Quickie to Cute Korcula

Sunday morning May 14

I’d never heard of Korcula, but it’s got to be one of the cutest little places I’ve ever seen. It’s perched on the point of the largest of what’s reputed to be 1000 islands off the coast of Croatia against the usual inland backdrop of steep, heavily forested mountains. How one gets from the interiors of these Dalmatian countries to these coastal cities is a mystery to me. I suppose there must be passages, clefts through the rock, but they’re sure not evident.

This charming medieval fortress townlette (pop. only 17,000) has one unique claim to fame: Marco Polo was allegedly born here. We were even shown his purported family home. Maybe so. I hadn’t realized until the guide told us that he was only 17 years old when he set off on the epic journey that brought us back from the Orient such wonders as gunpowder and noodles!

A highlight of our tour was a too-brief visit to the Abbey Treasury in what used to be the Bishop’s Palace where there was at least a day’s worth of spectacular historical stuff to see. Besides the great paintings and other valuable artifacts, we were shown an ingenious early voting device where you inserted your hand into a hole in the side and dropped your ballot hidden from view into one of two receptacles below. Simple but brilliant idea.

Korcula is 86% Roman Catholic so of course there are lots of religious structures, the most important of which are the resplendent Cathedral of St. Mark and the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, situated at the main gate to protect the town. They had to do a lot of protecting given where they are and the fact that great fleets from Venice and Genoa and so on sailing would occasionally think about dropping in. By law, every house had to have a weapon on hand. The guide told us is that one time when they were being threatened by a Venetian flotilla of 100 ships, the defenders armed the children of the town and posted them all over the fortress walls. To the Venetians it looked like too great an army to take on, so they passed.

Today things are pretty peaceful. Idyllic, in fact. Wandering around the hilly stone town I thought I could happily spend a week here, eating at all the seaside cliff cafés and sampling the local wines. Something clever they’ve done: to control and channel the constant winds, the streets to the west run straight to the sea, but the streets to the east are curved. Natural air conditioning!

Maybe I’ll get to come back someday (I actually took the excellent guides email address), but this morning we have to be on the launches back to the ship by 10AM. Boo.

Late Sunday morning and early Sunday afternoon May 14

To fill the time while we plowed through the sea toward Split (our last stop before Venice and the end of the tour, sniff!) there were three more educational lectures on the agenda.

Up first was Jo Ann Kulesza from Johns Hopkins who talked about the folk music from Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, all the countries bordered by the Balkan mountains and the similarities and differences among them. First she made an exhaustive list of the unfamiliar instruments used and the different sounds found in different countries’ music, such as the drone in Crete and the Byzantine clarinet. She talked about the difference between the major scale we’re used to and the Aeolian mode played only on the white keys. Finally she played video clips from various countries, described the costumes, and pointed out the differences in dance styles. It was an awful lot to take in in a short time, to tell you the truth.

Brian Rose from Penn came on after lunch to deliver a most interesting dissertation on “Archeology, Museums and War.” You may remember another speaker Elihu Rubin saying the other day that a museum was “a site of collective memory.” One of the things Professor Rose talked about was the propensity in and around war for the combatants to try to erase memories that don’t fit their particular narrative by destroying historic sites and sacking museums, citing not just ISIS now but looters and vandals from epochs ago. He talked about enlightened efforts to prevent that on our part in WWII citing the movie “Monument Men” and talked about pre-deployment training that had been done for our troops going to Vietnam and more recently to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, using playing cards as a training medium to identify sites and artifacts with historical value.

Finally Glenn Bugh (rhymes with Hugh) from the Smithsonian who’d talked to us before about Venice came back with a wide-ranging presentation he titled “Diocletian: The Split of the Roman Empire.” Among the swaths of history I’d never been taught was that Constantine the Great was the first Christian emperor, a convert in the early 300s AD. Ironically, the city of Constantinople was sacked by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when they detoured from their ostensible destination of Jerusalem in order to gain by looting the money they needed to pay the Venetians for the ships the Venetians had built for them to get there. Let’s just say it was quite a wide-ranging history lesson; I’m glad there wasn’t a quiz afterward!

One of the minor tidbits I found in my notes from his talk was that Alexander the Great was only 33 when he died. Geez, when I was 33, I was barely mid-way through my GE career; he’d conquered most of the known universe!

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