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)
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.
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!
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 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.