Cody McClain Brown

Escape to Lastovo

Croatia is a mess during the tourist season. The main coastal cities are jammed with tourists who all seem lost. And in addition to these hordes, the whole industry looks like it’s undermining the country’s cultural authenticity. The coast is now like a blinking carnival, selling cheap products for ridiculously marked up prices. While on vacation in Split we don’t even go to the center much anymore. It’s too expensive, too crowded, and well, it doesn’t even feel like Split. It’s hard to find anywhere on the mainland that actually feels like you’re on vacation. So, this summer we did what any sensible person looking for peace of mind would do, we fled to Lastovo.

Now, the island of Lastovo is my Eden. The place I’ve longed to return to ever since I stayed there one night four years ago on the Boat of Culture. Even for that short duration I knew it was one special place . As one of the furthest islands off of Croatia’s coast, Lastovo feels like a refuge tucked away from the rest of the world. While many of Croatia’s coastal spots have blossomed with a crude kind of tourism (looking at you Split!), Lastovo has maintained its bucolic tranquility. As far as I know, there are no gaudy nightclubs on Lastovo and no stupid, stupid pub crawls. Only 1,000 people live on the island. And these souls have barely impacted the island’s natural beauty, while the tourism industry has barely impacted the island’s daily life. Lastovo is a forested haven, covered in trees and dense growth. It feels pristine, preserved, and peaceful.

(And yes, I’m aware of the irony in writing a blog that promotes visiting Lastovo while saying it’s great because no one visits the island. In conclusion, Croatia is a land of contrasts)

Getting there

Of course getting to Lastovo requires some patience. The ferry ride is around five hours long. We used two boats, traveling from Split, and transferring at Vela Luka on Korcula. And even something as monotonous as a ferry ride can feel special when you’re traveling to Lastovo. The ferry from Split to Korcula was packed, every seat was taken, and long lines of cars idled, waiting to get on the ferry. Then they idled in the ferry, waiting to get off the ferry. Every time I’m on a Croatian ferry I feel as if I’ve been tricked. This is my vacation? A mass of people and enough car exhaust to match a city? Man, I could do this at home. It’s called standing on a busy street corner.

However, when we transferred to the ferry to Lastovo, the crowd vanished. In its place was not a mass of tourists, but pockets of individuals, families, friends, people who you dared to look at in detail because there were so few of them. And there were less cars here than in the parking lot near our apartment in Zagreb. The ferry ride to Lastovo feels as if you’re not just traversing the sea, but time itself. Moving both back into the past, and away from the clock’s burdens. It’s as if the tyranny of passing hours and demanding minutes become a mere suggestion rather than a hard rule.

The ferry to Lastovo. So much empty and just look at that retro style!

The ferry to Lastovo. So much empty and just look at that retro style!

Modern, clean, accommodation?

Anyone with experience touring and traveling around Croatia knows that the quality of accommodation can vary… greatly. Sometimes it seems as if people treat their rental property as storage for their old furniture. I’ve been in places where the apartment we’ve rented felt like the Croatian equivalent to an American garage… just with more beds. And this is truly a problem with the country’s response to the growth in tourism. Quantity often does not result in quality. You can’t expect someone to travel five hours by ferry to pay to sleep on your grandma’s old couch. And in most cases when and if there is a TV, it’s from the 1990s and gets 8 channels, most of which are in German.

And so with a history of such experiences, I hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst on Lastovo: funky furniture, poor Internet, an old air conditioner and no real TV. I’d even prepared my daughter, saying we wouldn’t be able to use the ipad or watch Netflix or anything. AND I was completely WRONG. Our place had all new furniture from Ikea, a new kitchen, new air conditioners, and was completely redone. It even had a TV with Internet capabilities, and each night, after hiking, swimming and dinner we streamed a movie on Netflix.

Looking around our house I was struck about how much effort it must take to get a place redone on Lastovo. I mean I stress about getting stuff from Ikea to our apartment, and Ikea’s just a half hour drive from our place in Zagreb. Everything in the house on Lastovo had to come by boat. In fact, everything on Lastovo has to come by boat (except for the fruit, but more about that later). Needless to say I was greatly impressed not just how comfortable our house was, but with the care that went in to making it that way.

Not only did we have nice furniture, but the house itself was nice. Two stories, totally redone and… with stairs! Growing up I had stairs in all my houses and I never realized how much I missed them. I even put our shoes on the stairs, they way my mom used to put my shoes on the stairs back home. Ah, stairs, you’re the best!

Stairs! Inside!

Stairs! Inside!

Lučica

Lastovo is unique because unlike the towns on other islands, the town Lastovo is not built on the sea. Rather, it’s built on the other side of a steep hill, opposite the sea. The reason for this, we were told, is for security, from pirates, invaders… and tourists? As a result, anywhere on the seaside feels even more remote that town, and the town already feels remote. We stayed in a little bay called Lučica. The word quaint is an understatement.

Lučica only has ten or twelve stone houses. There is no store, or night club, nor is there a cafe. Yes. I found the one place in Croatia with people, but no cafe. And this all lends to Lučica’s monastic sense of solitude. Truly, being there is a break from all the normal routines and you have nothing to do, but relax. As an early riser I spent most mornings sitting on the patio, drinking coffee, and writing while I listened to the rhythmic waves slapping gently at the bay’s seawall. And of course the sea is pristine.

Even though Lastovo town is not built on the sea, it’s still beautiful and filled with a sense of history. There are very few modern buildings in the town, everything else seems to date from the 16th century. The city seems oriented around what was once the Duke’s mansion, a grand, albeit haunted looking building that possesses a commanding view of the town and surrounding valleys, and a church with a pleasant square next to a park. And that’s pretty much Lastovo. There is a small chapel built to ward off the plague. And nothing spells vacation like an anti-plague chapel!

The town’s charm doesn’t come from what there is, but rather what isn’t. Again, the horrid trappings of tourism have yet to touch this island. In the town there is a store, and a couple of cafes, a few restaurants, and you can get ice cream at one of the cafes, but that’s about it. The narrow lanes winding down the hillside are great to explore. Almost every stone house has a garden. Lastovo is unique because the locals just plant fruit trees, but do not water them. Each plant’s survival is up to the plant. The island has deep pockets of water that the plants find. The result is a sampling of fruit that seems small and a little paltry, but is completely natural. Our host kept giving us plates of pears, plums, and peaches. Each smaller than what you would find in the store, but a billion times tastier as well.

A view of Lastovo’s main church

A view of Lastovo’s main church

A not so starry night

A couple days before we left, we hiked up to the town in the evening when it was cooler, had dinner in a charming restaurant in a large park by the town’s largest church. The tables were outside and overhead small lights had been strung through the trees. Or goal was to wait for the sun to set and then hike to the highest part of the town and see the stars. Lastovo is said to have the third darkest sky in Europe.

After our meal we set out, scaling the winding roads, heading past the Duke’s palace and onto a path that seemed as ragged as it was rugged. Armed with flashlights, we went higher and higher, until we found a spot far above the town’s few lights. The view was spectacular, though the stars were not very visible on account of the moon. Still, the moonlight touched the hills and the valleys in such a way that it seemed unreal. As if we were looking at the idea of something scenic because it was too gorgeous to actually be scenic. It reminded me of the establishing shots from an old Disney film.

The best part of the trip was the hike back down to Lučica. We took the road, rather than taking the wooded path in the dark. Walking down the moonlit highway, surrounded by the island’s trees and the silence of the night, I felt a memory forming as it was happening. I saw it in my daughter’s face, the carelessness which she just marched down the road. I wondered why this would last in our minds more than everything else we’d done this summer and I realized it was the absence of noise, and our freedom from time. The carelessness with which we could walk in the middle of a road, unconcerned about the late hour, unbothered about what was next. This was the very feeling of vacation. I knew that we had reached the peak of the summer, the point where it would all roll back into routine and work and school. And I knew that every time we thought of Lastovo we would think of this feeling and this moment, forever.

Peak Croatian

The flow of time is strange in this country. Erratic in a way that is unknown to those who live elsewhere and maybe unremarkable to those who have never lived anywhere else. To me, the regular rhythm of the Croatian day moves like sand in a gust of wind, eddying in pockets of intensity before laying dormant, or gathering like dust in the corners of the day. When evening calls and the sun lies low on the horizon, there always seems to be just enough time for one more drink, one more coffee, one more trek around the park. And all that time, magically gathered in the afternoon is spent on one last moment.

Maybe it has to do with sitting in the center of a thousand year-old city or a 1700 year old palace. Is there so much history in Croatia that we can afford to be indifferent to the present? Or is it more about the culture? Do Croatians just know how to make time for life’s small pleasures?

Enlightenment?

Last night I had an epiphany, or well, a moment of enlightened understanding. I met a friend for a drink at 5:00, and thought that this meeting might last an hour or two (and it was a meeting because we were kinda working on something). Around 7:30 another friend joined us, around 8:00 my wife called just to tell me what she and my daughter were doing about dinner (she advised me to buy a kebab) and the next thing you know, it’s suddenly 10:30. And the only reason I’m even able to construct this timeline is through the time stamps on texts and phone calls.

Over the course of a couple drinks we all lost track of time. The five and half hours I sat in a cafe collapsed on each other, like the folds of an accordion. Stretched out and you can see its length just like I can trace the records in my phone and the absence of the sun in the sky and know that time has passed, but I can’t remember feeling it. I realize this feeling, or the lack of it, is “Peak Croatian.” And Peak Croatian is the point, the apex that all coffees, drinks, gatherings, and get together hope to achieve. Peak Croatian is when a large swath of time passes without notice when among friends.

And Party Breaking

In fact you could probably argue that Party Breaking is a social taboo because it reminds everyone that beyond the borders of the party, time is a flowing force, moving and shaping the world. Once you break the party, you fracture the illusion and time comes pouring back into our awareness, washing away any chance of reaching Peak Croatian.

But last night, five and half hours slipped by unseen, unmarked, and unaccounted for. As we get older these moments are fewer and fewer. But when they do happen they bring to my mind those halcyon days from childhood when clocks were meaningless, time seemed infinite, and the easiest thing in the world was to get lost in a friend’s company. I mean how great is it to get lost in conversation at 39 when a world of problems, bills, due dates, and deadlines tether us into the time stream? 

A Rare Achievement

What really makes achieving Peak Croatian so remarkable is that no one begrudges your loss of time. In fact it’s something celebrated. You lost track of time having coffee with a friend? This is considered an achievement, maybe there’s some slight envy, but really it’s a longing to do the same. And that’s how you know it’s Peak “Croatian” and not Peak American or some other culture or country, because it’s something everyone here aspires to. We want those moments with friends to seem infinite, and sometimes we are lucky enough that they do.  

In Croatia...

After the end of your meal at an American Chinese restaurant you always get a fortune cookie. Traditionally everyone at the table reads their fortune and then adds ” in bed ” to the end of it. So, “You must try hard or hate yourself for not trying” becomes  “You must try hard or hate yourself for not trying” … in bed. Or  “You can make your own happiness”becomes “You can make your own happiness…” in bed. Over the last couple of years I’ve started doing something similar with the phrase… ” in Croatia.”

Saying ” in Croatia ” is most useful for making the mundane extraordinary and putting what would be extraordinary in the US (or anywhere else in Europe) into the right, pitiful, context.

Best selling

If I tell people that I wrote a number one best selling book, that sounds impressive. You might even imagine I’m now in the company of other bestselling authors. All reasonable, until you add that phrase ‘in Croatia.’ What does it mean to be a bestselling author in Croatia? It means you drive a 2002 Hyundai Accent in 2015 and work three other jobs.
The best and the brightest

A friend of a friend is a BAFTA award winning director… in Croatia. So, he goes abroad to find work. I know a well respected, multiple award winning journalist… in Croatia. So of course she’s only hired as a freelancer. A student graduated at the top of her university class… in Croatia. So, she can’t find a job and waits tables in the summer. Or how about the menial worker who somehow became an oligarch in the 1990s… in Croatia. Maybe the ambitious idiot who failed at everything until he joined a political party, now he’s the head of a state firm… in Croatia.

The phrase ‘in Croatia’ sums up so many of the absurdities about life here. At times it seems like the world operates according to some sort of backward logic, as if up is down and down is up. What is the secret of success? Being hardworking, competent, talented? Not… in Croatia.

On the other hand…

At other times the phrase ‘in Croatia’ can be resolutely positive. For me it means I’ve escaped the monotony of American suburbia. I might be grocery shopping, but I’m grocery shopping in Croatia! I’m at the mall… in Croatia! I’m sitting and having coffee… in Croatia. I’m surrounded by history, 19th Century architecture, or in view of dang castle!
I might not have a lot of money, but I’m in Croatia. Here, I don’t have to worry about criminal violence, health insurance, or the many other insurmountable obstacles faced by the poor in America.

Summer in paradise

And best of all, in the summer I will live in a place people who don’t live in Croatia pay a lot of money to come and visit. It’s hard for me to imagine that what has now become a annual routine for me, is a once in lifetime experience for other people. And I get to stay there for next to nothing (though I do have to eat an unnecessary amount of soup for the privilege)!
And I know that during a swim at the beach, or over an evening drink on the Riva, perhaps after eating a full homemade lunch, or maybe while walking around the living ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, I’ll smile and think: I live …in Croatia.

 

To be a Splićanin

I envy the citizens of Split. Not because the city is beautiful, not for the sea, the salt, the rocks, or the seagulls (now I’m just listing what they sing about), but because of their love for Split. For the citizens of Split, or Splićani, there is a sense that all you need is Split, and Split is all you need.

This is a feeling that is unfamiliar to me. I only like my hometown as much as I don’t really hate it. While growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I always had the sense that I would leave. It seemed certain, inevitable. As if there was some force, pushing me to uproot myself like a tumbleweed and roll across the West’s arid landscape.

A nation of nomads

The need to leave, the yearning to go, is as American as wearing white socks with shoes. It’s inescapable and we do it everywhere. Since I was 19, I’ve lived in 3 states, 4 countries, and 11 apartments. Scratch any American and you will most likely find a similar story. Maybe not one with such international flavor, but moving houses, towns, and states is the norm in America. We are a country of immigrants turned into nomads. Try to find someone whose is actually from New York, LA, San Francisco, or Washington D.C. You can’t. Almost everyone is from somewhere else.

Best. Place. Ever!

I think the difference between Splićani and say a Tulsan is best expressed in Split’s favorite phrases: Split je najlipše misto na svitu and tko to može platit (‘Split is the prettiest place in the world’ and ‘who could pay for this,’ which really is a much longer way of saying something is priceless). The locals’ love for Split is unequivocal.

It’s nice but…

Where, as a Tulsan I am more likely to put all kinds of qualifiers in a description of my city. Tulsa is pretty, at times, and depending on where you happen to be standing, but its much prettier than Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City sucks! See? It’s not so much about how good Tulsa is, but about how it could be worse, like OKC. Not Split. Split is all superlatives.  

Do I miss Tulsa? Oklahoma? America? Not really. I miss my family and some of the junk food that I can’t get here. And this is the difference between me and Splićani.  It’s easy to leave what you know you won’t miss. Among those unfortunate Splićani whose circumstance pushes them to move from Split, there remains a longing to return (I know this because I’m married to a girl from Split and every time we go anywhere, we go to Split… Where should we go for… … SPLIT!…oh, OK.).

Sunny with envy

My whole adult life has been about moving. Ah, but to be a Splićanin and feel such fulfillment from your hometown. To know, in your very bones, that you have always been where you want to be… that is something I can hardly imagine and only envy.