Italy in July is hot and crowded. You can spend two hours in Florence looking for an affordable hotel and end up in a stuffy room on Via Cavour, where the whine of motor scooters keeps you awake all night. The next morning the line at the Academia to see Michaelangelo's "David" is 45 minutes long and passes in front of postcards with close-ups of the statue's genitalia. This is not the Italy you remember and love.
And so, on a muggy morning in early July you change your plans. Forget the Italian hill towns! You will take an earlier train to Ancona and catch the ferry that very evening to Croatia.You board the "Dubrovnik" and cross the Adriatic in the dark. In the morning the ferry pulls into Split. You catch another ferry to Brac.
There are 1,185 islands off the coast of Croatia, 66 of them inhabited. You could fall in love with any of them but Brac is the one you choose.
To be a tourist in Croatia in 1998 is to be in an enviable position, although, of course, it means benefiting from an entire country's misfortune.
Before the war, Croatia had 10 million visitors a year. Although relatively few Americans ventured there, Croatia's coast - full of island resorts and postcard-perfect fishing towns - was a popular vacation spot for Europeans, especially Germans, Austrians and Italians. But tourists stopped coming when war broke out in the early 1990s. Although the islands saw no fighting, getting to them meant passing through war zones.
The war has been over for five years now, but German and Austrian tourists have been slow to come back. In their place come Hungarians and Czechs and Poles. You see them driving their beat-up Ladas off the ferry, the cars filled to the brim with supplies. Every tourist is welcome in Croatia these days, but shopowners will confide that the new tourists - the ones from the old communist countries - are not as free with their money as the Germans used to be. They bring their own food and buy little else.
For Americans, Croatia's coast is uncrowded and a bargain. Unspoiled by smog or heat or success.
You could choose any of the islands. Krk. Hvar. Mljet. A whole coast dotted with islands whose only failing is a paucity of vowels. You could take a ferry from Venice to Rab, in Croatia's northern Adriatic region, or just drive from Italy, past Trieste and then down the former Yugoslavian coast. You could take an overnight ferry from Ancona, Pescara or Bari in Italy, landing in the area of Croatia known as Dalmatia.
It's not likely I would have thought to vacation in Dalmatia if it hadn't been for my friends the Hladys. Milena, Vlado and Nikola Hlady, originally from Croatia's capital, Zagreb, have lived in Utah since 1988. Ever since I've known them, Milena has talked about her country's riviera. When will you come, she has asked every year.
It's too far away, I'd say. It's the war, I said for several years after that. But by the summer of 1998 I could no longer think of a reason not to go. Milena assured me that the fighting in Kosovo has no bearing on Croatia. And her family would be in Croatia in July, including a week on the island of Brac. Another Salt Lake friend would be traveling in Europe in July, too. I could meet her in Paris and head east.
How could I not go? Croatia sounds exotic but not impossible, offering an aura of danger without the danger itself.
We are charmed the moment we arrive. Brac (pronounce it Brach, like the ch in chair) is sparse in just the right ways: dry, pristine, dotted with olive trees and vineyards, criss-crossed by low stone walls assembled without mortar. The smell of pine is everywhere, and during the day the cicadas are as loud as sleigh bells. The sky is desert-blue; the sea, as clear as bottled water, a startling shade of teal; bright purple bougainvillea cascades down terrace walls. The houses are made of marble or oatmeal-colored limestone outlined with gray mortar. The marble is so renowned it was used to build the White House.
Our little village is called Bol. It's as old as the Roman Empire but also has an Internet Cafe. We have an outdoor produce market, a fishing harbor, a movie theater where films are shown on the roof on summer nights. There is virtually no traffic, just an occasional moped or delivery truck. Nearly everyone speaks some English.
After several lean years, Bol is beginning to bustle again. Small cement mixers churn in vacant lots. The Hotel Kastil is getting a complete overhaul. Still, there are probably only half the number of tourists as there were before the war, so you might expect, as a tourist, to be hustled. But, in fact, there is no intrusiveness here, only politeness and even generosity. One of us buys an ice cream cone and the vendor gives the other of us a free one. The same thing happens one morning when we try to buy just one peach.
Yes there are Chicago Bulls hats for sale in the little bazaar by the harbor, and a few stalls that sell marble, jewelry and lavender oil. But it doesn't feel like a tourist trap. No need, here, to wear your passport belt under your clothes, plastered to your skin by sweat. We see no evidence of crime or drugs.
At the south end of Bol is Zlatni Rat, a little triangular peninsula whose name means Golden Cape. The beaches are covered with what Milena calls Goldilocks pebbles (not too big, not to small but just the right size). In the center of the triangle a pine forest provides welcome shade. On days when the wind is blowing too hard on one side of the peninsula you just walk to the other side.
There is windsurfing and para-sailing but, mercifully, no waterskiers or jet skis. You can rent pedalboats with a surprising feature: instead of a canopy there is a large slide that launches you into the water.
The Hladys opt to stay in one of the village's five hotels (average price about $60 per person during high season). We choose to get a room in a private house - arranged through the town's Turist Biro - for $11 a night per person. Our house is a five-minute walk uphill from town. "Non-stop," a woman named Mina tells us as she points to the hot water heater in our bathroom. It's her only English word.
She points to a table on the veranda. She brings us oranges, vodka, water, grape syrup. We can see the Adriatic across the roof-tops.
Later that evening we meet the professor. Retired and partially toothless, the professor used to teach high school and translate Russian medical texts. Now he owns the house where we rent our room. In the mornings he sits on the veranda and studies English grammar. He is proud of his house. He points to the engraved Croatian coat of arms carved into the marble railing.
He tries to tell us about the war. "My house. Banja Luca. Six men. Guns. Please. Please. From that moment, me, diabetes."
Mina, he tells us, lost a son in the war, and another son lost a leg. The professor lost a house and a Ford Escort. We are greedy for details but have to settle for the professor's string of nouns and Mina's shy smile.
It is dark when we walk from the professor's house down to the harbor for dinner. From every house we hear a TV, and on every TV the Croatian soccer team is running up and down a field in France trying to win the World Cup.
Suddenly, as we make our way down the hill, we hear a roar. And then the pop of fireworks. Robert Jarni has scored a goal. It's Croatia 1, Germany 0.
A few days later I will get an e-mail at the Internet Cafe from my American friend Scott, who will tell me that he watched the game, too, and that the announcer - knowing how much Americans love underdogs - explained that Germany has as many registered soccer players in its country as Croatia has people. Scott has recently visited Serbia; there were bad guys on all sides in the war, he says. He is chagrined by how black-and-white the announcer makes the war sound.
But tonight, on Bol, we find ourselves caught up in a young country's pride. On the terrace above the Pizzeria Studenac a crowd of young people sings a pep song to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In." A half-dozen young men have painted their faces with red and white checks, like the Croatian flag.
We cheer when Croatia scores another goal, and then another. We clap when the teenagers with the red and white faces march to the boat dock, banging on drums. There are more fireworks.
It is, we remember, the Fourth of July.
You can ruin a vacation with your expectations: the Italian hill towns, the Florence you remember from your college semester abroad, the way the sun would be shining in some piazza.
But I had no expectations about Croatia at all.
I was free to enjoy all of its surprises: the stone houses, the perfect water, the ease of everything; the scorpion fish we ate on a day excursion to Vis; even the hydrofoil that made us seasick on the way back; the pedalboats with the slide; the full moon that rose over an Adriatic that was as clear and still as a mirror.
If you go to Croatia
Getting there: Take a ferry from Italy (Ancona or Pescara to Split or Zadar; Bari to Dubrovnik). Croatia's Jadrolinija has both overnight and daytime ferries, depending on the day, that take 7 to 10 hours and cost about $45 per person on deck, $90 per person for a sleeping compartment. You can drive from Italy to Rijeka and take a ferry down the coast, stopping at various islands. Or you can fly to Dubrovnik and take a ferry up the coast. Driving the coast - about 250 miles from Rijeka to Dubrovnik - is slow, on winding roads.
Lodging: The most economical, and colorful, are private rooms in private homes, available through the Turist Biro (tourist bureau) on each island. In Bol on the island of Brac, private rooms are $15 per person per night for 1-3 days; $11 a night for longer stays. Our room had an adjacent bathroom that was exclusively for our use.
Who to contact: Atlas Travel out of Dubrovnik has comprehensive information (Atlas Travel, Miha Klaica 2, 20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia; 385-20-442-222; ([email protected])). Also the Split/Dalmatia Tourist Board, 385-21-362-561. Or try (www.dalmatia-mid.com).
Don't miss: Dubrovnik, "the jewel of Dalmatia." The old city, founded in the 7th century, is still enclosed by a massive stone wall; its cobbled streets are open only to pedestrians and feel like a living museum. First stop on the guided walking tours is a map showing the exact location of every bomb and shelling of the city during the eight months when it was under fire from Serb forces. About 75 percent of the damage has been repaired. We stayed in Lapad, a beachside suburb, 10 minutes by bus from the old town. From mid-July through August Dubrovnik's Summer Festival offers concerts, ballet and Shakespeare. - Elaine Jarvik