101 miles in Dalmatia

I had been looking forward to this for so long. The more I got sick of our pathetic excuse of a wet and miserable English summer, the more I was looking at the weather profile for Split, Croatia. Sunny, 32 degrees. Sunny, 34 degrees. Sunny – oh, my – 37 degrees. Do such temperatures exist?

Though there does come a time after about the 35th degree when you start to think, okay, it could be turned down a little. Unusually for me, I was actively not looking forward to going to bed at the end of each day, no matter how tired I felt, because I knew how hot and close the cabin would be. If there had been room on deck to sleep then I would have; but on a 36-foot yacht, that’s not going to happen.

The plan: five of us (self, Beloved, Bonusbarn, both parents) hire a yacht via Seafarers that would be part of a flotilla sailing from point to point along the Dalmatian coast. Each day would have a destination for the evening, and in between we would get some sailing.

I did a lot of sailing as a teenager but had done none at all since my late twenties – 1993, to be precise. It comes back to you. This was a spanking modern boat in comparison to the primitive ketches on which I learnt my art, but sometimes I found myself hankering for the old days. An electric windlass to lower and raise the anchor is nice, certainly nicer than doing it all by hand … until it keeps overloading and someone needs to duck below to reset the trip switch. Roller reefing – where the sails wrap around the forestay, or the inside of the mast, rather than requiring actual hauling – certainly grows on you, until it goes wrong, i.e. the rolling no longer rolls. I cut my teeth on a pitching foredeck where, if you wanted sails of a different size, you damn well went forward, took one down, unclipped it from the forestay, clipped another on and hauled it up instead. Sometimes tiring, but at least it went up and down like it was supposed to.

But I quibble. We had a plan and a very nice plan it was. Sometimes the daily destinations were just far apart enough that you had to spend all day just getting there, very often motoring, rather than any of that fancy sailing stuff. But they were very nice destinations.

Primošten is a former fishing village, now transformed into very picturesque tourist trap, perched on a peninsula overlooked by a church at the very top. It is also renowned for its ice cream. All the stops we passed through had good ice cream but Primošten took it to an added degree of artistry.

It was during our stay here that Croatia played Spain and we found that all the World Cup fans had hung onto their Zulu vulvas or whatever they’re called. But the noise didn’t last much past midnight.

From Primostan to Šibenik, which ought to grace the cover and be the setting of many a fantasy novel. It’s approached down a narrow stretch of river between sunbaked cliffs (I say narrow; it could still take a medium sized cargo ship but the cliffs make it seem narrower). You pass Tito’s submarine pens …

… and then Šibenik comes into view. The river broadens into a wide harbour and the town is perched on the far bank, dominated by two castles and a cathedral and looking magical.

But we didn’t have time to stop there, because we had to turn left and motor up the river to  Skradin, which is as far as the river is navigable. This was another journey that should be part of a fantasy novel because the cliffs get even more towering and you start imagining silhouettes of injuns or Sandpeople along the top. Skradin is the gateway to the Krka National Park, an area defined by astonishing waterfalls, which are the reason why the river stops being navigable at this point.

This was the closest I have been to a real-life Rivendell. The waterfalls play games with you. There are the main falls, a multiple flight reaching back about a quarter of a mile or so, but also smaller ones – torrents of pure white water bursting out of the undergrowth around you as you walk. Wooden boardwalks and stone channels have been set up so that tourists can stroll among them, and the stone channels have been done in such a way that if they aren’t the product of a long dead civilisation then they damn well should be.

It was in Skradin that we had Peka, a national dish of beef or lamb or fish baked together with potatoes and vegetables in a dish surrounded by charcoal. Only we didn’t have beef or lamb or fish, we had octopus, which was a lot nicer than it ought to have been. I thought I was safe because each dish needed at least four takers to be ordered, and I couldn’t believe there would be four takers in the entire flotilla. There turned out to be four takers in our boat, damn it, so I reluctantly let myself be the fifth. And it was nice, as I say, though when the cover was removed and we gazed down in awe at all those sucker-speckled tentacles, I still had to fight the conviction that it was about to leap up at my face and plant some kind of embryo inside me.

But Split, the start and the end point of our voyage, is the place I have the greatest affection for. It goes back to Roman times and beyond, but the waterfront is modern and clean and welcoming.

At the same time its ancient heart is there for all to see. The medieval town grew out of Diocletian’s retirement palace, like a tree bursting out of an old pot. (Diocletian retired to the land of his birth to live a life of rustic simplicity, planting cabbages; but being an ex-Roman Emperor, his idea of rustic simplicity still involved living in a palace.) We ate dinner on our final night in an outdoor restaurant that was literally in the shadow of Diocletian’s mausoleum, now the cathedral.

Then we want a-wandering and found a town full of life and buzz, and varied entertainments.

Then we accidentally found ourselves wandering through the basement of the palace itself. There’s a thriving market of stalls down there.

Accidentally! With no warning! Going back the next day, before our flight, we found places you actually did have to pay to get into – the equivalent of less than a fiver will get you access to a labyrinth of high vaulted stone rooms in a state of repair that would make the people of Bath weep with envy.

It was also considerably cooler, which made our final hours in the country a  lot more comfortable than they could have been.

To Croatia itself, I can only wish the very best, because it deserves it. An old people with a young heart, only officially independent since 1995; energetic, friendly, full of ambition and intelligence. I would love to see more of it … but if we go at this time of year again, or later, I’m staying near the sea.