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A hymn to Croatia’s musical traditions

It’s hard to separate a beloved song from the memories it provides. A line or two from “Pearly Shells” transports me back to Waikiki and the Don Ho show. The Beatles’ “Michelle” conjures memories of a pub-hopping adventure in Liverpool. I become a twelve year old Camp Fire Girl whenever one strums “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” And, surprisingly so, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” shoots me back to my teaching days in Yangzhou, China, as for some reason or other this was a favorite of the teens I taught there. On a recent trip to Croatia, music played its majestic role. While the music differed with the distinct places, it fulfilled its function; it brought the world together into one harmonious whole.

I started my stay in Split, staying at House Sandra, a charming family-run inn only five minutes’ walk from the palace. Daily, the palace drew me toward it. Souvenir shops cling to the walls that date back to 305 A.D. One stall will feature ancient swords, another will sell lavender, and an adjoining shop will display stone bowls from nearby quarries. The famous Roman emperor Diocletian, the great reformer of the empire, built the fortified castle. After abdicating the throne, he moved into the palace where he died in 315 and where he is buried in a magnificent mausoleum. Every night sharply at 8 o’clock, musicians entertain guests for only the cost of a drink or two in the outside courtyard. Songs of The Beatles and Bob Dylan seem to be favorites. The subtle lighting, the ancient stone steps, the balmy evening, and the remarkable acoustics transform the palace of old into an ageless Mecca. When the musicians pause, fire dancers take their cue. And if one wishes a change from this nightly venue, restaurants dot the Split Riva, a 250 meter walkway that looks upon the marina. It will not be hard to find a favorite musician either at a restaurant here or perhaps at a concert, such as those held regularly at St. Francis Church. With Split offering its melodious introduction to Croatia, I knew my stay in the country would be perfectly pitched.

After a few days in Split and Plitvice National Park, I joined a Katarina Small Ship Cruise that would travel from Split to Makarska, Mljet, Dubrovnik, Trstenik, Korcula, and Hvar before returning to Split. Without exception, every destination provided its own special music, mesmerizing me at every port. We stopped during our first afternoon aboard ship to river raft the Cetina, which flows from the valley fields through a series of steep and picturesque canyons. Our guide, Phil, was ripe with song between every rapid. When he found out that many Australians were aboard the raft, he belted out a medley, mixing “Waltzing Matilda, You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me” with “Tie me kangaroo down sport, keep me cockatoo cool.” Phil boasted that he also knew Wagner’s operas, and that he was simply waiting for a German to join our group so he could display his repertoire. To please the Americans on the raft, he belted, “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” thrilled when we taught him a line or two from Elmo’s parody. Despite our coaxing, Phil refrained from sharing Croatian folksongs, but he brought the world and his rafters together in laughter and song.

Our first night we harbored at Makarska, happy to find the locals celebrating with shish kabobs, gelato, dance, and music. A want-to-be Madonna belted out her repertoire to adoring fans in the town square. They crowned their hero of the year, dressed him in a toga of white sheets, and told him that he too was to entertain the crowd. Gladly, he joined in the merriment, making up for his limited singing ability with abundant passion. Fathers swirled their young daughters to tunes of folksongs. Mothers looked on in adoration of their family unity. Fifteen year old lads mustered courage to approach their crushes, and locals beckoned visitors to come sample the delicacies spread out on picnic tables. The music was definitely loud and, yes, often off-key, but no one seemed to care that night.

No one should leave Dubrovnik empty-handed, music-wise. The beautiful old walls envelop the towers, fountains, churches, shops, and homes. A visitor can choose from an overflow of musical options. The International Opera Festival visits in late June and early July. Mid to late July brings the Electronic Musical Festival, set in the fortress of Revelin. August will bring chamber music, perhaps based from Vienna, to cast a magical spell. And September will mix Croatian compositions with those of other European countries. With October, one can enjoy the International Choir Festival, with European regions sharing their talent at Jesuit Church and Revelin Fort. I swayed to the music of Bach, Sorkocevic, Beethoven, and Mozart as the Sorkocevic Quartet performed a chamber repertoire comprising both the Dubrovnik music heritage and the world musical literature. Near the entrance to the Old City, a trumpeter played his jazz, while restaurant owners waved for customers to enter, enjoy the food and linger with the surrounding melodies.

A trip to Croatia should definitely include Mljet, a relatively large island totally covered with luxuriant vegetation, to the west with pines and jasmine while to the east there lays mostly stone pines. The western part of the island with the Large and Small Lake is preserved as a national park, with ample signs warning against bathing in the nude. We landed our Katarina boat and soon disembarked for the beach. A group of 84 tourists from Slovenia held accommodations in the beach front hotel. They were on a bus tour of two weeks, and all seemed to pack a suitcase, a smile, and a musical instrument. For more than two hours without a pause, the group serenaded, complete with accordions and trumpets. They welcomed us into their choir. They clasped our hands and tried to teach us a few words in their native tongue. I recognized that they were singing their National Anthem. They bowed their respectful heads, enticing me to translate the song once I had access to a computer. They rang out their plea, “God’s blessing on all nations who long and work for that bright day, When o’er earth’s habitations no war, no strife shall hold its sway; Who long to see that all men free, No more shall foes, but neighbors be.” Music fortified our companionship; music fortified our desire for world peace.

In 2011, “Travel and Leisure” magazine ranked Hvar as one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world. Holding this distinction, it seems as if music oozes from its every pore: its cathedral, marina, botanical garden, restaurants, and arsenal. Almost nightly one can find a concert or two. I enjoyed acappella renditions at St. Marko Church that ranged from the African savannahs coming alive with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to Hollywood’s classic “Lean on Me.” A block or two away students from the Musical Academy performed their piano recitals, all free of charge, all stunningly beautiful.

We docked back in Split on the eve of the Festival of St. Michael, patron saint of the sea. In the plaza in front of St. Francis Church, organizers had set up platforms for a concert. Star of the night was Oliver Dragojovic, a beloved Croatian singer for 45 plus years. Tourists and natives flocked to the celebration, rubbing shoulders with the country’s president, Ivo Josipovic, (a composer himself of more than fifty chamber music pieces) who came to shake hands, sing along, and gaze from the musicians to the nearby sea. Two-year olds sat stoically on their papas’ shoulders, swaying to the tunes. Four year olds sang out, knowing every song by heart. Croatians embraced tourists, eager to translate their beloved melodies. One lady brought me close to her heart as she echoed the translated lines of a favorite Oliver Dragojovic song, “The Seagull and I.” She wanted to make sure I’d know it; she wanted to make sure I’d know of Croatia’s love for music. The song ends, “It’s pleasant, it’s pleasant, Laying on dry sea grass, Secluded near the sea, Watching you over open sea, My seagull. Watching you, Flying with you, Above all, Secluded with you near the sea, While the sun smiles at land, I listen to you calling. It’s pleasant, It’s pleasant, My seagull.”

Soon I would conclude my trip in Croatia. A lump came to my throat as I departed. I opened my mouth as if to sing a farewell to this unbelievably charming land. My solo faltered. I needed a symphony to do the country justice. Definitely, the sun smiles on this land that sang to me in harmonious accord. Croatia became my pop song, opera, folksong, and concert all rolled together, a land immersed in melodious music.

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