2017 summer sailing : the Croatian islands

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Sail Croatia has an office in London and trades in pounds, but is a Croatian company sailing a fleet of smallish cruisers (less than 50 metres, capacities up to 36 people) locally owned, newly built and beautifully designed. Different vessels cater for different types of clients – we signed up for the ‘elegance’ range targetting the ‘mature’ traveller. And to our surprise so did many considerably younger than us, keen to avoid the ‘adventure’ – ie ‘party’ boats…  Plenty of Australians,  a couple of New Zealanders, some Americans, Indians and perhaps a dozen from the UK, with an age spread from early twenties to early seventies.

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We sailed from Gruz, Dubrovnik’s modern harbour, a couple of kilometres north of the old city. Our en suite, lower-deck cabin was as spacious as some hotel rooms with high quality, quiet air-conditioning, and the boat was cunningly designed to provide public and private upper deck space with sufficient shade and sea breeze to keep this old fuddy-duddy comfortable most of the time despite very high temperatures.

While we were sailing, the bench at the helm, just beneath the captain, was perfect for reading; the roof deck loungers saw a steady turnover, and the stern served as the wifi and coffee hub, with regular splashing from the swimming platform just below, in frequent use during swim-stops.

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Mljet was the first island we reached, in time for a very hot afternoon cycling ten kilometres round two lakes in the middle of its National Park, relieved by swimming in their salty waters. Created centuries before by monks digging channels to link them to the sea, they are home to abundant and rare flora and fauna. Our aqua shoes made all the difference. The salt water buoyancy was astonishing.

All cruises, I imagine, have a captain’s dinner, and so did ours. Ours was a man of few words, at least of english, who greeted us shyly and warmly, and promptly disappeared – to the helm, perhaps. The entertainment was a hard-working vocalist, fittingly mature, with his guitar and backing tracks. Dancing was slow to get going, but duty called, and by adopting the spirit of joining in, we coaxed almost everyone onto the floor. The only serious refusniks were the two young women, travelling with parents. Understandable…. we were not a pretty sight.

Korcula came next. A beautiful town sharing the name of the island with a fascinating cathedral dedicated to St Mark and filled with extraordinary art – some of which we recognised: Tiziano, Tintaretto and rumours of a Bellini now safely tucked up in the adjacent museum. Other stranger pieces reminded us of Byzantium; two ancient silver icons, and a triple aisle footprint clearly pre-dating the present fifteenth century structures.

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The bell tower was a big draw for our fellow travellers. We already know all about spiral staircases… though the view will have been terrific.

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The medieval town itself was charming, built on a headland with the breezes from the sea relieving the heat from three sides. An up-market wine bar with a fine sea view provided welcome rest and useful information about the emerging fine wines of Croatia, before we set off  as a group to a village dinner – a departure held up by the local police wanting to check the licences and papers of every taxi and hire transport around the harbour…

Our host in the village was at pains to explain his life-style as a child, and in the moonlight we followed the stone tracks between dilapidated stone houses, many subject to unresolvable ownership disputes between family members, all equal heirs. We were treated to a demonstration of hand made macaroni, and encouraged to join in. My intructress was direct, clear and firm – typical of the clipped stern speech of Croatians. No English – but still no messing!

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Back to the boat on the taxis organised by the patient Mia, our tour guide (on the right of the above photo) who spends the winter months leading biking tours around this rugged and mountainous country. The boat moors overnight and sails from place to place in the mornings, though occasionally the noisy engines start up at odd times to move the boat from the quay to accommodate an approaching ferry.

The widespread heat wave in Europe delivered afternoon temperatures of up to 40 degrees.  We were grateful to have access to the boat (and its air-conditioning) during port stops, and for the regular off-boat and local beach swims. We quickly learned to follow stately local matrons to shady pier steps or ladders to avoid both the sun and slipperly rocks or stoney beaches.

Vis – the name of the island as well as its main town – was heaving and very hot.

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This picturesque monastery is not the cathedral, and I realise none of these photos provide evidence of the large numbers of people who crowd these ports. We were again fortunate to find a restaurant in the early evening with a wine interest and to negotiate a table for later – the waiter thought a ‘Deutsch’ couple wouldn’t stay long – and indeed they didn’t. Fine fish, crustaceans and wonderful beef from ‘behind Split’  – real beef, he said, not like english beef… He was right again…

Vis is close to the Blue Cave, discovered in 1884 for by an enterprising Austrian after a tip off by the parish priest. He accessed it from a small hole in the rock face a few metres above the water level . Having found this mysterious space where light is refracted by the underwater sand into the enclosed space to produce an eery blue irridescence, he took it on himself to dynamite a very small entrance by which hundreds of small boats now enter and exit each day.

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The adventure began with a small boat transfer from our anchored vessel – the Esperanza – to the neighbouring cove, now the hub of a very lucrative local trade. Hundreds of tourists patiently wait in the hot morning sun for their ticket number to come up on the electronic noteboard (reminiscent of a busy supermarket or Argos) and then process by very small boat to the entrance, where the in and out traffic is strictly controlled. The command to duck was in best Croation style. No one argued.

The small boats helpfully returned us to the boat in time for coffee and lunch. Very civilised…

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Hvar next – my least favourite destination, deemed to be the hottest of these islands. Crowded, of course – it was once popular with the wealthy and famous and still trades on its trendy reputation, now littered with noisy bars and clubs.

We anchored  outside the port,  and two portuguese fellow travellers swam to a neighbouring beach which those of us with good long sight had already designated naturist. The couple rapidly swam back reporting it was not only naturist but male gay naturist. In response an australian couple swam to another beach on the opposite side of the channel, returning almost as quickly, this time astonished by the amount of evidence of hetero-sexual activity.

Its cathedral was staffed by a grumpy guardian of its dull Baroque monuments who took exception to absolutely everyone. David’s shorts – tailored not swimming – were found wanting. My arms were deemed naked until I quickly resorted to using a pink swimming wrap as a burkha – though its intended irony went unnoticed.

There was some curiosity about the club destinations amongst the late thirty and early forty somethings in our company, who were very keen to seize the day before it was too late. However, most were back on board that evening by the theoretical midnight curfew, feeling their age.

We also struggled to find a posto sympatico for supper having taken poor advice from a kindly but cautious waitress who clearly favoured hearty over subtle. It was still 35 degrees as we headed to bed.

Bol on Brac was at the other end of the tourism spectrum. Small, elegant, the family home of one of the boat’s sailors who looked back on his summer breaks from Split with real affection. There are frequent passenger ferries from Split, carrying local day-trippers, but they disappeared quickly into the pinetum through which a fine promenade leads to the most photographed beach in Croatia, famous for its sand. The boat’s dinghy ferried us to the shore while the boat waited its turn to berth.

We had spotted a large historic building overlooking the harbour which had been a winery at the beginning of the twentieth century, but with the arrival of phyloxera the whole industry collapsed resulting in mass emmigration. Several of the world famous wine brands of New Zealand were founded by Croatian migrants: the Fistonich family of Villa Maria and Bracovitch family of Kumeu River, for example.

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Since 2008 the building has been restored and is at the centre of the brand STINA (the Croatian word for Brac’s world famous hard white limestone) which produces high quality white, rosé and red wines from the local indigenous varities, which include what the world knows as Primitivo or Zinfandel, among many others. We coincided with a group tour organised by a rival cruise company and were shown the flash new stainless steel equipment and french barriques as well as the huge obsolete concrete containers from former times, and then spent a comfortable hour or so in its stylish cool tasting room and bar. For more info see http://winefriend.org/holidaying-croatia-stina-winery/

We used the now familiar tactic of searching out a restaurant off the beaten track, reserving a table after the first wave of diners, returning to the boat to shower and change, before sitting down in relative comfort (this time with an efficient fan at our backs) to eat local food. Fortunately we were able to resort to my little stache of euros when we learned cards were not accepted and our kunas were insufficient.

Our final full day began with several hours of sailing north between the many small islands en route to Split. We spotted a few parcels of sandy soils between the harsh rock hillsides, supported cultivation; no doubt a mixed economy  in the past, but now the increasingly important new vineyards crowd these valuable spaces.

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Reading in the shade of the helm with cool air and bright clear light, with the constant sound of waves and fine views of the islands has been a delight. I had saved the final chapters of Margaret Drabble’s The dark flood rises for this last leg of the journey, reluctant for both to end.

No doubt reflecting on her own life, and that of her friends, Drabble creates a web of relationships and overlapping narratives between ageing retirees, their friends and families, as they move imperceptibly if inevitably to their respective ends. Not a new theme, but brilliantly handled. Drabble inhabits and owns their day-to-day experiences and inner lives.

This is a book about us, not them, I thought. Is this a book I dare give to my friends? A book about loss and slow decline from the inside?

Strangely and sadly, within minutes of closing the book I had news (by ubiquitous email) of an old friend’s very recent stroke. I suddenly felt that I had inadvertently stumbled into an additional chapter, and joined the cast. Yes, the dark flood rises..

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Split was very, very hot as we sailed into the harbour and moored at the centre of the city’s promenade, dwarfed by the massive ten storey high cruise liners. The BBC weather reports laboured the dangerous conditions of the sweltering heatwave engulfing most of the mediterranean.

The prospect of Diocletian’s famous palace just across the road put paid to the huge temptation to stay on the boat until late evening; we were unlikely to be in this extraordinary place again. Our guide told us Diocletian was a better emperor than many, and had been badly served by history. Nothing new about fake news, apparently.

Split suffers as Pisa, Venice, Pompeii and Dubrovnik do – overrun by thousands of us tourists, and struggles to maintain the dignity of its great age and significance. In the face of perhaps different threats Unesco adopted it as long ago as 1979. The photos say it all.

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Diocletan brought 250 columns from Egypt to furnish his retirement home, as well as basalt sphinxes.

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The sheer volume of material must make this a mecca for anyone interested in roman architecture. The temple to Jupiter is entirely intact, with full roof and decorated ceiling; the survival of such elaborate decoration on the capitals and arches beggars belief.

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The monumental multi-storey build, its hypercausts, wells and massive stone and brick work still house hotels, cafes and restaurants, as well as the homes of beleaguered locals, surrounded perpetually by the traipsing throng, of which we were part.

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After paying our respects to the ancient world, we fell into a trendy bar for earnest conversation about craft beers before sliding into supper and heading back to the boat for the last time.

It was still 35 degrees at bedtime,  and it was 35 degrees again at 08.00 next morning as we queued at an outdoor bag-drop at Split’s small and unsophisticated airport. But we left on time, and arrived home early in time to buy the day’s Observer. We slipped from one universe to another in a matter of hours.

The disconnect was acute – had we stepped out of a wardrobe, or through a looking glass? And the unease increased as we read the papers: full of the crises caused by mass tourism, and the revolt of those beleaguered natives. Who blames them?

I learn that tourism is the largest employer in the world – 11% of the work force.

Its problems feel as intractable as Brexit.

6 August 2017

 

 

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