Trip to Croatia, October 10 to November 3, 2019
Travelling to Croatia has been a long-time interest of ours, and in October 2019, Joanna, Ken and Corinne went on this much anticipated vacation. Upon returning, Joanna started to write down our adventures in an email to a friend, but when she read it out loud, we both realized it should be illustrated and distributed more widely. Here is her account of the highlights of our journey, with photographs by Ken (unless otherwise noted).
ROADS SCHOLAR TOUR
Flying out of Tucson, Ken was able to grab some photos of our neighborhood. This was amazing because, for all the times we have flown out of Tucson, this time we were sitting on the right side of the plane, had window seats and the lighting was just right. Likewise, Ken was able to get some great shots flying over the Grand Canyon. We flew from Tucson to Salt Lake City to Amsterdam (where we were amused to see people drinking beer at 7am), and then on to Zagreb, Croatia.
The Road "scholars" gathered at the hotel for dinner the first evening. It was exciting to meet our travel mates. Every other "scholar" on the tour felt like a kindred spirit: curious, well read, kind and with good senses of humor. We were probably the youngest, and of the few not retired, in the group. So many of our fellow scholars had long interesting life experiences, having worked in academics and non-profits. It was great hanging out with them at meals and on the bus. There were other photography aficionados for Ken to lag behind with. I, also, was infatuated by searching out and framing interesting scenes in my viewfinder. Suffice it to say, coming from a suburban taco bell architectural tradition in Arizona, seeing ancient stone walls and cobbled streets everywhere was a thrill.
The Road Scholars portion took us all over the country:
The modern capital of the country is stately, incorporating everything from fine mustard colored palaces, museums and theaters from the Austria-Hungarian Empire to stoic and drab soviet styled apartment houses. Our tour took us to the cemetery on the hill where Croats are buried right alongside Serbs and Bosnians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. We walked on the lovely old cobblestone streets where an invisible (pictured here) foot-high metal traffic barricade stopped my lower body precipitating an abrupt encounter of my upper body with the stone sidewalk. Fortunately, I was only bruised in the elbow, knee and pride. A kind road scholar came up later and whispered "Thanks for being the first one!"
There was the obligatory cathedral tour in Zagreb, as there was in every large city. Okay, the architecture was amazing, the stone carvings so exquisite and I could explore (and photograph) them all day. But I couldn’t help but wonder about all the folks who went hungry while the clergy lived in opulence through the ages. I hoped the gifted craftsmen, at least, made a living wage. Forgive my heathenism, but by the end of the tour, I felt if I saw another pierced Jesus again, I would scream.
We boarded our faithful tour bus, leaving Zagreb, surrounded by mountains and forests to the sunny coastline. The coast is very rocky, with the azure Adriatic Sea on one side and dramatic tall mountain cliffs on the other. I have to show you photos of the crazy gourmet "truck stop" en route. This place had its own pastry bakery, fresh squeezed juices even fresh seafood.
OPATIJA is a fine old vacation destination for the ages. Our hotel was formerly a Hapsburg royal family vacation home with 39 bedrooms. We served ourselves the most amazing food in the "kitchen" for several breakfasts and dinners.
From the hotel base we explored: ROVINJ, a fishing port on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. We wandered its rabbit warren of tiny, cobblestoned passages. And I say wandered, because Ken and I accidently got separated from the group while they were in the hilltop church of St Euphemia. We were able to "echo locate" ourselves back to the group with our headphones as our guide lectured the group. This is technology introduced to us by Road Scholars that we really liked. We could listen and learn on headphones while we wandered around (i.e. took pictures) at the same time.
We explored POREC, site of the UNESCO protected 6th century Euphrasian Basilica complex. Beneath Byzantine structures were Roman mosaic floors. Talk about history!
We left Opatija by trusted bus, traveled back into the mountains and arrived at PLITVICE Lakes along with hundreds of other tourists. The day was bright and the scenery stunning. Fresh water flows through a myriad of small lakes, over many waterfalls. The water is crystal clear and the light-colored limestone bedrock makes the standing water appear turquoise. Humans walk on an elaborate system of boardwalks and foot paths. It was pretty crowded, but who could blame our fellow tourists for wanting to be there too? We could have explored longer but our tour bus left after a half day visit for SPLIT.
We arrived after dark. After dinner in the hotel, Ken and I walked out the lobby doors to see the ancient walls surrounding the Diocletian’s palace. We marveled how we were looking at history! Walls built by Romans 2000 year ago! Later we learned they were merely medieval walls, built a scant 800 years ago. But we were not very disappointed. The next day (after eating Diocletian’s feast for breakfast in the hotel) we explored Diocletian’s Palace, the fish market, the ethnography museum (with its many regional costumes with amazing lace and embroidery.) We climbed the church tower-such a view- and the hill south of old town for more amazing views as the sun went down.
Ken showed the photo of his great grandfather to our guides who were schooled in Croatian history. They thought the photo must have been taken at the wedding of one of the young women pictured with him, probably his daughters. They noted their jewelry suggested they were unmarried, but because of the festive dress, it was probably the wedding day of one of them.
While staying in Split, we explored the medieval city of TROGIR, site of the 13th century Cathedral of St Lawrence, patron saint of cooks! The amazing stone carved doorways depicted fanciful creatures like camels and elephants that the carvers had evidently only heard about, but never seen. We learned the grizzly story of St Lawrence’s death. He was martyred, roasted alive on a grill. Legend tells us he even joked with his persecutors, "I’m done on this side, you can turn me over now." Pardon my macabre sense of humor, but the new metal benches on the harbor that get hot in the sun and are called by locals "the benches of St Lawrence."
We visited the Mestrovic gallery in Split and became familiar with his history and iconic sculptures. Here are images of his work from all over Croatia including a photo Ken took of a stray cat in an archetypal Mestrovic pose.
From Split, we drove across farm lands, dressed in autumnal colors, into Bosnia and Herzegovina see the town of Mostar with its reconstructed medieval bridge. There were still many bombed-out buildings from the war of the 1990’s to see. The town has a distinctly Asian feel to it with minarets and a museum of a Turkish family home. The cobble streets were treacherous, but I didn’t fall down.
From there we drove to DUBROVNIK in the morning, we explored the old town. Our guide had lived through the war there as a child in the 90's. She experienced the shelling, terror and hunger of war and yet didn’t seem to be filled with hatred. Her story was very moving.
Ken and I walked the city walls in late afternoon until sundown and had dinner in a little café.
The next day we took a boat to Otok (Croatian for island) Locrum where we walked around the historic arboretum, strolling with peacocks and bunnies. Later we drove to Ston and toured the salt museum. For hundreds of years, shallow cobble stone-bottomed drying fields have been flooded with sea water. As the water evaporates it is moved through stone channels to progressively more concentrated fields. Finally, after a few sunny months when the water has evaporated completely, natural sea salt forms a crystal layer over the cobble stones. It is raked and swept up, loaded into little train cars (reminiscent of the ore cars in the Bisbee underground copper mine) and carted off to be stored then sold. I won a package of natural sea salt for correctly answering a question from our guide. We have been enjoying famous Ston salt ever since. In the evening we enjoyed wine tasting and dinner at a winery on the same peninsula as Ston, an area well known for its vineyards. We started the evening with the traditional brandies and ended, for the shell fish eaters, raw oysters. (erp)
Overall, the Road Scholar accommodations and meals were over the top. I did not gain a pound though! I attribute this to the fact that most of the meals were made with fresh, local ingredients. I was able to make good food choices when there were options. I did not go crazy on the treats (one instead of three irresistible desserts) There were very few snacking and many walking opportunities, and I committed to using the stairs instead of the elevator. Ken and I were split up on the last day of our tour, by unusual, but not unhappy, circumstances.
JIMI AND EMIL
A week before we left for Croatia, Ken found out that a movie of Jimi Hendrix in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London was to be released while we were in Croatia. It would be a one-time showing at the Royal Albert. It was released then and only then because of copyright laws that would have the Hendrix foundation loose rights to the film if they did not release it in 50 years. What was Ken to do!?? The only thing this crazy nerd rocker could do. He got round-trip tickets to London from Dubrovnik and tickets to the show. This took place on the last day of our tour. The other scholars and our guide were very supportive, amused by and, I would say, intrigued with Ken's unusual passion. Ken appreciated what a sacrifice it was on my part (!) though by that stage of the tour, I had many companions with whom to share the last day.
Before we left, Ken contacted a Hendrix fan whom he met in one of those on line interest groups. Emil Vukov lives in Zagreb. So on the free afternoon on our first day of the tour, we arrange to meet him, having no idea what to expect. Up walks this 40-50ish Croatian man outside our hotel. Everything about him seemed big: his body, his voice, his presence. He was extremely gallant, which we found amusing and endearing. He wanted to show us around so we walked to and explored three museums. He was an excellent guide, well-spoken in English and very knowledgeable about history, culture, arts and politics. He told us Croatia has been a poor country, but has a first-rate education system. His tour affirmed this. The formality of meeting a new person in another culture broke down little by little. He asked if I minded if he smoked. I told him it wouldn't hurt me as much as it hurt him. He laughed but I noticed he didn't smoke around me. We had drinks in the museum cafe where Ken and Emil talked about Hendrix. I asked Emil about other Croatian musicians and if he knew about Balkan Beat Box, one of my favorite groups. He pulled them up on his phone and, teasing, mocked them saying there was nothing Balkan about them! He taught me to say the term for Art Nouveau in Croatian and bought us a catalog from the Ethnographic Museum in English. We found out he is a concert pianist (!) by profession. He played part of a piece on the piano in one of the museum's galleries where we were the only visitors. I teased him it would soon be on you tube. He admonished me not to even joke about that. In parting, he told us if we needed anything, anything while we were in Croatia to contact him. I called him "our man in Zagreb" and we left with warm hugs. He and Ken texted throughout the trip, thanks to WhatsApp, and they met in London for the best Hendrix times of their lives.
Corinne ran in the Dalmatian Ultra Trail competition while we were in Dubrovnik. She flew into Split, traveled to Omiš, and the next day at noon ran an 18 k 2500 ft elevation change race. She shaved 15 minutes off her personal goal of 3 hours. She told us about cheering school children, donkeys, local people offering food, water (and brandies!) on the steep, rocky trail. When she could see the finish line, she tapped a young man near her, a challenge to sprint to the finish. He dusted her, but the crowd broke out into cheers of USA! USA! She didn't understand, thinking they were cheering the man who so clearly beat her.
Meanwhile, Ken and I were "walking the walls" of Dubrovnik. The old city is surrounded by defensive walls with a mile and a half walkway on top of the walls that loops around the old city. It gives you an amazing view of the city, harbor and nearby islands not to mention private gardens, laundry on clothes lines, feral cats which have been neutered by the city, wedding parties, kids on their way from school and an obscene number of tourists. So, Ken and I, up on the city wall 50 miles away from the race, looked up Corinne's stats on our phones: she was the first American woman to finish!
Corinne took a catamaran the next day to Dubrovnik, visiting many islands on the way, while Ken was in London, and I enjoyed the last day of the Road Scholars Tour to a rural area south of Dubrovnik. The tour ended with folk music and dancing and a dinner at a beautiful farm, and fond farewells to the scholars.
The next morning, I met Corinne in old town Dubrovnik. Her apartment was a stone's throw from where Ken and I had had dinner the night of her race. After she and I walked the city walls (such a hardship to do it twice!) we met up with Ken. He had returned from London after 2 hours sleep and a weird interrogation at the airport concerning why he was in London for less than 24 hours! We rented a car and drove an hour or so to Ston. Thankfully Corinne took over navigation, which is often a stress between Ken and I when we travel. She is very skilled with GPS and switching maps and looking stuff up on the fly, so it was a huge relief for me, for all of us. We had been to Ston on the tour (where I won the salt!). It is an ancient village surrounded by miles long walls built to protect the salt production from the Turks. Rinnie wanted to walk these walls, too, which we did the next morning. Well, for a short distance (the full walk would have been about 5 steep miles) because we also wanted to see the national park of Krka on our way to Diklo. On the way to Krka we stopped near Metkovic, at a roadside stand overlooking the huge expanse of agricultural fields. Here we scored figs and candied almonds and orange peels for the road. Oh, my gosh, they were so good.
Krka was glorious: clear rivers, many waterfalls and fishes, and the location of Croatia's first hydroelectric plant, designed by Croat, Nicholas Tesla. We had taken the last boat from the visitor center to the falls that day, so we ended up having to walk about 4 (scenic!) miles back to our car as it was getting dark. Fortunately, the drive from Krka was short to:
This is the village, close to Zadar, from whence Ken's grandfather, Blaz, left 107 years ago. We had studied its streets on Google Maps and booked an apartment from a Petar Matesic who had responded to the email our genealogist sent out. The apartment sits on the main road facing directly into the sea. The names of the contacts were Marin and Joanna (no last name)! So, late and hungry, we arrived in Diklo. Satnav brought us around an unexpected route, over the hill instead of the road by the sea. When it instructed us to turn left, we thought we knew better and turned right. This led us down a progressively narrower passage to a point of no possibility of turning around. Just then the church bells started pealing a block away, as our headlights lit the sign "Ulica Matesica" (Matesich Street)! It was so amazing. It was a wrong turn, but we had landed at the doorstep of Kens' grandfather's home! Ken did some crafty tight maneuvering to get us to the road by the sea. Our calls to Marin and Joanna to get the key to Apartments Matesic would not go through on our cell phones, so we went to the one open restaurant for help and food.
We sat by an open window where a cat casually came and went. I couldn't help myself and burst out to the waiter, "We have come to the town that my husband's grandfather left in 1912! We are so happy to be here!" His waiterly demeanor changed on the spot and we were chatting like old friends about the Matesic family and street. He kindly called Marin for us. It turns out Marin lives on the 3rd floor of the same building as the apartment we stayed in, a couple of blocks from the restaurant. Marin came in while we were eating and told us to enjoy our dinner and he would meet us afterwards at the apartment. We found him waiting there with his father (as it turns out) Petar who does not speak much English. Suddenly realizing, I burst out to Marin, "You're a Matesic too!" They laughed. We are all Matesic! Marin's wife is Joanna Matesic! Never would I have believed there was someone with my same name! Petar said he would come around in the morning and ??take us? tell us? about Rafo Matesic.
I learned from our genealogy research that Rafo is related to Ken, but the family connection with Petar, Marin and Joanna has not been established. We're probably related way back, since we have the same name and are from the same small town. Petar was the one who got the letter from our genealogist, and told her about Rafo. But I though Rafo lived in Zadar, was quite old and I didn't know if we would get to meet him. The next morning Petar knocks on the door and brings us out to Ulica Matesic pointing out various structures. These are made of stone, mostly 8-12 feet wide, often joined, some with patios where grapes, fig trees or gardens grow. He points to one structure, then to Ken and then makes sleeping gesture. This is the home of his grandfather? Another, nearby structure, belongs to his own mother. Pretty soon a woman pushing a baby in a stroller comes up. Petar let out a string of Croatian words. I only understood "Rafo". She must be related to Rafo. Then up walks a gentleman who was Rafo! The woman was Meri, Rafo's daughter (and grandmother to Danjel in the stroller.) She lives in the upper floor of a stone house adjacent to the place that was identified as Ken's family's home. Meri speaks English very well, and was our life line of communication. We all met in her patio and had orange juice. I had brought my family tree in my notebook and showed Rafo where he was on it. His face lit up seeing his name there. We learned he was named Rafael, an Italian name, because Diklo was part of Italy when he was born. In fact, his mother lived in 5 countries, though she never moved once! Rafo had brought what looked like plat maps, showing the structures, dimensions and cross sections of the homes on Ulica Matesic. We don't know if they were city drawn, for municipal purposes, or if he drew them himself. After a fashion we learned this patio, where we sat, was where the Matesic home had stood before Allied bombing in 1944. Rafo had been a boy working in the fields that day. They saw the explosions and fire. Fearing more bombing, everyone stayed in the fields that night. But Rafo, being a boy, sneaked into town and saw the pile of stones that had been his family home. Before Rafo lived there, it had been Blaz’s boyhood home. I was dumbfounded. The tiny stone homes, maybe 12 ft by 12 ft, housed entire families. They told us up to 24 people would live in a small house like this. Sometimes their animals lived there too.
Next Rafo asks to read a poem he wrote for us. It was in Croatian, so, though we felt honored, we had no idea what it said. We looked to Meri and her son, Marko, who had joined us. They looked bewildered, poured over the written poem in hand and both said their English wasn't strong enough to translate. I was feeling anxious by now. Was he saying you American jerks bomb my home and now you want to be my family? Finally, Meri paraphrased: hard things had happened yet we are all a family that wants peace. I took Rafo by both hands and thanked him for the poem. We still haven't gotten it translated, but all the Croats who we've shown it to say it’s "a really good poem" (it rhymes!) and it is a celebration of family.
We also learned that our "tribe" of Matesic is called Kapuralic, which means "the Corporal." Ken and Rafo's great great grandfather, Marko Matesic was a corporal under Napoleon in the early 1800's when Croatia was under French rule. Those who can trace their lineage back to him are considered part of that tribe.
By now you will have guessed, we fell in love with Rafo. 86 years old, modest and stoic, a Renaissance man who never finished school past 6th grade yet writes poetry, builds buildings, keeps track of the village history, had such a voice that folks would come from other villages to hear him sing in church, carves wood and grows food. The bag of mandarins he gave us tasted like no mortal citrus, but maybe that was because we were in love.
Next, we were invited to Rafo's house. The building was two stories with attached garage (where Meri's brother and other son have a business fixing cars) several apartments and workshops. We met Rafo's wife Marija who is suffering from several kinds of cancers, yet she served us snacks and orange juice and was able to navigate the steep stairs. They told us that Rafo would leave cut boards and instructions for Marija. While he went to work, as a building inspector, Marija had built the entire structure, mostly by herself! He gave us carvings he made: the Holy Family for Ken and I, a Madonna (standing on a snake!) for Corinne. Meri showed s a thick book of Rafo's poetry and hymns, written in his neat European script. We cajoled him into singing one of his hymns for us. It strikes me that he is similar to Ken, the artist who creates yet the technician who attends to details, with a wide range of interests and skills and a ridiculously sharp memory for history. Meri, our interpreter, had to leave to work in the fields. I really kind of wanted to join her, be outside on a beautiful day working with plants.
Instead, we spent the afternoon in Zadar. We enjoyed a delicious lunch and a windy sea side walk to where the sea organ played its eerie melodies, until I got cold. We might have called it a day, but when we got back Marin invited us up to their flat. He and Joanna are really wonderful, easy to talk to. Marin has a degree in civil engineering but, since there are no jobs, works in a flooring company. He met his wife Joanna while studying in Vermont. She is Polish. They have two children. She also has a degree and doesn't work in the field of study, but keeps the vacation flat we stayed in. That must keep her busy all summer. It is ideally situated, looking over the Adriatic Sea and is probably especially popular in the warmer seasons.
Petar joined the conversation. We were offered two kinds of brandy that Joanna had made: cherry and walnut. They were curious about our genealogy research. We were curious about Diklo and they were able to tell us quite a lot about its history and customs. They had to get up early to pick olives. The next morning, Ken and Rin and I walked to the cemetery. There was an abundance of Matesic buried there, and so many Mate's and Marija's and Joso's and every other name on the tree. But, even after a kind older man tried to help us, we determined our Mate and Mare Matesic were probably too poor to have had a crypt, and the wooden crosses that marked his great grandparents’ graves must have returned to dust by now.
The church bells were ringing as we headed back so we decided to duck into the back door of the church [name?] and check it out. We had learned from Petar, the night before, that this would have been the church that Blaz attended with his family. There were a bunch of old guys talking up front. One walked up and introduced himself as the parish priest and, learning our connection, welcomed us in and started pointing out all the highlights. He showed us the baptismal fountain Blaz would have been baptized in. He told us that part of the church had been rebuilt since 1912. During the communist times someone set the church on fire. But the sacristan, a boy of 15, rescued precious artifacts and rang the bell to alert the village. The people made a bucket brigade from the sea (like a half mile?) and put out the fire. I was very impressed and said so. He asked if we wanted to meet this person. It was one of the older guys he was talking with when we came in. Ken mentioned he had been a sacristan as a boy and the priest insisted we come have coffee (meaning coffee, brandies and cookies) with him. This turned into an hour-long cultural anthropology exercise of listening to why immigrants are bad and the church is the only way for salvation. I was most impressed with Corinne who asked good open questions. I was amazed with how much Quaker perspective she had absorbed without having talked much about it as she was growing up. The priest did say he was going to look up Quakerism so he could learn more.
That afternoon we drove to Zaton, the village Ken's great grandmother Mare Pesa came from, about a half hour away. Our genealogist said the records were lost from her parish, probably stored in Zadar and burned when it was bombed during WWII. Also, the earlier records (before 1840’s) were written in the Glagolitic script and she couldn't read them. St Cyril created this alphabet in the 9th century (who also "invented" the Cyrillic alphabet), and Bishop Grgur who promoted this alphabet in Croatia, lived in Nin, the next village over. The monks of the 17th century had convinced Rome to let mass be conducted in the local language and church records written in the Glagolitic script long after everyone else had to change to Latin. We didn't find any known Pesa forebears in the cemetery, but it was a lovely quiet town. Years ago, we had been contacted by one of Ken's DNA cousins from Ancestry.com who traces her family back to this village.
We had wanted to drive on to Otok Pag and meet two grandchildren of Blaz's sister, Marija (aka Mare). Mladen had been contacted by our genealogist and wrote to us before we came to Croatia. He sent us copies of pages from a book of Pag genealogy, showing how he fit into our family tree and helping us expand ours. His wife, Sanja, who speaks English, worked that day, so they preferred that they drive to Diklo for a visit, instead of us going there. Mladen’s first cousin (also a granddaughter of Marija), Marica, came with them.
Before they arrived that evening, Petar had arranged for us to be interviewed by the local press! Marin asked if it was okay. We were flattered, of course, but kind of bewildered, is this really new worthy? The journalist arrived with her photographer and we sat out on the patio with Rafo and answered questions. We each confessed to feeling oddly not-shy. Ken brought out historic photographs of Blaz and his father and sisters, which he later sent to the author and they were included in the article. (We had no idea, and were super curious about what Rafo, speaking in Croatian, had said in the interview.)
We had just wrapped up when the Pag Cousins arrived. Marica is a little older than us, and we could tell she was disappointed that we hadn't come to her house. She brought us well-crafted items of crochet she had made, doilies and rosaries. Corinne made an effort to speak directly to her with the help of google translate. For this she won Marica's undying admiration and affection. It was really sweet. She had Rinne "say goodnight" to her husband and speak with son on the phone. She had us all befriend her son on Facebook. She told us, through our patient interpreter, Sanja, that Blaz had sent money from America back to his sister, their grandmother. He once "told her to buy something for the grandchildren" with it. From her gestures, it seems Marica got a blouse. We had no idea if Blaz had kept in touch with the family in Croatia, so it was really moving to learn of this.
Mladen has a round face like Ken. He works as a cook on a cargo ship out of Italy, so is gone for weeks or months at a time. Sanja makes famous Pag cheese. The sheep eat indigenous herbs on the island that gives their milk and cheese a distinct flavor. (It was delicious!) Mladen had a photograph of his grandmother's house which is no longer standing. We used our phones to show each other pictures of our children and other family members, and we all used google maps to show each other photos and maps of our homes. The visit with these wonderful cousins felt all too short. We promised to keep in touch and visit again soon.
The plan was to get up early the next morning and drive to Plitvice National Park. But Marin invited us for coffee and we ended up having a really nice visit and warm farewell with them. We wanted to go to his house and say goodbye to Rafo, but weren't sure it would be all too confusing with the language barrier. Corinne asked Joanna, woman to woman, exploring cross cultural mores. Joanna said she thought it would be good. So we drove to Rafo's house. As we drove, we passed the familiar faces of the grown-up sacristan in his yard, the other man with big hair from the church on a bicycle, and the man in the cemetery walking down the street. It reminded me of the final scene of "Everything is Illuminated." We parked on the very, very narrow street. Rafo was at the wood pile, hammer in hand, sorting boards in his coveralls. When he saw us walk up he smiled and tossed the hammer into the pile, with a gesture of "to hell with work, my people are here!" Ken photographed Rafo in his neat shop. Rafo got a bag out and filled it with Mandarins he picked right off the tree in his yard for us to take. Marija shuffled down the long stairs and kissed us goodbye, European style, on both cheeks. It was such a good feeling of connection. The common language was beyond words.
RETURN TO PLITVICE
A few hours later, after driving the extremely new and easy-to-navigate national roads, we arrive at Plitvicka Jezera (Plitvice Lakes National Park), along with most of the population of Croatia and Japan, as it turns out. It was a sunny visit-your-national-park-day. In short, after parking in the overflow of the overflow lot, we could not even get admission tickets. Ken and I had spent a brief afternoon on the tour there, but it is so amazing, we were happy to go back when Rinne said she really wanted to see it. We had dithered about driving up from Otok Brac, where we had a week’s reservation; it is about a seven-hour round trip drive. But now, that was our only option for seeing it again.
We drove to Split, got dinner and looked around until our ferry left, taking us to Otok Brac shortly after dark. Here we had a week at a resort in Supetar, the last of the time share albatross we were able to get off our necks just this year. We were not disappointed that the big hotel with restaurants had just closed and our cottage on the beach was quiet. That is to say, it was quiet after the wedding party (we thought it was a soccer win celebration at the time) ended late that night. There were car horns blaring, music and shouting until late.
We found the grocery store and bought food to make meals in our kitchen. This included Croatian treats of wine, Paški Sir (cheese from Pag), ripe red tomatoes and Ajvar (a Serbian roasted pepper spread). Mandarins from Rafo and figs and almonds from the roadside stand completed our feasts. Also, it was not a hardship to walk the few blocks to the restaurants near the ferry port that remained open after the end of the tourist season.
We all agreed a day of laundry and rest was in order. So on the following day, Sunday, we enjoyed down time to relax and mull over all we had done and seen and learned in the past weeks…in clean underwear!
After going over our plans and possibilities and the weather forecast, Monday looked like the best day to drive back to Plitvice. Having learned from our mistakes, we booked entrance tickets on line in advance.
A SECOND RETURN TO PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
The day was clear and the crowds were smaller. We three explored the upper lakes and had enough time (and energy) for Corinne and me to take a quick hike through the lower lakes. Since Ken and I had seen the lower lakes on the Road Scholar tour he stayed behind, got real food and rested up from all the driving. He might have snapped one or fifty photographs while he waited for us. The attached photos can describe Plitvice Lakes far better than my mortal words. The unbelievable turquoise water was real, and so clear.
We realized that we would be driving very close to Zadar on our way back to Brac that evening, so maybe could make a short detour and pick up the newspaper that was to run our story that same day. After having no luck in the first three gas stations in Zadar, we were sent to the grocery (like Kmart) store that had a news stand. Ken stayed in the car to rest up for the long drive ahead, while Rinnie and I went in search. At the bottom of a pile of newspapers, I pulled out that day’s Zadarski List. Our photo was on the freaking cover! We practically died laughing in the isle, but managed to purchase both remaining copies without being recognized by the checkout woman, despite our new found fame. We composed ourselves to nonchalantly toss a folded-over copy to Ken. Rinne told him to see if he could find our story in it. He was equally surprised, amused and delighted.
The next ferry out, by the time we arrived in Split, was at midnight. We all curled up in the rented car and slept until it was time to drive on board, and again, napped in the car until we landed in Supetar. Our necks felt like we’d turned into Mestrovic statues, but after our active and exciting day, the sleep was worth it.
Upon Corinne’s suggestion, Ken had signed us up for a cooking class which took place in Split the next morning. We got back on the ferry and met our teacher and one other student, an American woman from Brooklyn, at the green market. Josip was a young man who grew up on Otok Brac. He told us there was nothing to do there as a child but play with stones. He and his friends built a hearth out of stones, figured out how to start a fire, and, finally, asked his mom for some sausages to grill. A chef was born! He now cooks in one of the fine hotels, and teaches tourists his trade.
The green market was a riot of color. Josip picked up some fresh produce for us to prepare and we headed to the fish market. As you may know of me, I am a desert rat and the only fish I ate growing up was the stick form found in school lunches. In the fish market, it all looked very squishy and icky and there were schools of glazed eyeballs staring up at me. And it smelled, well, like fish. But I wanted to be a good sport, so Josip loaded up.
We walked a few blocks to the secondary/trade school that housed the cooking school that Josip had graduated from. We started with a brandy, of course, and a snack of prosciutto and cheese. Then we got down to work. I started the bread. Corinne started the butternut squash soup. Ken got desert started. Our new American friend wanted to learn to clean and cook fish. While I was mixing and kneading, Ken heated sugar until it melted, then peeled an orange and a lemon and used the rinds to flavor the flan-like desert. Corinne cut up the squash and set on a pile of onions to peel and chop. Aisha gutted and cut the heads off sea bass. She cleaned the shrimp and our teacher tossed the fish heads and shrimp exoskeletons into a pot of water. She also filleted and took the scales off some other kind of fish. We used the juice from the dessert citrus to turn this raw fish into what we know as ceviche. I peeled potatoes and chopped more onions. Josip had a large jar of chopped garlic in olive oil that went, generously, into all of the savory dishes.
Before we knew it, we were sitting down to a meal of fish stew, ceviche, butternut squash soup, Croatian greens (like chard) cooked with potatoes, shrimp risotto, fresh bread and a custard-like desert. OMG it was delicious. Even the fish!
Through dinner we told our Diklo story to the group. The teacher-cook said his grandfather, father and uncles had moved to Australia in the early 1900s when a grape blight nearly ended the vineyard industry in Croatia. There one of his forebears bred a vine that was resistant to the blight and brought it back to Brac. He gave us a special bottle of white wine from his family vineyard on Brach to share with our meal.
THE OLIVE OIL MUSEUM
Of the many places we visited on Otok Brac, we were especially taken with the Olive Museum. Even though it was a holiday, All Saints Day on November 1, our concierge called the museum and they welcomed us to come over for a tour. The man who ran the museum, the owner, was busy pressing the new harvest with his modern Oliomio, a modern electric olive press, between giving tours. With this machine he produced high quality extra virgin olive oil. The first thing we did was learn the qualifications for oil to get this classification. Olives must be pressed within 24 hours from being picked. Correction, we learned this after an introduction to the museum that included, you guessed it, brandy! Our guide was such a nice person, and we felt kind of bad to keep him away from his work. His task couldn’t be put off without losing his extra virgin certification. But he was skilled at multi-tasking, and gave us a most informative tour. There were paintings all around the original equipment, illustrating the pressing process as it was done by his great grandparents. Oil was made by grinding the olives with a stone wheel (Corinne got to move it!) and pressing the ground olives in sisal rope bags up until oil ran out and was collected in a stone vat. This was how olive oil was made, on this very equipment, until the 1960’s. Our guide told us that before he made the museum, he was considering turning the building into a bed and breakfast. In the end he decided a museum would be lucrative and preserve some of his island’s heritage. We were so glad he did (and told him so!) He set us up upstairs at a table with a flask of wine, a loaf of fresh bread, brined green olives, two kinds of olive oil, two kinds of olive tapenade and two kinds of jam made by his wife and daughters. Meanwhile he attended his Oliomio. We couldn’t believe we paid about $6 each for the whole experience. As we were leaving, I asked about why our cousins stored their olives in brine. He was very curious that we had cousins in Croatia, so the Diklo story came out. You can preserve olives in brine if you can’t press them right away was his answer. Ken wanted to give him a tip and we had picked out little bottles of oil and brandy to buy, but he turned down the tip and forced the little bottles into Ken’s hands, saying, you are family, you don’t need to pay! Again, the local people seem so touched that we returned to the fatherland to learn about our roots. It was really amazing and heart-warming.
We found the trail to the monastery at the end of a very long dirt road. It was founded by three Glagolitic priests who were fleeing the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. They hid in a cave for years, eventually building a monastery, complete with vineyards, olive groves, gardens, flocks of sheep and goats, and a honey bee industry. It remains inaccessible by car. You can either hike down about 2.5 km from the dirt road, or hike up an equal distance from the sea. It remained an active monastery until the 1960’s.
We hiked in on a steep rocky trail, careful not to skate on the loose stones covering the trail. Corinne said the trail of her trail run was just like this. Yikes! We first heard the tinkling of sheep bells a good distance before we saw the stone walls and vineyards, fig and olive trees of the monastery. We rang a bell at the entrance, a man pops his head out a window high above us (like arriving at the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz) and invited us in. It was as if we stepped into a time capsule. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph inside. The first structure the monks built was the kitchen, attached to their cave home. The rock ceiling was thick with ages of cooking fire smoke. With 30 locals, they built an elaborate stone structure housing living and sleeping rooms, a library, an armory, a one-roomed school and, of course, a chapel.
The school room looked to have about a dozen desks facing a chalk board and abacus in the front. Children from three villages walked many miles to attend the school. Their daily tuition was a log for the fire to stay warm in winter. It was the monastery’s custom to only barter; no money was ever exchanged for goods and services. A kilo of cheese was worth a kilo of honey was worth a kilo of wool was worth a kilo of wine, etc. Our guide’s mother had attended the school as a child. He said she never saw the inside of the monastery except for the school room and chapel.
The brothers were very successful bee keepers in the day. They kept careful records on the production of each of the hives, and were able to modify the settings to improve their honey production. The arsenal was equipped with ancient long guns and short guns to fight off the ubiquitous pirates.
The last priest, Nicola Milicevic, was from a long line of priests whose position at the monastery was passed down from uncle to nephew for several hundred years. He was trained as a scientist in Vienna. He brought a grand piano by donkey-back up from the sea port, as well as a very heavy looking Viennese ceramic room heater, a big desk and, best of all, according to Ken, a telescope. He took advantage of his science background and the dark skies of Otok Brac to study the heavens. He discovered several asteroids and a comet that was named for him. The library was packed with books dating from the 1600’s all the way to Nicola’s publications in science journals from the 1950s, and 60s. We also saw books in the library that recorded his astronomical observations in his own hand. The guide noted Ken’s interest and showed us the telescope, in its original packaging, and the telescope mount outside the chapel. Ken recognized the make and model. He had inherited a telescope from his own father of the same vintage. We paid for the tour on our way out. I gave our guide one of Rafo’s mandarins that I’d hiked in with, in the spirit of bartering.
On Our Way Home
As all good things must come to an end, the day came where Ken and I accompanied Corinne and her giant backpack on the ferry to Split. She spent the night in Diocletian’s palace (that girl knows how to travel!) before she flew out of Split the next morning. Ken and I spent our last light on Otok Brac, doing our best to finish off the groceries and treats before taking the ferry to Split, returning the rental car and taking a bus to Zagreb for our flight home.
Since our return flight was out of Zagreb, we also met up with Emil the night before we left to fly home. He had suggested that he could pick us up from the bus station. Then he and Ken could go out and talk Hendrix and I could hang out with his daughter. I'm thinking I don't want to hang out with some kid whose father put her in this awkward situation. Besides, I was exhausted from too much human contact for 3 weeks and relished being by myself in the hotel, attending to a threatening bladder infection.
Emil could not meet us at the bus, after all, because his ex-wife's father fell ill and had to be hospitalized (we think he said "for dyslexia" but probably something was lost in translation!) He texted us later, while we were scouting the area near our hotel for dinner, and offered to pick us up and take us to a restaurant nearby. He pulls his car right up on the sidewalk in front of our hotel, scattering pedestrians, jumps out and runs around to open the front door for me and has Ken push aside some stuff off the back seat so he could sit there (which cracks us up.) I ask how he's been and he goes into this melodramatic rant about how Americans always ask but don't really want to know, that he is so depressed he can hardly get out of the bed in the morning. I think he was being darkly amusing.
Overall, communicating with Emil was a living lesson in cultural Anthropology for us. For example, when he complained about immigrants, I learned to calm the standing hairs on my back and ask open ended questions on how he came to feel this way. Croatia is not America, after all. I learned, the hard way, not to ask casually how the war affected him (felt like a dunderhead!) Corinne had done some research before her trip and taught us that if a Croat complains, the best response it to complain right along with them. It is our Protestant sensibilities, according to Corinne, that makes us uncomfortable with angst and makes us want to "make everything better" by couching problems in a different, hopeful light. But that makes them feel like we don't care about their struggles.
We had an amazing dinner and then Emil wanted to drive us around and show us Zagreb at night. At some point, we must have consented to going over to his daughter's flat which she shares with her mother, his ex-wife. He said he has too much stuff in his apartment (like we would care!) to invite us there. Even though it was late and we were exhausted from a six hour bus ride (with one bathroom break) and had to catch a plane early the next morning, there seemed to be no way out.
It turned out to be one of the best evenings of our whole vacation. Vita, Emil's 26 year-old daughter, met us at the door. She was wearing the stone bracelet, that I had Ken give Emil, around her neck as a necklace. She had every bit of Emil's big and warm personality, except for where Emil is dark, maybe bruised, she is full of light. She very much wanted to entertain us. So Ken asked for tea and we sat in her cozy kitchen drinking hot tea. She brought out the traditional Croatian brandies, which we had been offered at every event, no matter what time of day or night. We talked late into the night. We learned that Emil had made Vita listen to Jimi Hendrix, in the car and very loud, but that she likes his music. We learned that Emil's father was a famous singer who was exiled from then Yugoslavia for dissidence. (I wonder if that’s why he was alarmed by my suggestion that I post his clandestine performance on you tube!) We learned Emil was trained in Kiev as a pianist, and that Vita had just finished her two degree studies (voice and piano) in Vienna. She was preparing to audition for a world-wide piano competition in Brussels. Ken offered his advice, audio and photographic, on preparing a preliminary audition video. Mid evening, Vita's mother joined us. She is an actress and came home late from a stage performance, as lovely and warm a person as Vita.
Emil asked us if we wanted to hear Vita play before we left. We did not know what to expect, not really having much experience or even opinions about classical piano music. We go into her little bedroom, just big enough for her bed and a grand piano, and she begins to play. I didn't actually weep, but was profoundly moved. She played a Debussy piece that was clearly inspired by Manet and pointillism: the notes were all over the place, happy, sad, dark and light, flowing yet staccato. It felt like much more than music, much more than notes on a piano. It turned out to be another amazing moment of our trip. Just when we thought our adventure to Croatia can't get any better, something unexpected like this would happen.