Dalmatian Delights

Friday afternoon May 12

Kotor, Montenegro represents both a town I’ve never heard of and a country I’ve never visited – a couple of boxes to check that are the main reason I took this cruise. (I’m still trying to catch my late wife Sylvia who’d been in 83 countries before she died!) Like most places on this dramatic west coast of the Balkan peninsula, it’s spectacularly situated, a little port city (population 24, 000) at the end of a beautiful bay, surrounded by impressive city walls and hemmed in by very steep mountains. (I was to experience exactly how steep a bit later, but I’ll come back to that.) The whole country of Montenegro comprises only 600,000 people and in a 2006 referendum those folks voted 54-46% to separate from Serbia. Religiously, the country is about 70% Orthodox Christian. Post-referendum, a bunch of foreign investors swooped in to take advantage of the real estate bargains in this “maritime gateway to Croatia” – Brits and especially Russians. The walled city’s history is the same familiar story we’ve heard and we’ll continue to hear all the way up the coast – the Venetians drove out the Turks but then Napoleon took Venice – but they’ve got a few unique historical claims of their own. The first book was printed here, for example, in 1493 – they claim. (But wasn’t Gutenberg’s bible printed forty years or so before that? Hmmmm.) The guide also claimed that there were no criminals here. “Except in the government,” she hastily added. It’s a cute little stone village anyway with narrow winding streets opening into public squares, each of which had a particular market role in the old days, one for vegetables, one for milk, et cetera. One of its most prominent features is an abandoned fort 260 meters up on top of the mountain behind town, so of course I had to hike up to see it – 1035 steps. I had a “Rocky” moment when I reached the top, pun probably intended!

Saturday morning May 13

While an alleged ballet troupe performed for us after dinner (one real dancer, three hoofers among the female contingent plus one impressively athletic guy), we cooked on up the coast all night to arrive in Dubrovnik, a hot spot for tourism these days. Well, not just these days. “Those who seek Paradise on earth must come to Dubrovnik,” wrote George Bernard Shaw sometime early in the last century. Dubrovnik was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, which still didn’t stop the Serbs from shelling it extensively during a seven-month siege in 1991. Grim times. Our excellent guide Matilda told us how her father had dug out ancient pipes and re-rigged them to catch rainwater because all essential services had been cut off. But the city survived, rebuilt, and rose once again to reclaim its former glorious title: “Pearl of the Adriatic.”

It seems unreal to me that the population of the Dubrovnik is smaller than the village of Chapel Hill – about 43,000, the guide says. Unreal, because Dubrovnik (née Ragusa, “city on a rock”) seems so vast and impressive with its fortified towers and cathedrals and its massive city wall. It’s more than just “a wall,” in fact – it’s a double wall twelve meters thick plus a moat. In a word, impregnable. Not that there haven’t been a succession of powers – Romans, Magyars, Ottomans, Venetians, French, Austrians, Hungarians and of course Tito and his Yugoslavian thugs – the city’s had to deal with, but it always seemed to be able to find ways to maintain its freedom. At one point in the city’s history that even involved paying “protection money” of 500 ducats a year to Venice for a couple of centuries for the right to be left alone!

With its wide main avenues and steep narrow stone-stepped side streets Dubrovnik is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever visited. Someday I need to learn how to insert photographs into these blogs.

As the cathedrals and statuary attest, the people of Dubrovnik are predominantly Catholic, putting up a “wall of Christianity” against the Turkish invaders in the 15th century. And it’s been so for far longer than had been thought – beneath the cathedral to Saints John and Jerome built in the 12th century they found evidence of an earlier basilica dating back to the 7th century. In the eye-popping treasury of the cathedral there is a golden relic containing a piece of bone from the arm of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city. There’s even a bit of the shroud of Jesus in there somewhere, it’s said. There are all sorts of religious edifices in Dubrovnik, such as a monastery we visited dating back to the 14th century that features a serene and lovely cloister.

Aside from the religious aspects of the city, it’s always been a maritime trading center for that part of the world. We visited a Maritime Museum and saw a plethora of exhibits demonstrating that rich history.

And speaking of maritime, a few of us Columbia alums had a delicious sea bass lunch in a street side restaurant up on one of the stone paved parallel passageways, washed down with a light dry fragrant white wine of the region called Tezoro. Sigh!

There’s so much more we learned – I can’t read all the notes I scribbled. I remember that when the early town fathers wanted to encourage people to replace their wooden houses with stone, they ruled that people who lived in wooden houses couldn’t keep wine. (That would have worked on me!) I remember hearing about their fascinating approach to republican government where they elect a new rector every month, which means he can’t be bribed! I remember seeing unique red coral jewelry somewhere. And on and on. Of all the places we visited, I must say this is the one with the most sensory overload.

That night on the boat there was one more parting experience to remember and one more sense engaged: a traditional Dalmatian folk music performance called Klapa, featuring four guys who played instruments (a sort of a tenor lute, a guitar, a standup bass and an accordion) and sang. I don’t know who had more fun, them or us!

I forgot to mention that after we came back on board from Dubrovnik and had lunch, there were two more academic presentations to fill the afternoon while we sailed toward our next stop, Kor?ula.

The first was by an archeologist supplied by the Smithsonian, Glenn Bugh, who spoke about “Venice: Queen of the Adriatic.” We’ll visit Venice at the end of the cruise, of course, but this talk was as much about its historical role controlling the seas through which we’re sailing for hundreds of years as it was about the city itself. In fact, the Adriatic was actually called for much of that time the “Golfo di Venezia.” I won’t try here to recite the exhaustive historical record Dr. Bugh treated us to as the Venetians grew from a bunch of lagoon dwellers to the mightiest empire on earth, largely by projecting sea power. At one time their Arsenali industrial complex could turn out a ship in a day. Their ships carried the Crusaders to the sack of Constantinople in 1204; in fact, the Crusaders breached the walls by climbing ladders that used the Venetian ships as platforms. That event ended the Ottoman Empire and led to the Winged Lion symbol of Venice appearing everywhere in that part of the world about as ubiquitously as the U.S. forces spread Kilroy through Europe in WWII.

Dr. Bugh did talk a bit about Venice the city. It’s really 130 islands, he said, which protect the city from the sea in a way somewhat similar way to how the Outer Banks protects coastal North Carolina. The average depth of the Venice lagoon is only one meter! They’ve been dealing with rising sea levels since 1000 A.D. and they’re still there, perched on a million “telephone poles” driven into the seabed. Why don’t the poles rot? Because after long enough, they fossilize!

The second “Gohagan Lecture Series” presentation wasn’t a lecture at all, but rather a talk by Tony Brown who teaches leadership skills at Duke. He led us through an interesting exercise that he started by asking us to list ten people, maybe mentors, who’ve had the biggest influences on our lives. Tops on my list was my junior high school/high school librarian who for seven years would lie in wait for me to pass by between classes and slip me books to read! She introduced me to a world of literature and a range of authors I quite possibly would never have discovered on my own. Tony asked us why what that person did for us had been so meaningful and then challenged us to think of ways to “pay it forward.” Because I think that there’s a negative correlation between the exposure to reading and the propensity to end up in jail, I thought that perhaps I could find a way to supply books to people in prison and perhaps even start a book club in a particular prison near where I live that houses people who’ve made some bad decisions but who aren’t hardened criminals. Maybe in the fall I’ll try to do that. Imagine if the hundred or so people who were at Tony’s session each came up with one idea to “pay forward” something that someone had done for us in our formative years. What a reward that would be.

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