This is a story about ASA’s 2012 Croatia Flotilla. For more info on upcoming ASA sailing flotillas, click here.
Sailors (and tourists of all kinds) have beaten a well-worn path through the Mediterranean, particularly in places like Greece, Italy, and Spain. These are the world’s most ancient sailing grounds, and they richly deserve their reputations for beauty and splendor. But Croatia’s a bit different. Having only been open to tourists for about 15 years, following virtually 800 years of war and strife, you might expect the place to be a bit rough around the edges. But it’s actually quite the opposite–Croatia has a vitality, hospitality, and magnificence entirely its own.
You won’t find the bright colors and baroque flourishes of Italy, or the spectacular blinding white domes of Greece. Instead, as one local told me, “In Dalmatia it is all about the details.”
You will encounter jumbles of cascading orange tile roofs, and walls whose masonry spans 2,000 years: Originally built by the Romans, augmented in the time of Marco Polo, given a few Renaissance touch-ups, and perhaps reinforced by a tradesman yesterday. Immersing yourself in this rich historical tapestry is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Croatia.
So, when it comes to the architecture and culture of the Dalmatian coast, what should you be sure to see? Here were my favorite highlights, discovered on the 2012 ASA Croatia Flotilla.
Dubrovnik City Walls: Nicknamed “the pearl of the Adriatic,” this is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination. And it’s not hard to see why. With a huge, well-preserved “old town” district dating to the 15th century, the streets are pretty much as they were when Dubrovnik was a powerful Mediterranean city-state, rivaling Venice. Walking the city walls is a must, well worth the 70 kuna price (roughly $12). From the battlements you’ll get numerous stunning views of the town and the sea.
Moreska Sword Dance, Korcula: “You sit here,” the usher said, guiding us to the front row, “maybe you get broken nose. Maybe you lose tooth.”
If you make it to the island city of Korcula, you’ve simply got to see the Moreska Sword Dance—it’s the only place in the world where you can. The performance is elegant, violent, and real—not for the squeamish. Swords clashed and occasionally their broken blades hurtled into the audience, hence the warning (or perhaps invitation?) about getting a broken nose. By nightfall, blood had been spilled by performer and spectator alike, though no one was (seriously) hurt.
The dance recounts the battle between two kings for the love of a beautiful princess, and performing in it is a centuries-old tradition among the youth of Korcula. Shows are held on Mondays, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
Spanjola Fortress, Hvar: Another place for astonishing views. Abandoned for centuries, left “for the fairies to dance in at night,” there’s a spooky thrill to exploring this hilltop fortress. The hike up takes some work, especially on a hot day, but you’ll be glad you did it. From the walls you can see all of Hvar Town, plus the almost tropical-looking Pakleni Islands and the sparkling Adriatic. They’ve got a cafe up there, too, so you can kick back and relax.
Diocletian’s Palace, Split: No trip to the Dalmatian Coast would be complete without this landmark, once the home of Roman emperor Diocletian. It lies at the very heart of Split, and the city has been growing around and inside of it for 1,700 years. The palace is an entire town to itself, and full of oddities from various time periods. There are sphinxes taken from Egypt, fully intact Roman catacombs, ramshackle medieval houses, and the world’s smallest Christian cathedral, in what was once Diocletian’s mausoleum. There are “klappa” singers who perform in the rotunda with the polyphonic voices of angels, frequently reducing their audience to tears.
There’s so much more to see, of course, and more details than I could possibly describe. This should give you a taste, but the rest you’ll just have to see for yourself. Stay tuned to ASA social media for news about our next Croatia flotilla!
This is a special guest blog by Captain Jean de Keyser, who led ASA’s 2011 Croatia flotillas and operates Gulfcoast Sailing School, an ASA affiliate in Punta Gorda, FL.
On August 26 crew members from all over the U.S.A. gathered in the Trogir Palace Hotel located just outside of the stunningly beautiful medieval city of Trogir, Croatia.
A spread of Dalmatian specialties consisting of cured ham, local cheeses, salads, wines and delicious bread awaited them during this initial meeting of the first week’s ASA flotilla, the first of many delicious Croatian meals to be had.
ASA members from Florida, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Maryland had traveled all the way to this historic part of Europe for some great sailing fun along the Croatian coast on four yachts. Captain Jean De Keyser and First Mate and wife, Mila, gave the sailors their first briefing on what they could expect during this trip and provided lots of interesting information about the itinerary, local islands, marina facilities, docking, administrative procedures in each port and on provisioning during the week.
At around 12:00PM the following day, we made our way to Marina Kastela, a very large and modern charter base where several charter companies operate from. As most charters in Croatia start and end on a Saturday, the base was swarming with people from all over Europe and the U.S. It was like a marine version of the Towers of Babylon where, without a doubt, well over twenty languages could be heard.
The first yachts started leaving the marina at 3:30PM and headed for our first stop, the village of Milna on the island of Brac (pronounced Brasj). Upon our arrival at Milna, our skippers and their crews got their first taste of the Croatian version of Mediterranean mooring. The fact that one of the dockhands of the Milna marina was not very diplomatic made for some tense moments, but Capt. Jean advised the skippers to relax and ignore his yelling, and soon all four yachts were safely ensconced in their berths for the night.
At 6:00 the following morning, we were roused from our deep sleep by the bells of the church across from the basin. After breakfast, a short chart briefing and once we had recovered our boat papers, we set sail for our next destination, the island of Vis.
During the Cold War, when Tito was the communist dictator of Yugoslavia, this island was off-limit to foreigners and non-residents of the island. It was a secret military base and its mountains have countless tunnels in which the armed forces could hide in case of an invasion. Sailing along the coastline of Vis, one can still see many bunkers from where Tito’s forces could lob artillery shells on any would-be invader.
After about four hours of sailing we entered Rogacic Bay and anchored in front of the abandoned submarine base which was featured in the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. Everyone went for a swim or motored with the dinghies inside the submarine tunnel. The waters there are so clear you could see an octopus swim at the bottom.
We had lunch on board of our yachts. Our lunch typically consists of bread, cheese, “prosciut” ham, a salad of lettuce, tomatoes (they are super delicious here!), mozzarella and basil with olive oil and vinegar; all this, of course, generously accompanied by the delicious local wines.
After another refreshing swim, we headed for the port of Luka Vis and, another short sail later, docked across the harbor from the ancient little abbey.
One of the highlights of this itinerary is the dinner in a vineyard, high in the mountains of Vis.
Years ago, we discovered this family owned restaurant where they serve the most unbelievable lamb dish, prepared under the so-called Peka bell. Imagine…. generous portions of lamb, potatoes and tomatoes cooked in a dish covered by a bell on top of which hot ashes are piled. After two hours of slow cooking the food is served, accompanied with lots of bread to soak up the juices and with bottles and bottles of the wines produced in that same vineyard. Bise(Bee-Zay), the owner of this place had us also sample other local delights, like carpaccio of sardines, a variety of cheeses and fried zucchini flowers. Let us not forget the various homemade brandies!
Monday morning the “blue cave” on the island of Bisevo was waiting for us. We had a few hours of exhilarating sailing ahead of us and, one after the other, all boats anchored in the cove of the blue cave.
Suddenly, this 40’ yacht with a Polish flag entered the cove under full power and looking for a place to drop the hook. He decided to try his anchoring skills quite close to our boat which allowed us to see that the skipper was buck naked………. Not a pretty sight. Fortunately he anchored a bit further away and donned a speedo. Still not a pretty sight…….
Soon the dinghies were dropped in the water and we made our way to the blue cave and, of course, we had to swim in the electric blue waters. A magical experience!
Tuesday morning saw us heading towards the island of Hvar. We had some fairly decent winds when leaving, but soon the water became glassy calm and we had to leave a larger carbon footprint behind us. That afternoon the wind picked up again and we tacked our way up the channel while playing chicken to see how close we could get to the cliffs on either side of the channel before shouting “Hard A-lee!”
That night in the glamorous city of Hvar, which has become one of the places for the glitterati to be seen in Europe, we had an evening happy hour onboard Lejla, the ASA yacht of Dr. Kevin from Oklahoma. While enjoying a good drink and some appetizers, we saw this guy walking the docks looking for a doctor. One of his friends had dislocated his shoulder. Fortunately for this friend, we had Dr. Steve from Orlando in our flotilla. Apart from being an experienced sailor, he is a skilled orthopedic surgeon and in no time he reset the shoulder of this young man. Quite a crowd was swarming all over the place when he performed his healing wonder and he got quite a loud applause when the bone popped back in its joint. If he had been a bullfighter in Spain, they would probably have given him the two ears…..
The week was now in full swing and on Wednesday morning we motor-sailed to Korcula. Legend has it this adorable city was the birthplace of Marco Polo. You can still visit his house and climb the attached tower from where you have an impressive view of the city and the surrounding area. Of course, the nearby Marco Polo gift shop will gladly sell you souvenirs bearing his name and likeness. Wandering through the narrow streets you realize that you are walking on cobble stones that are centuries old. If only these walls could speak but, fortunately for me, some of them have been remodeled to accommodate ice cream and gelato shops. Civilization and progress are beautiful things indeed.
Sunrise brought us into our last sailing day of Friday and we sailed our way back to Marina Kastela with a stop in Milna where the skippers got to practice the “Diesel Dance” or “Fuel Waltz”. Before heading back to the marina, all yachts must be refueled and, as there are not that many refueling docks available, skippers must get in line and have to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding yachts while maintaining their position. This requires some deft maneuvering and it results in a few tense moments but, in the end, all of our boats got refueled.
Three of the yachts’ crews opted not to return to Marina Kastela that night. Capt. Dr. Kevin and Capt. Dr. Steve decided to spend a last night in Milna. The boat crewed by ASA’s very own Brenda Wempner and her shipmates decided to head for one of the marinas in Trogir but the lead boat, Ana B, needed to be back in Marina Kastela that night. On the way back, we had a nice last and refreshing swim in a cove outside Milna.
All ASA chartered yachts were in Marina Kastela in time for the check-out on Saturday morning and, before we knew it, the first ASA flotilla week of this year was over. Effusive good byes later all crew members prepared to travel back to the U.S. Only the ASA crew on SV Larisa and Capt. Jean with First Mate Mila stayed on for the second week flotilla.
This has been a wonderful week and we got to know some very special sailors whom we now call Friends. We do hope to sail with them again at some point.
The sail between Komiza and Hvar was a stretch in and out of lulls and wind alleys, which made for an active day at the helm. And rounding the corner as Hvar Town harbor came into view, I thought “it appears it will be an active night as well.” Hvar from seaward looked every bit the chic Euro vacation destination—a waterfront dotted with posh lounges and beds, yachts lining the seawall, and vendors’ shops crowding the sidewalks.
There’s good reason why Hvar is so popular, we came to find out on our evening stroll through town. But before we were able to do that–we first had to fight for a coveted moorage along the main waterfront. We were the second boat in our fleet to arrive; the first boat was sandwiched in a great spot along the seawall, which had already filled up. We quickly spun around to catch the next best alternative–the many moorings floating in the harbor. We found one of the few remaining ones near shore and noted that everyone else in the lineup had stern-tied to shore; we would have to follow suit. But first, picking up the mooring. Now, in my part of the world, most moorings have a pick-up ring. Not so in Hvar–and the combination of high freeboard and short arms made it dang near impossible to get our line through that ball. My skipper did a fantastic job holding the boat in place despite a gusty side wind, and I finally was blessed with a stroke of luck and got us secured to the mooring. (If anyone has a trick to picking up a mooring you can’t reach, by all means share! I suppose getting the dinghy down from the deck would have been one way of doing it.) Anyway.
The real heroism arose over the stern tie–which we had to accomplish rather quickly now that the boat was trickier for the helmsman to handle with the bow tied off. Given that the dinghy wasn’t handy at all, and I was HOT, I decided to swim our stern line to shore (perhaps 50 feet). I put on a big orange horseshoe, some flip flops, and grabbed a 100′ line. Swimming with that was, well . . . attracted attention. I almost turned around when I realized the sea floor was littered with beautiful urchins, but decided with flip flops on I could find a spot big enough for my foot. Finally, I made it up on the rocks and secured us–and blushed when a boat of elderly Norwegian men broke out in applause. A local woman passed by and tried to describe, using her four English words, how I could have done that more easily–and I only wish I spoke more Croatian because I sure would like to know!
It turned out Hvar was well worth the effort we took getting in. As was typical in most towns, we visited the local market to top off our produce, and stopped by a meat market to sample unusual home-smoked morsels. This particular meat shop also stocked a wonderful variety of local wines, of which the owner, Leo, poured numerous samples. After expressing that we loved each one more than the last, he opened his personal unlabeled bottles (you know the unlabeled ones are always the best!). We sipped the special brandy that families in Hvar make only when babies are born and drink only on those babies’ wedding days years later. It wasn’t for sale. However, we did purchase one of Leo’s favorite bottles of Plavac Mali and some wild boar sausage.
After our “cultural appetizer” in Leo’s wine shop, we hiked up the hill to tour the town fortress, where they really did fight for Hvar. Its labyrinth of levels made for spectacular views of the sunset–even the dungeon had five-star vistas out of its slit windows. The islands of Palmizana lay quiet and wooded in the ruffled blue water, stunning megayachts tucked themselves into nearby anchorages, and the huge Croatian fortress flag threw shadows across the large evening sun. By the end of the evening, I decided that I might like to be locked up in Hvar.