Sometimes we visit places that lodge in our consciousness years after our return.
Dalmatia, on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, is one such place. It haunts my psyche on a regular basis.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
We’ve booked a room at Hotel Kazbek. Built in 1573 as a summer residence, it’s been a school and a detention centre for prisoners of war and is now a five-star property. Views are stupendous: shimmering waters, the green and gray peaks of the Dinaric Alps across the harbour, an explosion of orange tile roofs in a village hunkered down in the shadow of one rugged slope.
But we’re not in the middle of the action. The walled town of Dubrovnik – the main tourist draw on this part of the coast – is two or three local bus rides away.
We get onto one bus – no problem. But we’re soon disoriented. We’ve got a map so we know the exact location of the old town. But we don’t know where we are.
“Are you lost?” asks a boy, maybe eleven or twelve years old.
His English is excellent. We explain where we want to go. “I will help you. Wrong bus, for one thing.”
He exits the bus with us; we walk down a narrow alley then through a verdant park. He takes us to another bus stop and waits with us. He sends a volley of Croatian at the bus rider who nods as we climb aboard.
Ten minutes later we stand at the stone gates of a town that’s lounged here since the seventh century.
It’s our first day in Croatia, our first encounter with locals.
Today we depended on the kindness of strangers.
And began to bond with Dalmatia.
One morning I strolled the streets of Split, taking in a bustling market where grandmothers haggled over the price of turnips, who were weighed down with bulging cloth bags.
I noted with interest that the cafes were both ubiquitous and crowded. It was 11 a.m. and people chatted and sipped coffee as if time has stood still.
An hour later I walked back to our hotel – the Hotel Vestibul Palace, housed partly in the vestibule (appropriately) of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian.
The tables scattered through labyrinthine alleys were still cluttered with people, but the coffees had been replaced by red-and-white cans of Karlovacko Beer.
“The locals here sure seem to know how to live,” I remarked to a hotel staffer.
“Croatia’s unemployment numbers are the same as the population of Split,” he answered wryly. “Sometimes I think most of those unemployed live right here.”
That night the bars lining a broad thoroughfare marching parallel to the harbour were full. Next day we visited a pebbled beach at the base of a steep slope surmounted by the Radisson Blu Resort. The beach was packed, some people sunning, some placing a quintessential Croatian game called “Picigin”.
It was Friday afternoon, shortly after lunch. It was not a holiday weekend.
Unless you have a “Split” personality.
THE BURDEN OF HISTORY
But Dalmatia’s split personality has a darker side; the region struggles beneath the burden of history.
Part of that history is a tragedy punctuated by betrayals and tears and blood. Part is panoply spanning two millennia. It is burden and attraction both.
Just twenty years ago this was a war zone. Some call it a civil war, Croats call it the invasion. “I can’t eat anything out of cans to this day,” one Dubrovnik local tells me. “We hid in cellars during the invasion. We peed into empty cans.”
Machine gun emplacements from World War II hunker down on a Zlarin Island headland; a monastery in Split is still scarred from German shelling during that war. The events leading to World War I took place in this country; the heights overlooking Dubrovnik hold the remains of a fort garrisoned by Napoleon’s troops.
But this burden is also Dalmatia’s chief allure.
We sleep above the cellars of a Roman emperor’s palace, we stroll cobblestone streets lined with Baroque homes and shops. We march along the walls high atop Dubrovnik, with pumpkin tiled roofs that have sheltered homes for more than thirteen centuries.
And we dock our sailboat overnight on a seawall that was here when Turks invaded, when Marco Polo sailed past.
I am a history buff. I’ve died and gone to Dalmatia.
And then there’s the sheer splendour of Dalmatia’s surroundings.
The Adriatic here is royal blue and glitters in the sun like a king’s ransom. An emerald tapestry of islands – Hvar, Brač, Korčula among them – lounges just offshore.
We sail past a walled city – Sibenik – surmounted by stone fortress walls and a pair of ancient churches, we traverse a serpentine canyon protected by towering mountains, stark, rugged, yet strangely beautiful.
We make landfall near Krka Falls – cascades of shimmering water flowing to the Adriatic through a lush green valley shaded by pine-covered heights. We go for a swim; we hike through stands of primal forest where Turkish invaders once lurked.
We cruise the Kornati Islands, lunar landscapes lapped by limpid waters.
We sail east, stopping for lunch between two tree-covered islands, swimming in crystal clear waters the colour of the Caribbean.
We stop on our way back to Zlarin Island, letting our sails flog, the boat drifting while five, six, seven dolphins cavort mere metres from our starboard beam.
And we are silent, inhaling the sheer splendor here like breaths of mountain air.
One more entry in a dossier of Dalmatian delights.
TRIP TIPS: For more information on the delights off Dalmatia – and other allures in one of the newest members of the European Union – go to www.croatia.hr/en-GB/Homepage