Magical Mystery Tour
This summer, we explored Croatia. It’s a stunning country with tremendous stories and abundant delights, but I was almost embarrassed by its beauty and posted very little. Since we’ve been home, I’ve wanted to describe its magic without sounding like some #makewayforfabulousness #startyourdroolengines asshole.
So here is a story about Croatia – not a catalog of how we looked while visiting:
The Cathedral of St. Dominus in Split, built in the 4th century, is the world’s oldest Catholic cathedral still in use in its original structure. It sits inside a pedestrian-only walled off former palace. When you book a hotel room in the area, a jack-of-all-trades hotel rep meets you at a taxi stand outside the walls to walk you through the labyrinth. Your suitcase wheels sound like they’ll pop right off from banging and clacking on the stone.
You can climb the cathedral’s bell tower for a couple of Euros. The stairs are not terribly safe: they’re giant limestone blocks polished to dangerous slipperiness by thousands of years of feet. Each step is about 18 inches tall, and they’re are less than two feet wide in places. But climb to the top and you see this:
On summer nights, orchestras and opera companies perform in the courtyard in front of the cathedral. It’s free, and families bring picnic dinners and wine, turning the steps into an amphitheater. Some people dance; others pause on their way to or from the countless small restaurants tucked into the alleys in all directions. The old town is crowded in high season, though not to the degree that chokes Venice and other popular cities in summer. Split is a bustling port town, but there’s a gentler vibe here. There is room at the inn, and at the cafe, the bar and the restaurant. Most of the tourists are European, and streets are filled with locals too – families, friends and neighbors of all the musicians, among others.
Ask a cabdriver or an Uber driver what people in Split do, and he tells you, “We sit, and drink coffee, and eat prosciutto.” He is not wrong.
Of course there is also swimming in the Adriatic, and walking to and from the warm, eerily clear water, and eating octopus and potatoes and drinking locally produced wine – sauvignon blanc and lesser-known varietals and indigenous grapes that are small-batch, affordable and as local as they come (you can sail past vineyards and identify which vineyards produced the wine you just drank).
Croatia exudes the calm of another era. On summer afternoons, people close their eyes, nap on beach blankets, drop their heads into their books, loll in sun and shade. Others lick ice cream cones and indeed sit on their butts in coffee shops speaking a rainbow of languages. The Croatian language is Slavic and if you speak Polish you’ll notice familiarity. If you only speak English you’ll be fine too.
In the 1990s, the Serbian War gutted Croatia’s infrastructure, decimated its economy and killed an estimated 15,000+ people, around half of them civilians. People left, or opted not to have children amid uncertainty over safety and the economic stability necessary to feed and care for a new generation. The country’s birthrate has declined for 25 years, to one of the lowest in the world, which is considered an economic emergency for a country of about 4 million people. In some places, buildings damaged by bombs in the war still stand, the destruction reminding passersby that the war was a relatively recent event.
Now, though, people are starting to dream, and have children, again. Croatians we met were happy about the benefits of increased tourism (boosted by the popularity of Game of Thrones, which is partly filmed there) and optimistic about the future. They cheerfully explained that prices for food, drink and lodging triple during summer, then go back to previous levels for the rest of the year. Even so, food and drink prices were lower than other major European cities in summer, though hotels came closer to equaling other capitals.
To explore the country’s coast by boat, you embark in the evening. Aboard a gulet named Libra, there is the requisite safety and courtesy discussion (“Respect the teak! Do not flush the following items in your toilets! The captain is the boss of everyone! The weather is the boss of the captain!”) And then you leave land behind. You’ll sleep on board, docking sometimes in port and other times anchoring. You’ll swim, play cards, read, sing, dance. You’ll sit, drink coffee and eat prosciutto.
Many of Croatia’s 1,100 islands are tiny and uninhabited, others massive and full of year-round residents. Hvar (rhymes with car, with the V sounding like a W) is 42 miles long, one of the largest. It’s an agricultural mecca (forests, fruit orchards, olive groves, vineyards, lavender fields), and in high summer there is no escaping the perfume of peak figs, tomatoes, flowers, citrus and berries. And the buzzing bees, too busy gorging on produce to cause much trouble.
Its size imbues Hvar with many personalities. You can do all of this in one day:
1. Ride 50 km on a mountain bike tour through Unesco heritage sites, archeological digs in progress, tiny villages with winemakers pouring tastes, and pomegranate trees sagging under ripening fruit.
2. Dodge baby strollers and scootering kids to break for espresso and ice cream at a hopping harborside cafe.
3. Take a dinghy to a beach club where rental cabanas have flowing white curtains adjusted to your shade needs, the music thumps, and an oiled, bronzed, international crowd in metallic bathing suits photographs itself and dances.
4. Tour an outdoor sculpture garden-slash-popup beachwear boutique that features this butterfly house:
But that isn’t what’s most remarkable about Hvar. That would be when the mountain bike tour guide says to leave backpacks (wallets and all) on the sidewalk outside the bike shop while testing bikes in a parking lot nearby. After the bike test, they’re still there, in a commercial strip with people coming and going in all directions. After that, you pile the backpacks behind the bike shop’s cash register for half a day, and return to find everything still undisturbed. Cynicism, rampant theft, sub-par “tourist food” – none of those have arrived on the island. Four Seasons is midway through constructing a five-star resort (rental villas and residences) across Brizenica Bay from the bike shop, which will surely, gradually alter its landscape.
On Korcula, abundant shopping overwhelms after the peace of motoring along between water and sky. The shops blend into each other, but at least the merchandise is largely made in Croatia, not China. And clerks don’t pressure. They just smile, seemingly unconcerned with making a sale.
After attempting to climb a ladder into an ancient turret-turned-cocktail bar packed with youthful energy, it’s easy to bail on that plan and taxi to the top of this foresty, hilly island for dinner in a family-run spot where two generations wipe their hands on their aprons before shaking yours.
The place specializes, as many do here, in food slow-cooked in a peka – a heavy-lidded, domed pot that sits in a wood fire and roasts its contents (generally meat and veggies with olive oil and herbs) with juices sealed inside for long hours. You can get octopus in a peka, as well as beef, veal and lamb. The sauce is rich with garlic, oil, tomato and wine. You will never run out of bread for sopping. The cuisine in general is rustic and filling. There are incredible salads, endless potatoes, mountains of risotto, copious wine to wash it all down.
As days pass, you get to know the boat crew – young Croatians working their asses off seven days a week, 18 weeks a year, in an unending symphony of hospitality. They are so mind-bogglingly charming and so talented at their jobs you’ll want to marry your eldest daughter off to one of them. They rarely stop moving, but stories trickle out. You find out Captain Marko spends most of his off-season meticulously maintaining Libra, a 105-foot-long gulet that sleeps 12 in addition to its crew of four -as well as helping his parents with a multitude of jobs in their home. His mind is on business – he and other Croatian boat operators are under new pressure from competitors coming north from Greece and Turkey to escape economic woes and instability and capitalize on Croatia’s growing popularity and reputation for safety.
Antonia is the lone female crew member, whose ‘hostess’ title covers bartending, cleaning and many things in between (including a cursing in Croatian workshop when drizzle brings everyone briefly under cover). She hails from an island north of Split, and when she describes it, and her plans to move back there eventually, it sounds as though she left home on a long journey to seek work on the seas. Looking it up later, you realize it will take her about as long to get home from Split as some commuters take to get into Boston in traffic.
Wondering whether being American in 2017 might be cause for embarrassment, you prepare for any hostility by bringing a large Canadian flag to hoist, much to the bafflement of the boat crew, who find Americans delightful due to generous tipping habits and egalitarianism, unlike some Italians and Russians who treat them, shall we say, less casually.
Exploring islands, you unconsciously wait for something to feel redundant, or for the magic of the landscapes to wear off, but that doesn’t happen. Every island offers something different. On heavily forested Mljet, a 12th century Benedictine monastery sits on a bit of land in the middle of a lake in the middle of Plitvice National park – concentric circles of interestingness. You rent road bikes to circle the lake, and if you are properly attired, you can taxi by boat over to the monastery and explore its chapel and small museum. You can also swim across, but then your attire will not meet the modesty standards required to enter buildings. Although checking out the ruins and outbuildings and petting goats before settling into a courtyard cafe for a campari and soda is also enjoyable.
On Sipan, you cannot resist fantasizing about becoming a real estate magnate while surveying crumbling, uninhabited harbor front homes and businesses, some within 10 feet of water this warm, clear and clean. The empty buildings mingle with an absurdly huge, brand-new and modern fortresslike compound rumored to have a helipad on top – reportedly owned by a Russian. Other Russian rumors swirl – this area was a drug-running thoroughfare, and locals are relieved that that industry is ceding territory to tourism. Hiking around quickly sucks you into a warren of residential life – hanging laundry, parked scooters and tiny cars, small-plot vegetable gardens, a locked-up, overgrown church. The quiet is deafening, unreal and meditative – an antidote to modern life.
The boat’s one-way journey concludes in jewel-like Dubrovnik, a city of just 35,000 with a much bigger reputation. The city stretches and winds along the coastline, outrageously gorgeous. Though damaged by war, abundant architectural treasures remain – Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains; reasons for the city’s designation as a World Heritage site are everywhere. Dubrovnik’s crown is its pedestrians-only old town, and this one is huge, with sizable museums and art galleries. The crowds are thick, the heat is oppressive, and the Game of Thrones tours and tchotchkes endless. But it’s stunning. And steep, with stone steps climbing everywhere like history’s gym.
The walled-off old town features a crazily high concentration of restaurants. But the hotel receptionist inquires about guests’ dinner reservations, and you can’t help but suspect she wants to funnel visitors somewhere where she has a connection or gets a kickback – the tourism machine is more experienced here. But, research done ahead of time, you don’t need her. Restaurant Proto is two stories tall, the second floor a rooftop terrace open to views of night sky and ancient neighboring buildings. It is the kind of place that makes you want to cry when the evening ends, and you promise yourself you’ll get back there somehow, someday.
Ask a teenage Uber driver who hails from the booming, inland capital city of Zagreb how he likes living in Dubrovnik (Zagreb’s population is 800,000) and his disgust is palpable. To him it’s a tiny village with no proper nightlife. To you it’s an architectural and cultural amusement park. You leave with a child’s desperation for another day, another hour, one more ride, one more snack.
Of its many tricks and delights, Croatia’s magic was to provide a sense of time travel, transporting you to what the Western Europe of the 1970s might have been (Game of Thrones souvenir shops notwithstanding). It felt like a younger Europe, the innocent sibling of higher-profile neighbors across the sea. The Split airport hasn’t yet expanded to meet ballooning demand; amenities like duty free shops are a thing of the future. Postal service turned out to be equally rudimentary – postcards mailed at the end of July arrived in Massachusetts six weeks later. Who cares?
Visitors get to be young again too, children with no responsibilities, learning about the world through playing all day and much of the night, at ease in a safe, welcoming, low-pressure land.
Have more babies, Croatia, but please don’t grow up too much.