Kristen Gehrman, Writer

 
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Kristen Gehrman 

Translator | Writer | Editor

French / Dutch / German to English

 
December 12, 2016

Residency at the Vertalershuis Amsterdam

Following the Crossing Border Festival, I headed to the Vertalershuis Amsterdam (Translators’ House Amsterdam) where I worked intensively for a week and a half with my mentor Jonathan Reeder on my English translation of an excerpt from Lize Spit’s Het Smeltwhich recently won the NRC Book Competition’s prize for favorite book of the year.

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For me, Het Smelt was a story that was all at once familiar and foreign. Mostly set in a small village in Belgium, it’s a coming-of-age narrative (my favorite kind) that jumps between a present-day nearly-30-year-old and her pre-pubescent self in the 1990s. Her tomboyish girlhood was marked by the usual small town escapades, cheap thrills, alcoholic adults, ennui – always with the same group of boys, her friends by default. But as an adult, she carries a dark memory, which isn’t revealed until three-quarters of the way through the book. But yeah, those boys who were supposed to be her friends? They weren’t. And then there’s this giant ice block that she starts schlepping around with her to take revenge. It doesn’t end well. Still, despite the macabre story, I laughed a lot while reading. Most of the time at things that really weren’t funny at all. That’s just good writing.

When I say the story was familiar, I’m talking about the growing-up in the 90s part. Lize Spit has a way with the little things: jawbreakers, making sculptures out of school lunches, hiding coins in socks, hit Spanish songs with hand motions, etc. Her heroine, Eva, is very much in her own head and her pre-teen reflections are taken very seriously. Spit writes with humor without self-deprecation. Her sentences have a way of turning themselves inside out, sometimes in illogical ways that can frustrate a translator. But I liked them anyway. Take the opening line of the book for example:

Original:

“De uitnodiging kwam drie weken geleden en was overdreven gefrankeerd. Het gewicht van de zegels die op hun buurt weer extra port moesten gekost hebben, stemde me in eerste instantie hoopvol: er zijn nog steeds dingen die elkaar mogelijk maken.”

The trouble here is that English lacks a single verb for stamping and mailing an envelope – postmarking? Nah. Then there was the question of how can stamps, or the adding of more stamps, actually make more stamps possible? Either way, you get what she means if you don’t think too hard. It’s the first sentence of the book, so it’s got to be just right. After much deliberation, here was the solution:

My translation:

“The invitation arrived three weeks ago in an overly stamped envelope. The weight of the stamps, which in turn must have required even more postage, at first gave me hope – there are still things that perpetuate their own existence.”

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Jonathan and I labored over each and every sentence in my translation. Using every color highlighter in the pack, he color-coded all of my stumbling blocks. Words, phrases, expressions that weren’t quite right: sometimes I over anglified, other times I was still too Dutch. Jonathan’s translated A.F. van der Heijden, Peter Buwalda, not to mention the operas he surtitles for the Hollandsche Schouwberg – he knows what he’s doing. But still, he let me have my say. He pushed me to reflect and come up with my own alternatives. He struck through all of my extra littles, thats, alreadys, and alsos with the same editor’s eye that I myself have for texts written by the Dutch (who love the diminutive -je and extreme precision in the form of dat, al and ook ….among others, of course :)). I was surprised how quickly the calque creeps in.

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When I say the text was foreign, I’m talking about the Belgian part, the Flemish part, the little-details-that-I-had-never-heard-of part. The story lives and breathes in these little details. For example, Eva uses a Curver to freeze her infamous ice block. What the hell is a Curver? Something akin to a Rubbermaid tub apparently. She listens to “The Ketchup Song” on the radio. “What? You don’t know the Ketchup Song?!” my Dutch colleagues in the house asked as they started doing some kind of turn-of-the-millenium Marcarena-esque dance in unison. Nope. Never made it across the Atlantic. Later, Eva goes into a shop and fills a paper candy bag with hosties and matten, which according to my research, are called satellite wafers and sour belts in English. When I was a kid we ate Warheads and Laffy Taffys. Then there is the meat counter where the butcher slices various kinds of worst. We Google-Image searched them all and discovered that they are all just – well – types of baloney.

As a translator, you constantly have to make decisions on what to do about these little things. Do you just translate them as they are and preserve the Belgian-ness of the book? Or do you convert them into something more familiar for your target readership? If you say “satellite wafer”, are you then obliged to explain that it is a sort of puffy sugary disk with candy beads rattling inside? Would Americans appreciate encountering a “Rubbermaid” in a book they chose specifically for its foreign-ness?

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Speaking of Google-Image searching, we did a lot of that. In the photo above, Jonathan is looking up an image of “olifantenpoten”, which in the book was written under a picture of a little girl sitting on the potty. Seems strange, we thought. How could a child’s legs resemble elephant feet? But these are rabbit holes you should only go down so far. Lize Spit’s writing is full of these kinds of images: some make sense, some don’t, but either way, they sing. I discovered that the real goal – and the literary translator’s greatest challenge – is to write what the author would’ve written if she herself had had an English tongue. It’s true what they say: translators are writers. Literary translation is essentially re-writing the text. You have no choice but to make something new.

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Here are a couple of my favorite bits from the translation process.

Original:

“De wanden zouden betegeld worden zodra daar geld voor was. Jolan ontdekte dat de holtes in de bakstenen prima houders waren voor tandenborstels. ‘Heel handing, in de tussentijd,’ besloot mama. Jolan had het toen al berekend: er zit geen tijd tussen tijd.”

The challenge with this excerpt was the word play with “tussentijd” or literally “between-time”, as if there could be time between time. But then you lose the expression in English. I think the choice of “meantime” works well here.

My translation:

The plan was to tile it as soon as there was enough money. Jolan discovered that the holes in the bricks made perfect toothbrush holders. “So handy in the meantime,” Mama decided. But Jolan had already figured it out – there’s no time in meantime.

***

 Original:

“De rolluiken van de winkel zijn bijna helemaal neergelaten, binnen schemert het. Er hangt muffe koelte tussen de volgestapelde rekken. Een te lang bewaard gebleven ochtend. Ik wacht en hou de deur van de woonruimte achter in de winkel in de gaten. Daar houdt Agnes zich schuil, vult ze fotokopieen van kruiswoordraadsels in. Wellicht staan er een zetel en een tafel, is er ook een keuken. Niemand kan dit bevestigen.”

My favorite part in this excerpt is “Een te lang bewaard gebleven ochtend”. Since fragments can come off choppy and awkward in English, I worked it into a dependent clause. I also love the little detail of “fotokopieen van kruiswoordraadsels” rather than simply puzzles and the mystery of “Niemand kan dit bevestigen.”

My translation:

“The blinds in the shop are nearly completely rolled down, it’s dark inside. There is a musty coolness floating among the shelves, like a morning kept too long. I wait and keep a close eye on the private quarters at the back of the shop. That’s where Agnes holes up and does photocopies of crossword puzzles. Maybe there’s a table and chair in there, a kitchen too. No one can confirm this.”

*** 

Original: 

“Jarenlang zouden we alles wat er in het dorp te vinden was uitspreken met dé of hét, alsof het onze bezitingen waren, tussen duim en wijsvinger vast te nemen. Alsof we na een lange oorlog met grote steden en omliggende dorpen de prototypes van een winkel en een slagerij te pakken hadden gekregen en deze vervolgens stevig hadden verankerd, in de buurt van de kerk en de parochiezaal, op loopstand van sowat alles, binnen handbereik van iedereen.”

In English, there is only one definite article: the. So the play on “dé of hét” has to be altered to make sense later on in the paragraph. I also wanted to make sure that I got the imagery right here, as it so acutely describes Eva’s view of the village where she grew up.

My translation:

“For years we would refer to everything in the village with “the”, as if it all belonged to us, pinched between thumb and forefinger. As if, after a long war against big cities and surrounding villages, we had won the prototypes of a shop and a butcher and then anchored them down around the church and parish hall within walking distance of pretty much everything, within reach of everyone.”

I could go on with more examples, but I’ll stop here. I wouldn’t want to give away too much. In short, it was an enlightening process and a rare privilege to work with an experienced mentor. I’m extremely grateful to the Nederlands Letterenfonds (Dutch Foundation for Literature) for funding the program and the Vertalershuis for hosting.

Photos by Aura Xilonen, Mexican author of The Gringo Championwho was staying at the house as well and working with her translator on a Dutch translation of her work. The book is coming out in English next year with the wonderful Europa Editions!

All excerpts are taken from Het Smelt by Lize Spit, Das Mag, 2016

November 15, 2016

Translating The Chronicles

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“Language is my way of getting a grip on things, of maintaining control in certain situations. Your body is bombarded with zillions of sensory impressions, and by giving them a name, you make them one-dimensional again, manageable,” wrote best-selling Belgian author Lize Spit in her second blog post for The Chronicles. Actually, this is my translation of what she wrote. What she wrote was this:

“Taal is mijn manier om vat te krijgen op dingen, om controle te bewaren in bepaalde situaties. Een lichaam wordt gebombardeerd met tig zintuigelijke indrukken, door deze te benoemen maak je ze opnieuw eendimensionaal, beheersbaar.”

Sitting on stage between her and French translator Maud Gonne, I understood what she meant. All our ticks, fears, and nerves need words to latch onto. However fascinating foreign languages may be, however much we people with so-called “talenknobbels” like them, we still need the single dimension of our own language to really wrestle with ourselves.

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A branch of the Crossing Border Festival of literature and music, The Chronicles paired up young writers from around the world with emerging literary translators to create a multi-lingual narrative of the event. The writers submitted a series of five blogs: a prologue, three about the festival itself, and an epilogue. And we translators converted them into various languages, coached by more experienced mentors along the way. I worked with Michele Hutchinson, writer and English translator of well-known Dutch authors like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Esther Gerritsen. Together we decoded unfamiliar Flemish words like lavabo (wastafel) and valling (verkoudheid) – Het Vlaams Woordenboek came in really handy here! We also worked through more complicated translator conundrums like how to untangle an untraceable Virginia Woolf quote, which had been taken from a Swedish book in Dutch translation, and translate it back to English (see Blog 1) or how to go about translating French and German words that appear in a Dutch text (see Blog 3). In some cases, I wanted days to mull over a single line, but we had just a few hours before our translations went live on the site.

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Other than translating, the best part about the festival for me was spending time with the authors and other translators. Meeting young writers who have been so successful, talking about their process, all of the risks they take, discovering that they too have a “little dictator” marching around in their head (see Blog 4) – it made the whole literary world feel within reach. We translators also got to involve them in what we do, discussing the challenges we face in not just translating, but actually re-writing their texts.

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When you’re starting out in literary translation, you worry constantly about fidelity to the original text, about preserving the author’s words at all costs. But then you meet the author who says, “No, just make me sound good in English,” and you’re liberated. You’re free to find creative solutions. You can look at a sentence and ask yourself, “Okay, if this author were writing in American English, how would she have said this?” You can look at yourself and say, “You’re a writer too you know.” And then, all of a sudden, you start becoming a much better translator.

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On Saturday night of the festival, Lize Spit read from the first chapter Het Smelt and my English translation appeared on the screen behind her. The following week, during my residency at The Amsterdam Translator’s House, I had the opportunity to work on this translation intensively with another mentor – but that’s for another post. Stay tuned!

October 6, 2016

Reflections: Drongo Talenfestival 2016

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Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Drongo Talenfestival in Utrecht. I thought to myself, well, tickets are only €10, I’ll go have a look around. But I must say that it was much more than I expected! For a festival broadly focused on the many facets of the language industry in The Netherlands (an industry that can sometimes feel overly commercialized), I was really impressed by how informative and thought-provoking it was.

I was initially drawn to the Lab corner of the hall, where professors and PhD students were presenting their linguistic research and inviting visitors to participate. Interactive experiments addressed questions such as How do babies learn their first language? How do you build with LEGO in a second language? Why can we understand half-uttered words? and How do we distinguish between literal and figurative meanings of words? As for me, I participated in a sign language experiment where I had to guess the meaning of different gestures, a 3D modelling of my movements as I mimed wrapping a package, a dialect mapping and recognition game, and an eye-tracking experiment where I had to identify the meaning of Dutch words while looking at non-corresponding images. After each experiment, the researchers discussed the results, an inspiring reminder that language is a common thread that we all share.

The other major highlight of the festival were the seminars. The ones that I attended were mostly focused on language education and multilingualism. Eowyn Crisfield, an educational consultant who has a fantastic blog On Raising Bilingual Children talked about the prevalence of “high status bilingualism” in schools, in other words the fact that bilingualism is generally praised as a good thing when it concerns “valuable” languages such as English, French and Mandarin, but brushed aside or even discouraged when “low status” languages are involved, particularly immigrant and minority languages. In the Netherlands (and elsewhere for that matter), you have “additive” bilingual programs that seek to add “valuable” languages to a child’s repertoire (English/French immersion for example) and “subtractive” programs that often suppress the mother tongue and push non-Dutch speaking children to speak Dutch. In many cases, the former is for the rich and the latter for the poor. What people tend to forget is that in terms of cognitive development, all language combinations are equally beneficial to the child and the mother tongue is absolutely critical to the construction of their identity. For this reason, the language spoken at home, whatever it is, needs to be celebrated and fostered.

Another project that piqued my interest was Meertalig.nl, a website devoted to educating parents of multilingual children. What makes a child bilingual? Does watching Pippa Pig in Spanish or learning a few Chinese songs in school count? What about children who understand one of their parents’ languages but don’t speak it? What’s the best way to plan language use in multilingual households? Meertalig seeks to dispel myths about multilingual children and presents a wide variety of example cases. They also offer a great overview of the language development phases in monolingual and bilingual children. Since the website is only in Dutch, I’ll summarize here:

Up until the age of 6 months, all babies make the same babbles… “mamamama” “dadadada” etc. But afterwards, you can start to make out differences based on their language. At around 12 months, the child says their first word. Starting at 13 months, he/she starts learning synonyms. This means that multilingual children can start learning words that mean the same thing in different languages. At around 19-20 months, children begin making language choices. Both monolingual and bilingual children start to make sentences like “juice all gone”, and bilingual children can start distinguishing between languages. They begin to realize, for example, that mom says “juice” and dad says “sapje.” They may also start code-switching, or mixing languages together in a single sentence. This is normal and a sign of cognitive development. By the age of 5, children generally know the entire grammar of their language(s) and are able to separate them from one another. Fascinating, right?

Finally, there was the keynote speech by cognitive scientist and Searle scholar Lera Boroditsky: How languages and cultures shape the way we think. I had neglected to make a reservation and I ended up waiting outside the door to get one of the last remaining seats (sorry to the door monitor who I nearly knocked over as I pushed my way in!). So does the language we speak influence the way we think? To answer this question Boroditsky brought up many more: Do we all talk/think about time the same way? Apparently not, there are indigenous people in New Guinea who orient time spatially rather than linearly. There’s another tribe in the Amazon whose language lacks a system for numbers. Are children sensitive to grammatical gender? They are actually. In an experiment where children from different languages were asked to give a voice to an inanimate object, like a toaster for example, those from “gendered” languages were more likely to give the object or male or female voice. Does linguistic framing matter for blame and punishment?  It does indeed! The words used to describe a news event, take the famous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Superbowl for example (“wardrobe malfunction” wasn’t even a term before this happened and now it is widely known), have an effect on who the listener thinks is guilty. So in short yes, language does shape the way we think… in more ways than one! If you’re interested in Boroditsky’s work, check out this interview she did with the John Adams Institute.

In sum, I really enjoyed the festival and was pleasantly surprised by the value for the price. I definitely plan on attending again next year and highly recommend it to fellow language professionals in the Netherlands.

September 8, 2016

French words from a past life

What I love most about French is the loose precision of its words. How a single word can refer to something so specific, yet conjure up so many other memories. To the English tongue, a French word can sound so vaguely familiar, as if you could have known it in a past life, but lost it somewhere down the line. In translation, you meet again. I like this feeling.

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In his letters from exile, Victor Hugo wrote, “In the French language, there is a great gulf between prose and poetry; in English, there is hardly any difference. It is a splendid privilege of the great literary languages Greek, Latin, and French that they possess a prose. English has not this privilege. There is no prose in English. ”

Oh mais oui ze great French privilège! I’m not sure how well-versed Hugo really was in English prose, but I do agree that the French language allows for the use old classical words without sounding contrived – an effect that makes reading a good book feel more special, more sacred.

Lately, I’ve been translating a book sample for a publisher in Paris and have been keeping track of literary words and expressions that strike me. Here are a few from my list:

1. embraser : to set ablaze, to ignite

2. psalmodier: to sing in monotone, to chant

3. avoir la langue pâteuse: to have a doughy tongue

4. les entrailles: abdominal organs, innards, guts

5. se faufiler: to slip into somewhere and to weave in and out

6. ignorer: to not know or be unaware of something (not necessarily to just ignore it)

7. concupiscence: a natural affinity for material or earthly goods, particularly sensual pleasures

8. tohu-bohu:  disorder and confusion, comes from Hebrew for the formless state of the world before Creation.

9. épanouir: to open a flower by pulling its petals

10. effleurer: to just barely touch the surface of something

July 20, 2016

Camping Croatia: 6 Camps for Tents

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This summer we flew from Amsterdam to Dubrovnik with one overweight suitcase crammed with a tent, two mattresses, a gas stove, bedding, a change of clothes and a trusty ANWB road map. No plans. No guidebook. Just a two-week Fiat Panda rental and enough time to re-train ourselves in the art of relaxation. And what a country it was!

Our road map had little tent symbols all over it, signalling campgrounds. We took this as a good sign. But we quickly discovered that not all camps are created equal and not all offer the kind of quiet, natural tent camping experience that we were looking for. But we managed to find a few gems! As a way to remember them for our next trip to Croatia (hopefully soon!) and also to help anyone who might be planning a similar trip themselves, here are six wonderful campsites in Croatia that we would happily go back to:

1. Autocamp Marinaro

(Located in Molunat, the southern-most village in Croatia, 15-20€/night)

Driving down the dusty road at the end of the long coastal highway, we felt like we were driving to the edge of the world. The road emptied into a small, rocky cove full of fishing boats. The last harbor in Croatia before Montenegro. We had seen on our road map that there were two campgrounds down there, but it seemed too remote to believe. Against all logic, we emailed to see if they were open. No reply. So we drove all the way there to find out and ended up at Autocamp Marinaro, a one-star camping on the sea with no Wifi and only the amenities that you really need. The showers were clean and each site had been lovingly shaded with grape vines and screens against the sun. That night, we feasted on scampi, sardines and anchovies and fed the fish heads to the cats.

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2. Camp Bacinska Jezera 

(near Plocé, in the agricultural valley on Highway 8, €18-25/night)

Of all of the places that we camped, this was the only one on a freshwater lake. And it was definitely one of our favorites. Diving into the cool spring water in the hottest hour of the afternoon was heavenly. This small campground in the backyard of the owner’s house has perfectly maintained facilities (shower, laundry, sinks) and plenty of shade. The owner, who never stops trimming, watering, and chiseling away at his building projects, is bursting with joie-de-vivre. We rented his kayak and paddled across the lake to a small waterfall where you can drink the ice-cold water out of the stream. A little boy and his grandpa eagerly filled our water bottles as if it were the medicine that would cure whatever we got. We bought wine from plastic vats in a neighbor’s cellar and watched the European Championship at the local bar.

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3. Camping Slapic

(located in Duga Resa, village near Karlovac, on the Mreznica River, €25-27/night)

We left the coast and headed inland toward Zagreb. The high cliffs from the seaside give way to rolling hills and farmhouses, abandoned barns that still bear the scars of war, farm stands selling sheep cheese and honey, tractors blocking traffic and fields of corn and bright yellow colza. Though the camping options are much more limited off the coast, we managed to find “The Best Camping in Croatia” in Duga Resa on the Mreznica River. Whether it really was “the best” is disputable, but it was definitely a nice one. We were greeted by a retired mechanic who did not actually work at the campground, but who eagerly chatted with us in German (or something like German) as we set up our tent. He would have stayed and talked all afternoon if we hadn’t insisted on renting a canoe to paddle down the river. The current was strong and we were clumsy canoeing partners. We returned the boat after 15 minutes and they didn’t charge us.

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4. Autocamp Krvavica

(located in Krvavica, Makarska Riviera on the Adriatic Sea, €20-25/night)

In a region overrun with noisy sun seekers and party boats, this small family campground stands for all of the nostalgic reasons that we still go camping. Since it is not directly on the sea (but a mere 100 m. away!) and the steep windy road down from the highway is treacherous for heavy loads, it doesn’t attract big caravans. Yet, of all the of the campgrounds that we stayed at, this one offered the most amenities: a bar with hot coffee and cold beers for 1€, bathrooms and showers with hair dryers and even a curling iron (?!), a giant refrigerator with baskets for each campsite, and bread service in the morning. We stayed here early on in our trip and again at the end for one night when we couldn’t find a good camping. The owners welcomed us back like old friends and we told them that after all of the dirty, crowded campsites we had seen that day, theirs was a wonderful oasis.

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5. Camping Prapatno

(near Ston, at the ferry harbor to the Island of Mljet, €25-27/night)

After spending our first night in Dubrovnik, this was our first campground. Actually, it was the first campground that we found, and it was perfect. It’s actually an olive orchard that generates a little extra income off of campers in the summer time. At night it was dead quiet, only the plops of green olives dropping from the trees. The campsite opened directly to the beach (one of the only sand beaches we found in Croatia), which had a small cafe and a stand selling ice cream and corn-on-the-cob. We stayed for two nights only because we were eager to get a move on, but we would have gladly lingered a bit longer.

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6. Camping Adriasol

(Located in Novigrad, about an hour inland from Sibenik, €22-25/night)

If it sounds like it was easy to just stumble on these beautiful campsites, it wasn’t. At least not all of the time. One day in particular, we were driving up the coast between Split and Sibenik in despair. There were hundreds of campsites, and all of them terrible. By terrible, I mean crowded, shadeless parking lots full of caravans with grumbling generators, shouting sun-burnt people, fussy children and barking dogs. It was getting late and we still hadn’t found anywhere to sleep, so we turned off the coast and took our chances on a campground a bit inland: Adriasol. What a gem it was! Located on a secluded inlet at the edge of Novigrad, a village that was once a resort town for aristocrats during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Aside from a few campers, there were no tourists, no souvenir shops, no beach rentals. During the day, we swam and waited out the heat from our shady corner plot. And in the golden evening hours, we went into the village and watched the same scenes from the evening before unfold like clockwork. The men gathered to play jeu de boules, the children set off for the forest on their bikes, the same old woman shuffled by with her dog, a mother pulled in the laundry hanging from the balcony, a man popped popcorn in his stand on the boulevard, a waiter pulled up a bag of mussels chilling at the bottom of the lake for dinner, and on and on. Night after night. We were endlessly charmed by this place, even more so because of the struggle it took to find it.

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Places that tent campers should avoid:

Trogir – Okrug Donji

On the coastal road from Split to Sibenik, there are lots of campgrounds, but most of them are not suited to nature-loving tent campers (at least not in high season!). This is an area to avoid – particularly around Trogir. It’s a pity because Trogir is supposed to be a beautiful World Heritage site, but we were not able to appreciate it with all of the crowds. There is an innocent-looking little island across from the city gates called Okrung Donji, covered in little tent symbols on the map. Seemed worth a look. Tired, hungry, and overheated we battled through the bottleneck traffic over the bridge determined to give the campsites a fair chance. We nearly wrecked our car trying to get to them and when we finally got there we found nothing but caravans packed in like sardines and shrimp-like Europeans roasting on a tiny, treeless rock beach. Surely it was once a lovely natural place, but it’s been ruined by “holiday makers”.

Senj to Zadar coast

On our way South from Zagreb, we decided head back down on the coastal highway from Senj to Zadar. A beautiful route for sure with magnificent views of sea and sky, but also an exhausting one to drive. Endless hair pin turns, ups and downs and few places to stop. Compared to the South (Dubrovnik area), it’s also extremely dry and rocky. There are a few campgrounds, but they seemed to offer very little shelter from the Croatian sun.