The Dalmatian Coast: Croatia's Lost Resorts

Want to buy a house?"


Our landlord, Miro Jaksic, made the offer only half jokingly as we sat drinking coffee with him on a shaded terrace in downtown Selca.


Throughout the tiny hamlet, located on the Adriatic island of Brac just off the coast of Croatia, stone houses -- abandoned as families left in search of a better life on the mainland -- continued their slide toward ruin, roofs caving in, former windows and doorways now unobstructed portals.


According to Miro, the town's population has fallen from 4,000 residents before World War II to just 1,000, with 60 percent of the houses lying vacant. And the war with Serbia has frightened off the tourists -- the infamous town of Mostar is less than 100 kilometers away, Sarajevo little more.


But sitting on the terrace, within the shadow of the town's "new" cathedral, under construction since 1920, the only thing that seemed to perplex Miro was why anyone would want to abandon the island's quiet Mediterranean lifestyle.


The last few years have not been kind to Croatia: The war with neighboring Serbia has crippled its once-lucrative tourism industry, reducing to a trickle the flow of around 10 million visitors who used to flock to its beautiful coastline -- considered one of the loveliest in the Mediterranean -- every year.


Dalmatia's towering, craggy peaks run parallel to the Adriatic coast, dropping straight into the water only to rise again a mile offshore in the form of mountainous islands. Tiny villages lie nestled within the descending folds, offering rocky beaches and clear blue waters for those willing to challenge their preconceptions of the region and break away from the summer hordes.


The islands have remained unscathed throughout five years of ethnic strife. And now, with a tentative peace firming by the day, the coastal areas of Split, Zadar and Dubrovnik have also returned to life, their inhabitants taking the energy previously dedicated toward survival and redoubling it toward life. Commerce brims along the narrow, twisting passages of the old-town districts in Zadar and Split, where outdoor markets lie spread across the cobblestones, retail shops present their wares to passersby and cafes offer rest and respite.


Croatia carries with it the feel of two countries in one: The interior bears the architectural and cultural stamp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the coastal communities have a Mediterranean feel, reflecting their close ties to neighboring Italy.


We began our trip in Ljubljana -- the cheapest destination given a price discount available with our press passes -- and drove to the coast, watching Slovenia's lush, green landscape give way to Croatia's more rocky terrain, then followed the coastal highway south from the northern port city of Rijeka to Zadar.


The road itself is a winding swathe of asphalt which clings precariously to the mountains, and although the going is slow, the views are stupendous.


With occasional stops for coffee or a beer at the seaside towns lying below the highway, the trip to Zadar from Rijeka can take about seven hours.


Ferries which ply the waters from Rijeka southward to Dubrovnik offer an alternative for those who don't want to rent a car.


The first and only signs of the conflict which we saw came outside Zadar, where the bridge approaching the city had been bombed out, forcing traffic to take a pontoon bridge. From that crossing onward the signs of fighting -- destroyed houses and buildings pockmarked by bullets -- increased as we entered the suburbs. But in the high, ancient walled city which lies on the water and represents the heart of Zadar, little evidence remains of the Serb bombardments that drove residents into their basements for three months in 1991.


Most ferries also stop at Zadar en route to Split, and the town provides a nice opportunity to wander cool, narrow passages and stroll around ancient walls. The town was first established by the Romans, and in the center lies the ninth-century St. Donatus Church, which was built by the Byzantines atop the old Roman forum.


Next to the church lies the Museum of Church Art, housed in a Benedictine Monastery. Although closed the day we were in town, the site offers an array of religious objects and paintings lit to show how they would have appeared in their original setting.


Cafes and restaurants have returned to the scene, serving mostly fish dishes and Italian food such as pizza and pasta. The Dalmatian wine served here is cheap but tasty, even to the semi-discriminating pallet.


Traveling on to Split, one is first struck by the number of large, cement apartment blocks that lie between the city and the mountains. Fortunately, this ugly backdrop is mostly to one side, and it disappears entirely once you dive into the twisting labyrinth of streets and alleys that make up the city's oldest area.


Split's most famous landmark is Diocletian's palace, built between 295 and 305 as a retirement home for the Roman emperor famous for his persecution of early Christians. Sites include a peristyle, or colonnaded courtyard, and a neo-Romanesque cathedral tower. The Temple of Jupiter was later turned into a baptistery, and Diocletian's mausoleum is now a cathedral.


Other sites worth seeing include the old town hall, near the palace, a maritime museum and the Mestrovic Gallery, a comprehensive collection of works by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.


Split also has impressive fish and vegetable markets, which can make for great picnics on the wooded parkland at the western end of the peninsula. But most importantly, Split provides a great staging ground for day trips to the islands or other coastal towns.


Just northwest of Split is Trogir, a medieval town located on a small island in a channel between the larger Ciovo Island and the mainland. Along the way, travelers can see the ancient city of Salona, which was abandoned under siege in the seventh century. The archeological remains here are considered some of the best in Croatia -- although they are somewhat crowded by modern development.


But if the islands beckon, they are close at hand. Easiest to reach from Split is Brac, a one-hour ferry ride away and our destination. We met Miro on the ferry over, and from him rented a three-bedroom villa with a kitchen, a balcony overlooking the sea and a complimentary bottle of the local plumb brandy for 100 Deutsche marks ($65) a night. The entire house was constructed of marble slabs quarried from the island -- apparently one of the primary local building materials.


While residents will tell you that the island has suffered from a loss of tourism, the people don't seem too worried about it. Fishing villages dot the island and tiny roads wind throughout the mountainous interior, occasionally blocked by sheep as the herdsmen drive home their charges in the late evening. On the side opposite the mainland is Bol, a small resort town with a pebbly peninsula considered by locals in Split to be one of the most picturesque beaches in the region.


Other nearby islands include Hvar, where the main town is reputed to be among the most exclusive resorts on the Dalmatian coast, and Korcula Island. Korcula town, a bit less expensive than Hvar, was controlled by Venice from the 14th to the 18th centuries and is considered the prototypical medieval Dalmatian town.


Talking to residents about the war and listening to their candid replies -- a calm disbelief that the war has actually ended and issues put to rest -- brings an eerie sense of proximity, more so than any bullet hole or bombed-out house.


And tourists are certainly rare -- as evidenced by one Zadar high-school student who mistook this generally sloppy American for a Slovenian. When corrected, he said in halting English: "American? I haven't seen an American in two or three years."


While UN personnel and aid workers alike can be found along the Adriatic, most travelers have yet to re-visit this formerly well-trodden mecca of sun and scenery. The result is a relaxing getaway from the rest of the world.





Accommodation


Due to the fall in tourism, many of Croatia's hotels and youth hostels have been closed. However, virtually every town has at least one hotel that remains open, and like most Mediterranean spots, local residents are quick to seize an opportunity to open pensions and villas for travelers.


In Split, the cheapest hotel available is the Central Hotel (385/21/48-242), located just across from the old town hall and priced between $25 and $50 a night. And for the gamblers, there's a casino on the premises which operates until 5 a.m.


A nicer accommodation can be found at the Prenociste Slavija (47-053), where prices hover around $60, and at the resort-level Park Hotel (515-411), where a single runs $84 and a double about $103 per night, and reservations are needed.


In Zadar, try the Hotel Kolovare (385/23/433-022), where rooms run between $40 and $55 a night.


On Brac, inquire with any locals as to who may be renting out homes or villas. In Selca, on the far side of the island from Split, call Miro Jaksic at 385/58/622-218. If he can't help you, he'll know someone who can.





Getting There


Most Westerners require a visa to enter Croatia. There is no cost, but the embassy will keep your passport for one day.


Unfortunately, getting to Croatia is rather expensive, given that only two airlines make the trip. Tickets on Croatia Airlines (243-6797) range from $616 round-trip to Zagreb to $646 round-trip to Split or Dubrovnik. Aeroflot is likewise pricey at $597.


An alternative for those interested in seeing nearby Slovenia is to fly to its beautiful capital, Ljubljana, for $504 on Adria Airways and $659 on Aeroflot, then rent a car and drive to the coast. There is a host of car rental agencies at the Ljubljana airport, and no visas are needed for U.S. or European residents.