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Blown around on the Dalmatian coast

I was sitting on white stonework of Zadar’s sweeping harbour promenade, looking out over a sparkling and busy channel towards the green island of Ugljan, and the sea was playing music. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I’m not so poetic. The waves were literally playing a musical instrument.

The town, recently dubbed “Croatia’s new capital of cool”, plays out its lazy days to the tune of Nikola Bašiæ’s award winning Sea Organ. Underneath a block of marble steps, dazzlingly bright in the clean autumn sun, an intricate system of around 35 plastic tubes and blow holes allow the wind and waves to create an every changing symphony of hauntingly beautiful natural melodies.

To sit there for half an hour is to revisit that sense of wonder you felt when your primary school teacher first put on a video of communicating whales. Is it sophisticated art, or kitsch? Frankly, who cares? As I sat there my drinking rapidly warming Karlovaèko beer out of the bottle, I was overcome by this innocent, peaceful sound of harnessed nature.

Not everything in Croatia is innocent and peaceful, of course. In Zadar’s outdoors market, nestling in the traffic-free streets behind the Roman remains and red-roofed churches, you can find black T-shirts depicting the round head of the former Croat General Ante Gotovina, his lips proudly pursed together and military visor pulled-down over his eyes, rendering them impenetrable. Gotovina is currently sitting in a cell in The Hague after being indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for allegedly ordering the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs during the war of the 1990’s. Several EU members made his arrest a precondition for accession talks with Croatia, but in these parts he is still considered by many to be a national hero. Don’t forget that Zadar was besieged by Serbian rocket for three months in 1991, and the embittering experience means many Croats haven’t forgot their gratitude for the Croat military leaders they thank for fighting their enemies back. The shirts in the market are said to make brisk sales. With such brazen public support, it is perhaps not surprising that when Gotovina was finally arrested it was by Spanish police on Tenerife, far from Croatia’s borders.

Gotovina’s arrogant face watched us at regular intervals from billboards as we travelled by bus southwards on the coast-hugging Dalmatian Highway. The posters were captioned “HEROJ” – a judgement that was unambiguous even to the foreigner. By now the frighteningly cold Bora north wind had gusted up quite suddenly. Famous for clearing the skies, the wind was clearly in a contrary mood that day. It brought thick grey skies surfing down the cubist slopes of the barren Dinaric mountain range and turned the Elysian holiday landscape into something more wild and inhospitable. It was Dalmatia caught without its make-up.

On our left, grey forms, like petrified whales, peered out of the choppy water – the white-horses dancing mockingly among the usually carpet like inky-blue sea. On our right, bushy scrubland stretched out for endless acres towards the mountains, interspersed only by piles of rubble and the odd plastic bag, caught like unfortunate flies in the intricate webs of the thorn bushes. By the side of the road, black-clad women shielded their faces from the fierce gusts with plump forearms, and the local bus stops were filled frowning youths. Under the iron skies it seemed world away from the sea-food bistros and ‘yachtie’ bars that we’d known from previous trips

As we arrived in the town Šibenik, Dalmatia still seemed markedly bereft of its famous enchantment. The entry into town has been scarred by the familiar socialist tower blocks and the remnants of a dying aluminium industry. But the bus deposited us within view of a gracious marble seafront boulevard looking out over a harbour that is totally enclosed apart from a narrow, cliff-lined waterway called St Anthony’s Channel, which cuts through the ring of karsk rocks and into the open sea. The Šibenik waterfront is indeed graceful; and when we headed into the old town to explore, we realised we had stumbled on a rough-cut Dalmatian gem.

Whereas the marble streets of Zadar and Dubrovnik have become bywords of “cool Croatia”, you don’t read much about Šibenik in the travel pages of the European press. But, with its campaniles, carved balconies and other reminders of its Venetian dominated past, the town centre is a truly charming place.

Built on the steep mountainside sweeping down into the harbour, the architects of Šibenik clearly knew a thing or two about sheltering from the fierce Bora wind, not to mention the caustic Dalmatian sun. The Renaissance-style buildings are huddled together in a network of narrow, traffic-free streets and winding stone stairways, dotted with potted plants. The overflowing branches of fig trees spill out over the walled gardens of the larger houses, spilling dried brown fruit onto the stone steps.

We stopped for a stiffening beer  at the intriguingly named “Café Number 4”, with alley-way seating opening into a small Italianate squares fronted by the façade of another white stoned Renaissance church. The café owner’s son sat near to us on the church steps working away busily in a scrap book with colouring crayons. The resident dog curled up at our feet. It’s faced with such beauty that rather secular dad goes all Biblical:  “My cup runneth over”, he says, quoting from the Psalms. In honour of him we ordered another Karlovaèko. 

Later in the day, we boarded a mini ferry, the bulbous shape of which would have pleased any Popeye the Sailor fan, and sailed out of the cliff-lined channel to our final destination in Croatia – the small island of Zlarin.

The island’s tiny population live in a single small village of handsome stone buildings, built during the time when Zlarin had been made rich by the trade in the islands once-abundant red coral. Sadly, thanks to rampant overharvesting a hundred years ago, those boom days disappeared with the coral long ago, but the spacious residences which huddle around the neat rectangular harbour are a testament to this proud past. And the Zlarin corals live on as motifs in the paintings of the artist and cult actress Jagoda Kaloper, still stunningly attractive at 60, whose white fronted art gallery gazes out over the harbour.

Zlarin has apparently gently fallen into a slumber. Following the demise of coral industry, the once profitable vineyards and olive groves have become untilled and overgrown. But it’s a languor that becomes the island well. As other beauty spots of the Adriatic, notably nearby Hvar, whirl into a frenzy of development as they try to lure the  hedonistic jet-setters looking for the new San Remo, Zlarin, which is home to a surprising number of artists (including, I’m told, a elderly but randy hero of poetry), defiantly holds on to its original quality. The islanders are trying to fight off plans for a new marina and have fought off the mad cap plans of a returning millionaire émigré to turn traffic-free Zlarin into a local centre of rubbish incineration – complete with a two lane access highway!

The best way to enjoy Zlarin is to sit in the local café and soak up the island gossip. You might see the postman there, who, after collecting the mail from the early morning ferry and, calls over the locals to his café throne as they pass, rather than actually going delivering the letters,. Islanders hail each other with the Croatian greeting “Bok” (it means ‘God’), which, at ‘rush’ hour makes the pedestrian traffic on the harbour sound a rather like a hen-house. It’s a friendly, relaxed and familiar atmosphere. This wonderful quiet charm might not be typical of how modern Dalmatia is, but you feel is typical of how it should be.       

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