Croatia 8.29.10

From Norway we do a Helsinki stopover and a sunny sampling of the city. A trolley ride gives us an overall view. Much of the architecture looks like remnants of the Russian era especially the enormous statues with steroidal muscles. The red brick Russian Orthodox Church has the requisite onion domes topped with flashy gold trim. However, an entire square is dedicated to a white Catholic church which resembles a city hall complete with Grecian columns and multiple crosses.

In the morning we leave Helsinki in pouring rain landing in Venice. Our flying route is predicated on American Airlines’ miles. We have a free ride all the way to Bangkok – thanks to Mark’s ingenious planning. In Venice we pick up our stick-shift Fiat diesel hatchback which my favorite Alfa Romeo driver has no trouble handling.

Passing through Slovenia and into Croatia creates two tolls and a passport stamping. Croatia is small in size but filled with great beauty. If there was no border crossing, entry to Croatia would be a continuation of Italy. There are the same red tile roofs, clustered adobe houses on the hillsides, oleander, bougainvillea, pine and beech trees. However, the high gray limestone mountains create a backdrop reminiscent of the Greek landscape.

The country has been ravaged by conquering nations since people inhabited the land. Omitting the earliest Neanderthal traces, the Greeks were followed by the Romans, Slavs, and early Croats. The Renaissance brings Venetians and later the French (even Napoleon), Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and finally an independent Croatia. Somehow the conquering nations respected the past. As a result many of the towns and villages are built or remodeled on past Greek, Roman, and Venetian structures

Croatia’s coast is exquisite with a sea of a glorious dark blue except at the shore where it’s a translucent green. Everywhere there are rocky beaches and sand is unknown. Off-shore there are a thousand islands to explore. Numerous harbors and inlets provide shelter for the largest yachts we’ve ever seen. The coast is also renowned for its “naturist” aka nudist beaches. As a result many of the tourists have rather complete tans with no strap marks. How my father would have loved this country.

Summer is a wonderful time since fresh fruit and vegetables abound. Often roadside stands sell tomatoes, figs, grapes, and nectarines. Fresh seafood of all varieties can be enjoyed in most restaurants.. From the Italians the Croats learned to make great coffee and gelato – staples in my diet.

We are headed for Pula on the southern coast of Croatia’s Istria peninsula. Our hotel is in the beach section in a family-oriented complex of side-by-side hotels. A seaside walk reveals the lovely coast.

Pula is known for its Roman ruins, according to our Lonely Planet bible. As we  walk into town, we are shocked by the graffiti which unfortunately turns out to be prevalent in many places. In Pula, people have even thrown some garbage on an ancient mosaic. A forum temple remains but the highlight is the huge amphitheater which seats 20,000. In early summer, there is a film festival as well as concerts. Large crowds of tourists flock to this town. An overview of the area is gotten by climbing above the city gates and exploring the fortress that was built on top of the Roman walls complete with cannons. This is definitely a major tourist destination judging from the crowds and the tour buses.

Leaving Pula and the Istria peninsula, we drive south on the Dalmatian coast. Offshore, numerous islands are visible in the Adriatic Sea. Of  the 1100 islands only 70 are inhabited. Our road is high on the mountainside and we do a rather curvaceous descent to the ferry.

Our destination is Rab Island which has a rocky barren look at its northern end. The limestone has a tan coloration.  Ashore, the landscape looks Italian again with the adobe houses and red roofs. Rab town has been around since the Roman era but is best known for its four church towers or campaniles. Rab is also a luxury yacht area for the very rich and so-called famous.  Happily, the narrow roads and small ferry make it difficult for large buses to arrive. As a result this is the land of independent tourists.

We park and climb up ancient marble steps to the street of the churches. The first one was built on the site of an ancient Roman ruin. The Roman columns from an early courtyard still stand and the church was clearly built using the walls of an older structure. I climb up, first on stairs and then on ladders. The sea and other islands are below.. Although we are not alone, there are few tourists. We explore the entire street even though the other campaniles are closed and only open sporadically. Each church is a bit different depending on when it was remodeled. One church even has ongoing concerts.

Our hotel is far from the medieval town and we have dinner at a delicious nearby restaurant with the odd name of “Casablanca.” Since there are few English tourists, there are no English menus, Mark gets one in Italian and I work out the German.

The next day we drive the coastal road heading for Split. The further south we go the more beautiful the scenery. There are islands of all sizes and the glorious sea continues to dazzle.

Split is another town where cars are not allowed in the old city. We have some difficulty determining where to park and finding our hotel. Our penthouse apartment looks down on the adobe buildings and red tiled roofs. In this spacious accommodation,  I feel like a resident. The young hotel manager actually drives with Mark to find a nearby parking space. After a grand fish dinner,the restaurant owner notices  our parked Fiat. He’s astounded that an American knows how to drive a shift car. When Mark tells him that he owns a 1984 Alfa Romeo he gets the biggest high five I’ve ever seen.

The next day is gorgeous with a dazzlingly blue and cloudless sky.  The town is on the most famous part of the Dalmatian coast and the marina boasts the largest yachts yet. There’s a perfect sea front esplanade with a harbor that cruise ships can navigate. In spite of the tourist throngs, I find the place full of charm. Tourism is dominated by older, larger size Germans and the shops specialize in gynormous jewelry, glittering clothing, and outrageous shoes. The large German women also wear teeny, weeny bikinis in the beach resort areas.

The most famous part of Split is the Palace built in 300 BCE by the Roman emperor  Diocletian. He loved Split and this was his summer residence. We join a select group who climb the church belfry high above the town. From this aerie it is clear that the town used all the old Roman walls and columns to build the newer adobe houses with the red tile roofs. The sea of multi-colored blues glows and ferries ply among the islands.

The Palace is a small city unto itself with numerous shops and fooderies. However, parts are still very Roman and renovation is an ongoing sport which seems to proceed at a s-l-o-w pace.

As we exited the palace area, Mark noticed a Jewish star on the Split city map. This usually means a synagogue. We ask questions, take wrong turns and in a small alley outside a restaurant we ask a young waiter. Before we finish the sentence he says, “The synagogue is up those steps.” We climb and ring the bell, greeted by a volunteer. We are in the third oldest synagogue in Europe, built in the early 1500s. This lovely space was renovated after the war. Many of the now 100 members do not read Hebrew so the service is done in a phoneticized Hebrew. An amazing find thanks to Sherlock Mark. An afternoon hike takes us high above the city to a sadly neglected botanical garden and a closed zoo.

A long drive takes us from Split to Dubrovnik. In Turkey everyone wants to sell you a rug. Here everyone is ready to rent an apartment. The main tourist season is June through August so now the apartments are plentiful. For the vacationing residents, the vehicle of choice is a small motor home complete with hybrid bikes on the back.

Dubrovnik presents with white marble streets and loads of tourists. Like much of the Dalmatian coast the town has seen destruction through the centuries followed by amazing rebuilding. As late as 1991 in the war with Yugoslavia much of Dubrovnik was destroyed and rebuilt. Again the streets of the city have become a huge shopping mall. A joy is to climb the steep steps up from the main road where there are fewer tourists.

There are three major highlghts for us:

  • A walk along the top of the city walls (built 1300-1600) which encircles the city. Again the contrasts between the houses built on Roman foundations next to the churches built so much later. The red tiled roofs and adobe buildings dominate.
  • We visit The 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe – Prague is first. This Sephardic synagogue was built in the 15th century, complete with a balcony for the women. Today this is only a museum since there are 57 Jews in Dubrovnik and all are very old. The one Rabbi in Croatia resides in Zagreb, the capital.
  • War Photo Limited (WPL) is a photographic gallery of war pictures that stir the heart and mind. The gallery has been curated by a former war photojournalist. Unbelieveable photos of the tragedy and outcomes of war. The photographs are often hard to look at. The WPL mission is inscribed on the wall:

“It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war as it is, raw, venal, frightening by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.”

Lunch at a vegetarian restaurant  “Nishta”  When the restaurant was almost ready to open, a local residents asked what it meant to have vegetarian food. The owner explained that this meant no meat. The residents was horrified and said, “If there is no meat, than there is nothing.”  In Croatian, the word for nothing is Nishta.

Our final day in Dubrovnik we take a boat to nearby Lokum Island and spend the day on the rocky beach.

A long drive to the northeast part of the Istria peninsula before we finally arrive in Opatija and the gorgeous Hotel Mozart. This is Croatia’s answer to the French Riviera. Very chic area and fine hotel complete with spa. We even find a restaurant serving authentic Istria fare. This is a fine ending to ten days in Croatia.

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