A Croatia Travelogue

Or more properly, a Dalmatia and Istria travelogue.  We arrived in Dubrovnik on August 19 and crossed into Italy on August 28.  It was a whirlwind, because it was compressed between an event in Edinburgh, Scotland, that we had to go to at one end and work that my wife, Roberta, needed to get done in Italy on the other.  I brought a new inflatable paddleboard but had no time to use it or enjoy the special pleasures of the Croatia summer.  [A churches and museums trip like we did would have actually been more suitable for the colder season – and the crowds would be less.  She and a friend of hers had followed a similar route years before, but I could not go; and I met them in Trieste that time.]

The country of Croatia is shaped like a giant nutcracker, with Bosnia-Herzegovina the nut in the cracker.  The northern leg is called Slavonia [not to be confused with Slovenia or Slovakia!] and the southern leg is called Dalmatia.  At the inland end of the cross bar, where it meets Slovenia, is the capital city, Zagreb.  At the seaward end of it is an arrowhead shaped peninsula, called Istria.

Derived from UN Map of Croatia. Public Domain, Link

In late medieval/early modern times, in the days before Napoleon, Slovenia and the cross bar, down to and including the seaport city of Rijeka, were attached to Hungary.  Meanwhile, the outer coast and most of Dalmatia was under the rule of the Venetian Republic.  The small area around Dubrovnik, however, won its independence from Venice by 1358 as the independent Republic of Ragusa.  By contrast, Slovenia and the city of Trieste, Italy, belonged to Austria during most of this period.

Some notes on the ‘Mediterranean’ climate.  The Mediterranean climate of the actual Mediterranean is different from the Mediterranean climates found in the rest of the world (i.e., California and parts of the Southern Hemisphere).  All these others face a relatively cold ocean, whereas the Mediterranean itself is a much warmer body of water in the summer months.  Therefore, the Mediterranean climate of the Mediterranean is a lot more humid than the others!  In, say, Tel Aviv or Beirut, the rainfall patterns may resemble those of California, but the humidity reminds you more of Florida!  The effect of the cold water on the ‘Mediterranean’ climates of these other regions is to make it cool, foggy, and seasonally arid on the coast, but when the air warms up inland, the humidity is much lower.  The Adriatic itself is far enough north to push into a ‘humid subtropical’ zone, where the summers are not as rain-free as farther south.  We saw huge monsoon storms build up over the mountains, but only hit one day of serious rain.

We flew to Dubrovnik from Edinburgh in August, with a layover in Madrid – an odd experience because both Edinburgh and Dubrovnik are outside the ‘Schengen’ customs union, while Madrid is in it – so we had to leave the regular line, take a staircase and a bus through tunnels, then another bus through tunnels to our gate.  And we arrived there in the late evening.

Our hotel, called the Villa Orsula, was nicely positioned brisk walk to downtown on the south side of the city away from where most of the cruise ships and buses come in.  All Dalmatian cities seem to have a walled section on a peninsula [except Split, which is unusual] and suburbs beyond that.  But Dubrovnik’s suburbs are constrained by what looked like a 2000-foot mountain just behind the city.

Dubrovnik is distinctive for having won its independence from Venice in 1358 whereas the rest of Dalmatia, except for the immediate area around Rijeka, was in the hands of the Most Serene Venetian Republic.  But Napoleon, that killjoy, terminated both the Venetian and the Ragusan republics when he marched into the region in 1797, and after he was subdued in 1815, both were handed over to Austria.

Alas, alas, much of the series ‘Game of Thrones’ was filmed in Dubrovnik, so at least 20% of all tourists come on that account – more interested in the fictional history of Westeros et. al., than in the actual real-world Republic of Ragusa.  We had, unfortunately, only one full day, and so our guide marched us through the appropriate cathedrals and monasteries.  The town had been devastated by a major earthquake and the accompanying fires, in 1667 so outside of the Rectors Palace and the Sponza, most of the inner city was fairly uniform Baroque.

We were on a tight schedule because we had only eight full days to see everything – no time to paddleboard alas!  The following morning we and all our stuff were taken to the other side of the town to catch a chartered boat to Korčula, where we would spend one night.  It was also a walled town on a peninsula; we saw the landmark churches and walls, but we did not have time to get outside the town.  The hotel had us five floors up and no elevator, all this for one night, but their restaurant, which is out on the waterfront, was excellent.  There is a small town and artists’ colony called Lumbarda to the southeast, which we did not get to see, but a journalist who is a friend of friends [I’ve only met him once] summers there, and somehow reports on California affairs from there!  But he arrived the next day, after we left on the boat to Hvar and Split.

With all our stuff on the chartered boat, we started off to Hvar.  We saw the usual churches and pedestrian districts, and then had lunch.  Hvar has the reputation of being more of a party town than Korčula, but we did not stay overnight.  We took our chartered boat to Split, and landed in early afternoon, time enough to tour the oldest part of the city.

And an amazing history the old city has.  Diocletian, when he decided to retire in 305, after having gotten the last and the largest Roman persecution of the Christians started, built a waterfront compound about a kilometer on each side not far from his native city, Salona, and a building in it which became first his mausoleum and then a few years later [his plans to wipe out the Christian church not having worked out like he planned] a Christian cathedral!  The old carless part of the city was soon expanded northwestward and was crowded with tourists.  The hotel we stayed in was funky and had an elevator, but you had to haul stuff upstairs on the outside to get to it.  At the place where we had dinner that night, Sam Cooke was playing in the background, and our waiter knew who he was.

The next day we went to see the Roman town of Salona nearby, of which Split is arguably a suburb, and walked around before it got too hot and saw the sites of baths and a church or two.  Only the foundations remain.  For all the crowds in Split, there weren’t many people at Salona.  Then, for some reason that had to do with how tight our time was, we drove over the bleak highlands to Šibenik, about an hour to the north.  Šibenik has the distinction of being actually founded by Croatian-speaking people and not Greeks or Romans, though it ended up in the hands of the Venetians like all the rest of that coast.  Its Cathedral of St. James is somewhat late for that region, but it’s distinctive in that region for being Renaissance and early Baroque in that region and is a World Heritage site.  We went through it and the well-designed nearby museum, and then to the nearby restaurant Pellegrini for an elegant gourmet lunch.

We did not want another gourmet meal that night, so we canceled our plans and went early to Villa Spiza, a place which had been recommended by the friend I had mentioned above.  It was small and funky, and we were lucky to get in early because they take no reservations [which is why they are not recommended by tour guides].  Soon after we sat down there were people waiting a half hour!  Roberta had an excellent truffle pasta [a staple in the region] and I had a pretty good lamb stew, except my American sense of entitlement was disturbed by pieces of bone in the stew, which no doubt add to the flavor of it in their minds.  Apart from that, it was as excellent as he said.

The next day we got up and drove over to Trogir.  Trogir is a small town on an island [one side was dug as a canal] in a strait between the mainland and a larger island just west of Split.  It had a nice church and a fair number of tourists, including luxury-chartered boats on the waterfront.  Since Trogir was founded by Greeks, and Salona by Romans, I suppose ultimately you could argue that both Salona and Split were suburbs of Trogir.

From there we made our way to Zadar.  A small enclave around Zadar had belonged to Italy during the first or royal Yugoslavia, which existed from 1919 and was originally known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.  We had a not-very-good lunch and walked around the town a little bit, then headed back to the turnpike just as the one major rainstorm of the whole Croatia trip hit.  Roberta realized later that she had forgotten one of the highlights of her previous trip, a small town near Zadar called Nin.  Nin was the site of the first Croatian bishopric, and a place where the Glagolitic alphabet, the one that Cyril and Methodius actually did invent for the Slavic languages, was used.  The alphabet called ‘Cyrillic’ was not invented by them but named in their honor – it is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet with a few characters from Coptic and other inventions to accommodate the greater variety of consonants and palatalizations that the Slavic tongues have compared to Greek and Latin.

We drove through the rain.  The turnpike went inland and became lusher – almost more Austrian than Mediterranean.  Finally we hit the other turnpike that crosses from Zagreb to Rijeka and beyond, and the rain stopped.

We took the freeway through Rijeka at sunset.  We didn’t stop there this time, though Roberta had spent two nights there on the previous trip.  Rijeka was historically the seaport of Hungary and was called Fiume.  In 1919, a group of armed Italians led by the nationalist literary figure Gabriele D’Annunzio seized control of the town to prevent it from being taken by the Yugoslavians.  An independent state was proclaimed.

In 1924 Italy was given the center of the city and everything westward, and Yugoslavia the east and north outskirts.  Oddly enough, after World War II something similar happened around Trieste; it was a provisionally-independent state under United Nations’ supervision until 1954, when the city of Trieste and the corridor leading to it were handed back to Italy and the rest divided between Croatia and Slovenia, giving Slovenia a short coastline.

It was dark when we arrived at the Meneghetti estate, near the west coast of Istria.  Istria is bigger than it looks like on the map. This is a very nice place, kind of like a luxurious Napa Valley resort, and I would go back there.  It was only two miles from the beach, where they have a rustic little beach club.  I practiced inflating my paddleboard the next day in the back yard of our room, but by the time I was finished I didn’t think I had enough time to get the thing to the beach and test it [I’d probably have to deflate it to get it on the shuttle bus and reinflate it] so I just hopped a shuttle to the beach and had a swim and a couple of Campari and sodas.

[My readers will be relieved to hear that two weeks later I successfully tested the paddleboard on Lake Albano, a crater lake near Rome which is overlooked by the Pope’s summer palace — which Pope Francis declines to use.  But the Italian phase of my journey is outside the scope of this travelogue.]

The next day we got up and went down to Pula/Pola.  This coast is still somewhat bilingual and the towns, on signs, are often labeled with both their Croatian and Italian names.  Pula has several attractions.  The chief is the Roman amphitheater, which is not as big as the Colosseum in Rome but is in better shape.  It’s still used for performances, though not for sports.  [I made the very American joke that the Pula Gladiatorial League had announced that they would move to Rijeka unless the city built a fancy amphitheater for them.

There’s also a pagan temple in Pula, dating from the time of Augustus, along with a small piece of a church called Santa Maria Formosa that was probably the baptistry and that we couldn’t get into.  But there was also a room in a museum commemorating the days before and during World War I, when Pula was the big navy base – something like the San Diego of Norfolk – for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  They had pictures of their admirals on the wall, one of which was none other than THE Captain Von Trapp of “Sound of Music” fame.  [If you remember the movie, his reputation was as an admiral for Austria-Hungary in World War I, and he and his family fled when the Nazis wanted him to serve as an admiral for them!]

Photo from Howard Ahmanson

We had requested that the local tourist agency make our lunch plans, without knowing where the lunch was to be.  But when we headed for lunch, we discovered that it was in some place called Rabac that was on the EAST shore of Istria, and it involved driving over mountains and a dead-end road down a canyon.  When we finally got there, girls in bikinis and shirtless guys were everywhere, along with plenty of kids [Las Vegas, it wasn’t].  Lunch al fresco was OK, but it was way out of our way to get there.  It would have been fine to stay a couple of nights and use the beach, but the beach near the Meneghetti was pleasant enough and more rustic and would have been especially appealing if I’d had my own car.  On the other hand, Rabac would be a good place to host British bachelor parties, I thought, instead of major civilized cities like Prague.

The next day we drove up to Poreč.  Again, the old town was on a little peninsula.  By the time we got there we were pretty tired and the one thing we wanted to see was the Basilica of St.  Euphrasius.  Here, unlike in Venice, they have preserved a whole complex, with the church, the Bishop’s Palace, the Baptistery across the way [converts were not allowed into the church building until they had been baptized, and ‘seekers’ had to listen to the sermons by closed-circuit TV or whatever the equivalent was in those days].  Then we went back and rested and went to Rovinj for dinner.  Again, a nice old town on a little peninsula.  The place we were sent for dinner was right on the water’s edge but rather touristy.

Finally the day dawned when we had to leave Croatia and head to Venice.  We headed up the freeway, but it stopped as we approached the Slovenian border.  That border was where you show your passports when you enter Schengen, and also where the currency switches from the Kuna to the Euro.  The road from here was two-lane for a while, and there was a major backup in Koper approaching the freeway that ran from Portorož past Koper and around Trieste.  Crossing into Italy was more like crossing a state line back home.

Even though it was outside Croatia, I should say a few words about Aquileia.  Until the Huns trashed it in 451 A.D., Aquileia was the metropolis of the north end of the Adriatic.  Several layers of church can be seen there and, if I remember right, even a Roman villa that preceded the church.  I had wanted to see Palmanova, a small star-shaped fortress town nearby, but the driver declared that we did not have time for that, and so we got back on the turnpike and drove through heavy traffic to Venice.  Venice is outside of the scope of this tale; my wife goes there every year, and I often go with her, so it’s not part of this adventure.  Anyhow, I’d like to go back sometime when I have more time to paddleboard and lounge.

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