On Friday morning, we opted to skip the tour groups and explore Dubrovnik on our own. The first thing we saw after entering the massive, stone Pile Gate was a map marking the destruction that occured during the 1991-92 war for independence…..hardly a building was spared. After this sobering sight, we walked past the town wall and into the heart of the city…..thankfully, vibrant and bustling with few scars from this sad chapter in history. We toured as much of the city as we could before the heat got to us. Looking for a way to cool down, we hopped on a boat for a ride around nearby Lokrum island….and an unexpected voyueristic look at it’s “naturist” beach (not a pretty sight, I might add….lots of over-tanned, wrinkly people who would do the world a favor by putting on some clothes).
Dinner on-board was good….shrimp in a jelled gazpacho, cauliflower soup, sea bream and chocolate cake….but not quite as good as the first night. After dinner, we started our Adriatic cruise as we sailed past the twinkling night lights of Dubrovnik.
The next morning, we were anchored off the island of Mljet. We took chaloupes (tenders) into the small town of Pomena and started our tour of Mljet National Park. Somehow, we ended up with a group of French passengers. We quickly found Carole and asked if there would be an English translator. Her eyes were wide as she said, “You should be with the other group….come, follow me.”
We followed her brisk pace as best we could down, down, down a series of rustic steps. “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s easy….all the steps are down.” Not so easy for me….walking downstairs is still a challenge so I told Craig to keep up with her as I slowly plodded down the steps. Finally, out of breath and sweating profusely, we caught up to the German-English group. Our guide apologized….she was told she only had two English speakers (Michael and Jocelyn from New York). As we walked next to a sparkling blue lake listening to what we had missed, we were joined first by a Dutch couple and then by Sue and Shaun…..they preferred our little multi-lingual group to the larger French groups they had started out with. We soon realized there was a definite advantage to travelling on a French ship…..smaller, more intimate tour groups!
The small lake joined a larger lake (interestingly, neither are lakes….they’re inlets from the sea). Our destination was a Benedictine monastery on St Mary’s island in the Great Lake. The monastery, used as a hotel during Tito’s rule, is being restored with plans to return it to the Benedictine’s. On our walk around the forested, green island, our attention was divided between the clear, turquoise waters and the small, private chapels that dotted the landscape.
After a boat back to the Great Lake, a walk to the Small Lake, an uphill climb to Pomena and a chaloupe back to the ship, we cruised to Korcula.
Our guidebooks covered Korcula pretty thoroughly so we opted to tour it on our own…..there was only one problem…..we arrived after lunch…..just as the churches and museums were closing. We walked through the town, admiring the views to the sea and the architecture, finally stopping for a beer at a terrace cafe. Sitting on the terrace, gazing at the beautiful blue water, we knew it was time to stop looking at the water…..it was time to get in! We gulped our beers, hurried back to the ship, changed into our bathing suits, walked to a nearby rocky beach and stepped into the crystal clear, aquamarine water. Ahhh…..(except for the rough rocks beneath our feet) it was heaven! The cool water, so refreshing on this hot day, revitalized us. As we floated buoyantly along, we wondered when we last swam in the ocean. After a quick bit of deducing, we realized it’s been 10 years! We swam, we sunned, we swam some more….then it was time to return to the ship for dinner. After dinner, we walked into town for a performance of Korcula’s “Sword Dance”…..a captivating choreography of men with flashing swords recreating a battle of good vs evil. Metal clanked as men sped by, swords broke off and came flying through the air, we ducked and swerved….thankful we had chosen the second row for tonight’s show (but really wishing someone had chosen the first row).
We docked in Sibenik the next morning…..an industrial-looking city on the mainland. Sibenik could wait….the main reason for stopping at this port was to see Krka Falls….. fantastic waterfalls formed by the Krka River as it rushes over limestone and travertine “steps.” We arrived by bus, then walked down steep stairs and over wooden boardwalks through lush flora and forest, surrounded by the pleasing cacaphony of rushing water and the picture-perfect views of a seemingly infinite number of falls. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen.
The antithesis of Krka seemed to be Sibenik….until we walked into it’s charming old city center. The small old city, built alongside a hill next to the waterfront, was a labyrinth of small alleys and vertical “streets” (stairways leading to the upper reaches of the city). It’s crowning glory is Katedrala Sv Jakov (the Cathedral of St James). Taking over 100 years to build, with both Gothic and Renaissance features, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was demoralized when it’s dome was destroyed during the recent war. Although the dome has been rebuilt, bullet holes still remain in it’s bronze doors. I asked our guide how, with these doors as a contstant reminder, the Sibeniks have been able to make peace with the Serbs. She was a young woman….too young to remember the war but old enough to know it’s aftermath. She paused, then thoughtfully answered, “The memories remain but our economies are connected and time will heal the wounds.”
We cruised through the night and moored in Trogir the next morning. We boarded the chaloupes and rode into town. Dark clouds were forming as we wandered down the waterfront promenade. When the chaloupes had safely deposited everyone ashore, we met with our English-German group and began our tour.
Since 1928 when an ancient Greek bas-relief of Kairos was found in Trogir, symbols of Kairos adorn the town. Kairos, the Greek god of the “fleeting moment” represented the belief that the moment must be grasped or it is gone and cannot be recaptured (the fleeting moment is symbolized by a tuft of hair on his forehead; the lost moment is expressed by the back of his head being bald). We smiled….Kairos epitomizes us on so many levels.
We walked through the city gates, through town and into Katedrala Sv Lovre (the Cathedral of St Lawrence) past one of the most interesting portals I’ve seen. Designed by Radovan, one of Croatia’s great artists, he used scenes from everyday life to represent the seasons of the year (instead of the traditional signs of the zodiac). As we toured the church, the threatening clouds let loose with a torrential downpour. We gathered in the church’s covered courtyard to wait out the storm. The Germans and the French seemed content with this….but not the English speakers. Shaun and Sue were the first ones to run out….finding shelter in the loggia across the way. Craig and I soon tired of huddling with the masses and we, too, ventured out….seeking, but not finding, shelter under the awnings of nearby shops. We ran down the street toward a square filled with tables and market umbrellas. Sue and Shaun joined us in our quest. We glanced over our shoulders and saw Michael and Joycelyn running behind us. The sought-after shelter was not to be….the shade-producing umbrellas weren’t water-tight. Laughing and soaked through, we chose the driest table we could find and ordered cappucinos. Craig got up to take our picture but couldn’t find a spot dry enough to open the camera lens. Without letting on what he was doing, another patron held an umbrella over Craig’s head just long enough for him to get a shot of us laughing aloud at this priceless moment. Soon, the sun returned, the streets dried and we were back on the ship heading to Split.
In Split, we had enough time to sightsee or to tour Diocletian’s Palace. We opted for the Roman ruler’s retirement home…..a palace in name only. Built in 305 AD, it’s been used for homes and businesses since the 7th century when the townspeople fled to it to escape invading barbarians.
The Palace now is a thriving mini-metropolis. The original structure still exists….but it’s sometimes unrecognizable amidst the bustling of today’s everyday life. Diocletian is nowhere to be found….his mausoleum has been replaced by the Cathedral of St Dominus (perhaps a fitting tribute to the man who was responsible for creating so many saints).
The entry vestibule to Diocletian’s living quarters held a special surprise…..the melodic sounds of Klapa singers….a cappella songs that celebrate love, wine, homeland and sea. What’s not to like? We bought their CD.
We docked in Hvar the next morning and started our multi-lingual tour with the German contingency. We walked to the Franciscan monastery along the sea wall, next to waters so crystal clear we could see sea urchins slowly moving across the rocks. As we continued through the town, Craig became increasingly irritated with our tour guide. She would spend quite a few minutes explaining a sight to the Germans, then she’d turn to our smaller English-speaking group and say something like, “This is a church.” Guess this young woman didn’t realize that Germans are nototiously bad tippers.
We returned to the ship for a barbeque lunch on the top deck. Michelle, Olivier, Sue and Shaun joined us at a table that faced out to sea. It felt like we were on our own personal yacht as we sailed into the small island of Vis….formerly a Yugoslavian naval base, now home to a fishing village and a few tourists. It’s main feature, as far as we could tell, was a beach that beckoned to us as we sailed past it. As soon as we were docked in the harbor, we made a beeline to the beach to spend a few hours in that amazing azure water.
We woke early to watch the ship’s passage into the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. As we journeyed south, the rolling, arid hills of Croatia gave way to a more mountainous terrain. As the morning wore on, more and more of our fellow passengers joined us on deck for the voyage through the fjord-like inlets that lead to the city of Kotor. Midway through the journey, two mountains seemed to reach out to each other, creating a narrow strait (less than 1/4 mile wide) and a perfect defense against intruders. Just past this channel lie two small islands…..one, St George, is lush and green while the other, Our Lady of the Rocks, is low and barren save for a domed church. St George is a natural island while Our Lady of the Rocks is a man-made island created over centuries by seamen who, according to legend, found an icon of the Madonna in this spot and then began throwing a rock in these waters as they returned from successful voyages. Later, scuttled ship hulls and boatloads of rocks were added and the islet gradually emerged from the sea. A small chapel was built on the island in 1630 and the domed church was added in 1725. Absolutely amazing.
As we neared Kotor, the mountains seemed to rise taller and taller…..surrounding and engulfing us. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Back aboard the ship, we started our journey back to Dubrovnik. After leaving the bay, the normally calm seas of the Adriatic became choppy…..choppy enough for me to get queasy and for the engineer to put out the ship’s stabilizers…..which didn’t help. Sadly, I missed our last dinner with our delightful tablemates. Our table laughed the most, drank the most and was the always the last to leave. We had good times together…..cruising, dining and ashore. I hope we stay in touch.
“A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints” ~ Wilfred Peterson