Thursday, June 6, 2013

Croatia –Brac: Island of Stone, Sunshine, and Sea

May 21-22, 2013
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On this island man and stone have lived and fought each other from time immemorial. This island is my rock. Olives writhe and cypresses slumber in its cracks. Today fewer vineyards burst into leaf on its terraced slopes and, in the spring, fewer lively goats and unruly colts riotously race each other in its grassy vales.
From Brac: Island of Stone, Sunshine and Sea by Peter Simunovic

Brac Island is not one of the most popular Adriatic tourist destinations. If you pick up the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe, which includes Croatia, Brac isn’t even included, despite the fact that it’s the largest Dalmatian island – you have to refer to the Croatia-only edition. There’s no rockin’ nightlife – but if you want rock, there is plenty here. Brac’s biggest claim to fame is its marble quarry which helped build Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and the White House – yes, THAT White House, in Washington, D.C., USA.

Why did we go there, instead of to one of the other, more enticing islands? Because we were on a mission to find the birthplace of Mark’s gloomy Croatian grandmother, Elena Pavlov Thomas. She was born in Lozisce. So how would you, assuming you are one of our American friends, pronounce this town’s name?

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Here’s a clue: in the Croatian language there are no silent letters and no long vowels. Each accent mark means something, and every sound is consistent throughout the language, making it “simpler than English.”
Give up? Ok, here’s a hint. Pretend that you have been drinking the local wine. This will make it a LOT easier. Now say, “Lo-zis-cha.” Try again, and blur the syllables.

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Ok, try another. Take another sip and say, all at once, “Bobo-vist-cha.” And again, but slur a bit more. There, I think we’ve got it. Close enough. You are now speaking Croatian.

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To get there, we took our rental car on the ferry from Split to Supetar. The grey weather was a harbinger of what was to come, but we didn’t mind. We weren’t there for the beaches; we were there to find a house, and to search a graveyard for a familiar name.  Besides, as all sailors know, overcast skies make for good eating and drinking weather.

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After our arrival in Supetar and the briefest of cruises through Supetar, we headed uphill for Lozisce.We found the village easily, just a few kilometers over the hill. It was hard to miss, with the imposing bell tower. We drove through, and it seemed deserted.

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Atop the highest rise, overlooking the town, we saw the cemetery. We stopped and searched for the Pavlov name and were not disappointed. But I am getting ahead of the story.

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There are three villages here, closely linked in both history and geography: Lozisce, on the steep hill, Bobovisce, in the ravine, and Bobovisce na Moru, on the sea. We had rented an apartment overlooking the water for two nights in Bobovisce na Moru. Not sure which way to proceed, we called the proprietress who told us to head back the way we came and then take a left downhill. As we headed down the ravine into the secluded bay, I could hardly believe my eyes, it was so picture perfect.

Croatia - Brac (18)As soon as we entered our apartment, I felt like I could live there. It was one bedroom, with a small bathroom and combined kitchen, dining, and living room, but there was a balcony with a gorgeous view of the bay. This is what I miss, living in Abu Dhabi. Outdoor space outside my own door. Plus, there was a terraced garden – oh, how I miss having a garden! What else can I say, the place just felt like home. We quickly settled in.

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Before long, a cruising sailboat, one of the few that we would see on Brac, motored up through the long inlet and tied up at the quiet dock across the way where there were three restaurants, two open and the other, closed.

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We had a late lunch, hung out in the restaurant while it rained, then took a walk up a dirt road leading away from the harbor. This road, had we walked further, would have taken us up to Bobovisce, just over half a mile away, and on up to Lozisce, about a third of a mile beyond that, but it would have required some steep uphill hiking. We saw one small boutique farm selling wine and olive oil, which have been Brac’s main agricultural products throughout its history.

The people of Brac have led a hardscrabble life. The entire island is dotted with piles of rocks, painstakingly moved to create terraces and gather the precious “terra rossa,” a red-orange soil produced by the weathering of karst limestone, which is particularly good for cultivating grapes. I disbelieved it at first, even though it was mentioned in our Lonely Planet guidebook on Croatia. How could people, who would have been mostly women because – even centuries ago, the men were constantly off at wars, gone to the New World, fishing, or dead – how could they have made that many piles? They were small, medium, and huge, and they were not just in heaps but formed walls that snaked for miles across the landscape. It seems impossible, but I now believe it is true.   

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My island is full of heaps of stone piled up through the centuries by hard working hands which picked out the stones from the barren clearings in order to wrest the thin layers of soil from the karst and plant in it the vine to yield dry "plavac” and the sweet "vugava” wines. – Simunovic, ibid

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Later, by the time we were ready for dinner, the restaurants were closed. Instead, we went to the little market in the bottom of one of village homes, in which two women were getting set up for the summer season. There wasn’t much there, but we got a stick of butter, an onion, some chips, and a few other odds and ends to make a little meal out of.

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Mark told the owner, who looked to be in her 40’s, that his grandmother was born on Brac and was a Pavlov. “I am Pavlov!” she said, and when she smiled I noticed that she had the same shape teeth as Mark and she reminded me of his sister, Mary Ellen. She asked if we wanted to order bread. We could come back for it in the morning, and get a freshly brewed café from her espresso machine.

"0 island of vines and olives, you give me the daily drunkenness of summer days and the ever burning light in all the winter nights of my life." (V. Nazor, Brac, 1940)

I was really captured by the serenity and beauty of Bobovisce na Moru. It gets more lively in summer, when sailors come in with their charter boats and the local summer people arrive, but I loved the peace and quiet, and seeing the people going about their lives. I could imagine living there part of the year, and being a writer. There is a statue of Brac’s melancholy Communist poet, Vladimir Nazor, overlooking the harbor.

"0 island of vines and olives, you give me the daily drunkenness of summer days and the ever burning light in all the winter nights of my life." (V. Nazor, Brac, 1940)

from dubokoc feel for their sinovika grieving father mother and sister

The next morning after breakfast, we began our mission in earnest. The first stop was the Lozisce cemetery, where the weather was appropriately gloomy and threatening rain. There are many Pavlov’s buried there, and some of the markers featured photo reproductions. I have translated some of the inscriptions and they are captioned in the photos.

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The cemetery has an old and a new side, with beautiful views of the villages.

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Family members are buried together in layers. We saw one open crypt with shelves for relatives to be laid to rest stacked one above the other, three high in two rows. The open crypt appeared to be brand new, maybe still under construction – no occupants yet.

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We lingered for about an hour in the cemetery, with its splendid views of both towns, Lozisce and Bobovisce, and the Adriatic sea beyond. I have never been one to visit cemeteries on a regular basis, but I have come to appreciate them more in recent years. They are a good place to not only honor those who came before us, but to reflect on life and maybe become interested in local history.

There are many small cemeteries scattered in the hills where we live in Northern Nevada, which have markers inscribed with names that are prominent in the history of the region. And the Comstock Cemetery in Virginia City is fascinating, not to be missed if you are ever in the Reno, Nevada area. Many Croatians immigrated to Northern Nevada during the Comstock era; several started saloons and other businesses in Virginia City, and they are probably resting in the Comstock Cemetery there now.

Now we were ready for the real work – finding the house where Mark’s grandmother, Elena Pavlov, was born. We started with the Lozisce post office – which was closed, but the tiny market next door was open. Mark had some photos from his cousin Mirta, but none were recognizable to the husband and wife shopkeepers.

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So we walked, looking for villagers, but all was very quiet. We explored outside the church, which was locked. Mark walked on ahead past an old man puttering in his workshop, who was the only person around. I decided to take a chance. Pavlov house, I asked?

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After I repeated my question a few times, he understood and pointed uphill, saying a few words that hinted at which house it might be. I took a photo of the area he was pointing to, enlarged it on playback, and he pointed to the house.

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Yep, digital photography is, at the moment, the World’s Greatest Invention. We headed up the hill to take a look and see if anyone was about.

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As we approached the house, we could hear people, and soon we were introducing ourselves to a young mother who called out to an older woman, her mother-in-law. Yes, she was a Pavlov. But Mark knew this wasn’t the house we were looking for.

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They thought it was further down the slope, and enlisted the help of another neighbor, a young man named Tin, who lived nearby and led us through a leafy passage and over a low gate. “This is it,” Mark said. “This is where my grandmother was born.”

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The house, seen in the center of this photo, is directly downslope from the cemetery.  Mark’s grandmother was born in the middle portion  of a sort of patchwork family triplex perched on a steep hillside, as are all houses in Lozisce.

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Mark’s living Pavlov relatives, the ones he know of, reside in Sarajevo during the winter, and return to Lozisce for the summers. They hadn’t arrived yet, but Mark recognized the house from his cousin Mirta’s photos. It was amazing, among all these deserted, ramshackle, falling down and crumbling houses, people were living comfortably, with modern conveniences and Internet, raising children and carrying on.

This is from Peter Simunovik’s loving, sad, and lyrical historical account of Lozisce, probably written circa 1970:

Lozisca is a settlement on the crisp karst, a completely Mediterranean settlement, simple, gay and noisy. It provides an example of how to obtain fruits from the bare land. And when the old vines died out and the land was not fit to live on, the emigration to the (New) World began. A village with over thousand inhabitants at the beginning of the century is left today (probably 1970’s) to only 288 inhabitants. There are many deserted homes and neglected vineyards. The destroyed walls appear very weary and sad in the reflection of the sun. – Simunovik, “Lozisca”

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Jelina (Elena) Pavlov was born in 1896, and she emigrated to California in America, arriving in 1914 to marry Mark’s grandfather, Marko Tomic, who was from Split. It was an arranged marriage; Mr. Tomic looked at some photos of prospective brides, and chose Jelina.

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It was a sad time for the island and its inhabitants. Once the center of the Dalmatian coast maritime industry, the sailing ships had been replaced with steam. Their vineyards, and others throughout Europe, were stricken with phylloxera, an aphid-like pest that infests and destroys the vines. Thus there was a mass emigration to the New World, both North and South America. Mark has other relatives, including Mirta’s father, who went to Chile.

Mark says that his grandmother, who was widowed when her husband died of a stroke in 1948, was always unhappy. She was what my German-Irish family would call “a pot roast.” This is one reason why Mark identified with his mother’s Italian side of the family. The Italians were more fun!

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But reading the history of Brac, I can see why Elena was wrapped in gloom. The sadness and hard times in her homeland continued, with village men going to fight in World War I, then being subject to a Yugoslavian dictator, and finally the utter devastation that came with World War II. Returning home was never an option; everything was ruined. Perhaps she had a hometown sweetheart, from whom she was separated by war and poverty, never to see or hear from again. Or perhaps sadness was in her DNA.

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Many people were killed on Brac during World War II. Sometimes their remains were buried under piles of stone, some of which were later moved, but some remain there still in “graves never seen,” unknown and undisturbed. 

I was but a little boy in these days, but I still clearly remember the grave of an unknown partisan alongside a heap of stones which he had used as a breastwork under a gnarled olive-tree which cast its meager shade, like a monument, upon the blood-soaked red earth of the fighter's grave, above the sea in Supetar. Later on the bones, were transferred to a common grave, while the earth spread the dust of the unknown fighter among the roots of the olive. Only the stones and the olive-tree are left today - and a memory of a wonderful tomb. Its symbolism summarizes the entire history of the island. – Simunovik, Brac: Island of Stone, Sunshine and Sea

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Mission accomplished, we were ready to see more of the island. First we drove to Milna, the other small port town on the western end of the island. We found it larger and just a bit more active than Bobovisce, with open shops and restaurants lining the waterfront and the harbor filled with charter boats quietly waiting for cruisers.

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Something glinting inside a doorway caught my eye and, like a magnet, I was drawn to the big steel cylinders. A winery! We stepped inside the tiny Pavic Vinoteka, where we met the winemaker Josip and were soon tasting the 360-year-old winery’s cuvee right from the cask.

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There wasn’t anything we didn’t like, including the anise and juniper flavored grappa. We came away with red, white, and a pink muscat, along with a bottle of his first-pressing of olive oil and olive oil soaps scented with the rosemary oil of Brac and fir-tree oil of Pliticve.

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Next we drove up and across Brac’s spiny limestone interior ridge and down to Bol, a popular summer beach and windsurfing destination and the site of one of the Dalmatian Islands’ iconic geographic features, the Zlatni Rat, a photogenic sand spit that juts out into the sea toward Hvar Island. It was a busy enough place, with ferries arriving and spilling people into the temporarily sunny streets and the waterfront promenade. This was our lunch break, and we had one of our best meals at a place called Pumparela; for me it was a delicious mussel ragu, grilled calamari for Mark, and of course Croatian wine.

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After a stroll through Bol we headed back uphill, through Lozisce and home to Bobovisce na Moru as the clouds came rolling in. When we drove through town, it was raining earnestly but I couldn’t resist getting one more shot of the bell tower. I’m no expert on architecture, but something seemed odd about it, and now, after reading about Brac, I know why.


“(Sculptor Ivan) Rendic’s bell tower in Lozisca, excessively ornamented, is not in stylistic accord with the stone which requires flat surfaces in keeping with the Dalmatian tradition of slender belfries with pyramidal spires.” – Simunovic

This is Milna’s bell tower.

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That evening we had another meal at the local restaurant, and met a group from Slavonia who were on a weekend guys’ getaway cruise. There was a German cruising couple as well, and we all ended up sitting together, having a lively, if not altogether intelligible, discussion. The next morning I called out and they waved as they passed our balcony.

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As we were packing up to leave, our hostess at Apartment Dakrius came up to see us off. We were telling her about our successful search for Mark’s grandmother’s house when she said, “I have a book with names in it, of people in Lozisca in 1900. Would you like me to get it?”

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So she brought out this amazing original historical document, page after page of names painstakingly recorded in alphabetical order, family by family, parents and children, with birthdates, written in elegant script.

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We found the Pavlov pages, and then Mark said, “There she is. That’s my grandmother.” Jelina Pavlov, daughter of Anton, born July 3, 1893.

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“Where did you get this?” I asked. “I found it,” she answered, “in my old house.” What an amazing feeling, to come all this way and not only find the town, and the house, but to end up finding this woman, with this treasure of a book! Sometimes things fall apart, but then sometimes they do just come together.

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Brac is not inclined to reveal itself to superficial visitors who have no feeling for the wrinkled cracks in the rock, the dales, and bottomless chasms in the karst where pigeons perch around the edge; to people who show no interest in its pools, its vast terraced slopes and lonely little churches on the ridges, in the writhing of the olives and sadness of the cypresses on the stone graves. – Simunovic

Thanks for reading.

Selected sources:


andaliega said...

I'm heading to Brac tomorrow and I read your blog and thoroughly was enthralled by it. It was the closest thing to having an ethnically authentic experience vicariously. I met a 75 year old woman in Skradin who owned her own winery. We shared some limited conversation and I learned a little about her life and about her husband, who was the first to start a winery in Skradin and that was the highlight of my time there. Thanks for your lovely blog. So enjoyed it.

Marcell said...

Gracias me ha sido de gran ayuda¡¡¡