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Trip 7 -- The Balkans

Message 1: Venice to Zagreb and the Croatian coast

Date: 26 Aug 2003 19:34:50 -0000
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Southeast Europe update #1: Venice to Zagreb and the Croatian coast

It dawned on me, about two weeks ago, that if I was going to take a trip before going on tour next month it might be prudent to buy a plane ticket. And so I found myself, a cursory phone call to my travel agent later, booked into Venice and out of Istanbul, with little idea how I would get from one to the other. I grabbed guidebooks the night before departure and planned a rather rudimentary route on the flight to Venice. The most justification I could find for this trip was in a 1598 work by Giuseppe Rosaccio, "Voyage from Venice to Constantinople," though I wouldn't know it until I saw the book on display in a museum in Croatia. This will be a quick trip - three weeks - after which I return immediately to the international tour of the musical "Fosse," which takes us to such sought-after destinations as Paris and Dayton.

Venice is gorgeous. It's a pleasure to walk through narrow alleys, under people's drying laundry, and over the city's 400 bridges and 150 canals, rounding a corner every once in a while and finding yourself in front of a historic church or palace. It's striking to realize that the only transportation is by foot or boat, but it lends a tranquility to the city's bustle.

Like everyone else, I began my exploration of Venice at the Square of a Thousand Pigeons and Exposed Midriffs, more commonly known as the Piazza San Marco. I'd seen pictures of the plaza's large clock and looked forward to seeing it in person, but it was dutifully covered by scaffolding. I visited the Doges' Palace, where the city magistrates lived from the 12th to the 18th centuries. There are few personal effects there (the doges' families removed their belongings when the doges died), but there are exceptional paintings, many of which date from the 16th century - such as Tintoretto's "Paradise," the largest painted canvas in the world. I did the 100-minute audio tour, but the battery died (as they had warned me it might if I replayed too much) two rooms before the end. I kept getting distracted by a painting and having to rewind. After visiting the palace, I attended a concert of Vivaldi's music, the advantage being, of course, that if you get distracted by a painting during a Vivaldi concert you know you're going to hear the same passage repeated in a moment.

Also exceptional in Venice was the Basilica of the Hour-Long Entrance Queues, better known as the Basilica San Marco (I happened to discover that if you have no bags and are appropriately dressed, they don't care if you slink in through the exit). It was richly built in the 11th century using fine Italian marble (though there they just call it "marble") and mosaics, and it contains a thousand-year-old gold altarpiece.

I took a train to Ancona and then an overnight ferry across the Adriatic, awakening to the sound of Spanish pop music and the sight of three dolphins performing a synchronized-somersaulting act. I intended to stay on the ferry all the way to Split, Croatia's second-largest city, but at the advice of a Bosnian refugee I got off at the island of Hvar, whose main town dates from the 13th century. Exceptional in Hvar was the Franciscan monastery, dating from 1461, which contains a delightful church, beautiful paintings, and a 14th-century clock discovered on the grounds in 1982. I walked the steep steps of Hvar's medieval streets and, when I could stand the heat no more, took a dip in the Adriatic.

Twelve-year-old Croatia has had a turbulent past. It's been controlled by Illyrians, Venetians, Hungarians, and Turks, to name just a few, and sometimes different parts of the country by different people at the same time. The general story of most of the cities seems to be as follows: settle down, put up a wall to defend yourselves against the Turks, be destroyed by fire or earthquake, and rebuild. Most recently, of course, the country was part of the larger Yugoslavia, which disingetrated in the early 1990s with the collapse of communism.

I spent a day each in Hvar, Split, Dubrovnik, and Zagreb. Split's old town dates all the way back to about 300, when the Roman emperor Diocletian had a palace built there. The palace is remarkably intact, the church and main square are still in use, and the old buildings and streets are now home to businesses and apartments. Split is also well-known for the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, whose home - now a museum - is filled with his works. The strong expressions in his subjects' faces are striking indeed, at least for a while: most of them fall into the religious-characters-with-elongated-faces-looking-at-the-sky-in-despair category, which eventually becomes a bit relentless. Mestrovic's best-known work may be his statue of the 10th-century bishop Gregorius of Nin. The huge statue used to stand just outside the gate to the Diocletian palace, but when another tourist interrupted my admiration of it by asking me to move out of the way so he could photograph his wife in front of it, it toppled over and crushed them both - or so I like to believe.

The seven-hour boat ride to Dubrovnik was stunning, passing lush islands and peninsulas. Dubrovnik itself has had more trauma than most of Croatia, having succumbed to an earthquake in 1667 and having sustained much damage to its famous terracotta roof tiles during the war in 1991. You can walk around the immense city walls - and in fact I did - and look outward to the sea, inward to the countless churches and the exteriors and interiors of residents' apartments. Some of Dubrovnik's churches are covered in remarkable scaffolding.

An overnight bus ride brought me to the capital, Zagreb - a city formed by the union of two smaller cities that used to fight each other when they weren't fighting the Turks. Zagreb has some grand architecture and fine squares, and it's quite hilly. The city is normally dominated by the twin spires of its cathedral. Today they are hidden behind scaffolding.

Far be it for me to go through a travelogue installment without mentioning food, so here goes: It's pretty terrific in Croatia. Along the coast, which was claimed by Venice for years, it's much like the food in Italy, with spectacular seafood from the Adriatic and excellent pasta. In the interior, Austrian and Hungarian influences have left their mark on the cuisine - a decent sampling of which I shall now endeavor to find for dinner.


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