Rab

South of Krk and east of Cres, mainland-hugging RAB is the smallest but probably the most beautiful of the main Kvarner Gulf islands. Its eastern side is rocky and harsh, rising to a stony grey spine that supports little more than a few goats, but the western side is lush and green, with a sharply indented coast and some beautiful – if crowded – coves. Medieval Rab Town is the island's highlight, while the Lopar peninsula at the northern end of the island possesses some of the sandiest beaches in the country. The place can get crowded, especially in July and August, but not disastrously so.

Rab's main link with the rest of Croatia is the ferry which connects Jablanac on the mainland with Mignjak on the island's southern tip. The three daily Rijeka–Rab buses use this ferry, finishing up in Rab Town. If you miss the bus, you'll have to walk or hitch from the Magistrala (coastal highway) to Jablanac harbour (4km) and from Migrjak to Rab Town (8km).You can also hop over to Rab by ferry from Ba9ka on Krk to Lopar, though bear in mind that this leaves you a good 10km from Rab Town and buses don't always connect with the ferry arrivals, so you may have a wait on your hands.

 

Rab Town

Rab's main attraction is RAB TOWN, a perfectly preserved late-medieval Adriatic settlement squeezed onto a slender peninsula along which are dotted the city's trademark sequence of Romanesque campaniles. It's a genuinely lovely place: a tiny grey-and-ochre city, enlivened with splashes of green palm, huddles of leaning junipers and sprigs of olive-coloured cacti which push their way up between balconied palaces. The population today is only a third of what it was in Rab's fourteenth-century heyday, although it's swelled significantly by the influx of summer visitors, who create a lively holiday atmosphere without overly compromising the town's medieval character.

Starting out as a base for Roman and then Byzantine fleets, Rab Town (Artie in Italian) grew into a prosperous, self-governing medieval commune until its incorporation into the Venetian state in 1409. Following this, the town's privileges were gradually eroded, trade was redirected towards the mother city and, after two outbreaks of plague in the mid-1400s, urban life went into a steep decline. Things did not improve until the late nineteenth century, when Rab began to benefit from central European society's growing interest in Adriatic rest cures. In 1889, Austrian professors Leopold Schr6tter and Johann Frischauf launched a strategy to develop Rab as a tourist destination, and 1897 saw the formation of the Society d'abellimento di Veglia (Society for the Beautification of Rab), a kind of embryonic tourist board. Thanks to the efforts of Austrian and Italian naturists, Rab – or, more accurately, the Frkanj peninsula just west of town – was one of the first nudist resorts in Europe, a status popularized by the visit of English King Edward VIII (accompanied by future wife Wallis Simpson) in the summer of 1936.Whether Edward actually got his tackle out or not remains the subject of much conjecture, but his stay on Rab provided the inspiration for a recent Croatian musical, Kraljje got (literally "The King is Naked", although in colloquial Croatian it means much the same thing as "The Emperor's New Clothes"). After visiting Rab, Edward and Wallis continued down the Adriatic aboard a luxury yacht packed with sundry toffs and royal hangers-on. Pursued by Europe's press, the trip turned into the celebrity media-fest of its day, with thousands of locals lining the streets to ogle the couple when they came ashore at Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik.The only journalists who failed to follow the cruise were the British – the idea that their monarch was romancing an American divorcee was too mind-bogglingly scandalous to report.

 

The Town

The old town divides into two parts: Kaldanac, the oldest quarter, at the end of the peninsula, and Varog, which dates from between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Together they make up a compact and easily explored grid of alleyways traversed by three parallel thoroughfares: Donja ("Lower"), Srednja ("Middle") and Gornja ("Upper") ulica.

The old town is entered from Trg svetog Kristofora (St Christopher's Square), a broad open space overlooked by the jutting bastion of the Gagliardi Tower (Tvrdava Galijarda), built by the Venetians in the fifteenth century to defend the landward approaches to the town. From here, Srednja heads south-east, squeezing past rows of tightly packed three-storey town houses. The first of these is the Renaissance Dominis-Nimira Palace, where the scholar, priest and sometime archbishop of Split, Markantun Dominis, was born. The building is relatively plain save for some Gothic window frames, although a rather fine carving of the Nimira family crest, flanked by a small boy and rampant lion, adorns a doorway just down an alleyway to the left. After about five minutes' walk, Srednja opens out into a small piazza mostly taken up by a dinky Venetian loggia and, tucked away in the corner, the tiny Gothic St Nicholas's Church (Crkva svetog Nikole), which nowadays houses a sporadically open art gallery. Left from here lies Trig municipium Arbe, where the Venetian Gothic Rector's Palace (Knezev dvor) now houses the town council offices. The balcony facing the square is supported by three sculpted lions' heads sporting, from right to left, closed, half-open, and wide-open jaws —although they look more like overweight household pets than fearsome beasts of the savanna.

 

The Churches of St Mary and St Anthony

Southeast of Trg municipium Arbe lies the older part of town, Kaldanac, built on the site of the original Illyrian-Roman settlement of Arba. Kaldanac was largely abandoned after the plagues of the fifteenth century, and some of its still older buildings stifeature the bricked-up windows and doors which it was hoped would prevent the spread of disease. Occupying the highest part of Rab is the Romanesque Church of St Mary the Great (Crkva svete Marije Velike; still known locally as the Katedrala even though the bishopric was taken away from Rab in 1828). The west front is striped pale grey and pink, with a series of blind arches cut by a Renaissance doorway that supports a harrowing Pieta of 1414. Inside are crumbling, honey-grey walls with flecks of agate-coloured marble and a set of almost gaudily carved chestnut choirstalls, dominated by the main altar and its delicate ciborium of grey marble. A few steps away from the cathedral at the head of the peninsula, St Anthony's Church (Crkva svetog Antuna) preserves its original rib-vaulted apse and an imposing wooden sculpture of St Anthony (said to be twelfth century) flanked by fifteenth-century pictures of St Christopher and St Tudor – the latter clad in Roman armour.

 

The campaniles and more churches

Walk northwest along the ridge-top Ivana Rabljanina from the Church of St Mary and you pass the largest and most beautiful of Rab's campaniles, the perfectly symmetrical twelfth-century Great Bell Tower (Veh zvonik; daily 10am–lpm & 7.30-10pm; 5Kn). Topped by a balustraded pyramid, the 25metre-high tower employs a simple architectural device: the windows on the lower storey have one arch, the windows on the second storey have two, those on the third have three, and so on. The tone of the tower's bell was mellowed – legend tells – by gold and silver dropped into the casting pot by Rab's wealthier citizens.

Rab's other three campaniles are spaced along Ivana Rabljanina and its continuation, Gornja ulica. The first, a smaller and more utilitarian piece of masonry from the late twelfth century, is attached to St Andrew's Church (Crkva svetog Andrije). The second – capped by a bulbous spire reminiscent of a bishop's mitre – is a seventeenth-century affair belonging to St Justin's Church

Church (Crkva svete Justine), a smaRenaissance structure that's now a Museum of Sacred Art (Muzej sakralne umjetnosti. Inside there's an assortment of manuscripts, stonework and robes, and a mid-fourteenth-century polyptych by Paolo Veneziano showing a Crucifixion flanked by saints – St Christopher is on the right, standing beside St Thecla, shown wearing a glamorous green outfit despite the fact that she actually spent most of her life living in a cave. Pride of place goes to the reliquary holding the skull of St Christopher, a gold-plated casket made by a Zadar craftsman at the end of the twelfth century. Various scenes round the sides of the box depict the events surrounding the saint's martyrdom: he was beheaded by the Romans after an attempt to have him shot failed, the hand of God having turned the arrows back on his assailants. It's said that the head was brought to Rab by a local bishop in the eleventh century when the town was under attack from the Saracens – St Christopher kindly obliged, saving the town by hurling rocks back at the besiegers.

The final campanile, a simple thirteenth-century affair similar to the one belonging to St Andrew's, stands beside the ruined Basilica of St John the Evangelist (Bazilika svetog Ivana Evandeliste), which probably dates from the sixth or seventh century. The church was abandoned in the 1830s and much of its masonry taken away to mend the town's other sacred buildings, although the graceful curve of its apse can still be seen. At the top end of Gornja ulica, steps lead up to St Christopher's Church on the right, which has a small lapidarium containing tombstones and other masonry. From here, more steps scale a short fifty-metre stretch of Rab's medieval town walls, giving fine views back over the roofs and towers. A gate through the wall leads into the fragrant Komr6ar Park, a shady place set on the ridge from where you can walk down to the concreted bathing spots on the west side of the peninsula.

 

The Monastery of St Euphemia

Thirty minutes' walk northwest of town along the seaside path is the Franciscan Monastery of St Euphemia. Built in 1446, it has a delicate cloister and a museum in the library above, containing illuminated manuscripts, a headless Roman figure of Diana and a fifteenth-century wooden image of St Francis.The monastery has two churches: one dedicated to St Euphemia, and the larger church of St Bernardin, which has a gory late Gothic crucifix, a seventeenth-century wooden ceiling decorated with scenes from the life of St Francis, and a polyptych painted by theVivarim brothers in 1458, showing a Madonna and Child flanked by two tiers of saints.

 

 

Beaches and coves

Setalike Odorika Badurine, the waterside walkway on the west side of town (reached via steps down beside St Justine's Church, or from Komrčar Park), is actually one of the best urban beaches in Croatia - it doesn't amount to much save for a concrete stretch of strand, but the water is super-clear, and there's plenty of tree-shade if you're not in the mood to be grilled senseless. There are some attractive shingle beaches east of town beyond the Padova hotel, but far more popular is the Frkanj peninsula, lkm west of the town as the crow flies. The peninsula boasts numerous rocky coves backed by deep green forest, and there's a large naturist area on the far side.You can reach the peninsula from the harbour by taxi boat or by walking the 3km from Suha Punta, a tourist complex at its western end, comprising the Eva and Carolina hotels and accessible by a side-road which leaves the Rab-Kampor route just beyond the Monastery of St Euphemia. Beyond here lies a further sequence of bays and coves, slightly less busy than those of Frkanj and reachable by following tracks through the coastal forest.


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