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So now we’re in Croatia, a country I never thought I’d be in.  Not that I thought “I will never go,”  it just didn’t much occur to me.  If it did, there were some dark and smoky ruins about what I knew.

 Coatian ustaša were among the most vicious armies in WW II — even appalling the Nazis [see VII.] Croatia had been involved in the Balkan wars of the 1990s — how, was not clear to me, but there didn’t seem to be any good guys as that multi national war shot up people’s homes and bodies…

But here I am

Croatia WaterAs the tourist brochures say –the sea is marvelous.  Sparkling, green, transparent, fish and stone visible meters below the surface, not like the dark sand stirred beaches of Mediterranean Spain I remember from years ago.  How is that?

What the brochures don’t say is that their mutual mother is the Tethys sea, shallow, enormous and shrinking as Africa advanced on Europe say, from 100 million years ago.  More to our interest is that from about 40 t0 5 million years ago a small bit of that plate broke off and began moving North East. Geologists call it the Adriatic plate (among other names) and it was during this time that the Dinaric Alps that form the backbone of Croatia and its neighboring counties began to rise, Italy took on its now familiar form and the Adriatic took its present shape.  The terrain that was lifted up was dense limestone from millions of years of calciferous sea creatures drifting down through Tethys waters, compressing and solidifying.

As the lifted, hard limestone got exposed to air and running water, from rain and rivers, lakes, the slight acidity cut it  away, forming the ravines, pits and caves of the well known Karst topology — named for an area in Croatia in fact — found world wide, including famously the mysterious sea islands of Ha long Bay in North Vietnam and the Andaman Coast in Thailand.

With good Mediterranean weather and the soil that eventually forms Croatia turned into a beckoning land  Paleolthic man arrived, likely migrating through and living on the broad Adriatic plane between modern Italy and Croatia when the ice-age sea level was 120 meters lower.  Illyrians, Celts, Greeks, Romans followed.  The Emperors Augustus , Germanicus and Diocletian were all known to the people of Dalmatia and Pannonia.  Then the Goths, Huns, Vandals and Visigoths.  Avars in the 6th century and  sometime in the 7th century the first incursion of what we call Croatians today — possibly of Persian origin.

A jewel of a land!  Covetousness does not stop. The Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, the neighboring Slavs, Mussolini, Hitler. To hear Croatian history is to hear of occupation following occupation with brief sunshines of independence– now again enjoyed following its declaration of independence from the crumbling Yugoslav federation, and 4 years of war with Serbia, Montenegro and Serbian secessionists to make the declaration stick.
Croatia WarThe 1991-1995 war affected some more than others.  The border lands with Serbia and Boisnia-Herzogovina were affected most.  Zadar in the central coast, the northerly departure point for Dalmatian island cruises, was heavily shelled, thousand year old churches reduced to rubble.  Dubrovnik, in the far south and termination of Dalmatian coast cruises, was shelled from the enclosing heights.  Some 2,000 shells exploded in the city, 85 people died, thousands fled.

Twenty some years later the land and people seem to be recovering well. Several people referred to the war as ‘such a waste, something that could have been solved with a few pieces of paper.’  The transition on the islands and coastal cities from Yugoslavia’s mixed socialism has been easier than for those cities depending on heavy industry.  Tourism is the name of the game everywhere — mile after mile after mile of pleasant promenades, hill hugging houses, winding cobbled streets.

On the island of Korčula we were shown how the Renaissance Italians had planned the streets to keep the fierce irregular bura winds from whistling through but to allow summer breezes to cool the scorching days. [The so smart city planners of San Francisco where veritable buras whip through the high-rise canyons of the financial district with almost daily occurrence should have taken heed.]

In late May when we are here the tourist crush had not yet begun though in the streets of Split, on the mainland, we felt like one pair of sardines too many.  Our local guide –French mother, Croatian father– assured us, in English, that in mid-July there were three times as many.  The islands we visited, Dugi Otok, Korčula and Hvar were as one imagines — quiet streets, small groups conversing in open air cafes, bougainvillea climbing stone walls. We had off and on rain for a few days, then sun, sun, sun.

In Sali, on Dugi Otok we took a long pleasant walk up the mild hill to find we were the only non islanders around.  Mothers, children, an old church, cats, a local konoba (once meaning storage room and now casual restaurant) with men and women chewing over the day.

In Korčula the guide told as, as others had elsewhere, there was no crime.  They had the best policemen — grandmothers–  in every street.

Croatia Trstenik VineyardWine is a local product the coastal Croatians are proud of — from the stone fields [UNESCO protected] near Primošten  to the impossibly steep hills of Trstenik  where Mikel Grgich — of Napa Valley fame– has returned to his native country to offer fine white (the posip grape) and a red ( the plavac mali. )  Olive trees are in evidence though in the markets we visit there seem to be more oils than the cured fruits — tourist trade driven I suppose.  The bright bottles with shades of olive green can be more easily carried than oil drenched olives.

One of our nicest finds, on the small island of Korčula was an out of the way wine-shop that sold us a bottle of Grk — Greek in Croatian– a bit of a robust white wine, along with large, oil drizzled croutons and succulent black olives for a late morning respite — after seeing the purported home and small tower of THE Marco Polo.  As the Croats explain, while people think of him as Italian, he was of course Venetian.  There was no Italy at the time. And, of course, coastal Croatia was a Venetian colony in 1295. Accounts differ, as they say.  Some have him captured in a battle with the Genoese near Korčula, others say it was off the Anatolian coast. It doesn’t matter. It’s a good story, either way.  Life is good on these islands.

Marco Polo House, Korčula

Marco Polo House, Korčula

Some are too small to have high schools and children are sent off-island when the time comes.  Certainly, if university beckons the big mainland cities are an imperative, beckoning or not.  More than one person told us that wherever young people go in the coming-of-age years, they always return to the islands.  One young pharmacist I spoke to had moved to the small town of Bol on the island of Brač to raise her children. Everybody knows everybody, the kids are safe. The only danger is taken care of by learning to swim. On several walking tours, the guides waved and nodded every turn or so — a small shop owner, the local konoba waiter, a woman out taking a smoke break.  The English spoken by our half a dozen guides ran from acceptably understandable to excellent, usually with a British marked accent though I heard not a few waiters and shop keepers speaking as if born and bred in California.  One excellent guide was leading a group of Germans after finishing with us.  There are bound to be Mandarin speakers as well; Split was crowded with Chinese.

Croatia Stone StreetThere is stone, everywhere,  all from the ancient sea  limestone.  Not marble though limestone walkways, polished since Roman times often take on the look of it. The finest quarry is said to be on the island of  Brač.  The Emperor Diocletian favored it. It was used in the United States White House and the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Above all it is in the churches and of churches there are plenty.  A Roman Catholic country, Croatia forged its identity against Islam to the south and the Serb Orthodox to the East. I don’t have any numbers to back me up, but my sense is that Croatia is one of the few Catholic countries with strong youth participation.  We stepped into one church on a Friday afternoon to find a mass going on, and well attended, including single men and young couples, not just the old women dressed in black who are such a common sight in Spain and Portugal.

Music  echoed off the stone walls in many places.  The wonderful klapa — a cappella renderings by 6 or so “friends” [klapa] of traditional music is popular.  We were entertained one night by a string band of guitar, mandolin and brač, a bell bodied tenor guitar, which did everything from traditional Croatian maritime songs to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Fine stuff.

We spent a few good long hours at several of the national parks on the islands.  Perhaps the most famous is Krka, with its fabulous limestone pour overs, though we enjoyed the salt water lakes of Mljet as well, swimming and taking a challenging walk along the shore.

Krka National Park, Croatia

Krka National Park, Croatia

I have notes for a half a dozen more posts, but I’ll leave you here.  We’ve got an Old Town walk through Dubrovnik — long a republic all on its own– and a visit to a Croat meeting with Beethoven.

The short summary is, let Croatia surprise you.  It did me.

(At all costs, avoid peak season — July and August.  Everyone we talked to, even those whose livelihood depends on tourism, said those months are a madhouse.  Even by mid-May we were feeling it. Try April-May.  You’ll get some rain but as a Norwegian couple told us, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”)


For a related posting, see here — Croatian Nights — New Fiction from Croatia