Croatia, July-August 2004
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
notwithstanding, we really came to see a performance of its traditional
dance: the Moreka 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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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:
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.
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!
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."
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