre – also named Pag – is blissfully quiet in comparison to destinations like Zadar, Rab and Plitvice Lakes National Park. If you visit in September – when we hit town – it’ll feel like you’re sharing it with a handful of others.
This is a town with a history rich in salt production – much like Ston further down the Dalmatian coast – and it produces two thirds of Croatia’s salt consumption today. Its production has been traced to the 9th century, and it’s even believed the Romans took advantage of this precious resource for its rich, creamy and almost sweet flavour.
Church of the Assumption of Mary
The new town – which we see today – began to take shape in 1443 when its Venetian rulers commissioned the superstar sculptor, architect and urbanist at the time – Giorgio da Sebenico (also known as Juraj Dalmatinac).
It may not appear to be an architectural masterpiece, but the well-preserved – yet ungentrified – town centre does contain a few lovely 15th century buildings; including a ducal palace on the main square opposite the Church of the Assumption of Mary.
Dalmatinac also began work on the town’s defensive walls in 1499 – with Skrivanat being the only one remaining of nine towers that used to circle the city. Come the summer months and it’s used for cultural events and entertainment.
Aside from local salt – which can be purchased at the supermarket – Pag is also known for its fine lacemaking. Known as ćipke in the native tongue, this centuries old tradition was started by the Benedictine nuns of the St. Margaret convent.
Enthusiasts and collectors would be pleased to learn that Pag lace can be washed without it losing firmness, unlike those from Dubrovnik and Lepoglava. There’s even a lace museum and an annual International Lace Festival, generally held in late June.
Armed with smokvenjak (dried fig cake) which I picked up at the city market in Zadar, I planned on buying Paški sir (Pag cheese) as soon as we found someone that sells it in Pag. Not that it took long.
What makes Paški sir so special is its gorgeous flavour. It’s made using milk from a local breed of small sheep whose diet is rich in salt that’s blown across the island’s vegetation by the wintry Bura winds. The matured cheese is hard, flaky and perfect with smokvenjak and pršut. I drizzled mine with a little sage honey which I picked up in the village.
Aside from local cheese and pršut, we did sample a few other things around the town centre. I can never resist krafne – those impossibly soft doughnuts filled with oozing vanilla custard. Not the cleanest things to eat, mind you, but being covered in sugar and custard is worth it.
Down by the town bus stop and carpark is a waterside eatery well worth checking out. It’s nothing fancy and has a leafy courtyard strewn with tables and benches. The menu at Konoba Baracola is traditional and inexpensive and I can seriously vouch for their lignje na žaru (grilled squid; 65). Perfect with blitve – or chard with potatoes.
Konoba Barcarola – Golija Ulica 41
That salty Adriatic air and vegetation makes for another local delicacy – Paška janjetina – or Pag lamb. In the earlier months of the year you see it on menus as a spit roast, but at other times it’s simply grilled over coals to succulent deliciousness.
I tried mine at Konoba Dva Ferala, a courtyard restaurant enclosed by stone walls and shaded by two huge fig trees. At 120 kuna it’s not the most budget-friendly option, but hey, when in Pag, right?
Pag lamb at Konoba Dva Ferala – Ulica Ivana Mršića 2
Located on the northern end of the island is Novalja, a town with a nice waterfront promenade and a sleepy atmosphere, unless you’re there in the warmer months.
Nearby Zrće Beach is party central in summer, but if you’re on the wrong side of 30 or simply don’t pull all-nighters and dance to thumping music, a sleepy village filled with cafés and restaurants would have to do it for you.
The social centre of town is Trg Bazilike, an open square lined with outdoor eateries, a couple of bakeries and shops. Here you can sit beneath swaying palms with the locals, sip on espresso or a cocktail and grab a bite.
Barely five minutes walk from the square is the City Museum where you can see part of an ancient Roman aqueduct and plenty of artefacts and exhibits, or if you’re a diver, the offshore remains of a submerged trade ship from the 1st century.
Konoba Timun – Obala Petra Krešimira IV 5
Where did we eat during our very short stay in Novalja?
There wasn’t a great deal open due to being low season, but the display menu outside of Konoba Timun sounded decent enough to get us in the door. Its sprawling rear dining area is filled with benches and tables, the ideal spot to settle in with local food and booze. The grah (45) and crni rizoto (65) were both winners.
Right next door is Konoba No.5, an eatery with more of a Western European flavour. Great service, nice atmosphere and some decent schnitzel (65) and špageti na novaljski (spaghetti, tomato, ham, Pag cheese; 60)
Konoba No5 – Obala Petra Krešimira IV 7
Anyone that’s up for a sugar fix – or a fix on decent bread and savoury pastries – then Kastelo Bakery near the main square needs some attention. It’s a good spot to stock up on snacks for the ferry, or an indulgent breakfast of golden fritule with an espresso at one of the town cafes.
Buses to Pag leave Zadar a few times a day from the main bus station. Travel time is 1 hour and cost is 52 kuna per person. If travelling on weekends, check the times with the driver or cashier.
Buses to Novalja from Pag run a few times a day. Check with the driver as times can change. The bus station in Novalja is located on the edge of town. It’s about 20 minutes to walk from the station to the town centre, or there are cabs.