I never cease to be amazed by the interconnectivity of the world. History often provides revealing evidence of connections that are often obscure or unknown. Each time I travel in Eastern Europe it seems like I find connections between the region and my homeland, as well as other places around the world. The most obvious of these connections is migration. Eastern Europe and in particular the Balkans, has been a supplier of migrants to countries around the world for the past century and a half. For instance, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, Croatians began migrating to the United States in ever greater numbers. It has been estimated that somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000
Croatians washed up on the shores of the United States looking to create a better life for themselves. These immigrants were predominantly young males from rural areas, some of whom were having trouble scratching out a living on Dalmatia’s beautiful, but hardscrabble islands. While the islands are idealized today by travelers wanting to visit them, the situation was much different in the late 19th century as emigrants left them searching for new opportunities. The United States was one of several places abroad that proved to have a magnetic pull for migrants. Other areas included Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Many of the Croats who left to go abroad never came back. That is such a shame, because the islands they left behind were rich in one respect, that of beauty.
Firm Foundation – Laden With Limestone
Viewing the island of Brac from a ferry on the journey between Split and Dubrovnik it was not so hard to understand why so many emigrated abroad. For all its spectacular beauty, Brac is a rugged island with vegetation just as tough as the land that it covers. The land is laden with limestone, which does not exactly make it a garden spot. While the island’s topography is spectacular in the extreme, it challenges anyone looking to cultivate the soil. Olives and grapes have been traditional mainstays of the island’s agriculture. At times, this has taken a turn for the worse. One of the more notable examples occurred during the 19th century when an outbreak of phylloxera caused vine rot, ruining winemaking throughout Croatian lands. At the same time, islanders were beginning to look abroad for better economic opportunities. Many of these lay across the Atlantic Ocean. It would only be later that the idyllic shores of islands such as Brac became major destinations for tourists. That has diversified the local economy, but Brac is still a tough place to make a living.
The ferry stop at Brac was brief and beautiful. It would not be until later that I discovered this was not the first time I had been exposed to Brac or at least many pieces of it. In another one of those coincidental connections that reminded me of the world’s interconnectivity in ways both fascinating and strange I discovered that Brac had given some of itself to the larger Central and Eastern European world I had been traveling around during the past decade. Thousands of kilometers from the island’s luminous shores, Brac’s limestone can also be seen in the vestibule at the United Nations building. The stone’s fame has gained worldwide renown, to the point that it has been falsely connected with a spectacular monument and the world’s most famous residence.
White Out – Monumental Mythmaking
Countless guidebooks, news sources and blogs state that the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in northern France was constructed from Brac stone. This is false, but not that far from the truth. The stone used in the memorial’s construct did indeed come from Croatia. Specifically, at the site of an ancient Roman quarry in the town of Seget on the mainland. Brac stone is also said to have been used in constructing the White House in Washington D.C. The story most often repeated was that a Hungarian purchased three ships worth of the stone and had it delivered to the newly independent United States for construction of the presidential residence. A thorough check of the archives related to its construction by the White House Historical Association has not turned up a single document as proof. It certainly makes for a good story, but nothing more than that.
On the other hand, Croatia’s most famous ancient historic site, Diocletian’s Palace in Split was built with stone quarried on Brac. It is mind boggling to imagine what it took to quarry and then transport the stone 1,700 years ago. The weight of all those stone blocks must have been enormous, but so was the slave labor used by the Romans to excavate and transport it to the mainland. Of course, Diocletian had at his disposable an entire empire’s resources. His palace is one of several notable structures in Europe where the stone has been used to marvelous effect. These include the splendid Hungarian Parliament in Budapest and Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Further to the north along the eastern Adriatic, the Governor’s Palace in Trieste was built from the stone, as were several churches in Venice. Besides its people, this has been Brac’s most enduring export.
Bedazzled –Leaps of the Imagination
I did not have time to see the quarry at Puscisca where Brac’s famous stone has historically been procured. That did not make the short, ten minute stop at the harbor in the town of Bol any less delightful. The brevity of the stop did not keep me from being bedazzled in a matter of minutes. It was not so much the island setting as it was my imagination that stimulated thoughts of what spending a week or longer on Brac might be like. Day hikes through the rugged interior, standing on a windswept promontory gazing out across panoramic vistas, lying on the beach for hours on end with a good history book, sitting in sidewalk cafes sipping coffees and basking in the laid back atmosphere. Such thoughts were the starting point for leaps of the imagination which I used as a bridge to the future. Dreaming of future travels is like a first romance, where one imagines all the great things to come. The romance on this occasion quickly moved on from Bol to yet another island, one that was even more stunning than Brac.
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