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)

Blighted Charm – Split’s Railway Station: An Unforgettable Wake-up Call (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #4)

At first glance, the railway station in Split, Croatia was a wretched looking sight. So much so that many years later I still find myself thinking about its beautiful ugliness. This mild obsession turned into love rather than loathing. The romance began after the usual fitful journey, falling in and out of sleep on a night train. My experience with these trains is always the same. The excitement of making a journey through the dark of night from one cityscape to the next starts out as invigorating, then slowly over the course of an evening degenerates into habitual tossing and turning. At about 2 a.m., a sleep induced exhaustion sets in. This was how the journey between Zagreb and Spilt went.

The sun was already rising over the Adriatic and the port of Split as the train covered its final approach into the city. The closer one gets to the coast of Croatia, the more forbidding the terrain. Most travel along the coast of Croatia is done not by train, but by automobile, bus or boat. Keeping a train line going is a cost prohibitive option. The coastline may be rugged, but it is also stunningly beautiful. I thought to myself how fortunate Croatia is to be blessed with its Adriatic coastline. If not, this part of the country would be just like Bosnia, a landscape of sublime beauty with limited economic potential. Instead, the Croats had more tourism than you could shake a dinar (the national currency) at.

Minor Monstrosity - Split Railway Station

Minor Monstrosity – Split Railway Station

Down At The Heel – Splitting The Difference
Tourism was the life force that drove the economy. Since the Yugoslav Wars ended, the coastal communities had been spruced up with holiday homes for hire, boutique hotels and any other kind of accommodation that tourists might find desirable. Anything dinar-able is not safe from this trend. Fortunately for me, it looked like the tourism authorities had overlooked the eyesore which is Split’s railway station. This was precisely why it caught my eye and has remained with me ever since. To say that Split’s railway station is bare bones might be an overstatement. Anyone looking to buy much more than a ticket would be wise to take their business elsewhere.

Split’s train station was not made for waiting or wandering. The lack of amenities and its small size reduce the amount of time someone might spend inside to a minute at most. Here was the epitome of function over form. The station could handle the relatively meager traffic count. That was because most foreigners coming to Split arrive by bus. I would later experience just how different Split’s bus station was from the train station. The bus station had a kinetic energy, it was the hub for thousands of people coming and going each day. By comparison, the train station was quiet, unprepossessing and down at the heel.

An Early Retirement - Diocletian's Palace in Split

An Early Retirement – Diocletian’s Palace in Split

Less Than Love – An Unexpected Greeting
It was less than love at first sight. The train station was a study in blighted charm. I came expecting something very different, after all Split is synonymous with one structure, Diocletian’s Palace. It is the city’s headliner, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a rarity for many reasons, foremost among them the fact that Diocletian, the Roman Emperor from 284 – 305 AD, actually made it to retirement and lived the final years of his life in a seaside palace. It was here that he could enjoy himself while torturing Christians and lamenting the backbiting that threatened to draw him out of retirement. The city of Split grew up around the palace and extended outward into a modern metropolis. There is a great deal to see and do around Split. The quay beside the Adriatic is beautiful, but there are plenty of seaside areas much more beautiful in other parts of Croatia. A visit to the city only seems to begin at Diocletian’s Palace. At least that was how I imagined it.

My visit really began at the train station. Stumbling out into the warmth that enveloped the city that October morning made for an unforgettable wake up call. I could already smell the sea and taste salt on my tongue. It made me suddenly aware of an exciting prospect, my first view of the Adriatic was mere minutes away. It’s a wonderful thing to disembark in the early morning, amid weather fit only for shorts. Unfortunately, in front of the station the smell of exhaust and cigarettes mixed this message. One minute, Split felt like fantasy island. The next, like a concrete capital of the coastline. With ideas like this floating in my head, I knew it was time for a cup of coffee. In the blink of an eye, I passed through the train station. From what I discerned, the station seemed exactly like what it was, unpretentiousness and surprisingly small.

City By The Sea - The Old Town of Split

City By The Sea – The Old Town of Split

A Minor Monstrosity – Tale of Two Survivors
Meanwhile, my wife had agreed with me that a concoction of caffeine might cure our early morning malaise. It was an attempt to stay semi-conscious in the hours before our check-in time. We stopped at the first café on the sidewalk just beyond the station. A few sips of a Balkan eye opening brew, nearly brought tears to my eyes and helped me see things more clearly. I studied the station which was nearly hidden from street view by trees. It was short, squat and shoddy, a rectangular concrete box, baked by the sun and weathered by salt. Its yellow hue was still in the process of fading. Non-descript and almost unsightly, I immediately fell in love with it.

I doubt there is another train station in a major European city that could possibly be this small. My attraction to it was almost sublime. There was something about this station that reminded me of myself. Later I would take a picture of it from the trackside. The photo encapsulated everything I loved about the station, dull pastels, traces of graffiti, four air conditioning units attached to this minor monstrosity. The station was no one’s idea of an aesthetic achievement, but it reflected my self-perception perfectly. Weather beaten, battered by time and looking the worse for wear. Despite all that, the station and me were still standing.

Click here for: Searching For Solitude – Lake Velence: The Distantly Familiar (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #5)

(Note: Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny is an intermittent series on places in Eastern Europe that have made a lasting impression upon me)