17 October 2019
Read Time: 13.0 mins
After the long-haul journey from Brisbane, I finally boarded the last, and might I add small, plane to Split. I snagged a window seat and a short while later, I was looking down at the coastline of Croatia. It might have been the beginning of the summer season, still a little chilly, but the ocean was still enticing. The ocean put on a show, the surface shimmering, promising a warm summer ahead. Something I was looking forward to on an Insight Vacations cruise along the Dalmatian Coast, a return trip from Split to Dubrovnik.
I arrived at my hotel a little early, so I stored my bags and found a seat at a cafe along the main promenade. The breeze was cool, the coffee was strong and while I don’t smoke, the smell of cigarettes reminded me – I'm in Europe.
In an effort to stretch my legs, I left a couple of kuna for the waiter and wandered the sights of Split. Through the Brass Gates and into Diocletian’s Palace I strolled, my flats slipping slightly on the worn marble floors. In true European fashion, I pick up a gelato and take my time getting back to my hotel, just steps away from the Cathedral of Saint Domnius.
I had nowhere to be in the morning, but the slow ringing from the bell tower gently woke me. The tone was set for the rest of the day as I met other members on my Insight Vacations trip and relaxed until the afternoon before boarding the Katarina Line ship The Avangard for our cruise.
Onboard, I met our tour director, a local guide called Aida with striking bright turquoise nails the colour of the Katarina Line logo. Later that afternoon, we were guided through Diocletian's Palace, where I learn about the Temple of Jupiter and the Silver gate. At the 8.5m Grgur Ninski, we were urged to rub the toe of the medieval bishop for goodluck and to guarantee a return trip to Split. Already in love with the city, I polished his entire foot.
We walked back to the ship, passing the Cathedral of Saint Domnius again. This time a wedding party filled the square, cheering and waving orange flares in the air as the bride and groom took their first steps as husband and wife. I wanted to linger and watch the celebration, but rejoin the cruise with my group.
In the morning, Lucy, my roommate, and I are woken by the rumble of the ship’s motor. Too excited for the cruise to begin we raced upstairs, still in pyjamas, to watch as we made our way out of Split. Some passengers are already up and dressed, coffee in hand and cameras at the ready. I’m sure they looked us young ones up and down, but like two kids on Christmas morning, we were too excited to care.
The ship anchored in a secluded bay and where the sun hit the water, showcasing many hues of blue, whispering “Come on in, Sheri, take a dip!”. I did, even though the water was still too cold for swimming.
When we arrived at our first island stop, Korcula, it was quiet. Some restaurants and shops were still closed, awaiting the peak summer season. This added to the town’s charm as we had it mostly to ourselves. After the conclusion of our walking tour, a few of us rushed off to find Zakerjan Tower, along the promenade of the Old Town, where we are told we can be served cocktails from up top.
To access the views, we had to climb an internal ladder. The cocktails arrived via an exterior pulley system, which transported our order from the bar downstairs to the roof. We cheered when our drinks arrived, in awe they didn’t spill. The waiter was totally embarrassed, as we made him hold still for a photo with the old town in the background. We were relaxed – the concept of date or time non-existent.
We ate, we drank, we napped, we drank again. The cruise itinerary was relaxed, allowing ample time to fully enjoy what the day presented. Much like how the locals have coffee, here you don’t simply grab-and-go. In Croatia, meeting for coffee meant setting aside a good couple of hours. You sat, you chatted, and you sipped for as long as possible.
When I questioned our tour director, Aida, about this, she laughed and said: “It’s funny because it’s true!”. Throughout the rest of the week, Aida revealed insights about the importance of culture to the Croatian way of life offering a glimpse into her world.
Having read Cody McClain Brown’s memoir Chasing A Croatian Girl: A Survivor’s Tale prior to travelling, I chatted to Aida about the hilarious cultural awakenings throughout the book. I gave her my copy of the book and in exchange she gifted me an excerpt of her war diary, published in the collaboration of essays, Women In The Homeland War.
That night I held in my hands the words my tour director wrote while Dubrovnik, her city, crumbled around her during the Yugoslav wars.
“Old palaces, city walls and towers-places where the culture of Dubrovnik, Croatia and the world originated, fall victim to this war,” Aida wrote. I read tucked up in my cabin, the realities of war so foreign to me.
It was cloudier the next morning, but our guided walk through Mljet National Park and the ferry to Saint Mary’s Island was stunning. Spring brought new life to the tiny island and bees buzzed between bright-red poppies, a direct contrast to the blue of the Adriatic. It seemed full of life, unlike what Aida experienced in the past.
Before reaching Dubrovnik, Aida arranged for the captain to dock at Sudurad, a small village on the island of Sipan, where she invited us into her home. She swung open the door to a warm interior, where she lived during the winter months when not directing back-to-back tours.
She fussed in the kitchen, sharing homemade treats and liqueur. In true Croatian fashion, she gave us each a gift - a bag of ground carob, typically used instead of cocoa. I took in my surrounds while Aida explained about the carob plant, Croatian music and books she had written about native plants. This was a woman who was proud of her heritage and honoured to share it with us.
We walked back towards the sea, to board the ship and cruise towards Dubrovnik. That night we ate and drank. And drank again. Each of us becoming closer, the laughter getting louder.
Even darker clouds filled the sky the next day, on our guided walk through the Old Town of Dubrovnik. It wasn’t the most ideal day to explore, but having read how difficult it was for Aida and many others to live during the war without running water, I decided to embrace it. As a matter of fact, twirling an umbrella amid the medieval Old Town was quite fun.
Aida stopped in front of a city map that denoted the sites of damage due to the Yugoslav army, the Serbs and the Montenegrins during 1991-1992. It was peppered with black triangles marking direct hits and blocks of red marking completely burnt-down buildings. It was evident that parts of the Old Town had been restored, yet if you looked closely, you still got a glimpse into the past.
A self-paced walk along the city walls didn’t disappoint. We walked along, stopping to catch our breath, sink a beer and take in the views of the sea. At some points, we climbed stairs or ladders to reach different viewpoints, our ponchos making a distinct swish-swish-swish. No matter where you stood, the Old Town was a sea of terracotta and beyond it, the blue Adriatic Sea.
Back on ground level, I purchased bags of candied orange peel from the market, locally made lavender bath salts and chilli-infused olive oil – little bottles of Croatia to take home. Passing a bookstore, I spotted multiple copies of Chasing a Croatian Girl displayed on the shelves to be snapped up by tourists, just like me.
Visiting Dubrovnik was a highlight, but there was so much more to be discovered. On the island of Kuna the next evening, we met a local family who had run a restaurant for four generations. Albeit, the youngest was still in nappies.
We feasted on homemade bread, aged cheese, cured meat, sweet liqueur, lamb on the spit and traditional donut recipes, all past down through the years. And boy, was the evening filled with many melt-in-your-mouth moments. Language was no barrier that night as we enjoyed the feast, drank and were welcomed like family. So much so, I held the baby grandson while his grandma looked on with pride from behind the bar.
Everywhere I looked, Croatian culture was embedded in everyday life. The words in Aida’s war diary rang true: “Croatians show defiance through culture. [One] for a moment, forgets the dark reality of a besieged city at war. Culture is our defense and our best weapon. Now, it is just a matter of endurance”.
Even the seemingly small moments, were enriching. Like arriving in Hvar, to the scent of lavender, the ship dancing through the air and the sun, bouncing off the white stone of the town and causing a mirror effect on the water's surface.Or the island of Brac, where I sat at a bar right on the water's edge, feet dangling, sipping a cocktail and hoping to avoid a cold splash from the waves.
Or the captain’s dinner, on the last night of the cruise, where one of the timid crew members whipped out his guitar and sang a Croatian song, completely upstaging the other band. It was impossible to forget where you are here. One moment you’re sipping wine, the next, the whole ship is swaying and tapping to a song in another language.
Before leaving, there was one last thing I needed to do. I stood in front of a market stall, pointing at flowers and flashing the stallholder a photo of Aida. She nodded and handed over a large bunch of deep pink blooms.
I was due to leave for the airport any minute, so I had to run between ships to find Aida, asking our original crew along the way. I thought to myself, “What if I don’t find her?” My heart rate crept up, my breath got shorter, until finally I found her, already briefing another group. She was surprised to see us, panting and holding out a bunch of flowers without thinking it may be rude to interrupt.
She blushed pink and I hugged her tight, thankful she gave us a very personal insight into her homeland. My next trip to Croatia, I’m sure, wouldn’t be the same.