Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#12: Croatia. Lejos.


The bus rumbled on northwest up the Dalmatian coast. Although completely sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes open to glimpse the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. First we passed Trsteno, a small fisherman's village not very notable other than it being home to two huge old trees which the bus slowed down for as we passed. I watched as we rode through the town which ended almost as soon as it began, passing the trees which provided shade to the crowd which had gathered to escape the midday sun.

And then there was Ston. This town's name was not a coincidence. I had begun to nod off by now, and as we passed Ston I thought I was still in a dream: a wall. A massive stone wall. So large you could not see where it ended; up into the mountains it went; in an earlier time it must have prevented the incursion into this seemingly small and unimportant town from the mightiest of invaders. As the bus swept by I felt as if we were speeding by the the Taj Mahal or Great Pyramids without the thought of even slowing down. I looked around as if to ask "is any one else seeing this?!" only to find disinterested and sleepy locals and tourists already planning their visit to Korčula. As we passed Ston I grabbed for the guidebook. Surely there was something to these walls. Consequently, there was. These were known as the Great Wall of Europe. Dubrovnik, the indescribably beautiful medieval port city from which we had just departed, derived much of its wealth from this small city of Ston centuries ago. While the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's wall in Britain were meant to protect great empires from barbarian hordes to the north, the walls of Ston had quite a difference purpose: keep your hands off my salt. The Pelješac peninsula was home to a lucrative operation of salt cultivation which raked in the dough that made the independent Republic of Dubrovnik so wealthy. We passed the wall and before this history geek had time to catch his breath, the salt fields still in operation to this day began to fly by the window. Nothing is new under the sun, as they say.

But as most bus rides go, there was a destination in mind, and this was not Ston. We made our way up the east coast of the peninsula whose interior was made up of seemingly impassable mountains; but finally the bus tuned west. Winding higher and higher, I could see a pass we seemed to be making for. Sure enough we finally reached the center of the peninsula, broke through the pass, and all at once the Adriatic opened up in front of us. I again had one of those "are you seeing this??" moments, but looking around saw that most around me were asleep. I guess my "you can sleep when you're dead mentality" is not so popular among the general public. The bus finally pulled into the town of Orebić and we waited to board a ferry to take us to our final destination: the island of Korčula.

We finally stumbled off the bus into the village of Korčula, where we were immediately greeted by some lady whose sister at the Dubrovnik bus station had guaranteed a great deal on a room in her apartment once we arrived in Korčula. I'd half expected this to be a made up story, but sure enough, there she was, and she led us to the room. We didn't get the "I feel like I'm soon to be killed vibe" so we just went with it. After setting into the room, we set out to explore the town before sunset. Korčula's claim to fame was being the birthplace of Marco Polo, the merchant traveler of antiquity (and of course, more famously, the progenitor of the popular pool game) and the town was sure you would not overlook this: first, the Marco Polo souvenir shop, then there was the Marco Polo church, and afterwards was Marco's spaghetti restaurant (all the while of course, walking down the Avenue of Marco Polo). From end to end, you could walk through Korčula in 10 minutes. Having arrived in the evening, we walked by as shopkeepers were beginning to close down for the night and the town started to become sleepy. We worked our way to the water's edge and found a restaurant which served fish and pizza: The perfect combination for my Jenn and I. A bottle of Croatian white wine, hot pizza, fresh seafood and a view on the Adriatic Sea... the stuff dreams are made of. Luckily, we had a few days before we had to wake up.

Bikes took us around the island the next day. Here a beach, there a winery - how we ever ended up leaving, I'm not sure. Korčula was the best of what I imagined it could be. Serene, silent, sitting just far enough off the mainland to be unspoiled by the pace of the 21st century. The only hint of disruption of the relaxed atmosphere of the island was maybe the sailboats which moored in the harbor each evening. They flew flags of the Barbados, the Virgin Islands, UK and the USA.... we could not have been so lucky to be the only tourists there on those nights, but surely our visit remained one unspoiled by distraction or even time. Korčula still lives in my dreams as only a place so far away can.

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