When we informed our friends and families that we were traveling to the Dalmatian Coast, many of them wondered, “Where?” When we explained that the Dalmatian Coast was part of Croatia, they inquired further, “Where’s that?” In the Balkans, we answered—a location that did not necessarily shed greater light on the matter. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons why we travel—to help our loved ones develop a better sense of the world, however vicariously, as we develop our own. When we mentioned that we would also visit Venice, perhaps the world’s most recognizable city, they seemed relieved and able at last to wish us a fond, inevitably envious farewell.
W&L’s tour of Venice and the Dalmatian Coast left behind the familiar rhythms of autumn for a variety of political, economic, and meteorological uncertainties. With respect to the latter, the weather in the Adriatic looked grim: highs in the 50s with cloudy days and rain predicted throughout the forecast, as reported by CNN, our principal source of bad news. Though the tourist beaches in balmy Croatia begin to empty in early October, high season lasts officially until the end of the month. With a trip planned for the last week in October, we began to wonder if we had cut it too close.
On Tuesday afternoon, October 21st, 32 of the 53 members of our traveling group gathered at the Air France check-in counter at Dulles International. The other 21 would meet us along the way or in Venice, having chosen other gateways or departure dates. For many, this time at Dulles offered a happy reunion with former traveling companions—fellowship of this sort is always most acute at the beginning of an adventure.
The 5:10 p.m. flight to Paris aboard Air France #39 was generally smooth, most of us sitting toward the rear of the Boeing 777. We arrived at Charles DeGaulle Airport well before dawn, a reminder perhaps that we were still in transit. The Captain reported that the weather had turned unseasonably cold, barely above freezing. We dashed into the terminal and then made the long transfer through the dazzling modernity of DeGaulle’s new international terminal to our gate for the connecting flight to Venice. At 8:55 a.m., we were on our way again, soon soaring high above the cloud-swaddled Alps before dipping down through broken cloud to Venice. We touched ground again at 10:30 a.m.
Here, after navigating lost luggage procedures with a trio of Italian bureaucrats—two of our passengers had missing bags—we met our Gohagan tour manager, Kathy Geller, a personable former school teacher very much acquainted with the Dalmatian Coast itinerary as well as the steady requirements of tour management. For the transfer to the pier and the eventual boarding of our ship, the M.V. Monet, we had arranged a one-hour tour by water taxi of Venice’s storied lagoon and Grand Canal. This worked much to our advantage, despite the cool temperatures, for Venice is best seen from the water. It must be further acknowledged that, after a sleepless flight from the U.S., one is more reliably amused by a boat than a bus. So, for our company of insomniacs, it was a tonic to glide through the canals of Venice, first the Canale di Cannaregio, then the Canal Grande, each crowded with colorful traffic and lined by myriad shops, hotels, and ancient palazzos with crumbling baroque facades. First-time visitors invariably find the canals of Venice mesmerizing, but in our rather blowsy state of mind the effect was quite intoxicating.
After a good hour of bouncing about on the choppy surface of Venetian waterways, we disembarked near the Riviera Ristorante for a three-course lunch. The rather close circumstances of the restaurant, the din of our conversation, and the sight of nattily attired waiters weaving between the tables, their elbows high, precariously balancing plates of salad and steaming pasta, all contributed further to a halcyon first impression of Venice. We managed to kill a good hour here—we were required by the ship to wait until at least 3:00 p.m. for boarding. To pass the remaining time, several of us chose to follow our guide Susanna on a leisurely stroll through the narrow lanes of the city’s Accademia district. Even in a state of mild exhaustion, one cannot completely tire of Venice, for it is above all cities in the world a restorative feast for the eyes.
We found the Monet at San Basilio pier soon thereafter. A rather small ship of uncertain vintage, refurbished in Croatia in 1997, the Monet has reasonably comfortable berths for 60 passengers. Overall, the first impression is pleasant. The decor is modern and somewhat understated. The Monet is owned by an operation calling itself “Elegant Cruises,” a logo that appears on the ship’s smoke stack. The label could easily undermine one’s first impression of the ship were it more liberally apparent to new passengers. “Elegant” is not the first word that comes to mind. On the other hand, the ship does not suffer from the glitziness characteristic of most Mediterranean interpretations of elegance. The cabins, ranging in size from 120 to 160 square feet, are compact and efficiently designed, decorated in muted colors with light wood paneling. Those on the first deck may be too close to the noise of the ship’s operation—the two closest to the main staircase are perhaps the most “vibrant.” The public areas, inviting enough in appearance, are sufficiently large to handle a full complement of passengers. The ample lounge is fronted with a well-stocked and welcoming bar, and the dining room, one level down and forward, has a nice view of the surroundings.
After meeting Ana, the Monet’s receptionist, and following our stewards to our cabins, most of the group sought their beds. The ship would remain stable and in port for a good 24 hours, sufficient recovery time after a full day and night of travel. It was soon reported by a few restless souls, however, that hot water was in short supply, a mystery that would have to be resolved later. At least the bed linens were crisp and firmly tucked.
At 6:30, most of the group assembled again in the ship’s lounge for Captain Mislav Hraste’s welcome reception. Following a glass of indifferent sparkling wine, we enjoyed a couple of introductions, including W&L history professor Lamar Cecil’s brief anticipation of the voyage ahead. Kathy Geller and the cruise director, Tomi Kapovic, then offered some further explanations of our itinerary and the ship itself. After meeting the all-Croatian crew, we repaired to the ship’s dining room for dinner. Here we had a perfectly fine meal, which contributed to the general optimism of the trip. It was good to know also that all meals would include wine—the waiters added proudly that all wines served on the Monet were from Croatia, a revelation that might have tempered our enthusiasm somewhat. Though conversation seemed intense during the dinner service, few passengers lingered beyond dessert. We were well tired, and, after a day of the various torments and apprehensions of international travel, we had earned a good night’s rest.
If the truth be known—and it is always important to tell the truth in matters of record—this was in many respects a difficult day. After a hard sleep through midnight and beyond, most of us awoke early. Though it was still dark outside, it was already clear that the weather today would be, at best, gloomy. To put the best light on it, then, we would have this day to know Venice in a more melancholic mood.
The ship’s buffet breakfast opened finally at 7:00 a.m. Although a few of us had found lukewarm showers at 5:00 a.m., it was soon evident from reports at breakfast that the shortage of hot water aboard ship had become chronic. Tour directors know that the earliest stage of complaint is a gentle bewilderment. The next stage, brave humor. We had not yet arrived at the third, but clearly something had to be done. Kathy assured me that a resolution of this problem would be her top priority.
By the time we were ready to disembark for our morning tour of the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco, the winds had come up spitting rain. Undaunted, we bundled up and divided ourselves into the two assigned groups, red and blue, for the morning’s tour. We then walked as quickly as possible down the pier to the large water taxi that would ferry us to the quay near the Piazza San Marco. By the time we arrived, some fifteen minutes later, the weather had worsened, the wind blowing cold and the rain driving harder. Hardly “melancholic,” Venice had grown downright nasty.
Once on the quay, we headed toward the Piazza, leaning against the wind and rain and struggling with our umbrellas. “What’s the word for ‘umbrella’?” I would later ask our guide. “Ombrella,” she carefully pronounced. Hardin Marion laughed, “It’s like asking the French word for ‘chauffeur’.” With the tide lapping over the sea wall and the quay beginning to flood, we soon found it necessary to mount the elevated boardwalks that had been erected temporarily along the route. Finally, ducking under the archway at the base of the Palace and standing in a crowd of tourists—and “ombrella” salesmen—we listened to our two guides prepare us for the visit. Five minutes into this narrative, we were eager to gain entrance in order to find some protection from the elements. Eventually, we made our way back onto the boardwalks and turned toward the ticket entrance. With Venice’s customary 100,000 tourists per day, regardless of the weather, the boardwalks seemed quite narrow indeed.
Once inside the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace we found some relief from the wind and rain, though not much from the cold. Our guides persisted with their well-rehearsed introduction to the complex, at least until they finally detected that tincture of distraction in the aspect of individuals obviously ready to move on. “So, we go!” they pronounced brightly. We then mounted the long marble staircases that took us to the Palace’s upper galleries. Here we found sufficient grandeur to occupy us for a good while, moving from one opulent room to another. The rooms were unfurnished, though hung with magnificent paintings by Veronese, Titian, Tiepolo, and Tintoretto, the most impressive of which were found on the ceilings. We attended our guides’ explanation of each room’s function in the Doge’s complex administration of republican Venice. Finally, after gawking at “the largest room in Europe,” a massive ballroom at the Palace’s top floor—a room that seemed the indoor equivalent of the Piazza itself—we descended a narrow staircase across the “Bridge of Sighs” and into the dank enclosures of the Palace dungeon. It was vaguely disquieting to move so abruptly from the magnificence of the Palace salons to the cold austerity of these stone chambers, the intended point, no doubt, of the Doge and his Council of Ten. This would be the final residence of several political prisoners who, according to those in power, sought to overturn the righteous authority of the Republic. Life was simpler then, ruthlessly. It was not difficult to imagine on this cold day how bleak were the circumstances of disfavor in Venice.
From the dungeon we made our way out into the bracing cold again and took to the boardwalks for the precarious route to the Basilica. The rains had paused for awhile, though the high tide had by now flooded the Piazza to an alarming depth. It is commonly understood that the Piazza floods 250 days a year, but never before during a W&L visit. So this was a first encounter—and something to behold, after all. Wading shin-deep below the intersections, rubber-booted policemen, tweeting through shrill whistles, directed the pedestrian traffic coursing (or cursing) along the boardwalk. Although we had an exact appointment for the entrance, according to our guide, the tour of the Basilica was laughably brief, for we were in and out before we knew it. The interior was crowded, of course, with tourists craning their necks to gaze at the dazzling gold mosaics on the Basilica’s lofty vaults. Still, everyone seemed possessed of an unspoken incentive to keep moving—and silently, for the Basilica, by whatever authority, required it. In its looming shadows, this immense expression of the Doge’s piety commanded an obeisant reverence in exchange for neither sanctity nor comfort. The Basilica San Marco was an ancient and haunted dominion, and on this visit it gave up nothing of its Byzantine mystery. It would have been good to have a chance to move beyond wonder.
At the end of the tour, the “blue group” guide dismissed her charges with some avowedly simple directions for a route back to the quay, “directions” that would avoid the crowded boardwalks through the Piazza: “At the next turn, turn right, and then take the first right.” Simple enough, but several of us, already damp and nearly exhausted, proceeded to get hopelessly lost. The first right after the first right led directly into a glass emporium at the dead-end of the lane—“She must have meant the next right.” Later, as we hurried along looking for signs, our questions as to the way to the Grand Canal were of little use, for the Canal, twisting back on itself, winds through the entire city—what was first on our right was now on our left. Venice had us in her grip, but we were not in the mood. Finally, after much frustration, we found our way back to our starting point near the Piazza and set about immediately to negotiate a route through long lines of tourists still waiting for entrance to the Basilica. As we at last approached the pier for the return ferry, we caught the welcome sight of Kathy, who had held the ferry some twenty minutes. Tired and soaked again by the pelting rain, we soon found refuge in the shelter of the ferry, along with a hollow welcome or two from our waiting companions. Thus did the Director violate his own cardinal principle of punctuality.
Following lunch back on the ship, Kathy and I spent the better part of the afternoon fretting about the hot water problem with the ship’s officers. One of the first lessons one learns in dealing with citizens of the former Eastern Bloc is that machine repair is strictly hierarchical: for ordinary folk, machines are to remain a mystery, which, of course, allows their dysfunction to be more easily tolerated. At this point, we were not in a tolerant frame of mind. Eventually, we learned that the problem lay in the pipes leading from the ship’s boiler. Clogged by months of mineral deposits accumulated from the hard water taken on in Venice, the pipes were no longer delivering heated water to the individual cabins. Such an explanation required hours of inquiry with a culture unaccustomed to explicit communication. Confronted by the grim prospect of sailing without hot water for the rest of the voyage, we declared that we would not leave port until appropriate repairs were made. Finally, an engineer from Venice was called in at 4:00 p.m.
Due to the continuing bad weather, most of our travelers chose to remain on board the Monet after lunch. Later in the afternoon, we had a fine talk by John Millerchip, a soft-spoken Brit from UNESCO. Ostensibly, Millerchip was to speak about the vicissitudes of Venice’s ongoing battle with the sea, a topic made especially vivid by today’s adventure. However, Millerchip, a 30-year resident, spent most of his time on the city’s daily life, the phenomenon of Venice’s declining population, and the social impact of the city’s long absorption with tourism. A few of our follow-up questions focused on Venice’s rate of subsidence and the new project with the massive sea walls, but Millerchip seemed oddly fatalistic on this matter, Other cities such as Florence would have periodic problems with flooding, he observed, but Venice’s ordeal has been, and ever would be, chronic. In the end, Millerchip seemed rather wistful, his voice trailing off in the midst of his elaborations. It was as if he knew his marriage to “la Serenissima” would come inevitably to a sad end. But he would have us understand that Venice’s fate would be determined as much by internal forces as the gradual rise of the oceans from global warming.
Lamar Cecil followed with his characteristic flair in doing “the impossible,” summarizing the history of Venice in 30 minutes. Since Lamar’s own devotion to history ends in 1914, his frame of reference was limited, though only slightly, since all of Venice’s important history occurred before Napoleon’s irresistible invasion in 1797. It was vintage Cecil, a fine lecture with wit and insight as well as just enough information. The new travelers among us seemed especially pleased to discover that W&L had carried with its “Venice and the Dalmatian Coast” such a delightful resource. With two excellent talks, separated by a wine and cheese party thrown by the crew, we were not so badly underway, after all.
Finally, just short of midnight, the pipes were clear at last. The ship’s engines fired, the Monet groaned into motion, and we were on our way across the Adriatic. Those lying in their beds aware of the ultimatum could only assume that a welcome hot shower would be available in the morning.
“Adventure may invite one . . . to use landscape as a vehicle to reveal the past and the historical process.”
After a night of pitch and roll, we arrived in Pula, our first call in Croatia, at 7:00 a.m. under a clearing sky. It was thrilling to enter Pula’s long, islanded harbor, once an imperial Roman port identified in our itinerary as “the heart of Istria, the ancient Roman colony of Pollenta.” The first prominent sight was of giant cranes soaring over a shipyard. The cranes were in motion over a new tanker, now nearly complete and pitched in its ways for delivery to the sea. We could hear the clamor and ping of hammers on steel and see the blue flash of welders already hard at work. A short distance ahead, we could distinguish the silhouette of the Roman arena, emerging from the shadows of early morning, faint at first, as if through time itself.
The Roman arena was our first objective on the morning’s walking tour through Pula. Dividing into “red and blue” again, we strolled with our groups across the clean, tree-lined avenue that wends along the harbor. Here we also admired many fine yachts at rest in port. According to our guide, these belonged mainly to Italians and Germans wise enough to take advantage of Croatia’s low rates for winter storage. The Roman arena, the sixth largest such structure in the world, is truly impressive in that, unlike the Colosseum in Rome, its exterior walls have survived its nearly 2,000 years virtually intact. As with so many ancient structures, stone from the interior has been poached for other building projects. The arena’s seating capacity has been calculated at 23,000 spectators, though nothing of the substructure remains. In more recent times, a sort of stone grandstand has been erected for musical and theatrical performances inside the acoustically perfect oval. On the arena floor, where gladiators once battled lions and bulls, row after row of plastic blue seats have been installed.
Our guides kept us in the arena for nearly an hour, helping us to visualize the world of the 1st century. We then strolled up through old town Pula, our guides pointing out several Roman structures along the way, including several gates, triumphal arches, and the pedimentary walls of the city’s original fortified hill. Once at the town’s center beside the market, we had half an hour for coffee and a brief spate of impulsive shopping. As ancient-seeming as anything we had seen thus far were the Croatians themselves. Indeed, it seemed as though we had entered a time-warp, as though we had been cast back to an era of heavy moustaches, head scarves, and handmade sweaters. The faces of this largely Slavic populace seemed hard and dark, even within the shops that catered to their curiosity over Western fashions. Sitting for an acrid coffee in an open air café, we could observe a myriad range of social customs, evident in their interaction on the street. We noticed as well the legendary height of Croatians, who were once recruited, according to Lamar, because of their size for service in the Roman legions. And, as always, there were children, hawking souvenirs to the tourists and woolen socks to their countrymen or playing tag among the tables at the market, children who would grow up to inhabit a world likely to be unrecognizable to their parents.
Following our break, we strolled on to the Forum area of the old town. Here in a square virtually empty of commerce we saw a well preserved temple to Jupiter. Our guide had arranged for the key that would unlock it so that we could enter the shadowy interior, but someone had stuffed the lock with chewing gum, so that visit was lost. As an alternative, our guide persuaded us to follow her through a couple of narrow lanes, a back ally hung with fresh laundry, and a crowded parking lot to examine a Roman atrium mosaic, protected by a iron fence and a corrugated roof. Here again, as we pondered the intricacy and mystery of their handiwork, something of the ancient Romans seemed visible. It was as if they could reappear by the simple act of our imagining them here, millennia ago, placing the tiny tiles of the mosaic piece by piece in the setting, perhaps to illustrate a story that they had learned as children, perhaps to do yet another fish like no one else in stone. On the way back to the ship, we paused in front of the cathedral with its separate belltower—nothing remarkable here, insisted our guide, though she helped us to understand why belltowers stood separate from the church: in this way they could be used by soldiers for something other than spiritual surveys.
It was interesting at this point to ponder our guide’s own religious circumstance: the daughter of a Catholic family, she had married a member of the Greek Orthodox faith. Nothing in her casual report of this cultural collision—more momentous than most Christians realize—betrayed any awkwardness or pain. She smiled instead at the pleasure she and her children had through this unusual marriage to celebrate the holidays of two traditions. We might have wondered, would the citizens of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, etc. one day similarly accept their welter of religious faiths? Would they go as far as to embrace their own cultural diversity as a strength, the fiber of union in a land long troubled by ethic division? In this as well our guide would be a guide indeed.
We returned to the ship in the early afternoon. Clouds were gathering in the southern sky, even though—here again—our guide had assured us that the weather would improve. Following lunch and a catch-up rest, Lamar entertained us with a second lecture, this on the Balkans through history, tracing the chronology of this region first as an ancient corridor between Rome and Constantinople and then as the route of conquest for the Hungarians, Venetians, and Ottoman Turks. In a brief analysis of the reasons behind recent struggles, Lamar did not offer much hope for any future prosperity. The Balkans, a relatively barren area of Europe, had neither many natural resources nor sufficient political stability to give the region any chance for significant economic development. From our vantage point, gliding over blue water and gazing at the rocky, forested slopes of its picturesque coastline, we could affirm that, at the very least, Croatia had its charms. Perhaps something of a future lay in tourism. But that, of course, would force Croatia to depend on the wealth of foreigners. Like her journey through history, Croatia’s path into the future would bring her into the company, willingly or not, of more powerful nations.
On this evening we had a seated dinner, with husbands, wives, and traveling companions separated into assigned seats at different tables. The vast majority of our complement gamely risked the hazard of conversation with relative strangers. The room was soon quite noisy with the chatter of new acquaintance. Evidently, a good time was had by all.
Our guide had been right. We rolled through the night as the front passed over us and awoke on this chilly morning to crystal blue skies. We were delighted to see such a welcome change in the weather, and at breakfast its salutary effect was quite evident.
We arrived in Split an hour early, so by the time that most folks peered from behind the curtains of their cabins, we were tied up in port. Although Split is the second largest city in Croatia, it did not seem so from our position near the Old Town. We could see the white limestone facade of Split’s most important attraction, Diocletian’s Palace. Behind this immense complex, some 600 feet on each side and topped with the belltower of a later church, the barren mountains rolled up to the sky. The Palace itself, the focus of our visit, actually accommodates a portion of the city. Most of its inner structures were converted long ago into residences for the common folk. Such an occupation has in effect saved it from destruction. Recent archaeological mapping and digging have been able to give us a better idea of how vast and elaborate the 3rd-century imperial retirement home was. The digging has been done in the Palace’s extensive basement. Used as a dumping ground for waste from above, most of the immense chambers were filled floor to high, vaulted ceiling by a rich mass of congealed detritus. By now, most of these lower chambers have been cleaned out to reveal enormous vaults, which by their sheer dimension and finish give the visitor a glimpse of the Palace’s original grandeur.
Diocletian lived in the Palace, built in his home territory, only a few years following his retirement as emperor of Rome. Known as one of the most relentless persecutors of Christians, Diocletian relinquished the throne to Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, who converted to Christianity. In a further irony, Diocletian’s massive mausoleum, located at the center of the Palace complex, was ultimately transformed into a church. The tour was very impressive, affording us ample opportunity to contemplate the vanity of imperial power and, in the precise stonework of the Palace’s foundations and vaults, the extraordinary skill of ancient Roman craftsmen. The design of the upper sections of the Palace were difficult to distinguish from the ordinary close quarters of a medieval city, except at the gates of the Palace, which are largely intact. Nonetheless, here and there a stone wall revealed its age and probable function. On a decorative frieze encircling the base of the high dome over Diocletian’s mausoleum, now part of the nave of the church, one may notice ancient Roman charioteers hunting lions, etc. Its preservation is a curiosity, given the zeal of the early Christian church’s eradication of any trace of paganism—especially Diocletian’s. But here at least the charioteers roll on. It is said that medieval popes were fond of hunting.
After the two-hour tour, we were given some free time to stroll through the rest of Split’s Old Town. With its pedestrian streets paved in limestone, worn into a polished sheen by centuries of traffic, Old Town is quite picturesque, though many of its shops have been converted into high-fashion boutiques and kiosks for modern conveniences. For contemporary Split, the middle ages have become merely a motif.
At 11:30, we returned to our coaches for the short transfer back to the ship. We were on our way to Korcula by noon. This portion of our journey was beautiful, for now we were well into the Dalmatian archipelago, with islands of unpronounceable (hence, unmemorable) name on either side of us. The Monet glided within easy reach of them. At several points along our way we could see evidence of the hard-scrabble farm and village life of this area. Here and there small fishing boats bobbed in our wake. Despite the apparent poverty of local economies, one found also a palpable tranquility here, a different kind of wealth on the azure sea.
During this portion of our voyage, several passengers napped. But, as we approached Korcula, most were up and about on the deck at the bow of the Monet to study and photograph the narrowing strait that would bring us to our next port. We arrived at Korcula, a medieval coastal village situated on a small, fortified peninsula extending from an island bearing the same name, at 5:30 p.m. As we eased into our berth immediately beside the town walls, a long procession of cars, horns honking and headlights flashing, snaked down from the hills into town for a wedding—a bit of the human comedy, perhaps, enlivening the picturesque. The town itself is an extraordinarily compact cluster of buildings constructed of the famous pale limestone quarried on the island and topped with orange tile roofs. Local historians trace Korcula’s history to pre-Christian times, though the building construction dates from occupation by the Venetians who arrived in the 10th century. The limestone used in its construction is very attractive, indeed—it is the facing stone used on the White House in Washington and in many buildings in Venice. Korcula is famous also as the home of Marco Polo, who left at the age of 17 to make his way to China, where he remained for another 17 years before returning to Venice, where he continued his adventures as a fleet commander.
Our tour, led by two local guides of uneven distinction, began shortly after we arrived. We were taken immediately to the town center, trudging up the slope from the pier and on through the Revelin Tower (15th century), one of the town gates. The atmosphere for visiting such a resolutely historical setting was perfect. Here in the twilight, standing on the tiny square immediately beyond the gate, we still had sufficient light to admire the handsome stone construction of the buildings. And yet the declining light made it easier to imagine life in Korcula centuries ago. Especially noteworthy were the village Cathedral of St. Mark, dating from the 14th century, and the Bishop’s Palace, from the 17th. We entered the Bishop’s palace first in order to visit the small museum on the second floor. Here, in a fine collection assembled by various Bishops (for most of Korcula’s history the wealthiest men in town), we saw many precious artifacts and paintings. It was clear that this was a very Catholic place. At the Cathedral we caught up with the wedding. This proved to be our good fortune, for instead of pondering another monument to the Pope’s immense dominion we found life itself, merry and uninhibited. So as not to disturb the celebrants, we entered the church from a side door and stood in the shadows of a chapel off the nave. The ceremony had just ended. A photographer was working to pose the beaming couple amidst the joyous congratulations of friends and family. Eventually, two latecomers from our group wandered forward unabashedly from the front door among the slowly departing congregation. At that point we all drew closer for photographs. Once the bride and groom had followed friends and family through the front door—to a round of cheers and a shower of rose petals—our guide took over the interior of the church to tell us about its history. Meanwhile, a couple of stern nuns swept away the petals and locked the inner door against the festivities outside.
Thereafter, we made our way back to the ship, pausing along the way to admire Korcula’s original tiny and very modest 11th-century church, sitting like a dependent parent beside the Cathedral. We also paused in front of the house belonging to our guide’s 89 year-old mother, for it offered a fine vertical display of windows from the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods—evidently the old house was built very slowly. At this point, several in our midst peeled off for independent dining. Following dinner aboard the ship, a few of us ventured out again into the town for an exquisite evening stroll. Along with a scattering of rose petals, Korcula revealed her tranquil ghosts, at least until our jovial independent diners came ambling down the street, in full possession of the place.
We sailed at midnight, and Korcula went back to sleep.
The change of time early this morning allowed us all an extra hour of sleep. At daybreak we were pleased to see a clear sky, for the full day in Dubrovnik would be best in fair weather. With the excitement of arriving finally in the most renowned city in Croatia, several of us took positions again on the foredeck to watch the Monet wend its way into Dubrovnik’s small harbor. We tied up at 7:00 a.m. just south of the new cantilever bridge connecting Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. At 9:00, we gathered into groups on the pier for our 10-minute transfer to the Old City.
Any first-time visitor to Dubrovnik is utterly smitten by its magnificent appearance. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved fortified cities. Although the city traces its history to the 7th century, Dubrovnik (known as Ragusa until 1918) came into prominence as an independent city-state in the 14th century, the era of its greatest construction, including its lofty and massive walls (70-80 feet high and 10-20 feet thick). It thrived as an independent republic, filling its coffers from trade up and down the Adriatic corridor and paying off, when necessary, successive would-be invaders, the Venetians and the Turks, who must have found the city walls rather daunting.
Enchanted by the immensity and enduring integrity of the city’s fortification, we passed over the wooden drawbridge at the Pile Gate and descended to the Old City’s main promenade. Here on the Placa, a polished white limestone avenue lined with handsome tile-roof stone buildings housing open-air cafes and small boutiques, we quickly discovered why Dubrovnik is so popular as a tourist destination. Further, it was easy to understand why the Serbs, the unfriendly neighbors to the east, shelled it with such spiteful envy during the 1990s war. Our first site was the city’s 15th-century domed water fountain, the terminus of a long aqueduct supplying the Old City with fresh water from the River Dubrovacka some 14 miles distant. Rather than stroll down the Placa at this point, our guide wisely chose to take us up the stone steps leading to the Franciscan monastery and then to the narrow passageways of the town’s residential area—best to avoid shopping temptations at this point. The climb was not difficult, and the subsequent stroll down these shadowy antique lanes was pure bliss. The 14th-century Franciscan monastery includes a lovely Romanesque cloister, redolent with sunshine illuminating fruit trees and palms, and a fascinating medieval apothecary. Following our slow amble along the exceedingly narrow streets, pausing at every intersection for photographs up and down the side lanes, we visited the 15th-century Dominican monastery, with its late Gothic cloister and museum of reliquaries and fine paintings, including a recently cleaned Madonna and Child by Leonardo. Thereafter, we strolled down onto the main square at the end of the Placa to visit the Rector’s Palace and the Sponza Palace.
By this point in our tour, these handsome structures, while inherently interesting, could barely sustain our attention. We wanted instead to plunge into the lively labyrinth of Dubrovnik, making our own independent serendipities. Nearly everyone chose to remain in the Old City instead of taking the scheduled coach back to the ship. For some, the myriad shops beckoned, proving again Dubrovnik’s preeminence as the ultimate tourist destination of the Balkans. Others simply wanted to wander, to observe the qualities of people, to hear the bright clatter of footsteps on the smooth paving stones, as if in a conversation with the medieval world, and to revel in the magical beauty of this authentic place. True, Dubrovnik has had to rebuild itself a few times, almost completely after the devastating earthquake of 1667, and more recently after the mean-spirited shelling of the city by the Serbs in the early 1990s. But each time it appears to have done so with exquisite adherence to the original flow of Romanesque into Gothic into Renaissance. It remains to this day a masterpiece of civic architecture.
Late in the afternoon, aboard the ship again and relaxing in the lounge, folks compared their adventures, many of them with prized necklaces from an art jewelry shop. At 6:00 we enjoyed a provocative slide presentation by Dubravka Zvrko from the Institute for Reconstruction of Dubrovnik. Virtually all of her slides depicted the damage done by the shelling in the Serb assaults from November, 1991, to May, 1992. Most of the damage was confined to the city’s venerable tile roofs, though a few buildings were destroyed by subsequent fires and the complexion of several facades pocked by shell fragments. International outrage put an end to the bombardment and turned sentiments strongly against Serbia in the war. There followed a flood of contributions from all over the world for the reconstruction of Dubrovnik. Today, the city is virtually as it was. Over 300 people lost their lives in the attacks, and many of the surrounding villages were burned to the ground. But the city of stone seems whole again. Zvrko was curiously uncomfortable discussing the political situation, claiming that she was only representing the Institute for Reconstruction. Perhaps her facade was a floodgate that she kept secure for professional reasons. One can easily imagine the roiling hatred the citizens of Dubrovnik must feel for their assailants still. One slip of the tongue might well have released a torrent of rage.
During dinner, which was typically pleasant and full of conversation, we eased out of our berth and turned north for Zadar, some 16 hours distant. During the night, the Monet pitched and rolled in stormy seas, for another front had thundered down from the north. It is, perhaps, some consolation to the traveler to remember that each fine place worth getting to or from requires, inevitably, some trials.
Many awoke early on this day, but lay in bed, holding on. We had had perhaps our roughest night of sailing. At 3:00 a.m., the Monet’s heaving through suddenly restless seas in the Eastern Adriatic caused some minor consternation in our cabins. On one very strong surge, the sleek surface of our furniture was relieved of all possessions. By daybreak, things looked depressing, indeed. The sky was a leaden gray and the sea wispy with whitecaps. Breakfast was lightly attended. A quick trip to the bridge, however, offered some welcome assurance: our course would bring us to the channels between the coastal islands by 9:00 a.m., where we would find calm seas again, and by midday the high pressure system sliding down across Southern Europe would reach Zadar.
These predictions proved accurate, fortunately. By mid-morning, as we milled about the lounge, we were feeling much more cheerful. Patches of blue sky in the distance grew as we glided north. By the time we turned toward the port of Zadar, the weather had turned fair and bright, though cold.
Our disembarkation followed lunch. By now, the air was damp and chilly, and the declining sun did little to warm it. However, since this would likely be our only visit to Zadar in our lifetime, we gamely pushed on, moving quickly through the dense shadows of the city’s narrow streets.
Our guide expressed great pride in the age of Zadar, arguably the oldest of the cities along the Dalmatian Coast. The only other city in the world that had survived on its original foundations, he claimed, was Damascus. The guidebooks indicate that the first reference to Zadar is in the 4th century B.C. as a settlement founded by the Illyrian tribe of Liburnians. Geographically, Zadar is perfectly situated for both trade and fortification. Located at the end of a short peninsula, the city offers an excellent vantage point for both land and sea. The Romans liked it well enough to further strengthen its walls and develop it into a port with a forum, market place, and public baths. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Zadar became the capital of Dalmatia under the Byzantine Empire. As a medieval town, Zadar became a center of Christianity and the location of the most splendid churches in the region. Over time it was administered by successive conquerors, the Hungarians and the Venetians, though the Ottomans were never able to break through its sturdy defensive walls.
We followed our guide through its narrow, Venetian-style streets, noting the salutary effects of Western tourism on this former communist port—lots of cafes and upscale shops. We wandered over to the Roman forum, now little more than a long courtyard, as large as a football field, with paving stones worn by the millennia. At the end of the forum, ancient bearded faces hewn from limestone blocks seem to express an anguish over the ordeal of time. Once decorative elements in a doubtless grand civic structure, they now gaze upon a single tall column with a Corinthian capital, the last remaining from an ancient temple. Next to the forum stands the impressive Romanesque Church of St. Donatus, “the largest Byzantine building in Croatia.” A tall cylindrical building with a height of nearly 100 feet, its foundation consists of the congealed remains of the Roman forum—a comment by the medieval church, no doubt, as to the only proper use of the pagan. St. Donatus is no longer a church, but the perfect acoustics within its immense rotunda make it an ideal location for the ethereal hosannas of Renaissance and Baroque choral music.
We followed our guide for a while longer, pausing periodically outside the rough, Romanesque edifices of yet more 800-year-old churches: the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, the Church of St. Chrysogonus, and the Church of St. Mary. We entered none of them, however. It was as if our guide meant only to make the point that Zadar had long been a citadel of Christianity and that now, with the fall of communism—the latest anti-Christ—Zadar could again savor its ecclesiastical wealth when it wanted to and in private. We did enter the Treasury next to the Church of St. Mary, however, to see the famous “Gold and Silver of Zadar.” Here we were greeted by a smiling Benedictine nun, apparently the only nun in the convent of St. Mary who speaks English. She gave us a tour, speaking softly and methodically as she swept in her habit through the various exhibits explaining the provenance of each wondrous object. We saw many ancient and elaborate processional crucifixes, a few Byzantine polyptyches, and a couple of fine paintings by Luzzo and Carpaccio. Most memorable—or bizarre—was the stunning array of silver and gold reliquaries in the shapes of arms and legs, meant to locate the tiny fragment of bone remaining from a sainted limb. The nun smiled from time to time as we whispered our astonishment. She struggled some over our accumulating questions, explaining that she had trouble sometimes understanding “American.”
Thereafter, we were released to independent excursions, confident that we could find our way back to the ship, Zadar being a peninsula—“When you come to a city gate, turn left.” We began to shiver from the increasing cold as the brilliant blue of the sky faded into gray twilight. The days had grown shorter since the time change yesterday morning. A creeping melancholia came over the ancient ecclesiastical city of Zadar, “a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons— / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes.” We turned left and were home again. At 8:00 p.m., the Monet fired its engines, released its lines, and slipped out of the harbor, heading first for the channel through the coastal islands, then west across the Adriatic, bound for Italy.
The Captain’s farewell banquet was scheduled for this evening, so we dressed according to our best interpretation of the Monet’s favorite oxymoron, “elegant casual.” As we entered the dining room, Captain Hraste greeted us in his dress whites. The three waiters did their level best to cultivate a formal appearance, though the intensity of serving a full ship soon overtook their decorous restraint. The entree included sea bass, turbot, and some sort of crustacean resembling an embryonic lobster. The real achievement of the evening was the dessert of baked Alaska, which our waiters carried into the room with considerable fanfare, though one of the three flaming cakes proved to be nearly inextinguishable. At the end, the Captain rose to offer some pleasantries, which were returned by us with every bit as much affection and gratitude.
Earlier that afternoon, Kathy had relayed to me the Captain’s concern that the crossing might prove rough. He recommended that we postpone our departure until after dinner. But with the high pressure system looming over the Northern Adriatic, it seemed better to delay our decision until late in the day. As it turned out, the sea was calm enough for dinner and, thereafter, a perfect sleeping sea for the voyage to our final full day in Ravenna.
The voyage from Zadar to Ravenna normally takes 15 hours. In the calm seas, Captain Hraste was able to shave a half hour off the crossing. This was welcome news to those wishing to have some shopping time in Ravenna prior to the afternoon tour. Following breakfast, Lamar offered his final lecture, “The Stones of Ravenna.” It was a fine overview of the history of the city from early Roman times. Among the events of note, Ravenna was the last stop for Julius Caesar and his army before he crossed the Rubicon, just outside town. Much later, the city served temporarily as the capital of the Western Roman Empire after Rome had been abandoned. Thereafter, Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, used it as his capital. He is buried there in a mausoleum domed with an immense block of Dalmatian granite. Eventually, Justinian, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, conquered Ravenna in 540 and restored the city to its former prominence. This Byzantine period, which lasted 200 years, produced Ravenna’s greatest ecclesiastical construction and the manufacture of its most accomplished mosaics. Lamar spoke of Ravenna’s famous mosaics, which were later much prized by Charlemagne, who carted off the best that he could carry to Aachen for the newly established seat of the Holy Roman Empire. On the tour later this day, we would have to be satisfied with those he left behind.
Lamar’s talk, delivered with his customary mastery and sardonic wit, proved a better preparation for Ravenna than the port itself, which is heavily industrialized. On the way in, we glided among tankers and natural gas platforms until we reached the marshy coastland and the shipping canal that leads to the port of Classe. With the Monet tied up and cleared by customs, most of our group gathered on the landing to catch one of eight taxis Kathy had arranged to carry us to Ravenna and the town center. The pedestrian area offered some relief from the multi-course meals aboard the Monet and an abundance of shopping opportunities in fashionable shops—sufficient to do considerable damage.
We met the tour at 1:30 at the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna’s greatest church, consecrated in 548 A.D. Half of our group went on to tour the church, while the others walked the short distance to the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, the little gem that contains Ravenna’s oldest mosaics. The actual Galla Placidia was the mother and protector of one of the last emperors of the Western Roman Empire. She died in 450, 26 years before the Empire fell to the Barbarians; the mausoleum was built in 525-530. There is no evidence that mausoleum ever accommodated Galla Placidia’s bones. The mosaics, however, are quite lovely for their design, quaint iconography, and the delicate sweetness of their depiction of holy writ.
The immense Basilica has truly extraordinary mosaics, still quite brilliant in their color and conception. Most of the mosaics in the presbytery, the high vault in front of the apse, relate stories from both the Old and New Testaments, while those in the apse tell the life of Jesus. Here also are found stunning depictions of the Emperor Justinian with his court on one side and his queen Theodora and her attendants on the other. The figures have a child-like quality to their depiction, a highly ornate frontality without any suggestion of animation, and yet the dramatically depicted eyes, peering from the walls and ceilings of San Vitale, have a gaze that catches and penetrates the observer.
After San Vitale, we pushed on to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, built by Theodoric in the early 6th century and later reconsecrated as a Catholic church in 561 A.D. The church has a long nave with a portico on each side above which are an astonishing array of mosaics. The medieval pope Gregory considered their brilliance too distracting and had them blackened. Most of the space is given over to scenes depicting a long procession of 26 martyred saints on one side and 22 elaborately costumed Byzantine maidens on the other. Toward the apse, several scenes from the New Testament are illustrated, including a large mosaic of an enthroned “Christ the Redeemer” flanked by angels and, on the opposite wall, Mary receiving the supplication of elaborately costumed patrons. The mosaics in the apse were destroyed in an earthquake in the 8th century. One very curious scene at the rear of the nave near the door is a mosaic of Theodoric’s palace, which once stood nearby. The mosaic, now lost, reportedly depicted Theodoric on horseback flanked by attendants. These, however, were removed when the church was consecrated. Only a few hands and fingers set within the mosaic columns remain. The empty spaces between the columns are covered with a mosaic of draperies hung like kitchen curtains—to a vaguely comic effect.
The weather again was turning colder at this hour. We made a brief stop at Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. This church, contemporary with the other two, most resembled Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo with its long nave and porticoed walls. Here, however, there was an apse richly decorated with mosaics, with a mosaic depiction of the sainted Apollinaris himself.
By this point, we were well tired and somewhat chilled, so it was good to return to the ship for our final night aboard. Prior to our departure, we enjoyed a lecture by an enthusiastic Italian professor from the local university; he spent his most valuable time answering questions about recent developments in Italy. Kathy had to cut him off finally so that he could disembark before we shoved off. After a short break, we gathered again for the group photograph, our first real opportunity with (nearly) everyone on hand. Dinner this evening was at 7:30. Folks settled their accounts with Ana at reception, then, restored to a more festive mood, took their final dinner. In presenting the group gratuity to our hotel manager Ante, we exchanged some pleasantries in the good fellowship of our company, celebrated Gail Knight’s birthday with another barely edible Croatian cake, and then retired to our cabins to pack. It is a curiosity how disruptive such a process seems after one has settled into a cabin, regardless of how small. Home is always where we make it. But the schedule called for the removal of our luggage early on the next morning, so we un-stowed our belongings and then, at the first opportunity, collapsed into the welcome dark.
We arrived at the St. Basilio pier of Venice quite early on Wednesday morning, almost as if the ship were ready to be done with us. As we peered through the curtains of our cabins we could tell that the rains had returned to Venice. At the 8:30 disembarkation, those returning to the U.S, seemed relieved to be on their way. Those of us staying on in Venice for the optional three-day extension looked anxiously to the sky for a break in the weather. The local guides who arrived with Flavio, the manager of the in-bound Venice tour company, acknowledged, sheepishly, that the forecast called for rain through Saturday. At 9:00, we said our farewells to the crew of the Monet and made our way down the gangway to the pier for our water taxis and whatever adventures lay ahead. Over the next two days we enjoyed exquisite accommodations at the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal, a deluxe four-star former palazzo just off the Piazza San Marco. The hotel’s public rooms have been recently restored to their former glory. The spacious sleeping rooms, reflecting the best in contemporary Italian design, are tastefully and intelligently appointed. Several of the 32 opting for the extension allowed that the hotel was the finest that they had ever stayed in.
About half of the extension group chose the optional Wednesday morning tour of the Accademia Galleries, where we studied several treasures of Venetian art through the centuries. On Thursday morning, we enjoyed the option of a tour of the Frari Church, with its remarkable tombs and paintings—Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” (1518) is the famous altarpiece, though the church also possesses a lovely Madonna and Child triptych by Giovanni Bellini in the Sacristy. We also toured the nearby Scuola di San Rocco, one of Venice’s many confraternities (a vague ancestor of the Rotary Club), founded in 1478. San Rocco is commonly known as Venice’s Sistine Chapel, due to the overwhelming array of 54 paintings by Tintoretto on the ceilings and walls—there was quite literally no place to rest the eye. The enormous paintings, abundantly illustrating Tintoretto’s fondness for chiaroscuro, all have religious subjects, though the boldness of their originality and energy are what art historians most admire.
These morning tours went very well, for we were well provided with an excellent guide—and appealing places to duck into out of the rain. On each afternoon, most folks wandered Venice’s fantastic labyrinth of streets, an endlessly fascinating array of available walks. The pleasure of this serendipity, of wandering through Venice’s exotic maze of sidewalks and canals, where each turn reveals yet another wonder, another teasing mystery within a small architectural detail or crumbling edifice, of mounting the time-worn steps of the myriad stone bridges leapfrogging over the canals and then dashing down again as if in child’s play into a crowd of faces—or, better, to follow a sinuous side street through its shadowy enclosure of damp, anonymous walls, to have the leisure and release of getting lost in the labyrinth, where one’s only company is the sound of one’s own footsteps, and then to emerge suddenly onto the Piazza San Marco, “the finest drawing room in Europe,” and behold its fluttering city of pigeons wheeling in flight, the dizzying and massive height of the Campanile, and the immense domed obscurity of the Basilica, sitting like a committee of sultans at the end of time—the pleasure is, of course, impossible to describe adequately. So one talks about the weather and the price of goods. Late on our last afternoon, we were blessed by a break in the weather. Emerging from her veil of cloud, Venice seemed to ignite in the golden light.
On Thursday evening, most of the group gathered at a fine restaurant, Antico Martini, a short walk from the hotel, for a final dinner. Kathy, glinting steel beneath her reliable good will, convinced the nonplussed headwaiter that we would all need separate checks. During this splendid dinner, we shared many laughs as well as tales of our various adventures over the past two days. It was an entirely satisfying occasion and a fitting conclusion to “Venice and the Dalmatian Coast.”
On Friday morning, it was raining again. Venice had returned to her somber moods. At 7:40 a.m., we made our departure by water taxi to the Venice airport, the route of our arrival, seemingly a month ago. At 10:30, our Air France flight to Paris and then home lifted off the runway in search of the illusive sun. One by one, our memories began to brighten.