Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

The Ottoman Outlier – Ada Kaleh: An Island Apart In The Danube (Part One)

Hundreds of years from now there will come a moment when the dams which hold back the Danube River give way. As the deluge begins to drain downriver, natural wonders long since submerged by manmade reservoirs will reappear. Slowly rising to the surface, these wonders will remind anyone lucky enough to see them of the losses incurred by the dams. These wonders include an island waiting to be rediscovered near the Iron gates of the Danube, that narrow, rocky, river route through which the Danube passed prior to construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. Even today, the area has a commendable degree of natural beauty that recommends it to visitors. The awe-inspiring rock formations of the Iron Gates can still tower above the waterline. Unfortunately, the same is not true for an island that vanished into the depths after the construction of Iron Gate I.

An isolated existence – Ada Kaleh in a 1909 postcard

Creating A Community – A Contested Space
The evocatively named island of Ada Kaleh (island fortress) drowned beneath a rising reservoir in 1970. The island had been one of the most unique communities in Europe. It was the last European possession of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks first set foot on European soil. Up until the late 17th century they expanded their territory in Europe to include the Balkans, a sizable portion of Hungary and on occasion the Gates of Vienna. It was not until after World War I altered the geopolitical map of the Balkans irreparably, that the Turks finally relinquished their hold on Ada Kaleh. Turkey (the smaller successor of the Ottoman state) handed it over to Romania in 1923. The island stood close to the Romanian side of the Danube. Across the river was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

While Ada Kaleh became Romanian territory, it would always be a world apart, a fascinating outlier of ethnic Turks surrounded by the Danube. In a twist of historical irony, the creation of Ada Kule as a viable community occurred due to the same waters which would drown it. A mile long and a quarter mile wide, The Danube churned up enough gravel and sand over thousands of years to create an island just before the Iron Gates gorge. Both the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs coveted the island due to its strategic location. Ada Kule offered an opportunity to control access along the middle Danube. Because of this, the island became a contested space. One coveted by powers both great and small.

An island apart – Ada Kaleh Bazaar in the late 19th century

Ownership & Occupation – Plaything of the Great Powers
The location of Ada Kule from the 17th century forward straddled imperial borders. It became a point of contention between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Occupation and ownership of the island was tenuous. Ada Kule was the plaything of two great powers. In 1689, the Austrian Habsburgs gained control of the island. This did not last long. Only two years later, the Ottomans took it back. A year later they lost the island. Then in 1699, the Ottomans took it back again. Thus, in a ten-year period Ada Kule changed ownership on four occasions. This pattern continued into the 18th century as the island changed hands another three times. In attempting to secure their hold on the island, the Habsburgs imported labor to build a fortress on it. Expert stone masons from central Europe began work in 1717 to construct an impregnable defensive structure.

A large pool of laborers helped put the Habsburg plans into action. They suffered in the fetid summer heat, failing to fend off insects and disease. In the winter, they subjected to ferociously icy winds that came howling off the river. Despite these climatic extreme, the laborers were able to build the most permanent fixture in the island’s history. The fortress took twenty years to construct. It included bastions, barracks and defensive works built to ensure that the Habsburgs controlled access to the river. The stout defensive works were no match for a four-month siege by the Ottomans. The fortress fell to the Turks a year after its completion. It would stay under Ottoman control except for a brief two-year interlude of Habsburg rule from 1789 – 1791. A treaty handed the island back to the Ottomans, who would hold onto it until the early 20th century.

Stepping into the past – Postcard of Ada Kaleh fortress

Natural Defenses – An Isolated Existence
Despite the Ottoman Empire’s prolonged retreat from the Balkans, Ada Kule’s status remained strangely the same. This Ottoman outlier’s existence became more precarious during the 19th century. Habsburg and Serbian territory would surround it. Nevertheless, it still had the natural defenses of the Danube still protecting it on all sides. The island’s relative isolation allowed it to develop an exoticism that had vanished from the land adjacent to this stretch of the Danube. In 1867, Ottoman troops left Serbia, but the island stayed part of the Sultan’s lands. A decade later, the Ottomans vacated Romania. The Austrian Habsburgs had long since pushed the Ottomans out of the middle Danube and yet the Sultan still held onto the island. It was one of the most unique arrangements of the time. While the forces of nationalism surged across the Balkans, tearing Ottoman possessions from the empire’s grasp, and threatening the implosion of Austria-Hungary, the Turks on Ada Kule continued their quixotic existence.

The Treaty of Berlin, which had granted Romania its independence, failed to mention Ada Kaleh. The regional powers brokered a deal in another treaty allowing Austria-Hungary military control over the island, while those who lived on it continued to be subjects of the Sultan. The island remained immune from the geopolitical and ideological forces which convulsed the latter half of the 19th century. Hidden in plain sight, Ada Kaleh went mostly unnoticed. One person who did take notice was the Sultan in Istanbul. After the construction of a new mosque there in 1903, the Sultan donated a large carpet to cover its interior floorspace. He also continued to appoint civic and judicial officials to administer affairs for his subjects. Ada Kaleh was an island unto itself, an insular world that left to its own devices. In the coming century that would not continue. Ada Kaleh, both physically and politically, was about to experience drastic changes.

Click here for: Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

A Place Called Home – Dubrovnik: Comfort Food (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #65)

Familiarity and habit, these are the actions of self-enforced domesticity. Each of these actions have also become a vital aspect of my travels around Central and Eastern Europe. While travel is a form of escape from them, it is only a temporary one. I find myself out of habit coming back to some of the same places again and again. Seeking out the familiar to provide comfort and quell the anxiety which threatens to devolve into aimless wanderings on trips abroad. A habit is hard to break. Thus, I found myself in Dubrovnik eating at the exact same place as eight years earlier on that first visit to the Old Town.

In the span of time between past and present not much had changed at what amounted to a fast food restaurant. It served the same food for nearly the same price almost a decade later. While there I ordered the same dish that I always do on these journeys, Cevapi, a grilled dish of minced meat that makes me crave visits to the Balkans. I first ate Cevapi in Sarajevo during my visit to that city in 2011. Since then, I have found myself seeking it out again and again. This includes in cities that are not part of the Balkans. I recall at least three occasions when I sought out restaurants serving it in Budapest. On my last trip to Europe before this one, I spent an entire weeklong visit to Montenegro feasting on this delicacy each evening. Having Cevapi one last time in Dubrovnik made me feel like I was enjoying a well cooked meal at a home away from home.

Home cooked meal – Cevapi

Habit Forming – The Trigger Event
Home, if I have one in Eastern Europe, can be traced to the experiences I keep coming back to again and again. It is not just restaurants. it is also monuments and museums or places so powerful for me that I cannot resist the urge to revisit them. I find comfort in the familiar. Several years ago, I had a few hours in Vienna before departing for the Austrian countryside. Did I take this time to seek out something new? Not a chance. Instead, I made a return visit to the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum). Ostensibly, this was to see the artifacts from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, the trigger event for the starting gun that signaled the outbreak of World War I.

The artifacts included the Archduke’s bloodstained tunic. Upon reflection, I wonder if the artifacts really were the underlying reason for my return? This return visit took place near the end of a two week trip. I was feeling anxious and edgy, more worried about the logistics of heading home than seeing something new. As soon as I walked into the museum I felt at ease, as though my worries had vanished. It is rather disturbing that this museum – which felt like home for a few hours – captured my interest due to artifacts from a murder. Nonetheless, I still find comfort in thoughts of that visit to the museum.

Finding the way – Looking out from a church in Dubrovnik

Domestic Travels – A Circular Logic

In Dubrovnik I found myself caught within the travel equivalent of circular logic. I was not just returning to the Old Town many years after a first visit. I was also returning to several of the same places I had been before. Just as the medieval walls confine the Old Town, so my previous visits confined me. I retraced my footsteps by entering through the Pile Gate, stopped for a moment to ponder Onofrio’s Fountain and found another stroll down the jam packed promenade of the Stradun irresistible. I had seen it all before and was prepared to see it all again. I was caught up in my own personal history more than that of the Old Town’s history. Dubrovnik might be over a thousand years old, but that was no match for my memory of that first visit. Seeing the same places was like visiting with old friends, albeit friends that were frozen in time and inanimate in everything but my mind. At the Pile Gate I was comforted by the site of the city’s patron, Saint Blaise. I watched as those around me failed to notice his presence. They did not need Saint Blaise, but I did. The site of his statuesque form was intensely comforting.

The idea of seeing something different in Dubrovnik was an opportunity that I was not taking. Walking those endless, narrow alleyways that wait to be stirred out of their silence. was not nearly as interesting to me as it had been on my first visit. I recoiled at the thought of leaving my comfort zone. I knew from experience that the backstreets of the Old Town offered a multitude of unique experiences. Ones that are very different from the glories fed to the masses, but I found them painful to consider. They reminded me of my own loneliness, even when surrounded by fantasy, there was always a melancholic aspect to my life. It often seduced me with laziness. On this day in Dubrovnik, I was confronted by the fact that my travels were becoming more like my domestic life. An enervating repetition of habits that dulled the senses. For me, there is safety in regimentation. I had come so far to not go any farther. Or so I thought.

A different path – Backstreet in Dubrovnik

Collision Course – A Tantalizing Glimpse
While downing yet another meal of Cevapi, the idea of how to finally break free of the sensory numbing strictures with which I had mentally shackled myself came to mind. There was a church that I had spied from a distance while walking along the Stradun.  I could see hints of its Baroque elements peeking out through the shafts of streets. Such scenes offered brief, tantalizing glimpses of architectural greatness exposed for the eye. I had no idea whether I had been there before. The mystery of it had been slowly building inside of me. Now a day before departure came the last chance to make its acquaintance. This would be a respite from regimentation and allow me to kick the habit that had been holding me back. Going there would offer the opportunity to explore another side of the city. One where locals still lived not for the sake of tourism, but for themselves and their families. I was ready for one last journey into that other world, the one where history and reality collide.

A Day At the Beach – Dubrovnik: The Forbidding Coast (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #64)

Covid free and only twenty-four hours away from departure, it was now time to visit the beach. For many visitors, a day at the beach would be a needed respite from trekking around the Old Town. I saw it quite differently. It was something that I felt compelled to do in the interest of being beside the Adriatic. My idea of a good day at the beach is to spend time reading guidebooks in search of intriguing information. Sure enough, I made sure a guidebook was in my backpack before heading to the beach. I had very little time left in Croatia, but that would not stop me from dreaming of future adventures. What I failed to realize was that a day at the beach in Dubrovnik was also an adventure, one that I would not soon forget no matter how hard I tried.

Shingle by the sea – Bellevue Beach in Dubrovnik

Coming Ashore – Photogenic & Problematic
Anyone searching for a beach along the Croatian coastline will most likely have to settle for a strip of shingle rather than smooth sand. Croatia’s coast may have been blessed with spectacular beauty, but it has a paucity of sandy shoreline. Pebble strewn shingles are usually typical. Coastal areas are often jagged and rocky, inhospitable in some places and downright dangerous in others. Cliffs are as likely to be found as coves. And while the Adriatic Sea during the summertime is rather tame, the shoreline which touches it could not be much wilder. In some ways the Croatian coast reminds me of the coastal areas in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

While the climate along the Pacific Northwest coastline is much different than that of Croatia’s, both shorelines are spectacular and forbidding. One minute you are standing on a cliff, the next you are plunging down to the shoreline. The scenery is breathtaking, but a day at the beach is not easy to come by. In the Pacific Northwest the topography is both stunning and problematic. The same holds true for the Croatian coast. The area around Dubrovnik is typical. There are quiet nooks and coves, many of which are difficult to access because they are surrounded by cliffs. Finding a beach that offers sand can be difficult to find at the best of times. The Croatian coastline may be photogenic, but the spectacular nature does not lend itself to those who enjoy lounging by the seaside.

The forbidding coast – Miramare cove close to Bellevue Beach

A Deep Dive – Finding The Way
A search through the listings of nearby beaches in and around Dubrovnik to find the best one available yielded a number of options. There was only one drawback, all the reviews mentioned problems with overcrowding. The beaches closest to the Old Town were the worst for this chronic problem. Overcrowding and Dubrovnik have become synonymous in the 21st century as visitor numbers have soared. Discussion of this problem is usually confined to the Old Town. This overlooks the fact that the beaches are, if anything, even more crowded. The Old Town is much more spacious than any of the nearby beaches. It is one thing to rub shoulders with masses of tourists while walking along the Stradun. It is quite another to sit elbow to elbow with half naked strangers while attempting to sun themselves by the seaside.

A combination of proximity to the Old Town and excellent reviews led to Bellevue Beach as the best option for spending a final, few hours by the seaside. The beach is tucked away in Miramare Cove, only a 20 minute walk from the Old Town. On this day, walking to the beach was out of the question due to the ferocious heat. Any kind of physical exertion was an ordeal. Thus, taking the bus turned out to be the only sensible option. It took less than five minutes to get to the stop, but still no sign of the beach. As I would learn, you could be only a few minutes on foot away from it and still have no idea where it was located. Standing atop a hill, I knew the sea had to be somewhere down below. The search for Bellevue Beach was intriguing. I had never seen nor heard of it before. It did not take me long to realize why.

Though the beach is closest to the Bellevue Hotel (hence the name), getting there required walking toward the Hotel Rixos. The beach was hidden from view by a combination of development and rugged terrain. It would have been almost impossible to stumble upon Bellevue Beach unless you stayed at one of the nearby resorts. Getting to the beach required navigating a series of steep steps that plunged down to a shingle of pebbly shoreline. Without the aid of stairs even the fittest person would have had trouble accessing the beach on foot. Fortunately, the stairs helped prospective beachgoers make their way down the cliffside.

Going off the deep end – View of the Adriatic Sea from Bellevue Beach

Aesthetic Asymmetry – Bellevue Beach
The secluded nature of Bellevue Beach could not keep the crowds away. On the contrary, the beach was packed to the point of overflowing. Finding a place to spread out a towel and soak up the sun was not easy. The best spots had already been taken. Late comers were relegated to a tenuous hold on a small, pebbly portion of real estate. I ended up not far from a stone wall, behind which were clumps of unsightly bushes. Further up was a resort with rooms that looked out to the sea. Flanked by this combination of natural and manmade features, the beach had an odd, aesthetic asymmetry that added to its unsightliness. Despite the lack of aesthetics, Bellevue Beach was a magnet for sea lovers and swimmers because of the emerald water which fronted it. The Adriatic’s color was of a hue that only nature in its purest form could possibly conjure. It had a magical effect on the eye and a trance inducing effect upon the mind.

It was a good thing that staring at the water was so enchanting, because the rest of my time at the beach was miserable. It was witheringly hot, to the point that even the water could only provide a brief respite. I spent most of the time crouched in what little shade I could find. While others took to the waters, I took to counting the minutes before making the climb out of this infernal setting. Bellevue Beach would have been wonderful on a late spring or early autumn day when the sun was less intense and there were fewer visitors. Sadly, this day was the complete opposite. My lasting memory was not of this cliffside oasis or its sparkling seawater, instead it was of the lung bursting climb back up the stairs. This day at the beach in Dubrovnik had been memorable and that was why I wanted to forget it.

Click here for: A Place Called Home – Dubrovnik: Comfort Food (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #65)

A Negative Response – Dubrovnik: Getting Tested (Travels Along the Croatian Coast #63)

The day before the day of departure dawned with a wave of blistering heat. The temperature, even for the sunny climes of the Croatian coast, was abnormally warm. It had been this way throughout this trip. Only once had I so much as seen a few drops of rain. On this next to last day, there was no relief from the heat and humidity in Dubrovnik. Every surface in the Old Town radiated heat. The air was once again heavy with humidity which caused an outpouring of sweat the moment I stepped outside. My first stop was a bakery along the Stradun to get a bit of sustenance before a final day of activities began.

After procuring a handful of pastries, I made my way to Onofrio’s Fountain to begin the day by people watching, reading, and relaxing. Sitting down on the fountain I was soon joined by a monk replete in his robe. He had also brought breakfast, but this was not for himself. Within seconds he opened a large bag and began to break bread for a group of pigeons that descended from the sky. Alighting upon the square, they fluttered, pecked, and picked up the crusts of bread in their beaks. The early birds got their bread as the feeding went on for at least ten minutes. I managed to capture several shots of this endearingly unforgettable moment.

Ready for Breakfast – Feeding time in Dubrovnik

Catching Covid – The Usual Symptoms
One thing I did not want to do on the last full day in Dubrovnik was go to the hospital. On this trip, there was no choice in the matter. The only way to reenter the United States was with a negative Covid test. The thought of having to stay in Croatia had a definite appeal, but not while in quarantine. Anyone who had a positive test would be forced into a ten day period of isolation. Could there be any greater torture than to be stuck inside a room, unable to walk the historic streets of this medieval walled city? To make matters worse, anyone quarantined would likely be subjected to spending countless hours watching unintelligible Croatian sitcoms on television. Either that or suffering a severe case of internet burnout. I began to worry a couple of days before departure about the ramification of my mental sanity due to a positive Covid test. At the slightest sign of a sneeze or stuffiness my mind was possessed by fear. It was a temporary type of hypochondria that would only be alleviated once the test had been taken.

Getting to the Dubrovnik Hospital meant taking a ten minute bus ride from the Old Town out to the Lapad Peninsula. The ride was unmemorable except for the fact that I now was more cognizant of the people around me. I feared catching Covid just before taking the test. Of course, I should have shown the same type of precautionary attitude during the past two weeks. I had spent countless hours on packed buses while traveling all along the Croatian coast. Most likely I had encountered someone who had Covid and did not yet know it. It was a risk I thought worth taking, but now I was not quite so sure. Eastern Europe has had a notoriously high number of Covid cases as a proportion of the population. The same is true regarding deaths. Croatia ranked 19th in Covid deaths per capita with 2,234 per million people. This was right behind the United States which comes in at 18th. It could be worse. Eastern European countries held nine of the top thirteen spots in the ranking by the latter half of 2021. For a nation that ranks 130th worldwide in population, Croatia has suffered mightily during the crisis. Fortunately, during the summer there was a lull in Covid cases. A few months later the situation would worsen considerably.  

Health scare – Dubrovnik General Hospital (Credit: Panek)

Hospital Visit – Swabs & Sneezes
The bus ride from the Old Town only took a few minutes. Dropping passengers off at the hospital parking lot. For a town that is known throughout the world for history, culture and sophistication, Dubrovnik’s hospital did not live up to those standards. The building was a classic functionalist structure. A concrete conurbation that almost certainly hailed from the communist era. The area around the hospital did it no favors either. The grass looked like it had not been mowed all summer and weeds were noticeable on the dry, brittle ground. I knew the state of health care in former communist countries had been suffering for decades and at least superficially, the Dubrovnik hospital looked like it was badly in need of an update. The front entrance doors were locked. After pressing a button for help, an attendant soon opened the door. I mentioned a Covid test. She proceeded to point in the right direction which happened to be outside the facility.

A large white tent setup close to the parking lot was ground zero for Covid tests. This was where was done by a woman who spoke excellent English. I had already made the payment online of 150 kuna ($25) for a rapid antigen test. This cost seemed exorbitant until I considered the alternative. No test, no return flight to the United States. Thus, I dutifully allowed a swab to be inserted up my nose. The woman doing it stuck the swab so far up my nose that it stimulated a massive sneeze from me as soon as the swab was pulled out. This elicited a great deal of laughter from the woman. The entire process was completed in a couple of minutes. It was fast, efficient, and effective. The results would be emailed to me shortly. In the meantime there was nothing to do other than anxiously wait.

A testing experience – A man gets a nasal swab during a Covid test

The Way Home – Ready For Reentry
The personnel who administered the rapid antigen test for Covid were as good their word. After returning to Dubrovnik’s Old Town by bus, I received an email stating that the result had come back negative. For a moment I felt relieved. That was until I realized this Croatia trip would soon be coming to an end. The next day began to loom in my thoughts. There were no other cities to visit and no more relaxing siestas by the sea on islands. A sense of melancholy came over me. I was running out of time. That was nothing new. I had been running out of time since the day of arrival, it was only now that I noticed. Then again, I had been running out of time since the day I was born.

Click here for: A Day At the Beach – Dubrovnik: The Forbidding Coast (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #64)

War By The Shore – Babin Kuk: The Siege Beyond Dubrovnik (Traveling On The Croatian Coast #62)

One morning not long after sunrise, I went for a walk in Gruz. My route would take me along the road which wraps around the northern edge of the Lapad Peninsula, a landform that helps protect the Port of Dubrovnik. I was headed for the community of Babin Kuk, one of those places where many people stay, but few really get to know. The walk also offered me an opportunity to observe a side of Dubrovnik that most tourists who come to visit the historic Old Town are never likely to see. Babin Kuk has its fair share of large resorts and hotels, but it is also a residential area that some of the locals call home. It is a good place to witness a bit of the local scene without being jostled by crowds.

Babin Kuk offers a bit of shade to strollers since it is interspersed with shrubland and forests. While walking along the waterfront I was mesmerized by some of the semi-derelict stone buildings that faced the harbor. Their weathered facades gave them a certain mystique that spoke to their venerability. It was also quite a contrast from their prosperous surroundings. Plenty of yachts and large sailing boats floated on the water. If the Old Town of Dubrovnik was the playground of mass tourism, then Babin Kuk was the watering hole for the upscale and wealthy. The kind of place where life was forever on the sunny side up or at least it appeared that way.

A fated history – Hotel Lapad in Babin Kuk

The Final Months – Sunshine Before The Storm
One of the more regal and well kempt stone facades along the waterfront that I noticed was the Lapad Hotel. Over a century has gone by since the hotel was first conceived and constructed. The fact that it first opened during the spring of 1914 has an ominously poignant significance. During that fateful year Europe decided to commit suicide. The hotel opened a few months prior to the cataclysmic disruption of world war that started in the Balkans with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. There were other parts of the region, such as the Dalmatian Coast, that were not the stereotypical Balkan backwater with disparate ethnic groups seething with discontent and plotting malevolent actions. The Dalmatian Coast and Dubrovnik were well on their way to becoming a modern tourist haven. The Hotel Lapad was built with that in mind.

Little did the hotel’s first patrons know that they were experiencing the final peaceful months before the First World War changed the region and the world forever. Yet the hotel proved to have staying power. It managed to outlast both the First and Second World Wars. It outlived communism and the Cold War. The Tito’s and the Tudjman’s came and went on the political scene and still the Hotel Lapad stood. Its history could not have been more different from the promise it presented at the very beginning. The Hotel Lapad was born among blue skies into a world of prosperity. A counterpoint to the storm clouds gathering on the geopolitical horizon. I cannot help but wonder what those who stayed at the Lapad during that first, fleeting season later thought about the experience. Did they look back on it with nostalgia? Did they yearn for the innocence destroyed by the war? Did they realize that the hotel would have welcomed their return after the war?

Palm Sunday – On the morning walk in Gruz

Repeat Business – The Hotel Lapad
If some of those first visitors returned to Lapad after the war, the hotel had probably not changed much, but the political environment was certainly different. Austria-Hungary no longer existed, Yugoslavia now held sway over the area, but like everything else in the Balkans at that time this situation would not last. Change and upheaval were constants in Babin Kuk during the 20th century. In 1987, the Hotel Lapad underwent its first major renovation. Four years later it was under siege like Dubrovnik and the Lapad Peninsula as another storm broke over the Croatian Coast. The beauty and elegance of the Hotel Lapad was all but forgotten during the Yugoslav Wars. Babin Kuk and the many resorts in the district were not spared the wrath of the Yugoslav People’s Army. Destruction arrived on the doorstep of every hotel and resort. Along with it came large influxes of refugees who had nowhere else to go.

Former holiday hotels were turned into squalid hovels where survival became a way of life. While there has been a tendency to focus on the destruction unleashed upon the Old Town when talking about the Siege of Dubrovnik, outlying areas were hit just as hard. This is understandable since merciless attacks on UNESCO/World Heritage Sites, especially in Europe, are quite rare. The world was concerned with the heritage and culture which would be lost if Dubrovnik’s Old Town was shelled into oblivion. The fixation on the shelling of Dubrovnik’s Old Town overlooks the extensive damage suffered by the city’s outlying districts. Babin Kuk and other communities on the Lapad Peninsula saw their fair share of artillery shells lobbed at them during the fighting which began in the autumn of 1991. Hotels and resorts sustained hits.

Armored artifact – Military vehicle used by Croatian forces during the Yugoslav Wars

Armored Artifact – On The Waterfront
On my walk along the waterfront in Babin Kuk, I wondered if some of the battered stone buildings may have been casualties of the conflict. While the Lapad Hotel had emerged more elegant than ever, the same could not be said for some of the buildings. Memories of the fighting were few here, but that could be just as startling. I had never really thought about the war outside of the Old Town until my walk that morning around Babin Kuk. While winding my way around the waterfront and back to Gruz I came across the “Maisan” an armored military vehicle on display in a grassy space. This artifact from the Croatian armed forces had been placed close to the waterfront. The sight of it made me forget for a moment the yachts, pleasure boats and holiday atmosphere of the area. The world around me, the one that filled me with enchantment ceased to exist for a few minutes. I was being confronted by the specter of the Yugoslav Wars which cast its long shadow over the area. The armored vehicle looked incongruous and mildly grotesque where it had been placed. That may have been precisely the point. War can happen anywhere, especially in the Balkans.

The armored vehicle was a reminder that in a place where the good life reigns supreme, there have been unforgettable intrusions that have left deep and often invisible scars. People did whatever they could to survive and sometimes that was still not enough. Refugees fled to places such as Babin Kuk where they stayed in hotels and resorts. While these facilities provided them with much needed shelter, they were also targets. It was a frighteningly traumatic experience at best, deadly at worst. The armored vehicle symbolized the fight against forces of destruction and oppression. It was part lifesaver, part instrument of war. Its placement at first made little sense to me. Then I realized it was a memory marker that symbolized the intrusive, incongruous nature of the Yugoslav Wars. There was no escaping the war, either then or now.

Click here for: A Negative Response – Dubrovnik: Getting Tested (Travels Along the Croatian Coast #63)

Sinister Serendipity – Dubrovnik: Ivo Grbic & The Scars of War (Traveling The Croatian Coast #61)

It is easy to forget that only thirty years ago Dubrovnik suffered a horrific siege. So much money has went into restoring the Old Town to its former grandeur that only the discerning eye can tell the difference between pre-war and post-war architectural restorations. A couple of rightfully popular museums have been developed so visitors to Dubrovnik can learn more about the destruction inflicted upon the walled city by shelling from Yugoslav forces during the autumn of 1991. These include the Museum of the Homeland War atop Mount Srd which looms high above Dubrovnik. It was from this promontory that shells were lobbed indiscriminately onto the Old Town.

The other museum is War Photo Limited which displays a collection of images from the siege. It also showcases awarding winning photos taken in conflict zones around the world. A visitor to either of these museums can mentally prepare themselves before visiting. After all, any museum that has the term “war” in its name is offering a fair warning of what is to come. Both museums provide an invaluable service, showing the face of modern war to thousands of visitors who know very little about the suffering inflicted upon the idyllic setting where they are currently enjoying a vacation.

Before & after – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Without Warning – Acts of Destruction
There is another less well known exhibit dedicated to the Siege of Dubrovnik that is easily accessible every hour of the day, every day of the year. I discovered this one by a sort of sinister serendipity while walking along Ulica od Puca. This narrow street offers a respite from the heavily trafficked Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. During my final day in Dubrovnik I noticed a series of panels with pictures and text attached to the exterior of a building on the street. This was the Ivo Grbic Gallery, named for the artist who lived at the address for decades. The palace in which Grbic lived had been built following the cataclysmic 1667 earthquake, which had infamously reduced Dubrovnik to rubble in a matter of minutes. Grbic was the proverbial renaissance man when it came to artistic pursuits. He specialized in graphic design, but also worked in a variety of mediums that included painting, sculpture, and ceramics.

Grbic’s work focused on Croatian themes and folklore, especially related to his hometown. None of this saved his world from destruction on the morning of December 6th, 1991. That was when three shells struck the Grbic residence in a ten minute period It was all that Grbic and his family could do to get their 99 year old mother to safety. Extinguishing the incendiaries that struck the palace would prove to be nearly impossible. The upshot was that an incredible amount of Grbic’s artistic output was destroyed. It was a grievous blow to his life and legacy. In a darkly ironic twist, this was not the end, but instead signaled a new beginning for Grbic.

Lest we forget – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Creative Instincts – Rising From The Ruins
In the aftermath of the attack, Grbic pieced together ruins from the palace and what was left of his artwork to create an installation. It offered a profound commentary on both wartime destruction and the enduring power of the creative process in the face of modern war. Grbic also invited other artists to display their work as well. His installation was met with rave reviews. Grbic’s postwar exhibitions were cathartic, offering solace to an artist who was forced by the conflict to spend the next eleven years living outside the walled Old Town which had done so much to fuel the creative impulses that had characterized his career. Grbic continued to cultivate his creative instincts despite the sinister of Yugoslav forces to destroy it. Artistically, Grbic emerged triumphant. His life was like a flower that had grown in a bomb crater. He defied destruction during wartime both physically and artistically. In 2019 he died at the age of 88, but that was not the end of his story.

I would never have known who Ivo Grbic was or his story if not for the open air exhibition mounted to the walls of the restored palace that he once called home. I was one of countless passersby who encountered Grbic for the first and likely only time through the informative panels that tell of the attempt to destroy not only his legacy, but also Croatian identity. The exhibit panels on Ulica od puca were the only place within the Old Town of Dubrovnik where I encountered a story of the wanton destruction within the city walls at the exact place where it occurred. The photos showing the destruction with Grbic standing among the ruins evoked feelings of anger, loss, and sorrow.

The power of Ivo Grbic’s story lies in the fact that though he was an extraordinary artist, this could not save him from the random violence that occurs anytime bullets and bombs start flying. The fact that his 99 year old mother became a target was a detail that seared itself into my memory. He helped save her, he saved himself and saved his best work for the postwar world he had been forced to confront. Dubrovnik would never be quite the same, at least for its inhabitants who had managed to survive the siege. The swiftness of the attack and the needless destruction unleashed in such a short amount of time was a reminder of the capriciousness of life when confronted by forces beyond our control. Reading the story of that fateful morning, I wondered how I would have reacted, both at the time of attack and in its aftermath.

Witness to destruction – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Blind Spots – The Tyranny of Memory
It is important to remember that the long road back to a semblance of normalcy for Grbic and the residents of Dubrovnik was years in the making. There is no way the panels or photos at the open air exhibit can quite convey the mental and physical struggle to overcome loss. The battle against postwar trauma and the tyranny of memory has never ended. Beyond Grbic’s artistic works, there were other losses on that fateful morning thirty years ago. Gone forever was a way of life and in many cases life itself. Grbic was able to resurrect his work from the ruins, but he lost more than he would likely ever regain. While Grbic and Dubrovnik survived the searing experience of modern warfare, scars remain. They are on display at 16 Ulica od Puca lest anyone forgets. 

Click here for: War By The Shore – Babin Kuk: The Siege Beyond Dubrovnik (Traveling On The Croatian Coast #62)

End The Beginning – Port of Dubrovnik: Coming Back To Life (Travels On The Croatian Coast #60)

There comes a moment when you know a trip is over long before it ends. After almost two weeks hugging the Croatian coastline a feeling of melancholy came over me near the end of the ferry journey from Dubrovnik to Split. After leaving the last island stopover at Mljet, I could sense the ferry creeping ever closer to Dubrovnik. This was the first time I had ever returned to Dubrovnik twice on the same trip. Coming back to the start was anti-climatic in the extreme. The expectation and excitement of arrival was now lacking. There was a “Is this all?” kind of feeling which was accompanied by feelings of regret. All the things you should have done, become just that. My thoughts were fast turning to final accommodations, passports, airport transfers, check ins and outs, delays, and departures, all the detritus of modern tourism.

I was fixated on details, that series of irksome, but essential travel trivialities that must be adhered to. There was so much to do and so little time. Unfortunately, most of the time would have to be spent preparing for departure. There was still 40 hours until the flight out of the Dubrovnik airport. For me, it might as well have been 40 minutes.  When I started counting the hours left on this trip, I had already departed, if not physically than at least mentally.  Only a spectacular sunset offered a brief respite from the malaise that had suddenly consumed me. The ferry windows filtered the setting sun. A burning ball of flame that illuminated the water droplets covering the windows. They were instantaneously transformed into beads of liquid silver, some of which slowly slid down the glass. It was mesmerizing, not unlike the entirety of this island hopping journey.

Flaming out – Dubrovnik at night (Credit: Lukas Bolikowski)

Island Mentality – Pint Sized Paradises
The journey by ferry felt like a dream. One that I hoped would not come to an end, but from which I was slowly waking. In a matter of five hours my opinion of Croatia had been elevated even higher than before. The coast was no longer just the preserve of packed tourist towns such as Split, Zadar and Dubrovnik, it was also countless islands that offered varying degrees of space and solitude, not to mention rich history and microcultures. These pint sized paradises are what many people are dying for, the tourist towns are what too many are dying of. It was the equivalent of a package tour, but without a guide, money hungry men or people who insist they are your friends. On this ferry journey I literally had a front row seat to take the measure of Brac, Hvar, Korcula and Mljet. These islands were seductive and sensual with a magnetic attraction all their own. The songs of sirens called out from the rocky landforms, luring the wayward traveler onward.

The setting was much different when the ferry arrived at the Port of Dubrovnik in Gruz under the cover of darkness. As the ferry approached the shoreline, the artificial lighting of Gruz looked like countless fireflies fluttering and flickering. Arrival, even when one is in a self-induced malaise, can still cause twinges of excitement. This was a time for anticipation. Who would be there to greet the ferry? I already knew there would be crowds of strangers, but it did not keep me from enjoying a few fleeting moments of fantasy. If only this was a place to call home. Instead, there was the smell of seawater, air thick with humidity and blinding street lights. There are few experiences more disconcerting than arrival at the end of a journey. Self-satisfaction is the only solace.

Going downhill – Looking back at the Port of Dubrovnik

Night Riders – Envy & Exhaustion
The bus stop for the connection to Dubrovnik’s Old Town was a short walk away from where the ferry docked. Before catching the bus there was the preliminary proceeding of purchasing a bus ticket. Fortunately, there was a kiosk nearby that made procuring a ticket quite easy. Standing at the stop waiting eagerly for the bus, I noticed many others were doing the same, jostling for space in an area that was meant to hold a handful of bystanders. The weariness of travel then took hold. While riding the ferry, time had ceased to exist for so long that coming back to the mainland was startling. It was akin to moving from fantasy to reality. Perhaps what made reality so jarring was the realization of going back to using buses. While the ride was only five minutes from Gruz to Dubrovnik, the transfer was tricky. It required getting on and off with luggage in tow. On a bus that was filled to the point of overflowing, both finesse and pushiness were prerequisites.

Trying to remain upright through the ride was as physically taxing as the entire five hours on the ferry had been. I passed the time by listening to a Canadian woman in her early 20’s who had never been to Dubrovnik before talk with a degree of expectation. She was wide-eyed and alert, ready for another adventure. I recognized the look in her eyes, it was the same one I had at the beginning of every journey, back when something as innocuous as conversing with stranger could light up the world. I was envious, but also exhausted. When the bus came to a stop everyone poured onto the sidewalk just outside the city walls. A sea of boisterous humanity was pleasantly loitering on this evening. At the Pile Gate, the statuesque figure of St. Blaise greeted everyone. This was a saint who knew his place. For good reason, he never left his perch above the gate.

Illuminating experience – A side street in Dubrovnik

Sleeping It Off – Dreaming In Dubrovnik
Now there was only one mission in mind, finding the accommodation as soon as possible. This was not without its difficulties. Having never spent the night within the walls of Dubrovnik, it was disconcerting to find the way. The guest house was up a side street, then a sidewalk, then a stairwell. Finding the actual address proved to be a challenge, one that could only be done with a desperate call to the hostess. After a short orientation it was time to sleep, but I was already dreaming while still awake. Dubrovnik tends to have that effect upon visitors.

Click here for: Sinister Serendipity – Dubrovnik: Ivo Grbic & The Scars of War (Traveling The Croatian Coast #61)

A Higher Form Of Reality – Hvar: The Spanish Fortress (Travel Along The Croatian Coast #59)

I first heard of Hvar at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. While waiting to board the flight to Dubrovnik, I was talking with a couple of women who were making their first trip to the Balkans. Their excitement reminded me of a younger version of my self eager to explore the wider world. They had made plans to see a mix of the popular and the exotic. Besides the obvious places such as Split and Mostar, they were also going to visit the island of Hvar, where they would stay for several days. I assumed that Hvar was a place for sun and fun by the seaside. Since they were not long out of college, I figured their choice offered them a mix of beauty, culture, and cocktails.

Our conversation did not last much longer, but the mention of Hvar stayed in my memory. This came back to mind after the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik departed from Brac and made its way toward its second stop at Hvar Town, the largest town on the island. From a few things I had gleaned from guidebooks prior to our arrival, Hvar was one of the most popular island destinations in Croatia. It was large, comparatively well populated and had a great deal of tourist infrastructure. This led me to imagine resorts, concrete constructions for mass tourism and beaches covered in sunshine seekers lounging about drinking copious numbers of cocktails.

A higher form of reality – Hvar as seen from the ferry

Watering Holes – A Geological Fantasy
Hvar’s natural history is as fascinating as its human history. That was clear as the ferry made its way from Brac to Hvar through the appropriately named Hvar Channel which washes the island’s northern shores. This channel is of very recent vintage in terms of geological time. 11,000 years ago it began to fill with water after the last ice age ended in Europe. Hvar consists of the land that stayed above the rising level of the sea. This included the usual karst topography of limestone to be found on Croatia’s islands. It sucks up the rainfall which falls upon the island. There is plenty of water, but very little to be found on the surface. Perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient sea mariner was thinking of Hvar when he said “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Of course, water surrounded Hvar on all sides and that allowed the ferry to bring us into Hvar Town, set upon hilly terrain on the island’s southside.

An unimaginative name like Hvar Town does not exactly lend itself to thoughts of spectacular beauty or Levantine exoticism. I say that with a hint of irony because nothing could have prepared me for the stunning sight which appeared before my eyes when the Jadrolinija ferry pulled into the harbor. The essence of travel can be summed up in two kinds of moments, the moments you would rather forget and the moments you will never forget. Hvar Town was the quintessential example of the latter. No amount of hyperbole could come close to describing the scene as Hvar Town came into view. It was as though a picture postcard of rustic perfection had been made into a higher form of reality. Stone houses, with the customary terra cotta rooftops set ablaze by the sun, were stacked one atop another. Beyond this were patches of scrub forest, touches of darkness scattered across barren ground. It was stark and beautiful. On a hilltop one hundred meters high loomed Hvar’s “castle”, the quixotically named Spanish Fortress.

By the seaside – Hvar harbor (Credit: Andrzej Wolinski)

Fantasy Island – The Making Of A Moment
With its stone bastions and formidable battlements, the Spanish Fortress drew the eye upward. The hill on which it stood had long been a favored defensive location, going all the way back to the Illyrians, who ruled the island prior to the Romans. The fortress, as it stands today, got its start back in the late 13th century when the Venetians constructed it to guard the city from piracy. It was later anointed the Spanish Fortress after skilled workers from Spain did work on it during the 14th century. The fortress proved its value to Hvar’s citizens when the Turks sacked and burned the rest of the town in 1571. The fortress continued to provide protection for several centuries thereafter while under Habsburg ownership. Today, the Spanish Fortress is one of the main attractions for those visiting the town, but I found it just as delightful to view from the ferry.

The fortress, like the rest of Hvar Town, was radiantly photogenic on this day. Above it was the sky, with a depth of blue only rivaled by the waters of the Adriatic. The scene was tailor made for Croatian tourism authorities, Hvar Town offering a default marketing campaign for the best that Croatia’s islands have to offer. The history, the setting, the scenery was beyond compare. The mild weather, marked by cloudless skies allowed the sun to illuminate the homes of Hvar’s lucky inhabitants. The town looked like an ivory inferno, with its luminescent limestone walls and blazing rooftops. There was nothing soft about these colors. It was an image that radiated intensity and would forever be seared into my memory. While we were not in the harbor of Hvar Town very long, that did nothing to stop me from going into a dreamlike trance, imagining what it would be like to disembark from the ferry and walk away from the rest of the world. Everyone should nurse such a fantasy. Hvar was made for moments like these.

A seaside spectacle – Hvar harbor (Credit: Jeremy Couture)

Magical Mystery Tour – Sojourn By The Sea
The hits kept on coming. Island hopping was a magical mystery tour where all was revealed in a matter of minutes. The ferry soon made stops on the islands of Korcula, followed by Mljet. It felt like I was window shopping islands for a future sojourn by the sea. Split was a distant memory and Dubrovnik had yet to twinkle in our eye. As the day grew dimmer, with the sun starting to slowly sink towards the horizon, the seamless transition of the afternoon into the early evening did nothing to dampen the spirits. The ferry floated ever onward, keeping strictly to schedule. I knew that this journey would have to end, but there were moments when I wished it would last forever. I vowed to someday return to several of the islands. It was a dream that I hoped to one day make reality.

Click here for: End The Beginning – Port of Dubrovnik: Coming Back To Life (Travels On The Croatian Coast #60)

Discovering Distant Shores – Brac: Land of Stone (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #58)

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.

Coming into port – The town of Bol on Brac Island

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.

Standing tall – Tower at Diocletian’s Palace made of Brac stone

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.

Bedazzling – Beach on the Island of Brac (Credit Vinzz)

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.

Click here for: A Higher Form Of Reality – Hvar: The Spanish Fortress (Travel Along The Croatian Coast #59)