(E) 101 Dalmatias: Adriatic coast of Croatia displays endless variety of ...
Adriatic coast of Croatia displays endless variety of sights and experiences
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Melissa Burdick Harmon, Post-Gazette
The serene Adriatic island of Lopud basks in the warmth of a summer day.
By Melissa Burdick Harmon, Travel Arts Syndicate
DALMATIAN COAST, Croatia -- The clean, rich smell of pine fills the air.
Old-fashioned, loosely stacked dry stone walls form lazy borders for fields blanketed in vivid pink and yellow wildflowers.
Far below, a brilliant blue bay glimmers in the sun, its surface punctuated by twin sailboats making their serene way to the next deserted beach or quiet cove. Aside from a bit of birdsong, there is not a sound to be heard.
Melissa Burdick Harmon, Post-Gazette
Climbing Dubrovnik's ramparts gives a birds-eye view of this small, self-contained city in Croatia.
Christopher Hague, walk manager for my Wayfarers journey along the Dalmatian Coast, breaks the silence. "This is my idea of paradise," he says. "This is Shakespeare's 'Tempest.' "
It is, in fact, the no-cars-allowed island of Lopud, one of the green Elaphite Islands that punctuate the waters around the medieval fortress city of Dubrovnik, the heart of Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. Lopud may not be Prospero's island, but in spirit it is very close.
I have come here with a group of 15 Americans, part of a nine-day organized walk along the coast and nearby islands in the Adriatic Sea. The trip, operated by the Wayfarers, a British-owned walking tour company, promises six to 10 miles of walking a day, while seeing the sights, mingling with the locals and enjoying fine food and wine and good hotels. On this early day of our journey -- in the off season, when the tourist hordes are still at home -- they are clearly making good on those promises.
In fact, our walk on Lopud takes us along a dirt trail to the private home of a woman who speaks no English, but greets us with a wide smile, serves us homemade wine and allows us to picnic beneath her grape arbor. Then she takes us to meet her goats.
If the Dalmatian Coast is a red-hot tourist destination these days, Dubrovnik, a jewel of a city ringed by powerful -- and delightfully climbable -- medieval ramparts leads the list for visitor numbers. That is good news, since this UNESCO World Heritage Site was seriously damaged in the 1991-93siege. Its restoration has been both swift and careful.
The patchwork of roofs seen as we traverse the ramparts gives a clue to the extent of the war damage. Red shingles are new replacements, donated by UNESCO. Crazy-quilt red-green-and-white shingles predate the war, and we see precious few of them.
The winding drive north along the coast, toward Split, is reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast, with the road forming a dividing line between mountains swooping toward the sea and tiny red-roofed and multi-steepled villages tucked along the coves and beaches below. For 10 miles we are actually in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a post-war move to grant them a tiny patch of access to the coast.
A stop at Ston, a salt-producing center for eons, lets us climb part of a wall that formed the old Republic of Dubrovnik's northern defense, then stroll to a hidden beach where we are rewarded by sweet, briny Ston oysters, among the world's best.
By now, over oysters and huge salads and just-caught fish, it is apparent that our group of Wayfarers has bonded. Conversations are lively, covering everything from world affairs to theater to medicine to Victorian novels.
Confidences are shared, and friendships have formed. On this trip, the participants are definitely a positive part of the experience.
Split, Croatia's very Italian-feeling second-largest city, has a lively, chaotic charm. A twilight stroll along the Riva, the promenade at water's edge, captures the romance of the town, with its Roman and Venetian architecture and virtually its entire population -- or so it seems -- taking the evening air in the outdoor cafes.
This is a European city on a European coast, living with its back to the Balkans. Its ties with Italy are strong, but the Croats work harder at it, which might explain why the pizza, gnocchi and gelato are better here.
Split's not-to-be-missed site is the vast third-century palace built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a complex character whose main hobbies were growing cabbages and murdering Christians. He occupied the front part of the palace with his (Christian) wife and daughter, while some 700 courtiers lived in the back.
Over the centuries, local people moved inside the palace walls, dividing the grand rooms into hundreds of small apartments. Today Diocletian's Palace is a warren of shops and pubs and open-air markets -- a vibrant, bustling heart-of-the-city where 2,000 people live and work. Its Cathedral of St. Domnius, formerly Diocletian's mausoleum, is not to be missed. (His portrait in stone can still be seen on one high wall.)
If chaotic Split stimulates the mind, then an off-season visit to Brac, one of the largest of Croatia's Adriatic Islands, soothes the soul. Roaming down stony mule tracks, we encounter a few of these less-than-lively work animals tied to trees, too bored to care. A red rooster sporting an enormous comb strides onto the path -- checking out the interlopers. A friendly dog tags along.
We climb a mountain to see vast quarries of white, crystallized limestone, just like the stone shipped from Brac long ago to build the White House. We visit the island's surprisingly good small museum and peek into tiny churches and shops we pass.
Another day, we follow a track along the sea bluffs, gazing past trim vineyards and through groves of olive and almond trees, with their gnarled, ancient-looking trunks. A hand-painted sign points the way to a waterside restaurant, otherwise reachable only by boat, where we tuck into some fresh mackerel, then travel by water taxi to a deserted beach. From there, some hike to a monastery, others nap on the beach, soothed by the lapping of the water.
On our final day, we take the ferry to Hvar, the Adriatic island of the rich and famous. John Malkovich looked into buying a house there. Gwyneth Paltrow vacations there. Bill Gates sails in. Here, the Venetian-style houses are grander. The gardens look professionally done. Yet it has not lost its off-the-beaten-path charm.
In Hvar's village of Jelsa, with its winding alleys and streets made of steps, we lunch outdoors on light-as-a-cloud gnocchi with white shrimp sauce, followed by fresh grouper. Afterward, we climb a street of steps to see the heavily fortified parish church and, as we descend, encounter a bevy of 8-year-old girls, thrilled to pose for photos that they will never see.
Our last walk takes us along Hvar's coast. The sea is as clear as a glass of vodka. The bougainvillea is a frenzy of pink. The needle-thin cypress trees emulate the island's dozens of church steeples, pointing straight to heaven.
And before I know it we are strolling into the town of Hvar, the end of our walk.
I arrive home feeling a bit more fit, having made new friends, gained a pound (despite all that fish!), and -- here's the good news -- totally mentally rested. My mind is racing with new projects to undertake and new challenges to meet.
I have been to Prospero's island -- several of them, in fact -- they were truly enchanted, and now I can't wait to get back to work.
And that may be the best possible outcome from a vacation.
(Melissa Burdick Harmon has visited all seven continents, researching more than 200 magazine articles.)