A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)

Dubrovnik leaves me with a range of complex and contradictory feelings. It is a town sized spectacle sculpted in stone. The quaint grandeur and sophisticated monumentalism of its historic structures are beyond compare. As blinding rays of sunlight strike the Dalmatian stone, radiance in its purest form becomes apparent. Areas in the later afternoon that become consumed by shadow are the settings of refinement and repose. Nothing could be more pleasant than the Old Town’s magical splendor in these moments, but it can also be spectacularly unnerving. There is something a little too perfect about the walled Old Town for my taste. It has reached such a level of refinement that it does not feel quite real. Dubrovnik is one of the finest examples of the impulse for historic preservation and structural restoration. Nonetheless, something about it does not feel right. Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, also had misgivings about the Old Town.

Two faced – Detail in Dubrovnik

Positively Pedestrian – Staying In Gruz
In the first of two sections in her book devoted to Dubrovnik, West begins in Gruz. This outlying district was where she and her husband stayed. I could not help but feel a certain kinship with West since Gruz is where my wife and I have stayed on two different visits to Dubrovnik. Gruz offers a reminder of a much more normal world than the one found within the Old Town’s walls. Reading West’s description of Gruz brought the place back alive within me. It was fascinating to think I had unwittingly walked in West’s footsteps. We had crossed paths by traveling in the same spaces, separated by an interval of eighty years. She did not really care for Dubrovnik. West thought Gruz was much more tolerable. I would never call Gruz normal – I doubt West would either – but when compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town it is positively pedestrian.

Like Rebecca West, I found Gruz more pleasurable than Dubrovnik. For me, this had to do with the fact that prices were nowhere near as extortionate as those in the Old Town. For West and her husband, it was not a question of affordability. The couple stayed in Gruz because they were unable to find accommodation in the Old Town and so picked this bucolic district in which to stay. When West told her husband that she did not care for Dubrovnik, he wrongly thought that it might be because they had been unable to secure accommodation in the Old Town. On the contrary, it was the Old Town which left West in a state of semi-depression. This did not surprise me. What did was that West had the courage to say it. She mentions among other things, “the appalling lack of accumulation observable in its history.”

Looking up – Old Town Dubrovnik

Splendor On Steroids – A Seductive Intensity
Dubrovnik has been prone to collapse on occasion due to natural cataclysms. This has caused a discontinuity with its past. Dubrovnik would rebuild its way back to a look of prosperity after each catastrophe. This has continued right up into contemporary times with damage from the 1991-92 siege all but swept under the marble. The Old Town does not feel like an organic development. Instead, it appears as a showpiece, a baroque display case with Renaissance and Gothic elements thrown in for good measure. One gets an overwhelming sense of wealth. Likes anything based on wealth and vanity, its character is profoundly superficial. If one cares to only judge a book by its cover than Dubrovnik’s is a gilded, beguiling. leather bound rare edition, The Old Town plays to that overweening desire for artifice that man welcomes as a corrective to the harshness of life. Dubrovnik proves that man can only stand to suffer so much of reality. The Old Town eschews the real, for a type of splendor on steroids. Its charms are showy, flagrant, and intensely seductive.

I love and hate Dubrovnik in unequal measure for its beauty and the pervasive pathos that lurks in the design of every detail in the townscape. The Old Town comes as close to attaining perfection as any place I have ever been. I find that to be terribly disturbing because in my mind, nothing could be worse than perfection. It is the end, a point of no return. Where does a person or place go after perfection? Reading West’s sections on Dubrovnik I got the sense that this bothered her as well. She does not explicitly say so, but I could sense it in her words. West admires Dubrovnik, but does not like, let alone love it. For this I can commiserate with her. The Old Town is like walking into a fairy tale, except this one is real. At times, it can seem downright ahistorical. That seems like a strange thing to say about a place that lives off its legacy.

Picturing the perfect – A photographer in Dubrovnik

Core Values – Easy On The Eyes
One would be hard pressed to find another place – other than Venice – whose present existence almost totally relies on its adherence to the past. To this end, all the main sights in the Old Town look as though they have had the past refined right out of them. I was surprised – though I should not have been – to find that even the old “medieval” walls are quite modern in places. The ramparts that afford tourists the opportunity to walk along the walls did not exist in their present form until the 1980’s. Dubrovnik is deceptive like that. Relying as much upon a restored artifice to make one believe that this was always the way it has been. In truth, Dubrovnik is one of the youngest “medieval” towns in existence today.

Besides its main attractions, the Dubrovnik that exists today is a product of the post 1667 earthquake era. The idea that the Old Town is a perfect picture of preservation turns out to be a false one, but truth and historical verisimilitude have always had an uneasy relationship. Dubrovnik is history as we want it to be. The present state of the Old Town says as much about modern historical sensibilities as it does older ones. Rebecca West saw Dubrovnik for what it was, rather than what it wanted her to believe. It may have been easy on the eyes, but that was hard for her to tolerate. I can vouch for the fact that it still is.

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)

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)

An Opportunity to Achieve Immortality – Split to Dubrovnik By Ferry (Travels On The Croatian Coast #57)

Why is travel so unforgettable? Is it the new experiences? Do the foreign people and places make us see the world in a new way? Is it the sense of wonder reborn in us when finally realizing a world that we have long imagined? Or is it the fact that our everyday existence has been upended? One thing is for certain, travel sticks in our memory much longer than most other experiences. It is an unforgettable type of trauma that our mind portrays as a positive. Perhaps travel remains in our minds because it warps the way we experience time. Time ceases to exist for entire periods, as our senses are overwhelmed by different sights, smells and sensualities.

The hurry up and wait process that defines departures suddenly gives way to an unstoppable momentum, one filled with potential and full of promise. Time becomes mere numbers, rather than something that governs our lives as it ceases to enumerate our mortality. Travel is an opportunity to achieve immortality. When we travel, whether it is for long periods of time or a few fleeting moments, we become our true selves, who we were meant to be and who we always were. Travel is like reexperiencing the first day of life that we can remember. It is the beginning of something new, alive with possibilities. This was the feeling I had while boarding the Jadrolinija ferry for a five hour journey on the Adriatic Sea from Split to Dubrovnik.

Riding the waves – Sailboats on the Adriatic from the ferry window

Jadrolinija- In It For The Long & Short Haul
Being among the first to board the ferry, meant having the pick of a prime seat. There were no assigned seats, but unlike on buses, neither was there a fight for the best seats. The ferry was three-quarters full, but the interior was spacious and comfortable. The seats allowed for plenty of leg space, the aisles were wide and storing luggage was not a problem. It was the exact opposite of riding in a bus or flying on a plane. It reminded me of taking the train with one very big difference, this one floated on water. The only drawback was a reminder of my two week lament that Jadrolijina did not offer more long haul services along the Croatian coast. Later I would discover why. One of the most important missions of Croatia’s largest waterborne passenger carrier is to connect the mainland and islands. In this regard, Jadrolijina does an excellent job. I experienced this on the first full day of this journey by catching ferry from Dubrovnik to the island of Lopud. Such short haul trips take place each day all along the coast.

Jadrolijina is the successor to a lengthy historical legacy of passenger ferries that began in Austro-Hungarian times and continues right up through the present. Earlier on this trip while visiting Rijeka, I marveled at the grand edifice of the Adria Palace which is Jadrolijina’s headquarters. The shipping company formed in 1947 as a state owned entity in communist Yugoslavia. State ownership has been a constant in Jadolijina’s history despite the switch from Yugoslav to Croatian control. The fleet includes fifty-one ships, eight of which are catamarans. The latter included the ferry we were taking to Dubrovnik. Running ferries is a quite costly enterprise, hence the fact that Jadrolijina is still under ownership by the state. For locals the ferry system is vital, as it allows them easy access to the mainland where they can purchase provisions at much cheaper cost than on their home islands.

Waterborne – View through a window on the Split to Dubrovnik ferry

Floating Away – Catching The Ferry
Jadrolijina’s ferries are also a crucial part of the Croatian tourist industry. Owners of guesthouses, resorts and other heavily frequented tourist attractions on the islands rely on ferries to bring a steady stream of tourists to what these remote locales. For travelers such as me and my wife, they were an affordable alternative to the cheaper, but much more irritating journeys by bus. From my experience, I can state unequivocally that Jadrolijina runs a first class service. I am sure my opinion was biased upon the fact that they helped me avoid another exhausting journey by bus. What a joy it was to float in seemingly effortless fashion across the smooth waters of the Adriatic.

On this day, the sea was a deeper blue. It mirrored the cloudless sky that stretched westward toward an infinite horizon. Somewhere on the other side of the sea was Italy. Ironically, Italy was an afterthought when compared to the spectacle of mountains, islands and sea spray that could be seen on the islands throughout this journey. If only people knew what they were missing, Croatia would be packed with even greater number of tourists. On second thought, I am glad that many still overlook Croatia. The coast was already packed to near capacity prior to the pandemic. I am sure the same will be true when the pandemic subsides. About the only desirable result of such a trend from my point of view, would be a possible uptick in long distance ferries plying the eastern Adriatic. It took a stroke of luck just to find this one. Amid a pandemic one has to take whatever is available. In this case, that meant a Split to Dubrovnik journey that turned into a blissful island hopping trip on a near perfect travel day.

Port of call – Coming into the Hvar on the Split to Dubrovnik ferry

Beautiful Glances – Seduction In Progress
The only criticism I could make of travel on this ferry was that large portions of the windows were covered with droplets of water. It disappointed those of us looking to take snapshots of the scenery. That was something of a shame because the vistas unfolding before my eyes on this route were stunning in the extreme. Towering mountains, lush hillsides, thick forests, and quaint villages that sidled up to the sea. All these views were on offer while the ferry smoothly skimmed across the surface of the water. I got so lost in the enchanting scenes being constantly revealed to me on this waterborne adventure that time did not exist for much of the journey. I marked this journey by the islands the ferry made short stops at along the way. These would prove to be memorable despite, or perhaps because of their brevity. Island hopping in this case was like having beauty just beyond reach. It was seduction in progress. Offering the thought of what might have been or what still could be.

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

Early Arrivals – Ferry At Split: Kinetic Intellects & Kindred Spirits (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #56)

The hour finally arrived when the long awaited ferry ride would take place. Despite yet another perspiration inducing death march beneath the blazing sun, this time along the waterfront to Split’s ferry terminal, I could barely disguise my excitement at finally getting an opportunity to spend five hours sailing southward along the Adriatic. The voyage would provide an opportunity to view some of the Dalmatian Coast’s most stunning scenery. An added inducement was that we would pull into several of Croatia’s most famous islands along the way. My excitement was as much a product of avoiding another long bus journey, as it was the opportunity to ride the waves southward in the shadow of towering mountains and jagged stretches of coastline. I had high hopes for what would be my first long ferry journey on the Adriatic.

Sailing away – Jadrolinija ferry in Split

Standing Ready – Half The Battle
What were the chances that a New Yorker and a Siberian would be the first in line for the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik? On this day, the chances were very good. Arriving at the appointed place to board the ferry, it was still half an hour before boarding was to begin and early enough to quell my anxiety. Either that or satisfy my impatience. I have an obsessive fear of being late for a scheduled departure whether it is on a bus, ferry, plane, or train. This means turning up well in advance and this mid-afternoon departure in Split was no different. If that meant standing on the concrete quayside beneath the broiling sun, then so be it.

A close friend of mine once told me that just by showing up you have already won half the battle. Whether in work, life, or travel, there is a great deal of truth in those wise words. Being an excessive obsessive who believes in the opposite of moderation, I have spent much of my life not only showing up, but also showing up early. I drag along those willing to share in this recurring madness. Anyone unlucky enough to be prone to habitual tardiness does not last long with me. I have to feed my addiction for early arrival. Like all addictions this one comes with a downside in the form of a waiting game that almost always ensues. On this occasion, the ferry was standing ready to take on passengers or so it seemed. I tried making my way onto the boat before being waved off by a couple of the personnel. I was not surprised.

Window seat – The Adriatic as seen from the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik

Coming Together – The Gifted & Talented
There were also two other people who had arrived early. I felt a twinge of competitiveness when I saw that they had shown up earlier, beating me at my own game. This couple had their luggage in tow and was standing patiently while profuse amounts of perspiration poured off them. I assumed correctly that they were also making the journey to Dubrovnik. With nothing better to do, we struck up a conversation to distract us from the merciless heat. This conversation would continue for a large portion of the next five hours. I knew immediately by the man’s accent or the lack of one, that he was an American. Soon I learned that he had just married the woman who was standing patiently beside him. She was a dark haired Russian with a deeply penetrating look in her eye, a kind of preternatural seriousness, softened by a relaxed smile. She had a quiet way about her that was as endearing as it was disarming. Her silence spoke volumes. Even when she spoke, it was in such hushed tones – barely above a whisper – that it was hard to hear what she had to say. The couple had met years before and finally decided to wed in Croatia. I soon learned that they were newlyweds, it was the best of times and time was running out on their honeymoon.

The marriage had been a long time in the making. Both worked in academia and from what I could glean from our conversation, it sounded like they had met through an academic exchange program. Their kinetic intellects made them kindred spirits. They were destined for the best of both romantic worlds, connecting on both intellectual and emotional levels. They were in the throes of a love affair that transcended the barriers of space and time. The differences in the couple’s backgrounds were just as striking as the similarities in their intellects. The man had grown up in Queens, New York, traveling in and out of the city for his schooling after being accepted into various programs for gifted and talented students. He had used these talents to become an accomplished actor in various theatrical and film productions. Eventually he found his way into academia, publishing a book and gaining tenure.

Looking down – Chita (Credit: Artem Svetlov)

Right On Time – A Universal Language
The woman had grown up in Chita, Russia, an obscure city that is about as deep inside Russia as someone can get and still be on the beaten path. Chita is only known to foreigners because it straddles the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is a quintessentially remote Russian city, one that most pass through and where few dare to stay, let alone get to know. When I told the woman that I had heard of Chita, she looked genuinely surprised and confused. It is not every day that a Siberian meets someone from the American South who is aware of their hometown. To get an idea of just how remote Chita is even by Russian standards, consider that it is three and a half times closer to Beijing than Moscow.

If not for my interest in the Trans-Siberian Railway I would have not known that it existed. I mentioned to the woman that my familiarity with Chita was the product of reading guidebooks to the famed railway line that put the city on a few foreigners’ mental map. Her academic background and life’s work involved linguistics. Her English was excellent, but it was only one of several languages she spoke. Of course, this couple spoke a universal language, one of love. It transcended borders and cultural barriers. The world was large enough to accommodate their relationship. And the coming journey by ferry would be the final voyage of their honeymoon, It sounds romantic, probably because it was.

Click here for: An Opportunity to Achieve Immortality – Split to Dubrovnik By Ferry (Travels On The Croatian Coast #57)