Through the Croatian Looking Glass | Cruising World

Through the Croatian Looking Glass

The magical commingling of opposites at the heart of this Balkan state highlights the advantages of a crewed charter in the Dalmatian archipelago

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The town of Hvar on Hvar Island

Jon Eisberg

Meester Jon--would you like some try my cake of cheese?" I was sipping an afternoon coffee when Antonela’s delightful, lilting voice sang out from the galley. I’d been gazing across the water at Carmelengo Tower and the Romanesque town walls of the medieval island city of Trogir. Antonela completed the picture by setting down her delicious offering, still steaming from the oven, on the cockpit table.

I was reeling from an early summer flu further enhanced by the long overnight flight from the States. Clearly, Antonela was a woman on a mission to nurse me back to health, if not to fatten me up a bit.

"It surprises me no you are sick," she lectured. "Forgive me, but you are too skinny much." Though her English syntax was charmingly convoluted, her understanding of how to win the affection of one forever wishing to shed 10 pounds couldn’t have been clearer.

I’d found my way to this enchanting setting courtesy of an invitation from Stardust Platinum Yacht Charters. I was asked to join an international crew for a week aboard one of the Lagoon 47 catamarans that operate from Stardust Platinum’s base near Split, in the center of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Most Americans wouldn’t associate this stretch of the Adriatic with a luxury crewed-charter destination, but it’s a place that’ll quickly shatter preconceived notions and readily charm the wariest traveler. With the exception of the damage done by shelling to the coastal city of Dubrovnik 10 years ago, no physical evidence whatsoever remains that the hostilities with Bosnia and Herzegovina ever visited Dalmatia’s coast or islands.

The Accidental Tourist
I was an unlikely candidate to be charmed by the pampering offered by Stardust. I’ll never be an airport-limousine kind of guy--I’ll forever stubbornly schlepp my own bags from long-term parking, thank you--so the notion of a crewed-charter vacation has never held much appeal. I suppose I’d assumed it would be an if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium kind of experience.

That misconception was dispelled by our captain, Leo Lesvic, immediately after clearing customs in Split. Before I could protest, Leo hoisted my huge duffel from my shoulder as if it were filled with down. Using a phrase I was to hear repeatedly over the next week, he said, "Nema problema--we are from steel." With a wolfish grin splitting his handsome, sharply featured face, it was impossible not to like Leo--immediately and immensely. It was obvious that we were in extremely capable hands on this trip.

Sailing among the hundreds of islands in the Dalmatian archipelago appears deceptively straightforward--the sort of place where anyone could bareboat with confidence. With predominantly steep-to shorelines and few off-lying hazards, a tidal range between six inches and a foot, a wealth of potential anchorages, and a network of modern, state-sponsored marinas, you could quickly discount the value of local knowledge. That notion will be quickly dispelled, however, when you learn that Croatia is a place where the winds have been given mysterious names with few apparent references to the points of the compass. Watching Leo furrow his brow as the forecast spoke of an expected jugo, bura, tremontana, or siroko, we began to get the hint that these winds would possess characteristics above and beyond the mere direction of their source. Despite being a devout believer in the sort of self-reliance fostered by the long-term-parking option, I was beginning to feel relieved that Leo would be our "limo driver."

Wind Like Waterfalls
The winds with which I’m most familiar blow horizontally. The fearsome bura, however, possesses a significant vertical component that poses real challenges for anyone cruising Croatia’s waters. This is a cold, katabatic wind that cascades like a waterfall from the high karst valleys of the Dinaric Alps, spilling out along the coastline and Dalmatia’s rugged islands.

A local bura can often blow with storm-force ferocity and, like its williwaw cousin in the Chilean channels, can instantly turn a seemingly protected anchorage into a death trap. One is ill-advised to seek shelter overnight where trees lean toward the south, and I pity the bareboat skipper who ventures into these waters unarmed with this sort of information.

However, the most daunting challenge for the first-time, unassisted cruiser is effecting the dreaded Mediterranean moor in Croatia’s tightly packed harbors. Lying stern to the quay in the center of town presents even the most competent skipper with the fabulous opportunity to be humbled in a spectacularly public fashion. And, of course, it also affords the local populace its afternoon amusement. Amid the confusion about whether to lower the anchor or pick up mooring lines beneath the surface--when commands and advice from shore are being shouted in three or four different languages--most sailors quickly find contentment in the knowledge that the charter is crewed and the boss can give as good as he gets in Croatian, German, Italian, English, and even French, should the need arise.

For me, however, the most startling crewed-chartering revelation was the extent to which a dedicated crew can make things happen. Without Leo’s presence and direction, we wouldn’t have experienced a fraction of what we were able to that week. When not moonlighting as a skipper for Stardust Platinum, he commands the largest vessel in Croatia’s maritime-police force. He’s a greatly revered figure along the Dalmatian coast and islands, and wherever we went, everyone knew Leo, and he knew everyone as well. Within minutes of our arrival in a harbor, a vehicle would materialize, and we’d be off on a tour of the countryside. Restaurants graciously extended their hours to accommodate our schedule, and everyone we encountered was infected by Leo’s vitality. The force of his personality, coupled with Antonela’s delicate charm, guaranteed serendipity.

Last Unspoiled Grounds
In Trogir, I met David Gregory, a British ex-pat cruiser who’d spent the last 30 years skippering large yachts based in southern Europe. He reckoned that Croatia is the last unspoiled cruising ground--with far and away the most beautiful water--in the Mediterranean. And he was impressed with this young nation’s determination to keep it that way. There seems to be an awareness that the days of mass tourism are numbered, that travelers are searching for more intimate experiences. Croatia appears determined not to repeat "the Spanish Mistake," for example, where unfettered high-rise development overwhelms local infrastructures, tour buses clog the roads, and so many of their sun-kissed costas have been cast into shadow.

There’s something special about seeking refuge in a harbor that’s been used for similar purposes since 385 B.C. That’s when the town of Starigrad was founded by Greek colonists and first given the name of Pharos. Well protected at the head of a four-mile-long bay on the north shore of the island of Hvar, Starigrad has remained an important center of the Adriatic as one civilization has succeeded another. Leo thought it would be the best spot for riding out an anticipated jugo two days into our cruise. The jugo is a warm, humid wind from the south that usually portends wet and stormy weather for a couple of days.

After a beautiful first day reaching to the outermost island of Vis--courtesy of a temperate maestral, or sea breeze--we retreated north towards Starigrad. The jugo is typically slow to build, but by the time we tacked into the bay of Starigrad, we were experiencing gusts near 40 knots and boatspeeds nudging the teens. While the Croats have names for their winds from every quarter, "reefing" apparently doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. Leo is a sailor par excellence, and he gave us one hell of a ride, but had our skipper been born in the American West, he’d have been a rodeo cowboy, for sure.

Hvar is perhaps the best known of all the islands of Dalmatia. Condé Nast Traveller named it one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world, but in truth, it’s no more splendid than any of a dozen or so of its neighbors. The magical port of Hvar represents the best of the Mediterranean blend of antiquity and the modern sophistication that pervades Croatia’s more fashionable destinations. Strolling along the quay at this time of year, one is reminded of Saint-Tropez, minus the hordes of poseurs.

Since antiquity, the Adriatic Sea has been the crossroads of much of Western history, and being there imparts a sense of perspective too often missing from a week in the tropics. When viewed in the harbor in St. Barts or Antigua, a Perini Navi superyacht can dominate the scene to an extent that distorts one’s sense of the place. Moor that same vessel adjacent to the centuries-old fortress in Trogir, however, and it begins to seem less significant. The enduring, hand-chiseled labor of Dalmatian stonemasons speaks a universal language in praise of permanence and communal achievement, while the flashy megayacht seems more like a testament to the transience of fashion and to the obscene disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

Cruising throughout Croatia is also remarkably free of the plantation society that caters to charter guests in so many popular tropical-chartering grounds. We were but a tiny piece of the touristic puzzle being assembled there in the aftermath of the war with Bosnia in the last decade, and no hint of subservience or pretense was in the warmth we were shown wherever we went. The intense pride Croatians feel for their country is obvious and unmistakable, and the benevolent treatment we received from total strangers was almost overwhelming in its generosity and good faith. A favorite saying along the Dalmatian coast is, "You don’t have to live, but you have to eat." Thus, inevitably, any display of hospitality involved massive quantities of the delicious local fare.

St. Anton’s Feast
One afternoon, we anchored in a small bay on one of the islands off the southern coast of Vis. While preparing for lunch and a swim in water that appeared to be freshly imported from the Exumas, some local fishermen came alongside in their skiff--Leo knew them, of course, as he seems to know every single human residing along the Dalmatian coast--and we were immediately invited to join them for a feast called St. Anton’s Day. I never did get the straight scoop on exactly who St. Anton was, but he certainly provided sufficient excuse to party.

The gathering of these fishermen and their families was under a small grove of trees next to an abandoned stone building. An entire lamb was skewered on a long spit, and the men took turns slowly rotating the glazed carcass over the fire. The air was filled with smoke, two or three spoken (and occasionally understood) languages, animated and wonderfully descriptive hand gestures, and incessant laughter.

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| Jon Eisberg|

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| The 17th-century Benedictine monastery on the island of Vis hangs suspended over the town of Komiza.* * *|

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Our banquet was laid out on a crude table, the settings were a mélange of paper, plastic, and Styrofoam, and the deliciously potent local wine was dispensed from an old plastic kerosene-storage container. I wasn’t aware of any flammable aftertaste, and the food and the company couldn’t have been finer. Perhaps this was a departure from the typical afternoon aboard a luxury charter in some more Disneyesque destination, but much of the privilege of this cruise involved the rare and unhindered opportunity to interact with and befriend the populace.

Eight hours later, we found ourselves in a place as trendy and fashionable as our afternoon had been rustic. Along the Hvar waterfront, the bar, Carpe Diem, is clearly the place to see--and to be seen. The creation of a couple of entrepreneurs from Munich, this place has an atmosphere second to none, matching anything New York, Miami, or Paris might have to offer. We lounged amid the decor imported from Bali, soaking it all up while we could. Two months hence, in high season, we’d be lucky to get past the velvet rope at the entrance, and our table would likely be occupied by a rock star or supermodel. Such is the curious blend that is modern Croatia.

In Eastern-Bloc Times
I’d traveled along this coast almost two decades earlier, shortly after the death of Marshall Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia from 1943 to 1980. Then, one couldn’t help but be struck by the dourness of the people, the lack of goods, and the overall resignation. It was clearly a population frightfully aware of the risks inherent in stepping out of line. Along the major roads, gas stations were always placed in pairs, on opposite sides of the road. Often I’d see a long line of vehicles waiting on one side, while the opposite station remained devoid of cars. While not technically illegal to do so, the notion of making a U-turn to pull into the empty station seemed beyond anyone’s capability to imagine.

In present-day Croatia, however, all that has changed. One of the great pleasures of visiting the country today is witnessing the myriad ways in which its people make the best of the modest resources they possess. Croatia, as a nation with newfound independence, is very much a work in progress. As confusing as things often appear to be, somehow everything seems to work out in the end, and people often wear many different hats--or uniforms--to ensure this outcome.

The morning of our departure from the harbor of Komiza on Vis, we dawdled too long for Leo’s liking, jeopardizing a visit to the Blue Cave on the nearby islet of Bisevo. This undersea cave is best visited before noon to allow the morning sun to flood it with reflected light from below. When it became apparent we wouldn’t arrive in time, Leo convinced a few of his fellow policemen to run us out in one of their patrol boats.

A handful of seasonal inhabitants operate the low-freeboard launches required for passage through the cave’s entrance, but none were found so early in the season. Nema problema. One of the officers went below, changed from his uniform into his civilian togs--from law enforcer to tour guide. He jumped into the launch, fired up the one-lung engine with an alacrity indicating he’d done it before, and we were off to see the grotto.

Time and again during our charter we witnessed such cheerful creativity in dealing with minor obstacles, without a trace of "Hey, it’s not my job" or without any hesitation to act because of liability or propriety. Never once did I witness any currency change hands during one of these occurrences, yet it was obvious that bartering was at work here, a tradition of favors and loyalties passed down through the generations that allowed our transit through this new territory to pass without a hitch. With the passage of every day, the list of marvelous encounters grew longer--happenings we’d never have had on a bareboat charter.

The Quality of the Light
As a photographer, my perception of a place is largely dependent on the quality of the light that exists there. With the rugged Dinaric Alps rising so precipitously from the Adriatic, the Dalmatian seaboard is one of the most beautiful coastlines in all of Europe. This spectacular geography seems to create its own weather, and the region is cast in a luminescence that’s a protean blend of continental and maritime, alpine and oceanic.

This commingling of opposites is at the heart of Croatia’s nature. The Balkans have forever been at the crossroads of East and West, antiquity and modernity, Christianity and Islam, tyranny and freedom. This blend of cultures and ethnicities pervades every aspect of a traveler’s experience and provides unexpected delight and surprise at almost every turn. If anything, time spent along the coast and among the islands of Croatia compels one to reassess his definition of a sailing vacation. Spend some time in this wondrous place that is Croatia, and you’ll learn many lessons about the struggle to achieve harmony.

My favorite spot during our charter was the harbor town of Komiza on Vis, the most far-flung of the islands of the Dalmatian archipelago. Vis was Tito’s stronghold during World War II, and it remained closed to foreigners until 1968. A 17th-century Benedictine monastery, set amid vineyards and lavender fields, overlooks the town and its harbor.

As I drifted off to sleep that night in Komiza, an instrumental quartet played traditional Croatian music in a casual, elegant fashion, careful not to overpower any conversation. The happy, animated medley of Croatian, German, Italian, French, English, and who knows what else rose into the fragrant air, mixing like the smoke from so many hand-rolled cigarettes.

Then this admixture of sound was picked up by the nighttime land breeze--the burin--and blended a bit more before wafting through the hatch above my berth. The music was as mellifluous and exotic as any I’ve ever heard, and it remains an enchanting memory of this place and all its intricacy.

A photographer specializing in shooting auto racing, Jon Eisberg lives near Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, where he’s sailed since childhood. A delivery captain for a quarter of a century, he sails his own boat, Chancy, a Chance 30-30, at every opportunity.

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