26 June, 2007

The Pearl Necklace (absolutely no double-entendre intended, I PROMISE!) of the Adriatic

A year ago today, my sparkling new wife and I were recuperating from eighteen hours of planes and airports in a hired apartment inside the magnificent walled city of Dubrovnik. It was the beginning of our honeymoon, a fortnight of sheer delights and unexpected wonders. To explain that somewhat, I'm here affixing a note written not long after our return, when the details of the experience were still fresh in my Alzheimers-addled mind:

First off, let me admit that I make an abysmal pitch-man. I can't sell something unless I truly believe in it... hence my inability to flourish in the ad business back in the '80's. Knowing that, you should take what follows as a statement of heartfelt sincerity, and if you are contemplating a trip to this most lovely of destinations, know that I envy you.

I was responsible for designing our honeymoon last year. To my wife fell the more onerous task of planning the wedding, with a minimum of outside help and precious little input from her clueless future husband. But that also meant that what I should come up with better be spectacular. Now I have always been a lover of islands, That was the first allurement of Dalmatia to me. And when I travel, I like to move. None of this sitting plunked down in one spot for me, oh no. The purpose of travel for me, in imitation of the American voyagers of the Gilded Age, is to expose myself to new ideas and unfamiliar vistas, and to garner as much knowledge of this terra incognita as time and money allow. By choosing to island-hop, we could sample as much of the place as possible in our limited time (two weeks). Now, we weren't wrong to do this. When we return we'll do it differently, but we're glad we saw and did all that we did.

Given the choice of where to fly into, I should choose Split now, though we entered and left the country through Dubrovnik on this trip. Don't get me wrong: we love Dubrovnik. It's a gorgeous city, and full of appeal. But it can be bloody hot, and even more expensive than the hinterland and otoci (islands). And then, to get from Dubrovnik to the places you'll probably want to go, you still have to travel north, to the hubs of ferry travel: Split and Zadar. Since we were staying in southern Dalmatia, we chose the former. Split plunks you down right in the heart of where you'll want to be, I believe. We didn't stay in Split -- it's a bit sprawling and shabby, though it does have its charms -- but rather took a l-o-o-n-n-g bus-ride from Dubrovnik to the town of Trogir, about 10 miles west of Split and utterly enchanting. We stayed in the old town, within the city walls, in a hotel we can recommend without cavil, the Tragos (they have a website: http://www.tragos.hr). The staff there was very friendly and accommodating, and the rooms were airy, bright, modern and about as spacious as anything you'll find in Croatia. We had a couple of days there but found, when the time came to leave, we'd have preferred to stay longer. But we took a hydrofoil (highly recommended over the standard ferry) from Split out to Heaven -- oh, excuse me, I mean to say Hvar.
My wife and I decided that our next trip we would rather just laze on this delightful, beautiful and temperate island than flit around as we did. It is as damn near perfect as any place either of us have experienced on earth: the main town, called Hvar Town strangely enough, is an elongated strand of large, handsome modern (and pricey) hotels fronting on the quay at which an armada of pleasure yachts loll in their berths. A cosmopolitan complement of ridiculously beautiful people walk, chat, nurse drinks or babe-watch from the tables lining the way, from early morning into the wee hours. You may prefer the fast times of discos like Carpe Diem, just opposite the spot where the ferries dock. But we found ourselves drawn to the incredible blue sea, in places as warm as bath water, and the generous sun. Our hotel, which we can recommend so long as you ensure that your room is on either the 2nd or 3rd floor and facing the sea, was about a twenty minute walk from the center of town: the Hotel Podstine. And we fell in love with the rest of the town, the twisting warrens of streets climbing up into the lavender-choked hills. We found some great restaurants, like the Konoba Luviji, around a narrow corner and uphill from the cathedral. You must try their lamb, but make a reservation as it's tiny (seats about 12 - 15 guests). And be sure to hire a scooter or moped (or car) and get up into the hills amongst the lavender. One afternoon on the scooter we were caught in a sudden rain shower on the mountain road to Stari Grad, where the main ferry docks; we sought refuge (porous but adequate) beneath a feral olive tree, and my wife says it was there that she first realized how much she really loves me.

Can you tell that we worship Hvar? We also loved Korcula, though we only stopped there a few hours overnight. Because we were only staying a night, we couldn't book a hotel room in advance. But we found it the essence of simplicity to acquire a perfectly fitting room for the night. Many Croatians have outfitted their houses with separate apartments or simply rooms with baths that can be had at a very reasonable price (look for the signs stating, "Sobe Zimmer Camere Apartemani"). The landlords know the ferry schedules by heart and meet each boatload of disembarking passengers with pictures of their available facilities. We were very lucky to find a man of about my age who spoke flawless English and had a nice, newly remodelled room only a few hundred yards from the dock , which suited us since our boat was leaving at 6:30 the following morning. We dropped our stuff then went in search of food. And if you go to Korcula, you must eat at "Adio Mare", a konoba very near the specious Marco Polo house in the center of the old town.Their pasticada, a Dalmatian specialty something like sauerbraten, was dreamy -- if a dish concocted of peppers, tomatoes and round steak can be called such a thing. And while nothing in Croatia is particularly cheap (forget what the guidebooks tell you; Bush and his deficit have rendered the dollar as creaky as a Croatian grandma), "Adio Mare's" bill failed to cause agita. My wife, who is not a friend of Bill Wilson like I am, thoughtlessly regaled me over the glories of the local posip, a crisp cold white wine with an expanding reputation outside Dalmatia. She was transported. I craved sweets. So we took off walking through the Korculan night. The ancient courtyards and flagged squares rang with the cheers of soccer fans crowding around flat screen TVs (every restaurant, saloon, bodega or snack bar we encountered in Europe had at least one screen tuned to the Cup); we were looking for ice cream, and boy did we find it. Dalmatia, as you may know, was long a province of the Venetian empire, so spaghetti and pizza are staples. And everyone -- and I do mean everyone -- consumes gelatto at least once a day. My favorite variety was ljesnjak, or hazelnut. And my wife has acquired a nickname of "Keks," which is vanilla interlarded with veins of chocolate sauce and chunks of sponge cake (scrumptious).

Our final stay was on the bucolic island of Mljet. I had chosen this for our last stop so that we might take a couple of days to recharge our batteries after so much travelling. It was worth the stop. Though our hotel was a slightly weathered Socialist holdover, the Odisej, it was perfectly situated in the tiny town of Pomena, directly adjacent to a National Park which boasted not one but two salt-water lakes and a 14th century monastery dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. If you enjoy strenuous cycling, this is the place for you. On the map, the trip from Pomena to Polace, home to a ruined Roman wall and the only fresh bakery for 30 kilometers in any direction, seems child's play. Be advised that Croatian children must all be named "Lance" and have the powerful thighs to prove it. The 4 kilometer trip seems somehow to be all uphill in both directions. So the welcoming water of Malo Jezero, the aptly-named "Little Lake" offered an hour's respite and served to wash away a fine coat of sweat upon my return (with a cherry streudel in hand for my beloved). The island is, frankly, breathtaking. The forest's balsam perfume blends with the snap of the sea to create a sense of drowsy peace and contentment. There's really no rush to do anything here, and that feeling was so far from our Angeleno experience as to instill a kind of childish wonder. Though if you should happen to feel stirred to perform on Mljet, there's no lack of outlets for that gush of energy. The waters thereabout are famous amongst divers and windsurfers, the surrounding channels are a yachtsman's paradise, and halfway up the southern coast of the island sits a cave reputed to have once been inhabited by Calypso, the nymph whose seductions distracted Odysseus from his homeward quest for seven years (she must have had some chops!). We just slept, swam and took the sun, however. Oh yes. And walked along the lakefront.

To any prospective visitors, I hope this has been some use to you. I'm sure there are other recommendations I could make. One would be, don't bother trying to learn Hrvatski (Croatian). Here is the absolute sum total of what you'll need to get around: "molim" and "hvala:" "please" and "thank you." Literally every person we met had some English. And many people in the hospitality industry spoke better English than I do. They are generally kind and helpful -- and beautiful, by the way. I should mention that everything has a charge attached -- even ketchup, should you be so mad as to order a burger, will cost you 3 kuna, or about 60 cents. The Croatians, we discovered, put ketchup on their omelets, pizza and spaghetti, but not their french fries. Go figure. And in that spirit, my final recommendation is:

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