Justine Tyerman writes of cruising Croatia.
Sailing the coast and islands of Croatia is a blissful way to spend a week in winter. After the rigours of driving a rental car across Italy, life on board a boat is stress-free, congenial and relaxing.
There are no parking, navigational or accommodation hassles as your hotel "parks" itself in the prime spot in town every evening. The biggest decisions of the day revolve around whether to swim, read, snooze, chat or just gaze dreamily at the breathtaking landscape as it slips by.
The white limestone of the coast contrasts sharply with the impossibly blue-green waters of the Adriatic Sea. The villages and cities are built of the same startlingly white stone with terracotta-tiled rooves, adding to the natural beauty of the coastline.
We marvelled at the astonishing clarity of the water which is largely due to the barren, rocky terrain and almost total absence of erosion. With hundreds of boats and ships as large as Voyager of the Seas (3840 passengers) plying the Adriatic, one hopes they can maintain such pristine water.
Our vessel, the 34-metre Afrodita could carry 30 passengers. We had only 24 on board - eight of us good friends - so there was ample space to spread out, fore and aft on the two passenger decks.
The weather was gorgeous every day, the sea was mirror-calm and the water temperature delightfully refreshing.
Croatia is blessed with over 1000 off-shore islands, of which we visited six or seven, each vying for top-spot as the most dazzling.
Mljet has a national park with an exquisite 12th century abbey on a tiny island in the middle of a saltwater lake; Hvar, known for its fields of lavender and the oil thereof, gained glory during the Middle Ages as an important Venetian port; Korcula (the birthplace of Marco Polo, locals say) is rich in medieval squares, churches, palaces and the famous Moreska sword dance, the re-enactment of an ancient battle over a beautiful woman; Pucisca boasts a century-old traditional stonemasonry school and the nearby quarry was the source of the pure white limestone used to build the columns of the White House in Washington DC.
Ston, on the mainland, is known for its defensive walls, a remarkable feat of medieval architecture, built to protect its precious saltworks which still operate today. The 1700-year-old city of Split, is famed for the magnificent palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, finished in AD 305, the swanky Riva promenade and many other attractions.
As immersed as we were in the ancient history of Croatia, images of the Srebrenica massacre and the Sarajevo siege were still fresh in our memories and there were many among us who sought to understand the atrocities of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.
We often sat on the deck with our lovely hostess Nevena (an MA history student from Split) struggling to reconcile the shocking events with the beautiful country we were experiencing. Nevena attempted to explain the conflict by putting it into the context of centuries-old and recent grievances.
The history is incredibly complex but the anger of the Croatians is still fresh and raw today, especially for the people of Dubrovnik. Many maps in the UNESCO-protected Old Town display "damage caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav Army, Serbs, Montenegrins, 1991-1992". Pockmarked walls, shell holes and reconstructed buildings were plain to see as we walked around the ancient city wall.
Originally constructed in the 10th century, and fortified in 1453, the wall is three metres thick along the sea front, and six metres thick inland with fortresses at its four corners.
We peered over the high stone wall and glimpsed a strangely incongruous sight - perched on a cliff-face ledge, high above the azure Adriatic, was a tiny cafe/bar. It was like a magnet for us after a hot afternoon of serious sight-seeing. We found our way along the backstreets to the St Stjepan door, walked through the "buza" or hole in the wall and joined 30 or so tourists and locals sipping cocktails, swimming off the rocks, enjoying the cool of the early evening shadow and gazing at the exquisite view of the wooded Locrum Island and far beyond.
Another day, we rode Dubrovnik's brand new cable car to the top of Mt Sdr to take in the spectacular views of the Old Town and coastline, and visit the recently-opened Museum of the Croatian War of Independence which shows how Dubrovnik defended itself during the 1991-95 war. The original cable car - built in 1969 - used to be one of Dubrovnik's greatest attractions but it was completely destroyed during the war and has just been rebuilt, along with the beautiful plain white cross on the crest of Mt Sdr.
We had seven days on the boat and three days in a villa in Dubrovnik but you could happily lose yourself exploring the outer islands for at least a couple of weeks - or more.
- nzherald.co.nzBy Justine Tyerman