Croatian Idyll | Margaret Koger

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This story begins with a search for a sandy beach facing the Adriatic Sea, preferably in Croatia, a land seemingly half a world away from our home. Not just any beach, as you might imagine. My traveling companion, Grove Koger, and I were looking for a romantic place where there was plenty of room for everyone, a stand of pines for shade, a food and a drink vendor or two—but mostly we required clean, gently-sloping shallows to inspire lazy afternoons of sunning and swimming.

In this instance a village propitiously called Orebić (“or-uh-beach” to our untrained ears) on the Pelješac Peninsula, a once-thriving sea-faring community near the island of Korĉula, sounded attractive because it claimed to have the longest sand beach in Croatia—with pine trees! Featuring regular ferry service and reasonably priced apartments, the site appeared to be a good bet, so we booked accommodations there for a week-long stay. We started in Rome, traveled by train across the boot of Italy, and caught a ferry to Croatia.

Our Jadrolinija ferry left Bari at around 10:00 p. m.; we watched as the lights of the city receded and darkness shrouded the sea around us. If all went well, we would arrive in Croatia the following morning. We shared a ceremonial pale ale and absorbed the sense of ease that ferry travel engenders. A holiday spirit pervaded the air as honeymooners, families, and a few solitary passengers relaxed and we surrendered all our concerns to the care of the ship’s captain and crew. Soon the air cooled around us and the crowd thinned. We went below and slept through the night in sturdy wooden bunks that countered the occasional pitch and roll of the sea.

As the sun rose over the Adriatic the following morning, the light on the water mellowed to a gold wash complementing a scattering of roseate clouds above. The gold and pink lent the blue dome of sky and the turquoise skin of the sea a quiet splendor. As we approached Port Gruz, we passed under the silvery Dubrovnik Bridge, a 21st-century engineering marvel, one of the largest single-pylon cable bridges in the world. The pillared support stood on two “legs” that rose like the spine of an enormous musical instrument from the dun-colored shore below. From the heights, cables draped in a triangular calibration to support the roadbed that extended across the channel. The bridge’s harp-like structure suggested it would resonate if plucked by the wind. Since there were no skyscrapers grounded in the brushy hillsides, the singularity of the bridge prevailed and the graceful steel span promised that a land filled with people of rich imagination and ingenuity lay beyond.

Cars and passengers leaving the ferry at Port Gruz were soon unloaded and we were underway. At noon we arrived at Korĉula, one of the multitude of rocky islands scattered down the coast of Croatia. We planned to stay a few days in the walled city of Korĉula before venturing across to our mainland destination. Our hostess met us and we walked three abreast up the empty street rising from the harbor to our hillside apartment. Diminutive and red-haired, Jadranka welcomed us so warmly that we grew confident of our choice of lodging before even seeing the buildings. She explained how happy she was that September had finally arrived, ending the high season and sending the noisy Italians home. As we climbed, she announced, “We could never enjoy this walking a month ago. Cars everywhere!” Jadranka hoped the weather would hold so she could join her husband for a sailing trip that had been impossible during the high season. Later we discovered an “easy” alternate route to our rooms, one that involved a climbing hundred-plus set of stone steps.

By evening great storm clouds had massed across the channel from Korĉula above the series of barren granite peaks that make up the spine of the Pelješac Peninsula. These “black mountains”—the Monte Negro range—towered above the channel as we watched the darkening clouds increase ominously in volume and weight. Here and there the mists swirled, deepened and transformed, flashing in random streaks— horizontal bursts of sheet lightning—such flame as the ancients may have described as a panoply of gods at war. The power of the storm dwarfed my recollections of holiday fireworks that had once seemed so grand. We stood a long time in awe of the cloud-born fire.

The dawn brought us renewed excitement as we surveyed the view from our balcony. Through diamond-pure air, we gazed at the verdant forests of Aleppo pine, cypress, and Holm oak covering the hills bordering the Middle Passage to northern Croatia. Ships traveled through the channel regularly, often docking for a few hours or overnight in plain sight from our veranda as we looked below to the walled city. We spent our days in uplifting leisure. Mornings we sipped café coffee at the base of the wide-spread castle steps under the guardianship of winged Venetian lion sculptures. Afternoons we swam in the clean, topaz water near the boat basin, and evenings we read and watched the vibrant sunsets from the veranda, sometimes ducking for cover when another aggressive storm blew in.

The morning of our passing from Korĉula to Orebić proved to be sunny and promised calm waters as we clambered onto a converted fishing boat for our fifty minute trip. However, the little swells grew larger in the open water and the shores of Orebić were hard to see as the boat tossed up and down. I wondered if Jadranka had risked going on that September sea outing she mentioned. Clinging firmly to the side of the boat, I focused my thoughts on our plan to stay close by the water, far below the peaks of the Monte Negro Mountains, where I hoped to find remnants from Dalmatia’s rich maritime past.

As we pulled closer to the shore, the mountains appeared humbled and gray, their monster reach softened by the strip of land below with its sunny shores. But at the docks we found no taxi. Our destination address, carefully printed for the driver to read since neither of us spoke Croat, languished in our pack, and none of the workers in the ticket and snack booths that lined the retaining wall could help us. We had a cell phone number to call, but there was only one broken public telephone in sight.

So we walked along the promenade in the direction we hoped would lead to our next residence, Apartment M at Kneza Domagoja 34. And it did. We found a newly converted carriage house fronted by an ample courtyard with a tamarisk for shade and the sea, as advertised, only three meters away! We stood around, hoping that our hostess would somehow sense our presence. At last we ventured up a walkway beside number 34 and unwittingly disturbed two black and white Dalmatian dogs that barked and barked and pulled at their chains. Soon, our hostess Marija Cibilić appeared and apologized for not meeting us. Her husband was away and she had so much to do . . . I was pleased to find we were staying in even a lowly part of a ship captain’s residence. Once inside we quickly located the promised welcome basket that included a bottle of the Cibilić’s home vinted, red wine, a container of local olive oil, and a basket of fruit. Everything seemed to have fallen into place, and my misgivings about the black mountains’ powers faded.

When we followed the promenade to the beach, we counted our blessings. From the shady pines along the walkway, we saw a wide swath of white sand curving along a shallow cove. We hurried into the water where the gentle slope and sandy bottom of the inlet allowed us to run into the waves and float effortlessly on their backs. Here at last we could stretch out on the sand, laze in the sun, and wander at will into the crystalline waters.

As the days slid by, we opened ourselves to the ambiance of Orebić. On walks we saw trees filled with rich, red pomegranate fruit and chinks in the walls where snails waited to come out into a refreshing rain. We shopped for meat and cheese at the small supermarket with its impressive assortment of local wines, then at the farmer’s market for figs and vegetables, and later at a small bakery for pastries and bread. We prepared meals, swam, napped, and read. Chores consisted of cooking—often heating Italian gnocchi or slicing spicy Croatian sausage and fresh bread—and someone had to clean off the lacy, blue foliage dropped on the table in the courtyard from the Tamarisk tree. Sunsets calmed the deep blue waters close to our lodgings and drew our attention to the soft murmur of the sea, its timeless invitation to wade in. And swim.

Margaret Koger is a school media specialist with a writing habit. She lives and works in Boise where she celebrates les bois–the trees that the city is named for. She enjoys travel and will be returning to Croatia for another seaside idyll in 2013. She has published poetry and prose recently in Avocet, Mused, Blast Furnace, Granny Smith Magazine, Rooms: Writers in the Attic, and Hauntings of the Snake River Plain.

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