Written by Matt Rademacher
Jack had back trouble and was unable to go on the Croatian sailing trip. There was an open space so I came along. Jim, Tony, Jacque and I meet at the Tucson Airport ticket counter and excitedly discuss our trip. We board our plane and fly to Denver. Jet from Denver to Frankfurt was packed. Other than the jet making smooth graceful up and down slalom motions over southern Greenland the entire flight was peaceful.
Flew over Ireland, England then a touch and go landing in Frankfurt. Captain stated rising runway warm air prevented the airliner from fully landing even though the jets wheels touched and skidded on the runway. We made another brief circle around Frankfurt then successfully landed.
Enjoyed drinking German beer waiting for our connecting flight to Croatia. German airport security discovers a water bottle in bag. Tony’s water bottle is then treated as nitro glycerin which holds up Tony for some time.
Boarded a smaller Lufthansa jet and headed south. Flew directly over Munich, snow covered Barvarian Alps, steep valleys of western Austria then over hair pin switch backs of Vrsic Pass on the Eastern Julian Alps on the Slovakia border. As we fly south the mountains smooth out and decrease in size take on a calm layered appearance quite different from sharp jagged granite peaks to the north. These mountains are the Dinaric Alps. They are mostly a light colored limestone that follow the along the Croatian coast.
Off in the distance to the east we can see the large city of Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The Croatian Adriatic coast is now visible. At this altitude the coastal water appears inviting turquoise blue. The dark green forest now blend into Mediterranean gray olive tree forests and open grass. We are happy to sailboats going about the numerous islands. The size of their wake shows good sailing wind. Some sailboats anchored into private coves on uninhabited olive tree forested covered islands.
We circle over the city of Split. Numerous large ferries are loading and unloading in the harbor. The big ships are the economic lifeline to all the surrounding island communities. Our Croatia guide book says any baby is born while riding on the ferry gets life long free ferry rides.
The Split airport is modern and at present not busy. No other jets present. Passengers are unloaded directly onto the airport tarmac runway. Tourist free to wander about the runway taking photos of the scenic surrounding hills while luggage is unloaded from the plane.
Getting through customs goes quick. We go to a row of ATMs to get the local currency, the Kuna, ask for directions for bus ride to our apartment rental in oldtown. Not many people in the airport. We are early for the tourist season.
On the bus ride we notice old Soviet era cars. Bus drops us off at the Split harbor ferry dock. Short distance walk along the waterfront to the old Roman emperors palace. Well dressed tourists are roaming about. We have been to old European cities before but this one is appears different. For as old as it is the palace is amazingly preserved. Everything is made from big blocks of nicely carved white limestone. The old town buildings tightly grouped together. No automobiles can fit between the buildings. Everyone walks. Most buildings are at least 3 stories tall. Some building walls have arches connected neighboring buildings.
The palace was built for Roman emperor Diocletian in 305 AD. While referred to as a “palace” because of its intended use as the retirement residence of Diocletian, the term is misleading as the structure is massive and more resembles a large fortress. Half of it was for Diocletian’s personal use. The rest housed the military garrison.
The Palace was decorated with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Only three have survived the centuries. One is still on the Peristyle, the second sits headless in front of Jupiter’s temple, and a third is housed in the city museum.
The palace was destroyed by invasions of the Avars and Slavs in the 7th century. Part of the expelled population, now refugees, found shelter inside the palace’s strong walls and with them a new, organized city life began. Since then, the palace has been continuously occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the palace basement and directly in its walls. Today many restaurants, shops and apartments are all tightly built within the palace walls.
The Palace is well preserved with all the most important historical buildings. The Palace is one of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural features on the Croatian Adriatic coast. As the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace, it holds an outstanding place in Mediterranean, European, and world heritage. The palace is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Walking through the old city is like exploring dimly lit slot canyons. The passages twist and turn in seemingly random pattern. There are occasional open bright sunny court areas lined with outdoor cafes. All walkways and courtyards are white block limestone well worn over 1700 years of foot traffic. The white color below and above gives a relaxing feel. These white blocks came from a rock quarry across the bay on the Island Brac. The White House (resident of the President of United States) was built from the Croatian rock shipped from the same quarry on Brac.
Shop and restaurant signs are subtle or absent. Peering through windows identify type of business. Above the shops are rental apartments. Access to the apartment are through obscure narrow side passageway.
Our apartment is accessed by button security code next to a door. Upon entering we are in a narrow interior courtyard with above pulley wheel clotheslines and potted plants.
Inside our apartment we have modern kitchen and bathroom. We wonder how all the plumbing and electrical is installed with such thick block stone walls. Jacque taps the wall and says its all under the drywall sheathing.
While exploring the old city we discovered our visit coincided with the 8th Festival of Wine and Delicacies in newly unearthed palace basement. Recent palace excavations revealed a labyrinth of interconnected tall ceiling chambers. Around 80 local winemakers, olive growers, herb and truffle pickers, cheese makers and sausage makers gather in the palace newly excavated chambers. We pay a small fee then rub elbows with the local population going from crowded table to table, chamber to chamber tasting varieties of wine and tasting locally collected truffles and dried meats. Every table has a platter of bread to clean our mouth. The next day we will leave port. Need to stock our sailboat food galley. In no time we were lugging around wine, meats and truffles for our sailboat.
Jim found and asked sailboat captains and locals which island places are there favorites. We still do not know where we are going to explore. Everyone beams out places we should not miss but there is no common consensus.
Earlier we were enjoying Croatian beer in a small courtyard cafe when a young woman named Tracy began tapping Jim on the shoulder. She overheard our sailing plans and offered ship repair services in exchange of hitching a ride. Jim explains we are chartering and in no need of help. Jim does learn from the woman of a good restaurant called Mazzgoon. We found it and the place was amazing. Great Croatian food.
The next morning we meet Oz and Ivana, the owners of the charter sailing business. We ask them where they suggest are good places to visit on the sailboat. Ivana suggests we take one of her charter cooks with us as a local guide. She would also cook for us while we are on the boat. We met the cook named Diana and agreed that was a great idea. The four of us went with Diana to marina cafe and discussed how it would work. She would make breakfast and lunch but she doesn’t make dinner because people generally eat at island restaurants for dinner. We are quite capable of making our own dinner so that was fine. There is a separate cabin with it’s own bathroom on the sailboat that she could use. She also requested to have Friday off to attend a cousin’s wedding. We would leave her in a town where she can return to Split on a ferry.
While at the marina cafe, Oz and Ivana charter skipper named Romano recognizes Diana and comes by to join us. He has skippered our sailboat for a few years and tells us the unique handling features. He then embraces Diana and tells us to be good to her.
Oz then drove Diana, Jacque and myself to a supermarket to buy groceries. Jim and Tony would familiarize themselves with the sailboat and verify everything works.
While on our way to the supermarket Oz tell Jacque and me how much he loves American culture. He goes on to say that in Croatia it’s ok to speak your mind about anything. He tells us that he loves America so much he wishes there is a way he could give money to an US government account to help fund American wars. I ask if he means to help fund Ukrainian resistance. He says not just that but any war. He says, “America defends drugs, sex and rock’n’roll with missles!” He then goes on to poke fun at recent President Bush comment of invading Iraq as comparison to Russia invasion.
Oz then tells us that a US Navy carrier fleet was recently anchored in Split. There was so many military personnel in Split that the navy rented an entire large hotel and gated it off from public. He complained that the only none military personnel allowed was prostitutes that flew in for the occasion. Normally Croatia is rather conservative. Oz then goes on that one evening loud US siren went off. In the morning the entire fleet was gone.
I asked if we could rent some fishing poles and talk to someone who knows where the fish are. Oz says he has some fishing poles to give us but do not get your hopes up catching anything worth while. He says if we catch a tuna we will get our picture in the national newspaper because it’s so rare. He said anything you catch you can eat but it will be small. We saw the small fish swimming around the marina and decided to forget the fishing for now. If we see other boats catching fish we will buy fishing gear in that location. There are little coastal towns all along these islands.
We haul our gear and food down the marina pier to our charter boat named Vana. It’s a 40ft sloop sailboat built in 2007. Its considerably wider and roomier than Akela 40ft sailboat. Jim appreciate the modern equipment on the boat but he misses sailing with his own unique type of boat. Jim calls Vana “Plastic”. I ask Jim what he means by that because Akela has alot of fiberglass. He replies that every sailboat out on the water looks like Vana and he misses having an unique sailboat character.
Oz employee Tomo comes to our boat to answer any of our questions how to operate the sailboat. Here in Split it’s rare that a charter boat is rented without a hired skipper. Jim is our skipper and Tomo will make sure Jim is ok with all the sailboat equipment.
We notice that this marina is almost entirely populated by charter boats. Unlike at home where most boats in the marina slips are private owned cruisers. Diana explains the the charter business is booming here. The few privately owned sailboats are rented out to the charter businesses to help with boat costs. The Split sailboat charter industry provides skipper, cook and boat maintenance jobs for a small army of people.
Getting the boat ready is taking too much time. The sun will set soon. We decide to take it easy, drink beers with Tomo then set sail in the morning. Tomo and Jim exchange violent storm sailing stories. We learn of Croatia’s winter storms. Diana tells us she misses the old Yugoslavia socialists system where schools and housing are free. Tomo also tells us to take care of his beloved cook Diana.
In the morning we top off the water tanks, drop the tie lines and head off across bay to Brac Island. It’s only a few miles across the channel to Brac coastline. We follow along the Brac coast looking at the pine and deciduous forest and old rock fences. Little red brick roofed towns dot the coast. Most of the skippered charter boat head north to the popular coastal towns. We want to avoid the other charters and head south. There isnt much wind going in the direction we are going so for now we use the motor and hum along. The weather is nice.
We find a quite cove with a few other sailboats and anchor. The water is smooth. The day is warming to 80 degrees which will make good swimming. The water is very clear. We can see fish swimming at the bottom. Diana makes us octopus stew and polenta. It was delicious.