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(E) Adriatic sailing trip dips into family roots
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  11/27/2002 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) Adriatic sailing trip dips into family roots

Adriatic sailing trip dips into family roots


Verena Dobnik
Wednesday, November 27, 2002

ABOARD THE DODI -- The Dodi. That was the whimsical name of the sailboat we boarded -- four friends exploring the islands off the coast of a country once called Yugoslavia.

One would never guess that these hundreds of islands in the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Dalmatia -- now in Croatia -- had survived thousands of years of bloody battles, the latest the Balkan war of the 1990s. At the crossroads of East and West, this sea has borne ancient Greeks, Romans and U.S. aircraft carriers.

The four of us, all with roots in the former Yugoslavia, spent 10 days reclaiming the sights, sounds and smells of our childhoods.

Our Italian-based shipmate, Patrizia Stekar, leased the 13-metre sailboat. She also packed supplies that could have jump-started a gourmet food shop.

At sea, Patrizia would call out in Croatian to the fishermen we spotted: "Ima ribe?" (Do you have fish?)

Their faces weathered by the sun, these old men of the sea -- and a few young ones -- waited hours to trap even a modest catch. It's a challenge to make a living in waters overfished in recent years by industrial freezer ships.

We watched as they pulled up the catch, then went onto their larger, "cargo" boat where we caught our own by plunging our hands into barrels of flopping fish. Then we took turns sitting at the back of our boat, feet in the water and armed with knives to clean the fish, dumping the remains into the sea.

Twice a day, our friend Lidia Matticchio, a Manhattan restaurant owner, cookbook writer and James Beard chef of the year, cooked divine dishes, from risotto made of baby cuttlefish and calamari to raw shrimp sprinkled with olive oil, plus a bit of orange juice and rind.

"For me, it's a return to pure, intense flavours, to the materials of this earth and the sea. When these products come alive in my hands, I come alive," she says. "It's the taste of the sea in your mouth."

One morning, as we jumped into the water for a swim, we noticed lots of round black spots on the seabed: urchins.

Lidia's first thought was lunch: pasta made with urchins, their reddish, caviar-like flesh scooped out after splitting the black shell.

Harvesting the creatures, which are covered with five-centimetre needles, was no problem for the skipper, who put on goggles, grabbed a wooden spoon and dove in. Lidia floated a bucket on the water, and he flipped the urchins in.

From the two-burner cabin stove, we'd bring the food up the wooden steps to the rear deck, where a white table emerged when flaps were raised on the central locker. We often ate watching the setting sun, spilling like liquid gold into the sea as the moon rose. Some meals were capped with wild sage tea, a few drops of lemon added.

At night, we either dropped anchor in some small bay sheltered from the winds and the open sea, or docked in fishing villages and went out on the town.

That meant joining the local passeggiata as the locals still call it in Italian, meaning the evening walk by the sea. For this, Dalmatians dress to the hilt; this is their courtship ritual, a time for men to observe their possible future brides, and vice-versa.

On the island of Vis, we hit the shops for basics including fresh fruit and vegetables, and special fare such as aromatic lavender oil. There was an exotic touch: communicating with the natives of Vis, whose language is Croatian infused with the Italian dialect of Venice, a former ruler of the area.

Our small group was hardly the model of linguistic purity. An astounded Vis native said he heard a gibberish of three languages in one sentence alone as we switched spontaneously between Croatian and Slovenian and also Italian and English, plus dialects of Italy and Istria.

The Dalmatian Islands are bathed in sheep's milk, honey, almonds, grapes, wheat, olives, dates and pomegranates and the land is fragrant with herbs.

In contrast to the simple, but refined food, our accommodations were rough. Each morning, I watched that my head didn't hit the wooden ceiling as I sat up in the small cabin, which had less than a square metre of walking space between the door and the bed.

But from my pillow, if I rolled over and faced the porthole, I could see the vibrant Adriatic waves at eye level.

We showered in one of two bathrooms on board, or we bathed in the sea, which is so salty that one can float on it and practically take a nap. There were also public showers in some marinas along the route.

Stranded on Vis for three days because of dangerous winds at sea, we explored an island of stark beauty, the site of a former Yugoslav military base that was off-limits to tourists until a half-dozen years ago.

We were led by a local guide, Zoran Franicevic, whose agency, Alternatura, also offers adventures on Vis -- parasailing, rock climbing, horseback riding, and exploration of everything from sea caves to the ruins of ancient Roman thermal baths and a Greek amphitheatre.

One night at sunset, we climbed to the island's highest point, where a tiny, crumbling Roman Catholic chapel was ringed by rosemary bushes and sage.

Then we climbed hundreds of rugged stone stairs to a cave chiselled into a cliff, which had been the secret command post during the Second World War for Marshal Tito, leader of communist forces who joined with the Allies to fight the Nazis and Fascists.

As we sailed, we were lulled back to nature by the sea, the sun and the rocking of our boat. But each day also brought reminders that we were hardly in paradise.

In Trogir, an entrancing settlement with a medieval castle, I got a haircut from Maria Jadric, who works 12-hour days to support three children and an unemployed husband.

She said that since the war, unemployment is up, tourism is down and many people are depressed.

One morning, my wakeup call was dishes smashing through the main cabin, having popped out of a latched cabinet. The waves were about two metres high, shaking our vessel and slamming it into the water.

I dashed out of my bed, gripping anything that had an edge. Our skipper, Mitja Simcic, was in sailing heaven -- a yachtsman who had won races and sailed through storms far worse, when his crew had to tie themselves in place. Instead, we bounced around like pingpong balls, hanging onto anything that didn't move.

After six hours of tossing and pitching -- and helping pull sail ropes with wind changes -- we finally anchored in the Kornati National Park, 140 islands as barren as a moonscape, but with a mysterious allure and sprinkled with wild sage. At sunset, the Kornati appear pitch black, surrounded by a burning orange sea as smooth as oil.

Trying to move faster toward our starting point, Mitja had turned on the boat's motor. On the deck, we watched like hawks for small boats.

Toward midnight, we stopped at the island of Iz where a dock beckoned as a good overnight spot.

At 6 a.m., Mitja was aroused by a crowd of people who had gathered by our sailboat, carrying luggage and waiting for the ferry, which docked at the exact spot we were occupying.

The ferry passengers assured our skipper that it was no problem: They would simply trek across our boat to catch theirs. Instead, he decided to sail off into the rising sun.

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