It’s only within the past eight years or so that I started to hear good things about Croatia, how it was developing economically, about golf courses being built there and tourism increasing, about how beautiful the water is and how good the boating. My old college friend Tom Briggs came back from a sailing trip there raving about the little towns where he tied up and the people and the experience, and Croatia immediately became a priority.
Croatia has a long, complicated history: the establishment of Greek colonies on some of the coastal islands; inclusion in the Roman Empire just after the birth of Christ; occupation by Croat invaders in the 7th century, the Republic of Venice in the 1400s and the Ottoman Empire following that. After World War II it became part of the “single-party Socialist federal unit of Yugoslavia”, but as Communism deteriorated Croatia laid the foundations of autonomy. It’s war against aggressors from Serbia and Montenegro, led by the Yugoslav National Army, went from 1991-1995 and ended with victory and complete independence.
Today, despite about 25% unemployment, Croatia’s economy is relatively vibrant and much of that is due to tourism, which accounts for 20% of its GNP. It’s among the top 20 tourism destinations in the world now and its popularity is growing, understandably. Trogir, Hvar, Korcula, Mljet, Dubrovnik … the coastal towns and islands of the Adriatic in southern Croatia are beautiful and historic. I’m sure there is a lot you miss by hugging the coastline in a 44-foot sailboat, but in terms of scenery and serenity it is incomparable. I hope some of the photographs do it justice.
I was on this eight-day cruise with Tom Briggs and his wife Peggy, and Denny and Cindy Schuler, a couple from Oregon and California that the Briggs’ had met on a previous sailing trip. Denny is a retired college football coach, having plied his trade at USC, Cal and Oregon among others, and he had great stories about neurotic coaches and recruiting escapades. (He had Tom Brady signed and sealed for Cal, for example, but agreed to let him make a token visit to Michigan for family reasons, and of course Brady ended up going there, almost costing Denny his job.) I was invited on this trip because another college friend, Ricky Richardson, suffered a horrific accident at his vacation home in Tuscany when his forno, a stone outdoor oven, exploded when he was preparing to make pizza, and he suffered second-degree burns on his face and arms. Ricky and his wife Nancy joined us for dinner a couple of times along the route and he’s fine, looking good, just not permitted to get any sun for a while. Far be it from me not to capitalize on a friend’s misfortune.
Our itinerary took us from Primosten, just north of the city of Split, down the coast to Dubrovnik. It was wonderful to pull into one marina after another and not hear anyone speaking English as a native language. Obviously most people were local and speaking Croatian, but we heard a lot of German and French, and all the Scandinavian languages. In one marina we met some Norwegians who told us they were part of a flotilla of seven boats with 55 people. In another we tied up next to a boat of very sturdy women from Finland.
Cruising the cobalt blue Adriatic, the hillsides rise up from the shore, green with terraces of grape vineyards or olive groves, but ultimately rocky even at this low altitude. There are little villages intermittently tucked into a crease in the mountainside that almost seem inaccessible, and you wonder about the people who live there, how they sustain themselves. Each village has a church that one assumes is the centerpiece of life in the community, and each must surely have a school. There are no docks on the rocky coastline, no boats, so apparently they don’t fish. I would like to have met some of these folks to learn about their lives.
On the third night we stayed on the island of Hvar. We couldn’t get a spot at the marina in the town of Hvar so tied up at a commercial marina a couple of miles away, and took a water taxi over for dinner. Hvar is one of so many old medieval towns in Croatia, where the old stone walls and streets mix so magically with the modern shops and restaurants. The horseshoe of action around the harbor is apparently where Prince Harry likes to go on occasion to let his hair down away from the paparazzi. We opted for a quiet dinner and an early return to the boat.
The next night we were on the island of Korcula, birthplace of Marco Polo, and Ricky and Nancy took a ferry over and joined us for an unusual dinner. Those who wanted fish were told if we waited eight minutes a fresh catch would be up from the boat, and about 20 minutes later they brought a beautiful five-pound St. Pierre to our table for approval. Although the other four had finished dinner well before we were served, Nancy, Ricky and I enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal that might have been happily meandering through the Adriatic 90 minutes earlier.
A few days later, after a brief morning on the water, we tied up to a mooring ball in a gorgeous little harbor at the island of Mljet (meal-yet). Most of the island is a national park, and we took a van to the interior and a boat to an island that features a 12th century monastery in the middle of a salt-water lake, and from there we boated to a smaller lake where we did some hiking and biking. Another perfect day in a magical place.
We started out the next morning with a good wind and were sailing along nicely at six knots when the wind suddenly died, and rather than tie up at another island we decided to motor all the way to Dubrovnik to have some extra time there; Dubrovnik is extraordinary, and I’ll share thoughts and pictures about it in the next post. But the cruise down the coast was hard to beat, filled as it was with sunshine and scenery, great food and friendship; it left me excited about the day that I return.