Croatia, we agreed, is a stunningly beautiful and unspoilt country, full of history, kindness and very tall men.
Back from the brink
Christina Patterson and her mother were thankful to survive the precipitous drive to their Croatian villa. Luckily there was light at the end of the tunnel, an idyllic spot and a handsome man
31 July 2004
Four hours after we arrived in Croatia, my mother nearly had a heart attack. "We'll have to go somewhere else," she declared firmly, "we can't stay here." I looked out at the sparkling sea - vivid turquoise by the rocks, a deep, hypnotic blue further out - and back at my mother's ashen face, and wondered what to do.
It had started so well. After our crack-of-dawn flight to Dubrovnik we emerged, blinking, into brilliant sunshine and a huge blue sky. The airport was like Toy Town: a little patch of concrete surrounded by rolling hills and trees. In continental Europe, the trees are different. The greens are darker and they seem to point towards the sky or hover, like puffy green clouds, over the land beneath. They make me think of fairy tales.
After picking up our hire car we were soon speeding past those magical trees, through those cucumber-green hills and along a vast expanse of amethyst sea. The road was cut into the rock and offered sudden, breathtaking vistas of the villages and sea below. It snaked into heart-stopping bends, but it was Sunday morning and the roads were mercifully clear.
An hour later, in a café with views over the valley, we toasted our holiday with espresso. We had arrived safely. The sun was shining. We would potter around a few sites, but mostly we would lie in the sun and admire the beauty. I would continue to write the family history I'd started, and my mother would chip in with stories. We would bond over G&Ts on the terrace as the sun set.
Two hours later, we were on the Peljesac peninsula. We had driven through Ston, noted for its oyster beds, and were edging our way towards the village of Potomje. "Turn left towards the factories and drive straight till you pass through the stone-made tunnel," said our directions. "Be aware of the traffic from the opposite direction, because the tunnel is quite narrow." It was indeed quite narrow, and also pitch black. With the headlights on full beam it was like being in some kind of grotto - a grotto where a sudden flash of lights might herald disaster.
On the other side, the sunlight was dazzling and so were the views. We were on the edge of a cliff, on the edge of the world. Somewhere in the distance, by the rocks and the sea, was our villa. It was an awfully long way down. "Please slow down," my mother begged as we inched our way around another hairpin bend. Moments later, we met a car. The road was wide enough for only one and we were on the outside. Somehow, miraculously, the oncoming vehicle reversed into a tiny dip in the rocks and somehow, miraculously, I manoeuvred past. I glanced over at my mother, who was clutching at her heart.
The road got even narrower as we crawled our way down the mountain. Some of the hairpins seemed too narrow for even one car. Suddenly, we saw a sign to our villa, Tabo, which involved a 320-degree turn. I drove on to a little patch of concrete, fumbled with the reverse and doubled back onto the steepest drive I have ever seen. One final hairpin and we were there.
My mother was crying. I was shaking. We stared grimly down at the beautiful villa, the garden full of olive and lemon trees, the pool and terrace overlooking a sea that was like glass. "We can't stay," sobbed my mother, who has weathered numerous family tragedies with less visible grief. "We'll have to find somewhere else. But how will we get out?" I nodded sadly. We were prisoners in paradise.
Ante Radovic, our genial and extremely handsome host who had built both the villa and the pool, was reassuring. His 40 years at sea had taught him that most problems can be solved. "It will be fine!" he boomed, seizing my mother's suitcase. "I will show you a better road! It will be fine. You'll see." Ante led us down to the steps to an airy apartment where every room had a view down to the sea. The terrace was the size of a restaurant. The pool was for our use only. My mother smiled politely, but I could see the panic in her eyes. We had no food and no way of getting any. Perhaps, she whispered, we could pay Ante to go and buy us some?
Ante had, in fact, laid out a tray of cold meats and cheese and a fresh loaf of bread. He brought us wine from his brother's vineyard. After lunch, he would take us to the good road. Everything would be fine. But first, could I please move my car? He needed the driveway, so could I just move it onto that concrete strip over the garage? I nodded and smiled. Infused with his cheery optimism, I tripped off with the keys.
Moments later, I was perched on the edge of a precipice. I had mastered the reverse, but my foot was shaking. If it slipped, I would be dead. For the first time in my life, I understood the phrase "paralysed with fear". I couldn't get into the space and I couldn't turn the car. Instead, I turned the steering wheel on full lock and went up the drive, back around the hairpin bend and back onto the road that led into the village. I pulled into a clearing with some tables and chairs. Perhaps this was the restaurant that was "only open at high season". A plump man bustled out of the kitchen and smiled. Were they open? Yes. Hallelujah! Could I leave the car here? Could I, in fact, leave it all week? We would, I promised, eat there every night. Yes, he said, with a warmth that tried to hide his bewilderment. Yes, if that's what I wanted. Yes, I replied, nodding hysterically, yes, thank you, it was what I wanted.
Ante's good road was slightly better than the bad one. At least it was paved and he was driving. I sat in the front while my mother cowered in the back, trying not to look at the inches that separated us from the rocks below. The views were spectacular, a surreal mix of sea and mountain - as if a magician had conjured up a Mediterranean and an Alpine landscape and somehow jumbled them up together.
In Trstenik, a tiny village on a harbour, we stopped at a café. My mother and Ante both had coffee and I had a cold beer. "I have never yet let a woman pay for a drink," he thundered when the bill came. "And I am 70!" My mother is 69. They made, I couldn't help thinking, a handsome pair. Ante took the bad route back, the one that twisted back to the main road from Ston, onto Potomje and through the tunnel. My mother shut her eyes.
Back at the apartment, we clinked glasses, sipped our G&Ts and nibbled the cashew nuts my mother had packed. Things were looking up. Dinner was only a short walk away and in the morning Ante would take me to Potomje to buy some food. That night, as the sky changed from blue to pink to black, we picked the bones out of the local catch of the day, a deliciously fresh sea bream.
In the village the next morning, Ante knew everyone. He stopped the car in the tunnel to clasp the hand of an old man and pass him a cigarette. "My cousin!" he announced before leading me to the tiny shop that was run by his sister. I piled my basket high with carrots and cabbage and ham that had passed its sell-by date and shook more hands: Ante's brother-in-law and nephew as well as his sister. Could I, I wondered, buy some of the local wine? "My brother's wine is best!" bellowed Ante, moments before we bumped into him in the street. "Mirka will give us some," he added, as he climbed into the car.
Mirka's house was surrounded by vineyards, stretching out to the mountains ahead. She disappeared for a few minutes, re-emerged with a litre of excellent red wine and beckoned us in. Sitting on Mirka's balcony, sipping strong, sweet coffee and eating her stupendous home-made mille-feuilles, I nodded and smiled. She could speak no English and I had learnt only huala (thank you), which I said a lot. The huge gardens around us were packed with produce - onions, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans - and birds were singing in the lemon trees.
After a hearty lunch, in which carrots and cabbage featured prominently, my mother and I settled down for a lazy afternoon reading and writing by the pool. That night, at the restaurant, we were the only customers. The family who ran it were all hunched around a little television that they'd rigged up outside to watch the football. We were eating sea bass when Croatia scored. When we left, they were still in the lead.
The following morning, we left the house at seven and trudged up to the restaurant to fetch the car. We were off to Mljet, an island that's now a national park, and the ferry from Trstenik was leaving at eight. On the journey from one beautiful harbour to another we studied the guide book. Mljet was, we were told, used by the Romans as a place of exile and was briefly owned by the kings of Bosnia, who sold it to Dubrovnik in 1333. According to legend, it's where Odysseus holed up with Calypso.
When we drove off the ferry we could see why. The coast around Villa Tabo was stunning, but this was something else. The whole island is covered in forest and has two salt water lakes of such piercing turquoise that it's hard to believe they're real. The forest - of Aleppo pines, cypress and holm oaks - is full of butterflies. We got a ferry to the tiny island in the big lake and had coffee and waffles and apple strudel in the shadow of the monastery of St Mary. It was, I decided, my duty as a journalist to do some intensive research on Croatian cakes. They are, in fact, a little lumpen, but don't let that deter you. There's little in life as pleasant as coffee and waffles in the sunshine as you gaze down at a glassy, azure sea. In the end, it proved irresistible. I had assumed (after dipping my toe in the sea at Trstenik) that the water would be too cold and had left my swimsuit behind. I swam in my underwear and dried myself with my dress. The mild discomfort that followed was worth it.
On the Thursday, after another demanding day reading and writing by the pool, we set off for Orebic, where you can get the ferry to Korcula. First inhabited by the Greeks, Korcula was fought over by Venice and the Croat kings and later by the Genoese and Turks. The ice-cream was delicious (a concoction of nuts and cherries in honour of Marco Polo, whose house on the island you can visit). We went to the cathedral of St Mark, the Gothic church of St Peter and the civic museum, which houses an eclectic array of icons, pictures and pots, as well as documents on the island's seafaring history. And then, in a restaurant by the water's edge, we ate seafood risotto. Only the journey back dented our joy. On the road down from the tunnel we met a car that I couldn't get past. "Can I help you?" said the kind Croatian with a worried smile. "Yes," I said, handing him my keys. We got out of our car and watched him move it. He waved cheerily as we climbed back in.
Two days later, after a final lazy day at the villa, we packed our bags and waved goodbye to Ante and to the Villa Tabo. "I'd need a helicopter to come back," my mother announced happily as we left the treacherous track behind. We were spending our final night in Dubrovnik, to the south, at the four-star Excelsior.
Dubrovnik was even more beautiful than I had imagined, a gorgeous cluster of honey-coloured buildings, rich in history. We walked along the city walls, visited the Franciscan monastery with its ancient pharmacy, the cathedral and its treasury, the synagogue and the Rector's Palace. It was only in the Sponza Palace that recent history reared its head. Mostly, you miss it. Only the new tiles and stones are testament to man's inhumanity to man and his capacity, afterwards, to paper over the cracks. Off the courtyard of the Sponza there's a room lined with black-and-white photos of the young men who fought and died in the war that tore Yugoslavia apart. They would now be in their early thirties. Back in the square, we walked straight into an enormous wedding. The bridesmaids arrived first, splendid in lilac silk, and then, to a medley of yells and whistles, the bride. On the steps of the cathedral a man played an accordion and sang. The reception was at our hotel. When we got up for our flight at six the next morning, some of the revellers were still on the terrace.
Waiting for our plane in the Toy Town airport we had time to reflect on our trip. Croatia, we agreed, is a stunningly beautiful and unspoilt country, full of history, kindness and very tall men. We had been to a beautiful island. We had seen a monastery and the ruins of a Roman palace. We had eaten exquisite squid and sea bream. We had driven and survived.
Christina Patterson travelled as a guest of Croatian Affair (020-7385 7111; www.croatianaffair.com). A fortnight's holiday in August at Villa Tabo costs £1,281, based on two sharing, and includes flights from Gatwick, Birmingham, Norwich, Manchester or Edinburgh, transfers/car rental and self-catering accommodation.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd