Friday, October 28, 2016

How Are Things In Montenegro?

Saturday, October 22, 2016
We had a lecture this morning about the late 20th century Yugoslav War(s).  Croatians speak of the Homeland War, claiming that they were invaded by the predominantly Serbian Yugoslav Army, not beset by any local forces.  The fracturing of Yugoslavia into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro is very proximate in time and consciousness.  The religious conflicts, which agitated this area for centuries, have now been concretized by borders.  Croatia and Slovenia are Roman Catholic, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are Eastern (Serbian) Orthodox, Kosovo is Muslim, and Bosnia a volatile mix.  While the locals may have derived psychic benefits from national autonomy, the several independent countries seem destined to hang separately, sacrificing opportunity to vaunted pride.

We cruised on the motor yacht Futura for a couple of hours and landed at Korčula, a  long, skinny island, reputedly the home of Marco Polo.  For the linguists in the crowd allow me to point out that č is one of a few letters Croatian adds to the Roman alphabet, while eliminating some others.  It is not just c with an accent; it is pronounced ch.

Korčula has a fussily decorated cathedral and a few modest palaces.  The old town is surrounded by ramparts, affording a beautiful view of the sea.  Ten minutes is all it takes to walk the ramparts, demonstrating how small the old town is.  

What Korčula has is one very good restaurant, Filippi, Šetalište Petra Kanavelića (that's an address not a review) with 20 seats inside and maybe a dozen tables outside.  We were a party of six; tonight's dinner was at large, not on the Futura.  The host/waiter was extremely cordial even after he heard that we wanted separate checks.

I had the soup of the day, pureed zucchini cooked simply with salt, pepper and olive oil (40 HRK, $6).  Then, I had pappardelle with dark meat chicken cooked in a sweet soy sauce (120 HRK).  Other choices included roasted sea bass, ziti with shrimp and cherry tomatoes, and pappardelle with truffles.  Four of us shared a bottle of local white wine (260 HRK), making for an excellent meal.  All of Filippi's wine, along with most of the other ingredients are locally-sourced.

Korčula, like many other Croatian islands dependent on tourism, seems to hibernate during the fall and winter.  Filippi, however, stays open and I encourage you to drop in next time you are sailing the Adriatic Sea.

Sunday, October 23, 2016
We landed on Mljet (mil-yet) this morning, a sparsely populated, densely forested island, 2 miles deep and 20 miles long.  A good portion of the island was designated as a national park in 1960, the first of its kind in the Adriatic.  We hiked into the woods to the edge of Big Lake, actually a bay with a narrow outlet to the sea, causing a mix of fresh and salt water with the tides.  A small boat took us across the lake to St. Mary's Island, hardly bigger than a baseball field, on which a Benedictine monastery was built in the 12th century.  The building has been repurposed several times with each invasion, friendly or otherwise.  It now serves as a restaurant, poised to close for the season on November 1.  St. Mary's also holds a tiny cemetery, long out of commission, where bodies were buried vertically to save space.  

As a result of jiggling our schedule, we cruised to another small island this afternoon, Šipan, pronounced ship-ann, using one of the extra letters of the Croatian alphabet.  It has a pretty harbor and an array of old stone houses along the waterfront.  When you look a bit more closely you see that some of the houses are mere shells, no roofs, long deserted.  A big earthquake in 1979 drove some people away and the lack of opportunity increased the flight subsequently.  The population is now under 1,000.

As with the other small islands that we have visited, Šipan has an elementary school and a doctor in general practice.  Anything further in education or medical specialization requires a long boat ride to either Split or Dubrovnik.  A helicopter is called in for emergencies.

There were no special landmarks in the village, but the sight of pomegranate trees swollen with fruit was out of the ordinary for most of us.

Monday, October 24, 2016
We cruised for about two hours this morning to Dubrovnik, the southern tip of Croatia.  The actual distance that we covered Split to Dubrovnik is less than 200 kilometers, but this trip was not about haste.  

Before we went ashore to explore Dubrovnik, we had a very informative lecture by a young academic, that is someone under 60, about Dubrovnik's success as an independent city-state for four-and-a-half centuries until overrun by Napoleon.  

Dubrovnik's old town is completely walled in and probably the most charming place that we have visited, even with the dense presence of T-shirt shops, jewelry stores and restaurants.  It contains a cathedral (inevitably), the rector's palace (the rector was the appointed big cheese of the city-state), other mansions and churches, and narrow residential alleys at right angles to the main street running down the center.  

It also has a synagogue, apparently founded in the mid-16th century, larger and more formal in appearance than Split's synagogue.  The current Jewish population of Dubrovnik is around 50 and it seems never to have had a significant Jewish presence.  The synagogue's memorial to victims of the Nazis and local fascists has 27 names, while a plaque in the Split synagogue lists about 100 names.  These numbers, from the second and third largest cities in the country, come nowhere near the estimate of 33,000 Croatian Jews killed in the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Museum.  

As in Split, the synagogue is only fitfully active, although it claims to be the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the world, and the second oldest of any type in Europe.  Tonight is Simchas Torah, a festive Holy Day, but sadly no observance is planned here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016
We slept aboard the Futura last night, which stayed docked in Dubrovnik, and we packed up and left the ship this morning.  Before heading south by bus, we returned to the old town.  I chose to walk the ramparts atop the walls that surround the old town.  The circuit is about 1-1/4 miles and rises to about 150 meters above the street on one side and the sea on the other.  The path is narrow; in most places two people are barely able to walk together.  The ramparts are generally about three feet tall on each side.  While there is only one route, there are two ways to handle it.  If you proceed normally, you can be finished in just over one hour.  I proceeded with terror, taking about two hours.  As slow as I was, my early start got me off the ramparts before the hordes from two gargantuan cruise ships swarmed over the old town.  At least, observing many of these folk made me feel somewhat youthful.

We crossed the border and arrived in Herceg (hertz-egg) Novi, Montenegro late in the afternoon.  I missed our group's introductory walking tour of the vicinity, because a couple of minor but time-consuming repairs had to be made to our room, which sits over a large infinity pool just in front of the seashore.  With the repairs made, I was able to sit on our terrace and record these thoughts.   

Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Today is the last full day of our tour and they kept us busy.  We took a bus to a pretty place with a church and then a boat to another pretty place with a church and then a bus to still another pretty place with lots of churches and then a ferry across the bay to shorten the drive back to our hotel.  

Actually, one stop stood out.  Lonely Planet call Kotor the "prettiest and best-preserved town in Montenegro."  It sits on the Adriatic Sea and originated over 2,000 years ago.  The walls surrounding the old town do not stop at the edge of the settlement, but rather climb 350 meters up the mountain behind it, resembling, if anything, the Great Wall of China.  One can walk the walls, just not this one.

I may seem fickle, but I now pronounce Kotor more charming than Dubrovnik, whose symmetry appealed to me; narrow alleys radiating from one main street, like the skeleton of a fish.  Kotor is quite the opposite; a random collection of narrow streets run 50 to 100 feet before entering into a plaza, which might have 1 to 4 exits.  Also, Kotor has some real stores and businesses along with the inevitable souvenir shops and restaurants.  Kotor's old town had more churches than Dubrovnik's, but it was more ecumenical, containing Eastern (Serbian) Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the fuel for violence in the past.

Let me skip back to Montenegro 101.  Montenegro, an Italian word supposedly never used by the residents, joined with Serbia when Yugoslavia dissolved.  They shared the same religion and language, with minor variations.  It fought Croatia in the 1990s alongside Serbia.  However, in 2006, Montenegro declared its independence and established a fiscal policy that lead to its adoption of the Euro as its currency, even though it is not a member of the European Union.  

In spite of the historic divisions between them, Croatian influences are especially apparent in this northwest area of Montenegro.  In order to institutionalize "Montenegrin" as its official language, as declared by its 2007 constitution, in spite of its near identity with Serbian, Montenegro allows schoolchildren to choose whether to write the language in the Roman alphabet, à la Croatian, or in Cyrillic, à la Serbian.  This must yield either great mental dexterity or massive confusion.

Thursday, October 27, 2016
We had to get up at 3:30 AM in order to drive back to the nearest major airport, situated in Croatia, to catch a flight to Frankfurt and on to the Holy Land.  Free copies of the International New York Times and the Wall Street Journal at the airport helped me reset my biorhythms to their normal abnormal levels.  WSJ, in an article about the reshaping of the Republican Party, had one statistic that came as a surprise to me.  Of "the 100 poorest counties in America, 74 voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012."  That means that when Romney disparaged the 47% lower portion of the population "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it," he failed to mention that they are also masochistic.

Friday, October 28, 2016
Back home, I consider our trip as successful on the whole, but I was disappointed in one regard.  Even though we visited Croatia's second and third largest cities and every known tourist spot along the Dalmatian Coast, I did not see that guy on a unicycle juggling flaming torches, that guy who always shows up at places like that.  Has he relocated to more financially rewarding venues, following the doctors, computer programmers, tattoo artists and scientists that he grew up with?  Is this an opportunity for (young, agile) refugees fleeing strife and violence to fill a niche in the world of Balkan show biz?

Parting shot

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