Croatia, July-August 2004
We spent July and August, plus some time in September and October, cruising among the Adriatic islands of Croatia. The Croatian literal has to be one of the most fantastic cruising grounds that we've ever seen. The best comparison we can think of is the British Virgin Islands, but in Croatia the natives are friendly and speak good English, and the anchorages are uncrowded. Like the BVIs, the Croatian coast features anchorages every few miles. Most days, we simply set out in a direction, sailed until noon, decided whether to stop for lunch, and if so, which of the anchorages within a few minutes' sail we wanted to stop at. We'd sail in, pick up a mooring or drop the hook, and jump overboard for a refreshing dip; then we'd have lunch, read or nap a bit, and leave -- or maybe stay. If we decided to do a few more hours of sailing we'd simply wait until we wanted to stop again and pick another anchorage.

Various cruising guides disagree on how many islands there are in the Croatian archipelago, but no estimate is under 1,000. We bought a great cruising guide entitled "777 Anchorages in Croatia"; in two months' cruising we only managed to visit some 5% of the anchorages listed. The islands range from uninhabited rocky arid places to beautifully wooded countryside dotted with small villages of whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs. Unlike Italy with its often ostentatious displays of wealth, Croatia has few mansions. Instead, there are small towns and small summer cottages. The attraction is nature -- beautiful islands, surrounded by incredibly clear, blue water. As we sailed around, we found ourselves saying, again and again, "Isn't this lovely? Isn't this charming?" And it was. Because we had lived in Zagreb, Croatia's capital, for a school year way back in 1970, we had a little advantage over other cruisers: we knew the language a bit, and we had Croatian friends to visit. This may have given us a little more appreciation for the country.

We entered Croatia in Dubrovnik, probably the country's most visited city, the standard photograph on every tourist brochure and guidebook (including The Lonely Planet). Its fame is well-deserved: it's a walled city dating from the height of Venice, when Dubrovnik stood as almost the only independent republic against the Venetian hegemony. You may recall that in 1991-92, during the Croatian war for independence, Dubrovnik was shelled by the Serbs for some 8 months, to the dismay of the rest of the world. (This was done, incidentally, to retaliate against the Croats for blockading all the Yugoslav Army bases in Croatia, thereby imprisoning all the Serbian soldiers inside.) Several plaques around Dubrovnik show where buildings were damaged, burned or destroyed; but happily, thanks to world-wide support, the buildings have been repaired, the roof tiles replaced, and Dubrovnik is once again lovely.

The city is devoted almost entirely to tourism. Obviously, people must live there, but inside the walled city we saw no grocery stores, hardware stores, butcher shops or bakeries. There are, however, jewelry stores, souvenir shops and restaurant after restaurant. But these are located in the most beautiful settings, and don't distract much from Dubrovnik's charm.

As lovely as Dubrovnik is when you stroll the streets, the real treat is to walk its walls. The circuit is over 1 mile long, and the best part comes toward the end, where the wall follows the rise of the slope of the shore to end in a huge tower. The view toward the sea from there is amazing. There are two seas: the sea of the red-orange roof tiles of the city stretches out, followed by the jewel-blue Adriatic Sea. It's breathtaking.

We stayed at a marina near Dubrovnik in order to fix our engine water pump, and discovered that there were 8 other US flagged sailboats there. We all decided to have an impromptu Fourth of July picnic on the docks. It was quite a lot of fun, and we avoided controversy about national anthems by simply singing "Happy Birthday, dear USA!" The strangest fact about this disparate group of cruisers who hailed from all over the US was that 3 of the men (including Rob) were Dartmouth alumni, classes '63, '65, and '67. Despite the overlap in years, none of them remembers ever meeting the others.

We were eager to revisit Korcula (core'-choo-lah), which we had seen in 1970. Reputed to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, Korcula, like Dubrovnik, is walled and sits on a small peninsula. But Korcula is smaller, more manageable and more accessible than its better-known neighbor. Kortula's outside walls rise directly from the water; from the land, there are just two entry gates, each at the top of a wide staircase. Since its narrow streets also frequently include steps, obviously there are no cars inside the walls! Korcula's walls and many buildings are white limestone, giving the town a pleasing uniformity and luminosity.

Korcula's beauty notwithstanding, we really came to see a performance of its traditional dance: the Moreška Sword Dance. Performed since the 15th century, the dance commemorates a battle between 2 kings -- the White King (who wears red!) and the Black King -- for a princess who has been abducted by the Black King. The dance is done for the benefit of tourists twice a week. The dancers are ordinary town folk who range in size and age from adolescents to gray-hairs. The dance really is performed with swords, about 18" long and 3" wide; each dancer carries two. The costumes are red or black satin tunics embroidered in gold, worn over pantaloons. The dancers form 2 concentric circles, red inside and black outside or vice versa, and begin to strut in opposite directions around each other. Then they stop and whack at each other with enough vehemence to cause sparks to fly from the swords. Each man had a small white towel tucked into his belt. By the end of the dance, one was wearing this around his thumb to stem the bleeding from a non-deflected sword. The choreography of the "fighting" is quite intricate -- the dancers are essentially in triangles and each is striking at one attacker while defending himself against another. Some of this is done essentially blindly. It's very dramatic and impressive, somehow more so because the performers are just ordinary guys -- you can imagine them as the butcher or mailman, or the kid next door. We had seen this dance over 30 years ago, we were thrilled to see it again.

We left Korcula in a pretty strong wind and, having had many days of motoring in light airs, decided to enjoy the breeze by sailing the whole sparkling day on a close reach to the island of Hvar. It was late afternoon as we approached the shore, which looked quite rugged and totally uninhabited. Our 777 guide indicated a series of small coves which would provide shelter, but it was hard to figure out where they were as we approached rocky cliffs. Using our GPS and scouring the shore, we spotted a house on the water's edge where the charts indicated a small cove. We took in the sails, still in fairly strong winds and choppy water, and motored closer in. As we entered the cove, the wind stopped and the seas went absolutely flat. Just behind us, we could still see whitecaps, but the cove was eerily calm. On the porch of the house, a woman appeared to shake out a rug, and showed no sign of seeing our huge sailboat, which essentially filled her cove and dwarfed the little fishing boat moored there. We anchored in a secondary cove (with one small deserted house), rather than staying in the rug-shaker's back yard. After a peaceful starry night during which the wind abated, we sailed the next day to an anchorage on a small island just one mile across the bay from Hvar Town. We dinghied over and tied up right at the main town square, built in Hvar's beautiful white limestone by the Venetians, and, if you ignore the sunburned tourists, probably looking very much the same.

From Hvar we worked our way north to visit our friends Sime (she'-may) and Cica (tsee'-tsa) Ungar, who have a summer cottage on the island of Losinj (low'-sheen), almost at the northern end of the Croatian archipelago. The Ungars had invited us to come visit, suggesting that we should be there in July, to avoid the swarms of Italian tourists who descend in August.

Our stay in Losinj was the highpoint of our Croatian summer. We had met Sime and Cica when Sime and Rob were in grad school together at the U. of Zagreb in 1970. Back in those days, while the guys studied and attended seminars, Cica and Andi visited museums and coffee houses and practiced each others' languages. (Cica had just graduated with a degree in art history, but was not yet working.) We had barely kept in touch over the years, but had visited them with Lisa in Zagreb at Christmastime 1990, met their children, who were about Lisa's age, and got an update on the then impending move to Croatian independence. "Within 6 months," was their prediction then. And, "It will not be without a fight -- when is it ever?" Both predictions were, alas, accurate.

Today, Sime heads the math department at U. of Zagreb; Cica, after a career with Yugoslav Airlines that ended with Croatia's independence, then a stint with the UN Bosnian Peacekeeping Force, now does free-lance translations. The Ungars' English is excellent so, despite our efforts to re-learn Croatian, we never spoke it with them, and barely did elsewhere.

The Ungars' cottage is in a little community that reminded Andi very much of Rocky Point, her childhood hometown on Long Island: small narrow roads, lots of kids, no particular style of houses, just what was comfortable with add-ons as each family grew, each with a little grouping of chairs under a nearby shady tree, beaches a short barefoot walk down the road.

We anchored in the cove near their cottage and spent day after day sitting in the Ungars' garden, talking over the past, present and future. We learned more about what it was like during the 1990-1995 war for independence and what it's been like since. They gave us their insights into government and society. Their daughter Vida, who is Lisa's age, was also at the cottage, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her, and hearing a young person's perspectives. Croatia still has a long way to go to political and economic stability: the kind of blind ethnic nationalism that caused the horrors of Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia still rears its head, and unemployment is 25%. Most of the county is, however, optimistic and fiercely proud of its independence. If Vida is in any way indicative of the future, it looks bright.

The whole issue of ethnicity (or as they say in Croatia, "nationality") is incredibly complex and distressing. Croatia is a mélange of peoples: Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Jews, Italians, and others. These groups have been living side by side for millennia, yet each keeps alive the memory of past wrongs done to it by the others, which each group is waiting for the chance to right -- generally, by trying to exterminate the other groups whenever they get the chance. Even when they're not actually shooting each other, they're failing to deal honestly with each other. In that environment, it's almost impossible to conduct a government, as the parliament is divided along ethnic lines and the only time coalitions are formed is to stick it to some other group not in the coalition. Fortunately, Dr. Tudjman, the ultra-Nationalist President of Croatia during the War of Independence, died, and his successor is seriously trying to bring the various sides together in a party called "Croatians for a Civil Society", i.e., a society where people actually work together and discuss their differences openly.

Many of the intellectuals, such as the Ungars, regard the ethnic classifications as a real threat to democracy in Croatia (with some justification, considering the war crimes perpetrated by Tudjman, who was "the other side of the Milosovic coin" in Sime's words). And of course many families, such as the Ungars, have no real ethnic identity: Sime's grandfather on one side was a Rabbi, and his grandfather on the other side was a Hungarian, while Cica's family was Croatian. What does that make Vida? As a protest against these ethnic distinctions, many Croatians responded to the question about "nationality" in the last census with the response "Eskimo."

The Ungars took us on a day trip by car around Losinj and Cres (sress), the island just north of Losinj. We reciprocated by taking all 3 of them, plus their large German Shepherd, for an overnight sail to two neighboring islands, Susak (shu'-shack) and Unije (oo'-nee-yeah). This trip showed the truth behind a joke among cruisers: there are 2 kinds of wind in the Med and Adriatic: too little and too much. We motored to Susak in beautiful sunshine, anchored for a few hours while Rob, Sime and Cica went ashore and Andi and Vida stayed aboard with the dog, Cho. We then motored to Unije where we anchored in a very deeply-indented bay, almost a fjord. We could feel that the weather was changing, and the rain began as we took Cho to shore in the dinghy. The cookout on the grill became a meal below as the wind and rain built, but we were safe and warm in our anchorage, and had our usual lively conversations.

The rain stopped by morning, and we considered doing a circumnavigation of Unije, but the wind was strong in our anchorage and looked even stronger outside the bay. We put a reef in the main, set the staysail, and poked our nose out of the bay. It was blowing at least 25 knots with large chop. This was the "bora," a strong cold north wind that the Adriatic is famous for. Cica, unused to boats and prone to panic attacks, became quite frightened. As the wind continued to build, Rob and Vida went forward and took a second reef in the main, and we turned downwind to Losinj. Two hours later, after incredible surfing, we were safe in the cove outside the Ungars home, well-protected from the bora. We brought food from Akka to the cottage and enjoyed being safe ashore. The bora continued for the next 3 days, and we were very happy to stay put. Rob and Sime drove to a store one day and from a hilltop ridge, the sea looked awesome, covered with spume blowing from the whitecaps. Rob estimated 50 knot winds under a gorgeous clear sky. After the bora blew through, we left Losinj to do more island hopping.

We actually visited the Ungars twice, once in July and then again in August. Between visits, we cruised up and down the Croatian littoral. A thumbnail sketch of several of the high points follows:

MLJET (mlee-yet) is a national park and is very green. It's been essentially undeveloped since the Benedictine monks built their monastery there in the 13th century, on an island in a lake on the island. What a peaceful and lovely place. A fellow cruiser told us that the monastery was just a "10-minute walk" from the dock at our anchorage, so despite the July heat we decided to hike instead of riding the bus. About 40 minutes later, we arrived at the dock for the ferry to take us to the monastery! But the walk was beautiful and the monastery definitely worth the effort.

KORNATI ISLANDS: The Kornati islands, some 140 of them, are largely uninhabited and, with no natural sources of water, barren except for an occasional tree or scrub grass. They were once inhabited, and many are criss-crossed with stone walls, demarcations of long-ago property lines. They also once were heavily wooded, but in the 19th century a fire raged through them for over 3 weeks and totally deforested them. The result is a peaceful and eerie landscape of cone-shaped islands strewn in clear blue seas. They're a National Park and therefore will be preserved in their austere beauty.

BRAC: One of the larger islands, Brac ('brahch') is known for its white limestone, exported around the world, and used for such famous buildings as the U.S. White House. Following Vida Ungar's advice we anchored in Blaca, a tiny cove on the west side of the island, tying off to a tree on shore to keep from swinging into the sides of the cove. From the small beach, we hiked 2 kilometers up a gentle slope to a small village/hermitage established in 1551. The monastery provided schooling for kids from the neighboring villages, but by 1967, the villages had been abandoned and there were no more school kids, and the last in the long line of monks had died, so the Blaca Monastery itself was also abandoned. It now belongs to the state. We enjoyed the tour, especially the huge central fireplace which had benches around -- essentially inside -- it, to stay warm in winter. The guide told us that the school kids each brought a piece of wood for the fire as their "tuition." It was a unique view into by-gone times. The last monk was a Renaissance man who enjoyed both music and astronomy. So he acquired both a baby grand piano and a huge telescope. These were brought by boat to the little cove where we anchored, then the hired hands (who usually were tending sheep or the vineyards) hauled them 2 km.. uphill to the monastery. The guide said they were encouraged in this task by extra rations of wine, so the loads seemed to get lighter and lighter.

THE KRKA WATERFALLS: To see the falls of the Krka (kirk'-ah) River, in a national park, we motored up a narrow canal through limestone gorges and several shallow lakes, past the city of Sibenik (she'-ben-ick) and up to the small town of Skadrin. We anchored in a peaceful stretch of the river across from the sleepy little town. Little did we know that there was a concert that night by a well-known Croatian rock star, and the enormous speakers in the park faced our anchorage. The concert began at 11:30 pm and ended at 3 am, and it sounded as if the band was playing on our foredeck! Despite our lack of sleep, the next day we enjoyed a ferryboat tour up the river to the waterfalls. We walked along the pathways above and below all sorts of falls from small and gurgling to large and roiling. It was very different scenery from our usual islands. That night, we attended an open-air concert by some dozen folk-singing groups. Primarily men's choirs (just one recently established women's group), they sing traditional songs in very close harmony. It was quite stirring, set in an ancient square in front of an ancient church. Alas, that night featured yet another rock concert, again at midnight and lasting until 3 a.m., but this time by some local groups without the talent of the previous night's star. Altogether, a musical mixed bag of a weekend!

SPLIT: The second most-visited city along the Croatian coast is Split, famous for its ruins of Diocletian's Palace, built around 300 AD of white marble from Brac. Diocletian and a succession of other emperors used it, then the townspeople began to move in, turning much of it into the rabbit warren nature of Medieval towns. It's huge (some 31,000 square meters) and now forms the center of the city, combining aspects of fortress, town and palace. We took a tour into the substructure of the palace: the "basement" of enormously strong arches that supported the palace and its 26 meter high walls. The underground chambers are quite beautiful in their own right, and some areas are used as small concert halls during festivals. Above ground, one of the jewels of the town is the small Temple of Jupiter (later converted to a Christian baptistery with a cross-shaped baptismal font). Its barrel-vault ceiling still has the original carved decorations.

VIS: One of few offshore islands, known since ancient times for its wine. Sime told us that Rob's old math professor from the U. of Zagreb, now retired, spends his summers at a cottage here which has been in his family over 300 years. We contacted him by phone, his surprise turned quickly to delight, and we rented a scooter to visit him and his wife for a few hours one afternoon. What charming people! And, in their late 70's, quite an inspiration: they're both studying Japanese for the sheer pleasure and mental exercise it affords them. We had a wonderful visit, and combined it with a visit to the hill-top cave from which Tito directed the partisan efforts during WWII. (Aside: Croatia is having some national turmoil trying to decide how and whether to venerate Tito, or even to remember him. On the one hand, he's obviously a war hero. On the other hand, he was a communist/socialist and founder of the Yugoslav federation. A dilemma. When we commented on the single simple hand-lettered road sign that pointed the way to the cave, Professor Mardesic noted that this was the first summer since independence that the sign had remained up all summer without being vandalized. Yet the young man at the agency where we rented the scooter told us with pride that "my granny used to guide people on tours there."

Of course, there were a myriad of other islands and anchorages, each interesting in its own right -- but this description is long enough as it is. We left Croatia in September to spend some time in Venice, returned for a week with Carol Robinson and then again for another few days with Nick Miller, before finally bidding the country a reluctant "Do vidjenja" (au revoir) and making our way south to Greece.