Monday, 24 June 2013

a corner of Croatia

When we wake up the ferry is already sailing into the harbour of Dubrovnik.  We excitedly join other passengers on the deck and start sweating in the morning sun gleaming down at us above the mountainside.  It isn't yet 7am and it might already be close to 30 degrees.  We sit down and brew up in the shade as soon as we get out of the port.  Ahh, first coffee of the day and a bit of breakfast - and to business: straight into the supermarket to restock and then along the busy road (rush hour?) and up and over the hill for our second look at the stunning old city. 

We were here on our last journey in 2007 so we don't exactly gasp, but I'd forgotten how impressive the old town looks.  But close up at the gates it's bedlam.  Buses disgorge more and more visitors, an old lady keeps asking if we want a room, and it is still getting hotter.  We rehydrate at the fountain and decide our next step.  Last week we got a nice e-mail from Maxime and Elodie, the young French cyclists we met in Catania a month earlier.  They wrote from Dubrovnik asking if we were going to be there.  They were being hosted by a Croatian family with a young son similar in age to their Timeo and the hosts had kindly offered us a bed in their basement or space to camp in their garden.  So we want to cycle south of the city to get there, but first look around the old town.  But with the loaded bikes and the heat and the crowds I just can't face it.  
Gayle leaves me in a park full of pine trees on a bluff above the old town, happily reading and catching a vague breeze in the shade.  Meanwhile she braves the hot sun and the bright white shadeless streets of the old town alone.

Late afternoon and we think it's cool enough to set off - up and up and up the narrow coastal road and onto the main highway full of roaring tour buses and fast cars.  It's baking, there's heat haze, we're soaked with sweat.  Fortunately Ivana and Antonio do not live too far away and we find their house easily.  They are relaxed and thoughtful hosts and we are welcomed warmly into their home and meet their young children Filip and Thea.  Maxime, Elodie and Timeo are due to fly to Sweden tomorrow morning so we don't have much time to catch up.  In the evening Gayle turns down her tea.  She must be unwell to refuse food.  Heatstroke?  She goes to lie down for a long nap, while I join Elodie and Max and Timeo for a night out.  It turns out that Antonio is a musician - and he's playing the harmonica with his friend on guitar at a posh hotel restaurant in nearby Cavtat.  It's a joy to hear the blues and if I close my eyes I might just be sitting waterside on the Missisipi Delta.  We laugh about the cost of the beer - we can only afford a glass each - and I think Max's smile drops a little when I tell him the price of beer in Sweden is not much less.

Early the next day our French friends depart for the airport.  The temperature is still sweltering and we take our cue from Ivana and the kids who stay indoors where it's cooler during the hottest part of the day.  They built their house from a small farm building surrounded by olive trees and it's got a great view east over the valley to the long ridge of mountains that forms a physical border with Bosnia.  Down the road is a nice bay with a beach - and we head there for a cooling swim.  Antonio, who is an air-traffic controller in his spare time, offers to take us to the most beautiful beach in the world.  It's a great offer even if we don't believe him.  This part of Croatia, south of Dubrovnik, is a relatively undiscovered gem.  

possibly the most beautiful beach in the world

From a panoramic viewpoint we get to look over the huge Konavle valley, Cavtat bay at one end, with the airport on a raised plateau and the mountains bordering Bosnia surrounding a lush green valley.  This is where Antonio and Ivana grew up, although the war meant that Ivana spent her high school years with family in Split.  When he was younger Antonio thought Croatia a small, maybe backward place, but as he's grown older and visited other places he's also come to appreciate his surroundings.  They are lovely and the place is far from overcrowded.  He leads us on a narrow path cut into a cliff to reach the most beautiful beach in the world, at the foot of the cliffs, the typical brilliant turquoise waters clear as light.  It's a pebble beach with a handful of locals.  He tells us only locals know this beach.  And Czechs.  He explains: the Czechs like to get lost, they always find these out-of-the-way places.

In the end we spend almost a week with Ivana and Antonio and have a great time being shown around and sharing ideas, learning about their experiences and answering Antonio's testing questions.  They both enjoy music and one day I hear wonderful singing from their lounge.  Is that a new Cassandra Wilson record? I wonder.  Only if she sings in Croat.  Ivana has a warm rich voice and they tell us that they have performed together at a local festival singing songs they've written using local idioms and jokes.  We await a recording.
possibly the most beautiful music in the world

We meet Ivana's mum at her house in Gruda where her parents now have rooms for tourists who want something other than the mainstream tourism of the coast.  Her dad painstakingly reconstructed the old family home after the war and they have joined an international agro-tourism organisation along with a few other local families.  Antonio takes us to one of Tito's favourite restaurants - set in a shady cool spot next to a deliciously cold river pouring out of the mountains.  He tells us that he thinks Yugoslavia was a good idea for these western balkan countries, that they would be better off united.  But it's hard to imagine the countries reuniting.  

Croatia joins the EU in July.  Is that a good thing, we ask?  Possibly, if it can ensure the country is better run - too many poor leaders in the last twenty years and too much corruption has stifled the country's growth. We don't produce anything, Antonio explains.  He also explains the psychology of Croatians who for years have always tried to 'trick' the system.  If you can fiddle your taxes, if you can cheat the rules, you are a hero.  I am suddenly reminded of the man in the supermarket in front of me, weighing his tomatoes.  You have to weigh the fruit and veg yourself, and stick the price sticker on the bag.  We both had tomatoes and I knew the code was 86.  The man in front had almost 2 kilos and he punched in the code number 10, stuck the sticker on the bag and moved off.  I put my three toms on the scales and punched in 86.  But then I also tried 10, which was for onions.  Half the price.  The man was 'tricking' the system.  Folk hero or thief?  And how do you change that mentality for the better of all?

The high heat has cooled off now and it's time we should move on.  But we've had such an interesting and fun time with Ivana and Antonio that we find it hard to say goodbye.  Once again we must give thanks for what we call Spontaneous Acts of Kindness.

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