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)

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)