After leaving Senj, the journey along the Adriatic Highway took many turns for the worse. Abysses crept closer, guardrails answered prayers, and I felt an unspoken sense of profound gratitude to the bus driver for keeping us on the road. Outside the window, I watched as a searing sun beat down on clifftops, baked the infertile soil and turned pavement to a blazing ribbon of black that slithered across the tumultuous topography. The fact that there was a road through this landscape was an impressive accomplishment. A vanity project that had been imposed upon a brutally beautiful landscape. It must have cost a fortune in men and material. This bucolic wasteland has been known to turn skin to leather who last a lifetime in the spectacular, but less than welcoming environment. Looking out at
it made me marvel at the fierceness of nature.
Forbidden Landscape – Terrific & Terrifying
The region we were crossing is known as the Karst. It extends inland from the coastline an average of 100 kilometers. While the Karst can be found all along the hinterland of mainland Croatia’s coast, the area south of Rijeka is made much more inhospitable by the looming presence of the Velebit Mountains to the east. Between the sea and the mountains is a terrifying stretch of terrain that is one of Europe’s preeminent no man’s lands. It is a forbidden landscape whose foundation is made of limestone. Water disappears into natural catacombs that have been carved by rivulets cutting their way through the soft stone since time immemorial. Rivers were known to disappear underground and then reappear many kilometers later. The Karst has a bipolar personality, magical and malevolent. This is exacerbated by its climate of extremes. Infernal heat in the summer radiates off the blindingly white rock. Then in the winter, bone chilling cold cuts across the karst with a scythe like wind that blows icy and unceasing for months on end. Those who have managed to survive here end up just as tough as the landscape.
This bus journey across the karst left me with contradictory feelings. One minute, I wanted to end it as soon as possible. The next, I wished it would last forever. From their window seats, passengers could snap the most stunning series of photos imaginable. The scenery was an endless succession of terrifying enchantment. Seaside villages were little more than a few scattered houses standing by the waterfront, some in a state of ruin. I could not think of anything more enchanting or terrifying than to be forced into exile here. Living out life staring at the mesmerizing, azure waters of the Adriatic would be a dream. At the same time, I thought life here must be marked by loneliness and intense isolation. The kind of place where one could get lost forever and never be seen again. Precisely because no one would be watching.
Fear Inducing Recklessness – Life On The Karst
The ruins in several of the villages looked so inviting that for a moment they made me forget that something had brought them to such a state of disrepair. To say that this land had marginal economic prospects was a massive understatement. Eking out a livelihood on this remote stretch of coastline has always been a precarious undertaking. Prior to modern times the coves were the haunt of marauding forces, most notably the Uskoks whose ferocity mirrored the land they ruled with a fear inducing recklessness. Modern times had brought more pleasurable pursuits. Tourism offered the greatest economic potential. The coast was great for fishing, sunbathing, and swimming. There really was nothing else to do. The hillsides were covered in stone. There was also the greenery of small trees and scrub brush whose vibrancy was made much more radiant by the harshness of the terrain. Shelter from the sun was scarce. On the day we passed through, this stretch of coastline looked to be enjoying an eternal summer. I knew that eventually the seasons would change and with it, the frigid tempests of winter would transform the region with bone chilling frigidity.
The bus sped by villages that hugged the shoreline as if protecting themselves from the tumultuous terrain they were surrounded by on all other sides. Their only natural outlet was the sea which looked infinite from the shoreline. We were now entering that other Croatian coast, marked by a lack of human habitation, one that tourist brochures were bound to avoid. Only locals, travelers or hermits find their way here. There were no wide strips of sand, or concrete monstrosities hovering over the Adriatic. The idea of a resort was anathema in this land. A lone umbrella on a gravely shingle of shoreline or a handful of kayaks floating in a cove were more typical scenes. The villages we did come across were small and remote. Places like Sveti Jurag with a population of 599 people, almost the same as what it was 150 years ago. Lukovo which was three times smaller than Sveti Juraj. Stinica, notable as the jumping off point for Rab Island which could be seen lurking offshore.
The Shallows – Seduced By Solitude
For a region that lacked large centers of population, it was surprising to see that any cove with the semblance of a beach had been discovered by lovers of sun and sea. It was easy to understand their affinity for these scattered bits of sheltered shoreline. The water’s clarity could be compared to glass. The shallows were almost totally transparent. I found it entrancing in the extreme. It was obvious that I was not the only one who was attracted by its magnetic allure. People were propped up on the shoreline or swam about in the shallows, partaking of their own personal bits of paradise. These scenes were a far cry from the tourist towns and beaches that dotted the Dalmatian and Istrian coastlines. Due to their isolation and lack of creature comforts, the Karst kept the masses away. I envied those who came here to relax. This land and seascape were an acquired taste, a very exclusive section of Croatia, reserved for those seduced by solitude.
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