Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Croatia–Dalmatian Coast to Dubrovnik

Croatia - Road (7)

It was beginning to rain when we disembarked the ferry from Brac to Split. I will freely admit that although I like sailing even in bad weather, I was glad we weren’t out there on a sailboat. It was nasty, with a stiff wind that brought steep chop on the ferry ride, followed by a daylong drenching on the coastline.

Croatians, with their long seafaring history, have many names for the winds that they encounter. What we probably experienced first was the tramontana, the cold front from the northwest, as we arrived on Brac, followed by a bura, which is a strong, gusty and intermittent but dryer wind, and then a levant, the cold winter wind bringing clouds and rainfall, sometimes lasting for many days. It certainly felt more like winter than spring.
Croatia - Dalmation  (27)

Driving south on the Dalmatian Coast was reminiscent of blustery winter drives in coastal Northern California, winding around curves, climbing up to the top of a bluff for a view of the cove below, then descending into the little town on the river or above the beach. Most of the time, it was raining too hard to take photos but I did manage to get a few.

Croatia - Dalmation  (68)

We stopped for lunch at a little beachside bar and bistro which looked like it could be a very fun place in sunny weather, but there were only a few customers who had made it there through the pouring rain. Our waiter was very gracious, and at the end of our meal he served us trapa, which is the same as Turkish rakia or grappa, on the house, saying “It’s Croatian tradition.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina - Neum (3)
Our stop for the night was in the tiny piece of the Dalmatian coast that belongs to Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was unintentional, as I had gotten some dates mixed up in all of the booking and re-booking we did, and we couldn’t get into our apartment in Dubrovnik until the next night. I had secretly wanted to spend a night somewhere between Split and Dubrovnik so, while I can’t say I did it on purpose, we weren’t unhappy about it. Ever since we went to Germany last fall, we have been careful not to plan drives in foreign countries that are overly long.

After crossing the border, we arrived in the town of Neum in Bosnia. Neum is the only town on this tiny strip of Bosnia-Herzegovinian coastal access.
Neum map

A proposed 787 meter (1.5 mile) bridge just north of the border, connecting mainland Croatia with the Peljesic Peninsula and the Croatian territory south, has stalled. If constructed, it would effectively connect the Dubrovnik region to the rest of the country, as well as become the second longest span in Europe. Croatia aspires to join the European Union, and a country whose mainland has been made contiguous via the bridge would be an advantage. 
Bosnia-Herzegovina - Neum (2)

Upon arrival at the Hotel Posejdon, we were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite, with a balcony and view of the Neretvanski Channel and Peljesac Peninsula. Beyond the peninsula lie two of Croatia’s most popular and beautiful islands, Korcula and Mjlet. We noticed that hotel prices in Neum were lower, and there were more vacancies than in neighboring Croatian towns. We would have a short 45 kilometer hop south to Dubrovnik the next day.

Bosnia-Herzegovina - Neum

We went down to the restaurant for dinner. This area of the Dalmatian coast is known for its vineyards. Another local specialty is the seafood; it’s a growing destination for enjoying great food and wine. Our waiter didn’t speak much English, and the menu was in Croatian. We both knew we wanted seafood, and something light, because we had eaten a heavy lunch.

Date shells2

I love almost any kind of shellfish, but Mark prefers clams over mussels. The waiter suggested a dish on the menu called “Date Shells.” What are they? I wondered if the dish contained dates – no way! We weren’t in the Middle East any more. It was a long thin shell, the waiter tried to explain, finally showing us with his pinkie, “like a finger.” Cooked with garlic … it sounded delicious. And, he said, it was a very special local dish. You can only get it here, not there. Pointing south. I wanted to know more, but he didn’t speak enough English.

Bosnia-Herzegovina - Neum (9)

The next morning, as we drove south along the coast, we saw what we thought might be date-shell farms –  like the oyster farm in Drakes Bay, California, which the US government is trying to close down, but that’s another story. But why, I thought, were date shells so special? Was this the only place where they could be cultivated?

No matter how much you think you might know, you don’t know. We found out just how special date shells are when I Googled them the next day and came up with a blog article titled “Date-shells in Croatia – Culinary Sins,” which claims you can be fined as much as $6000 US just for ordering them (I don’t want to find out if this is true) as well as another site, Adriatic Sailor, which discusses why date shells are illegal:
date shellsDescription of the species:
The date shell is a shellfish which lives along the entire rocky coast at depths from 0 to 20 metres. In rocks, it is distributed in two layers, of which one is on the surface and the other on the inside. By means of acid secretion, it burrows holes into lime rocks and inhabits them. It has an elongated and oval shape with thin shells of yellow-brown or chestnut colour. It takes about 80 years for them to grow to a length of 12 cm.
Reasons for threat:
It is a prized delicacy and due to excessive fishing, its populations have shrunk in certain areas. As it is necessary to break rocks in order to extract this shellfish, collecting them destroys large surfaces of rocky coast, the consequence being the destruction of habitats and reduction of biodiversity.

The species is strictly protected by the Ordinance on designating protected and strictly protected wild species (Official Gazette 7/06 and 99/09). According to the Ordinance on penalties for damage caused by illegal actions against protected animal species (Official Gazette 84/96), the penalty for killing a date shell is 50.00 kuna.
50 kuna is about $9.00 USD for each date shell. Apparently date shells are illegal in Croatia, but perhaps not in the little portion of the coast that Bosnia occupies. Either that, or maybe the regulations are not enforced in Bosnia? Who knows, but if we had Googled them on Mark’s smart phone (I don’t have Internet on my phone) we would have found out sooner. Live and learn.

Croatia - Brac (418)In my opinion, any clam or mussel, or calamari, or shrimp, or anything else simmered in butter, olive oil and garlic and garnished with parsley is sublime. Why do you need to eat something just because it is a rare delicacy? I hope that, with the growing popularity of Croatia, they are able to balance and contain the fishing, wine production, and other human impacts that go with increased tourism. So many fishes and other fruits de mer that were once plentiful have become rare and expensive.

Croatia - Road (6)

We had partly cloudy weather for the drive to Dubrovnik, which meant we were treated to some sunshine and bits of good photo opportunity. We drove through a wetland area that was cultivated extensively, and I noted that some of the heavily forested hillsides are being cleared and planted with grapevines, reminding me again of California.

Near Dubrovnik

We didn’t see a lot of sailboats cruising in and out of the many little harbor towns, but it was early in the season, and maybe they were waiting out the weather.

Croatia - Dubrovnik (17)

Soon we saw the unmistakable evidence that we were nearing our destination, and the destination of many other tourists: Dubrovnik. Entering the city, we realized that, again, finding our way to the old section of town and then finding parking outside the wall would be a challenge.

Croatia - Dubrovnik (20)

But the reward was a beautiful first look at the Old City.

Our room in Old Port Apartments

Our room in Dubrovnik was just outside the wall in the Old Port Apartments, a perfect location for us – Mark found it on Booking.com. Like many places in Europe, it was a small studio apartment. They’re less expensive than hotels because you are on your own – no doorman, concierge, or other services that hotels provide. But you also quickly come to feel like a part of the fabric of the place.

Old Town Dubrovnik

When we arrived, we got the key from the woman who lives in the large front apartment, with a balcony and beautiful view of the water(the building is the small one in the middle of this photo.) She is a ceramic artist, and her brother is a painter, so her apartment was filled with art. With typical Croatian hospitality, she offered us coffee or tea, but we declined. Some, grappa, then? Well, it is a Croatian tradition, and never mind that it wasn’t even noon yet.

Croatia - Dubrovnik (51)Dubrovnik has been a tourist destination since the late 19th century, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. In October 1991, the unthinkable happened when the city was attacked in a siege that lasted seven months, killed 144 people, and damaged 56% of the buildings. The damage has since been repaired, and you can see the original weathered roof tiles among the newer, bright orange tiles. Dubrovnik has not forgotten, and you can sense the city’s fierce pride and see occasional posters showing buildings burning during the siege.

I won’t go into detail about the many historical sights in Dubrovnik, the fountains, churches, forts, and palaces. They are well documented on the Internet, from Wikipedia to UNESCO to Rick Steves’ Europe. Instead of learning a lot of historic details, we were there to soak up the atmosphere and act sort of like the locals. We strolled morning, noon, and night. We strolled in sunshine and we strolled under clouds. We even strolled in rain. We strolled near-empty streets, and we sidestepped crowds of tourists arriving on buses from the cruise ships. We walked out of Old Dubrovnik to the new port. As the weather changed, so did the light, which means that I have a large photo album. If you scroll through, I hope you enjoy seeing the dramatic changes.

This short video by Rick Steves is a good overview of Dubrovnik.
The one thing we knew we had to do was the wall walk. Dubrovnik is one of the world’s best preserved walled cities and, like Split, people still live within its walls. We got up early so that we could do the walk before the crowds arrived.

Croatia - Dubrovnik (512)

After two days of eating, drinking, walking and shopping, it was time to head north. Our last stop was at a menswear store featuring Croatian-made ties. Did you know that the necktie originated in Croatia, with the craveat? I thought Mark should buy a tie since he wears them to work now, and after all he is Croatian, but he kept saying he doesn’t like ties. Nevertheless, he looked around and found one that met his standards. Of course, it turned out to be the finest tie in the store, with real gold thread, priced at 3600 kuna, or $650 US. How does he do it? I wish I had his knack for shopping. He didn’t buy the tie, but he did find a similar one at the airport in Zagreb, and not quite as expensive.

Mark made this video of traditional folk dancing and music. When I saw this dance, I suddenly understood why Mark dances the way he does.

We had a long walk uphill, using several sets of steps, to reach our car. Meanwhile, more weather was moving in, creating a most dramatic backdrop for the city of Dubrovnik.
Finally we were driving north, away from the coast and through the interior valleys and the mountains, again through the rain. The main new main highway, A1, isn’t finished yet and we had to drive on back roads to find it, a beautiful drive through the countryside. Once we reached the highway, I liked the fact that there were so many freeway overpasses for wildlife, which allows the animals to migrate without crossing the highway, which is dangerous for both animals and human motorists. We saw near-freezing temperatures, and it was snowing on the mountaintops. Back on the coast, we stopped for lunch in a charming little town called Sibenik which had a large waterfront guest dock perfect for tying up cruising sailboats, many historic buildings, and some statues in some interesting, and modest, poses. We could only stay for a couple of hours, because we had to get to our hotel in Otocac, and then get up early to drive an hour to the Zagreb airport. When we come back to Croatia, Sibenik will be on our list.
Thanks for reading.

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