Vacation

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.

Summer of ZAGREB!!! Really? YES.

Ah, the Croatian summer: sunny days in an azure postcard; pale ancient stones, illuminated in the moonlight; the soft tones of the sea, gently slapping against hulls of the harbored boats; wining and dining inside a MOTHERF***ING, 2,000 YEAR OLD Roman F***ING palace! Summer in Croatia is magical! Of course, all of this magic is located on the country’s thin and oddly shaped coastline. When people think of Croatia they think of summer vacation, and when they think of summer vacation, they think of the Dalmatian coast. And fine, the coast is awesome, but I think Zagreb gets a bad rap in the summer months. In fact, the best time to live in Zagreb is. during. the. summer.

It is a testament to how coast crazy Croatians are when a metropolis of around a million people can shrink to such an extent that it feels like a small town in Oklahoma. Seriously. On some of my late night adventures I stumble through the streets of Zagreb and I am reminded of my similar stumbles as a student at a major university in Oklahoma. Now nothing kills a small Oklahoma college town like summer. Between May and August, the population of this town is cut in half, leaving you in the warm, sweltering crouch of the Bible belt with around 35,000 townies. While the exodus of students and professors took with it the finer culture of the town, Zagreb in the summer still retains its urban charms, just with fewer people. This is what makes Zagreb wonderful in the summer.

Now I admit, I tell friends of friends and distant family who ask me for advice on Croatian summer travel to um... basically... skip Zagreb. AND I STAND BY THIS!! If you are in Croatia for 5 days after seeing Prague and Budapest, well then there is really no reason for you to waste your time in the ZG (except to go to the Museum of Broken Relationships). Let’s face it, whatever Zagreb has, some other European city has it better. Old Churches? Prague’s got ‘em (and they are not in a perpetual state of repair), Art museums? Oh I don’t know: Paris has a few, Berlin too, Vienna, Budapest. Nightlife? I think Zagreb was voted the most boring capital in Europe. The joy of Zagreb in the summer only comes to those who live here.

As someone who has spent considerable amounts of time in Dalmatia during the summer as well as during the other seasons, the summer might actually be the worst time to be on the coast.

First, it is crazy crowded. Parking anywhere is impossible and actually becomes an act of inspired (desperate) creativity. It’s amazing what can constitute a parking space in Split in the summer. The sliver of pavement beside that tree: PARKING SPACE! That impossibly narrow space between a dumpster and a wall: PARKING SPACE! That spot that looks too small, no it’s not, yes it is, I’m just going to trrrrrry, and you’re right too tight, but we are still going to do it. Everywhere and anywhere becomes a PARKING SPACE (as your bumper grinds against another bumper, pole, house, or rock).

Second, it’s crazy loud. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it difficult to fall asleep to the bass thumping from a mid-1990s BMW that for some reason is just idling below my bedroom window in the wee A.M. hours. Nor do the piercing whines of screaming mopeds crisscrossing the city as they deliver food serve as a nighttime lullaby. Crowds, tourists, mopeds, young drunks, late-night bench sitters, woo girls with straw pork-pie hats, all of these shatter Dalmatia’s natural beauty and old ambiance like a fat brick through glass.

But then, there are those moments of respite when you drift in the sea with the taste of salt on your lips and the scent of pine wafting in the air. Then you see how the Dinaric Alps, looming large behind you, and the silhouettes of the nearby islands fall into the most perfect composition. Briefly, you believe that God must be an artist to have created the Croatian coast, and you feel an inner peace overtake you. A tranquil harmony has calmed your heart. Of course then you have to get out of the water, find your car, try to get out of your impossible parking space just to find another impossible parking space all over again when you get to your mother-in-law’s house. Gah! So much for bliss and zen.

Zagreb in the summer has none of these problems. It might not have the scenery of the Adriatic sea, but it also doesn’t have the headaches that go along with it. It’s the opposite of crazy crowded. It’s crazy empty. But, there are still enough people around that you don’t feel like you’ve been dropped on the set of a post-Apocalyptic zombie film. Summer Zagreb becomes like a big playground for those of us who remain. Parking? Always a free space. Lines? Gone. Traffic? None. The crowds that clog the winter gray have dissipated like the fog and left you in a sunny, spacious wonderland. You can even believe that all of it, the cafes, parks, social services, movie theaters, museums, book stores and restaurants, have all been created just. for. you!!

Take Bundek for example. In the off-season months there is usually a huge line of kids climbing up to the biggest slide. And NOTHING is more fun than trying to get a bunch of 3 to 5 year-olds to stand in line (they need this training for later). In the summer though, my daughter can go down the slide as many times as she wants because there is no one else around. Or at the doctor. We were able to see two doctors and go to the hospital all in one day with only a total 20 minute wait time. Grocery store? No people, no line. Nighttime noise? The night’s calm is only rarely broken by the whine of a mo-ped, or the bass of a car. They soon pass, leaving in their wake a pleasant quietude.

Sometimes it seems that the very things we want to take a vacation from, actually come with us. Spending a summer in Zagreb is a nice vacation from everyone else’s vacation.



European Vacation or 'Oh no! Americans!'



Every year between 10-12 million Americans visit Europe. Ever since independence it seems many Americans have been fascinated with the idea of a return to the land of their great-great-grandparents, even if just for a summer vacation. Even for those of us who don’t manage to traverse the skies for Europe, the longing for that other shore exists within us. This is especially evident in the diaspora communities that dot the American landscape. Irish, Italians, Croats, Serbs, Latvians, Poles,  all of us celebrate the lands that once made our ancestors refugees ( I’m sure so do non-European Americans from  Central or South America, Vietnam, the Philippines, China or Japan who want to glimpse their past homelands). Can our Croatian and European readers understand what it is like to have an imaginary connection to a place you’ve never been before? Beneath the buzz of life in America exists an idea tugging at the back of our consciousness. Deep down, there is, in every American, the half-hearted hope that we will one day return. While the constraints of finance, travel and language dampen the likelihood of an ancestral homecoming, we can still feel ourselves grasping for it. And so, some of us indulge our fate and come back, if not to our proper homeland then at least to a generalized equivalent, Europe.

Now for all this talk about vacationing Americans, like they are all on some noble voyage of soul searching, spend any amount of time (no matter how brief) among American tourists, and you’ll find that we mostly find Europe annoying. It is cramped, there is no ice in any of our drinks, no free refills, limits on air-conditioning, cigarette smoke everywhere, smelly public transport, too few McDonalds, crappy customer service, and a billion other little things that make HERE too different from THERE. Beneath a sheen of sweat, nursing our blistered feet and wishing to God we could get a 40.oz styrofoam cup of cold Dr. Pepper, we believe we finally understand why our great-great whoever got the hell out of here. And yet, we keep coming back.

Despite these superficial annoyances, Europe still holds a deeper fascination for Americans. It is easiest to understand the ‘wonders of Europe’ when you think about its age compared to the US. The age of stuff around Europe is just mind-boggling to us. For example, Zagreb is 1,000 years old. A. THOUSAND. That’s 900 years older than Oklahoma has even been a state. Split is like 2,000 years old. Paris? Old. London? Old. Rome? Super old. Athens? Hella old. The secret that attracts us to Europe’s agelessness is the mystery of its own persistence.  The age difference between the US and Europe is so great that we are puzzled at how a language, culture, lifestyle, let alone the buildings, monuments, and streets that make each city’s geography, can endure for so long.

Not only is our country young, but most of us living in the US have only lived here a generation or two. Even when someone’s family tree goes all the way back to the Mayflower, the rest of the tree’s branches and roots are jumbled with immigrants who arrived not so long ago. Now, granted, this diversity is one of the US’s greatest strengths. I am proud of the fact that my ancestry consists of Irish, French, Italian and Prussian people. But, it also speaks to the fluid waves that have washed over our past, eroding it. In some ways we are but the flotsam and jetsam of great upheaval come to rest in a new land. By the very nature of our immigrant roots, the past is obscured. Everything in the US is then new(-ish).

In Croatia, on the other hand, I have a friend whose father has been able to trace his family tree back 400 years, IN THE SAME PLACE! Another friend (from Imotski no less) met someone when we were out and they both realized that their families had been friends for over 100 years! As kids they had both played in the same yard of the same two houses that all of their relatives had played and lived in for the last 100 YEARS! I can’t imagine that. Really. I’m torn between thinking that living in the same area for 400 years is either wonderful or incredibly boring. The bearing that such a long continuity can have one someone’s outlook is incomprehensible to me (and I imagine to most Americans). What is it like to have the same neighbors for 100 (or maybe even 400) years! (In the US, I move around every 3-4 years and usually try to avoid my neighbors as much as possible. Why make friends when you’re just going to move). Now imagine what these long and consistent relationships do for a society. Is this why there is so little street crime in Croatia and Europe? Because the criminal might easily know the victim or the victim’s uncle? Hell they could be related! I imagine there is some comfort or ease that comes with knowing some of the same families for over 100 years. Or at least knowing that you’ve all known each other for 100 years.

To us, Europe is Europe because it appears immutable, from its ancient ruins, medieval castles, to its enduring relationships. This fixedness is what we are longing for in the US. Our European dreams are to know what it is like to belong to a place, a culture, and history that is not as ephemeral as life in the US. I believe that a lot of the fear that grips American society is rendered, in part, by the absence of such permanence. The US is unique as a result of its dynamism, and yet when compared to Europe, it is easy to feel as if our time is but a blip on the screen of history. We fear it may be transient after all. So, some of us come back in hope that we can go forward.