** CROATIA 2008 - Weeks 6~7 **
CROATIA 2008 - Southern Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and the Montenegrin border:
The ferry from Brač back to the mainland at Makarska was busy with heavy lorries, and a brisk SE gale whipped up the normally calm Adriatic. Murky grey cloud obscured the spectacular Biokovo mountain range which lines the coast behind Makarska. Regaining the Magistrala Adriatic Highway, we headed south to stay for a couple of days at Camping Čiste near to Drvenik, a straightforward site on a small wooded headland just above the shore; it was a delightful spot and the welcome was warmly hospitable. And the views, with shingle bays, crystal clear seas, and bare limestone mountains towering above the rocky coastline, were simply stunning (Photos 1 & 2 - mountainous coastline south of Camp Čiste ). The following morning an horrendous thunderhead of cloud passed down the coast, and as it cleared, the outline of Hvar island was silhouetted against the horizon against a truly Big Sky (Photo 3 - Big Sky after the storm). Approaching sunset, this Big Sky became even more dramatic with gleaming silver, black-grey and salmon-pink clouds over the Adriatic (Photo 4 - sunset clouds over Adriatic). The setting and weather for our stay at Camping Čiste on this rocky coastline had been truly inspirational.
For the next stage of our journey south, we crossed by ferry to the Pelješac peninsula, a narrow and mountainous finger of land which stretches 90 kms northwards from near Dubrovnik, parallel with the mainland. The ferry across to Trpanj on the NE coast of Pelješac sails from the port of Ploče. Now Rough Guide is not exaggerating in describing Ploče as 'one of the few genuine eyesores on the Adriatic coast'. The port had been developed in the Tito years to serve the inland industrial centres of the Balkans. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, the port lost much of its business; its industry declined, leaving a now neglected and sorrowful-looking town. Unlike other Jadrolinija boats, the ferry from Ploče was not ro-ro and vehicles had to back on from the narrow quay ready to drive off at Trpanj. Across on the peninsula, the terraced slopes lining the mountain roads are filled with vines which produce the red wine for which Pelješac is renowned; the stunted woody vine stocks were just beginning to brighten with this year's new green leaf-growth (Photo 5 - new growth on Pelješac vines).
As we passed over the mountainous spine of the peninsula, the panorama of coastline, islands and distant town of Orebić, backed by the 3,000 feet bare limestone outline of Mount Sveti Ilija, spread out before us. Our base for NW Pelješac was to be Camping Nevio close to Orebić. Nevio was certainly another of our favourite sites: the family was welcoming and helpful, the setting on terraces above this beautiful shoreline was delightful, and to cap it all, the campsite produces a fruity red Pelješac wine from its own vines; simply take along a mineral water bottle for filling. And we did, to accompany our first BBQ of this trip on a still, warm evening. The 2 km walk into Orebić passes around a delightful lungomare which looks out across the clear waters of the bay, and the shore is lined with glowing mesembryanthemums and the air scented with orange blossom. We caught the passenger ferry for a day over on the nearby island of Korčula, whose old town has a long and distinguished history, reputed to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. As we pulled away from Orebić harbour, the views of the craggy heights above were magnificent (Photo 6 - Orebić harbour backed by Mount Sv Ilija). When we landed at Korčula town, the quayside TIC was up to the usual Croatian standard of unhelpful frankness: no, we don't have any town plans, nor any information at all for that matter; but you can have a useless glossy brochure in Italian. The old town was a quaintly compact grid of alleyways covering a small headland and approached by the Town Gate and Revelin Tower, part of the original Venetian fortifications (Photo 7 - Town Gate, Korčula town). The Cathedral of St Marks was a pot pourri of architectural styles and features, and the town museum opposite in a former Venetian palace did its utmost to portray historical life on Korčula; its only real displays of interest were a 4th century BC engraved tablet (copy, original in Zagreb inevitably) regulating land distribution in the original Greek colony, and WW2 photos of local Partisans with British emissary Fitzroy McClean. And that was about it for Korčula: even Marco Polo's house was now in ruins (no wonder he went to China - there was little to detain him on Korčula). We saw nothing of the much promoted Moreška sword dance traditional to Korčula; perhaps the ordinary working chaps who perform it during the summer for the tourists revert to being accountants and lawyers during the off-season. And an uninspiring lunch did little to help while away the afternoon waiting for the 7-00 pm boat back to Orebić.
The chill Bura wind blew gustily as we departed Orebić to drive down the mountainous length of the Pelješac peninsula. Set on a high wooded crest looking down a long valley to the sea, we found the Partisan memorial, commemorating the many from Pelješac killed during WW2: the memorial was very much of its period with a bronze frieze depicting scenes of German oppression, organised Partisan resistance and family joy at liberation. Interestingly, the Tito quotation involving the name of Yugoslavia had been partly defaced.
The road dropped steeply down a narrow valley between barren limestone hills whose sides were filled with terraces of vines, and finally reached Ston. This little town gained wealth and importance in medieval times as a salt-producing centre from the salt-pans which still exist in the shallows of the sea inlet. Dubrovnik absorbed Ston into its Republic in the 14th century both for the riches of its salt trade and as a fortified outpost guarding the Republic's northern frontier. Massive defensive walls were constructed over and around the hill above Ston, linking to a bastion on the landward sea inlet where the village of Mali Ston grew up. The walls of Ston still trail dramatically over the high craggy hill above the little town looking like a medieval Messene, and culminating in an apex of restored walling (Photo 8 - the medieval defensive walls of Ston). Clearly these 14th century wall builders knew their trade. The town had suffered much structural damage in the 1996 earthquake and many of the buildings remain in a derelict state today. The network of narrow streets had a sad and run-down air as if the progress and prosperity that benefited places elsewhere in Croatia had simply passed Ston by. How many travellers to or from Dubrovnik paused now to give Ston even a passing glance? From the town a restored walkway climbs up to the apex of the fortification walls, showing the impressive masonry and views across the Ston salt-pans. Similarly you can walk uphill from Mali Ston alongside the northern section of walls looking out across the mussel and oyster beds out in the bay.
Campsites are few and far between around here. The excellent Prapratno Camping set in a beautiful bay near the ferry port to Mljet, was not yet officially open (though we later learned we could in fact have stayed there). We had reference however to tiny Camp Ficovic at the fishing village of Hodilje. A telephone call confirmed they were open, and with some uncertainty we edged down to the quayside; here we found the rusting remains of caravans shoe-horned into a garden, but a space was found for our camper. One of the caravans had an UNHCR sticker; it would seem that in the tourist boom of the 1980s, Ficovic had indeed been a campsite (it still had the basic infrastructure, albeit now rather woe-begone), but with the 1991~5 war, the site had been requisitioned to accommodate refugees from the Serbian shelling and filled with caravans accordingly. And 16 years later, here it all was, at least the remains, as if preserved in a time warp, like Ston itself sadly left behind by the onward march of events in modern independent Croatia. Perhaps we were one of the few visitors the family had seen since those dreadful days of the 1990s, but the hospitable welcome we received was truly humbling.
Rejoining the busy Magistrala on the mainland, we continued our journey south along this spectacular coastline with its barren mountainous backdrop, and the azure-blue Adriatic shimmering in the sunlight. We paused at the Renaissance sub-tropical gardens at Trsteno, originally laid out around his villa by a Dubrovnik aristocrat, confiscated in 1948 by the Tito regime and now maintained as an arboretum by the Croatian Academy of Sciences. You'll know when you've got there by the huge 400 year old plane trees in the centre of the village. The exotic trees and blossoms are certainly worth a visit.
As we rounded a bend approaching Dubrovnik, there ahead was the elegant suspension bridge opened in 2002 and, seemingly to Dubrovnik's embarrassment, named after Franjo Tuđman; the city avoids this name at the southern end. The Magistrala shelves across the mountainside high above Dubrovnik, giving a magnificent bird's eye panorama of the old city enclosed within its mighty defensive walls and towers (Photo 9 - Dubrovnik old town viewed from the Magistrala). Beyond, the road drops staggeringly down to the coast to a clutch of small resorts, and here at Mlini we found Camping Kate. This was another campsite with all you could wish for: a genuinely warm welcome, all the information you needed for your visit - city plans, bus details and times, clean facilities, and a setting in a paradise garden of Mediterranean plants and the air filled with the scent of orange blossom - and all for 88 kuna (Ł9) a night. We sat out on a still, warm and peaceful evening for our BBQ supper with candles flickering on the table. Sheer heaven.
The following day, we caught the #10 local bus back along to Dubrovnik, setting off early to avoid the inevitable tourist crowds. Even the campsite warden admitted that siege by cruise ships was Dubrovnik's current day mixed blessing and curse. The city was first settled in the 7th century AD by refugees fleeing the Slavic invasions. Known then as Ragusa, the city was governed by an aristocratic oligarchy with a nominal head of state, the Rector. By paying annual tribute to neighbouring great powers, the Ragusan Republic prospered from commerce, building up a trading empire around the Mediterranean. Mercantile wealth led to a golden age of Renaissance culture when many of the city's landmark buildings (such as the Rector's Palace and Sponza Palace) were added, along with the mighty network of defensive walls and fortifications, designed by who else but Juraj Dalmatinac, that itinerant master mason of the Adriatic seaboard. A major earthquake in 1667 destroyed much of Dubrovnik killing 5,000 citizens, and the city was rebuilt with the orderly Baroque grid-plan of elegant town houses and churches seen today. Feuds between the old and nouveau-riche aristocracy led to Ragusa's decline and the city-state was dissolved by Napoleon in 1808. The 1815 Congress of Vienna awarded Dubrovnik to Habsburg Austro-Hungary, and in 1918 it finally became part of Yugoslavia.
It seemed unlikely that Dubrovnik would be affected by Yugoslavia's break-up, but in October 1991 the Serbian Yugoslav National Army (JNA), supported by irregulars from Montenegro and Serb-dominated eastern Hercegovina (only there for the plunder), occupied the high ground of Mount Syđ overlooking the city. The siege of Dubrovnik lasted until May 1992 with artillery shells raining down onto the old city and snipers killing civilians in the streets. Serb military illogic considered Dubrovnik an easy target, damaging Croatian morale and breaking resistance elsewhere in the country. But Dubrovnik's defences stubbornly held and a Croatian offensive from the north finally broke the siege driving out the Serbs and re-uniting the region with the rest of the Croatian homeland. The senseless and wantonly barbaric damage inflicted by the Serbs on the historic heart of the old city was enormous. International financial support enabled reconstruction to begin almost at once, but repairs left Dubrovnik to shoulder a monumental burden of debt, and tourism, its major source of income, took several years to recover. There are now few visible signs of war damage, other than the aesthetic one: the charactersome varied and time-worn subtle tones of those old roof pan-tiles not ruined in the shelling now contrast starkly with the even garish orange-red of the new replacement tiles used to repair the damage caused by Serb aggression.
We entered the old city by the medieval Pile Gate and began the 2 km circuit of the city walls. With their sheer height and bulk and huge defensive towers, one could not fail to be impressed; they had saved Dubrovnik from Ottoman invaders in the 16th century and protected its citizens from Serb bombardment in the late 20th century. Viewed from the wall-walk, the old town below was a continuous ocean of terra cotta roof tiles (Photo 10 - Dubrovnik's pan-tiled panorama), but the marked divergence in tones of the old and replacement tiles was clearly visible (Photo 11 - old and replacement roofing tiles). The pan-tiled vista was dominated by the heights of Mount Syđ towering above; one could see how from that vantage point, Serb artillery and snipers had a perfect line of sight down onto the medieval-Baroque town (Photo 12 - Dubrovnik old town overshadowed by Mount Syđ ). It was a frightful prospect.
The view down the length of Stradun, the old town's main thoroughfare, was dominated by the Franciscan monastery's bell-tower and Onofrio's Large Fountain which had supplied the medieval city with water and did so again in 1991 when the Serb siege cut off water supplies (Photo 13 - Stradun and the Onofrio Fountain, viewed from the city walls). On the seaward side of the walls, one could see small cafe terraces set up on the rocks down at sea level with the coast southwards stretching away into the distance (Photo 14 - city walls on the seaward side). Around on the northern side, the walls gained height dramatically to the corpulent concentric turrets of the Minčeta Fortress; from this vantage point one could contrast the Baroque charms of the pan-tiled old town with the traffic ridden modern city outside the walls (Photo 15 - old and new Dubrovnik).
After such an unbelievably memorable day in glorious sunshine, seeing Dubrovnik's medieval and Baroque buildings and mighty defensive walls, and picturing the pointlessly wanton destruction inflicted by the Serbs in 1991~2 and the heroic defence and reconstruction mounted by the Croatians, we caught our bus back to the peace of Camping Kate at Mlini 6 kms to the south.
We had come so far down the length of the Dalmatian seaboard; we had to complete this stage of our journey by continuing to the southernmost tip of Croatia at Kotor Bay. Past the resort town of Cavtat and Dubrovnik's airport at Čilipi, the traffic thinned noticeably. The road to the Montenegrin border-crossing ran along a broad fertile valley, hemmed in on both sides by mountain ridges. Soon after the southernmost township of Gruda, we approached the border, but the only noteworthy feature here was that visitors crossing from Montenegro into now capitalist Croatia are greeted with a huge credit card advertisement. Montenegro's independence achieved 2 years ago ironically further diminished Serbian expansionist ambitions, as has the recent secession of Kosovo - the final chapter in the tragic serial of Yugoslavia's break-up. To reach the true southernmost point, we turned off on a minor road along the coastal ridge into a final thin sliver of Croat territory which continued further south for some 10 kms, running parallel with the national frontier. Beyond the last farming settlement, the lane narrowed to single-track; would we get through to the coast at Kotor Bay? The lane dipped suddenly to a curious road junction: to the left a wider road ran around a headland into Montenegro; the same road to the right was the very last strip of Croatia. The junction was the frontier - no barriers, no border guards, nothing dramatic at all. And continuing round the coast to a former Yugoslav army base, now ironically an adventure playground (commercial enterprise having supplanted military necessity in the spirit of the times), we reached the closest we could get to Cape Oštri, a small concrete jetty overlooking Kotor Bay - the southernmost tip of Croatia (Photo 16 - George at Cape Oštri, the southernmost tip of Croatia).
This was the turning point of our
trip, and after a night's camp at the tiny harbour of Molunat,
enjoying the orange-blossom scented haven of Camping Adriatic, we
should begin the return journey. From here, it would be northward
all the way, more or less. But more of that in the next episode.