Takeaway

Surprise package

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 09, 2018
Of blues and the golden orb: ‘Sun Salutation’ — an installation in Zadar made from 300 glass plates that absorb sunlight. As the sun starts to set, turning the sea into liquid gold, the large glass disc flashes with coloured lights.

Of blues and the golden orb: ‘Sun Salutation’ — an installation in Zadar made from 300 glass plates that absorb sunlight. As the sun starts to set, turning the sea into liquid gold, the large glass disc flashes with coloured lights.   -  Shutterstock

Once upon a time: The narrow, atmospheric streets of Korcula’s Old Town are arranged in the pattern of a fish skeleton.

Once upon a time: The narrow, atmospheric streets of Korcula’s Old Town are arranged in the pattern of a fish skeleton.   -  Shutterstock

All things sweet and sinful: At Zagreb’s Festival of Sweets, an annual event

All things sweet and sinful: At Zagreb’s Festival of Sweets, an annual event   -  Shutterstock

The internet will tell you a lot about Croatia — clean beaches, scenery, wooden houses and summer rain. For the smiles and stories around every corner, you have to just be there

Travel in the Age of the Internet comes with huge advantages. Sitting in Mumbai, three whole weeks before I fasten my seatbelt, I’ve zeroed in on a black cuttlefish risotto in Zadar; parking in Split; and remote beaches on the island of Korcula.

But it also comes with one disadvantage. By the time I’m actually walking the cobbled streets and sampling the grapefruit gelato, I’ve read the blogs, and seen the pics many times over. Which leaves little room for the unexpected.

“…for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle,” writes Pico Iyer, in his famous essay ‘Why We Travel’. And as I wing my way towards Eastern Europe — handbag stuffed with paunchy guidebooks and spiral-bound research — I hope we encounter crooked angles. That we sometimes step off the must-see-must-do conveyor belt.

The moment we drive into Croatia — to the blustery accompaniment of a thunderstorm — I’m reassured. We can sense untold stories as we cross silver rivers, mist-clad hills and wooden houses dripping with crimson flowers and summer rain. As we attempt the consonant-heavy language (prsten, krv, grk — for heaven’s sake!). And as we recall our hosts’ description of the town of Lepoglava. “You will find yourself in the center of a mystic circle on edges of which there are baroque chapels of Sveti Ivan, Sveti Juraj, Majka Bozja Snjezna and Sveti Josip, each on it’s (sic) own hill,” the email states, before recommending a stroll in search of the water nymphs who guard the cold, clear springs of Croatia.

Well. Not even the battiest blogger has suggested ‘seeking water nymphs’ in the “Top 10 Things to do in Croatia”.

When we reach Eva Lepoglava, with its sloping roofs, cherry tree and crisp air, it’s too late to hunt for nymphs. Then the next day we have boxes to tick — the picture-book castle of Trakoscan and the baroque town of Varazdin. Varazdin is firmly shut because of a “State holiday”, but we wander past handsome churches and mansions where once lived bishops and noblemen. In a little alley, my daughters find white paper angels bobbing about in the breeze. Then we collapse in a cool restaurant with dark wooden ceilings and snowy linen, and tuck into chilled cucumber soup, watermelon gazpacho, and platters of meat.

That evening, we explore the one-bakery town of Lepoglava. I keep an eye open for the water nymphs, and another for the famous lace. Instead we spot a silent complex surrounded by high walls. Intrigued, we circle it but can’t find a single door or sign. “Ammunition factory?” we wonder. “Toxic waste?”

Deterred by those forbidding walls, we return to our apartment. There we sit on the terrace, dine on a supermarket roast chicken and cherries from the garden, and watch the hills turn a deep violet. (It’s only back in Mumbai that I penetrate those walls and find the largest and oldest prison in Croatia, where Marshall Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia, was once incarcerated.)

****

The next morning, we drive into Zagreb, a city of untidy graffiti and quirky charm. We do all the touristy things — binge on pancakes at Kava Tava; attend a service at the Cathedral with filigree spires; explore the swirly-patterned, giddy-making realm of the Museum of Illusions. We ride the funicular to the Upper Town, and explore an impressive square surrounded by churches and substantial buildings. One is the office of the Prime Minister, bombed in 1991 during Croatia’s struggle for independence from Yugoslavia. Another is the parliament.

In our entire circuit, guess how many security personnel we spot? Two.

On our first evening in trendy Zagreb we stumble upon The Festival of Sweets at a local park that features not just raspberry pastries and cinnamon gelatos, but also a band called Jam Bucket. On our second evening we wander the city centre, looking for planets. A group of local artists created their own solar system in Zagreb — marble-sized planets tucked away in corners of the city after careful calculation of orbits and relative sizes. It’s easy to find the large, golden sun. Not so easy to find tiny Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Then we give up.

In the boutiques and cafés, it’s easy to forget that Croatia is an infant country with a bloody, recent history. That the memories are still raw is apparent at the edgy Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb — a minimalist, industrial space filled with political messages, brutal images and pain.

****

We see the scars again in gorgeous Dubrovnik. This medieval walled town, with its churches, monasteries and Game of Thrones walking tours, heaves with tourists and restaurants selling sandwiches for the price of a three-course meal. But just 25 years ago, almost 60 per cent of Dubrovnik was damaged when the town was besieged and bombed by Yugoslav forces.

We walk the city wall — spires, vines and red roofs on one side and dazzling blue sea on the other — and identify the bombed roofs by their newer tiles. We spot crumbling walls that tell terrible tales. It is much easier to listen to the whisper of the sea. Or the musicians who serenade the city. Or the bells, rung diligently by two mechanical bronze men.

(Though Maro and Baro have a story of their own: The clock of Dubrovnik has to be wound every couple of days. During the siege of 1991-92, the clock-winder’s house was bombed, the key lost, the bells silenced. Then the key was magically found on the road. All of Dubrovnik cheered as Maro and Baro struck the bell again, proof that the town was undefeated.)

In pine-clad Korcula we shake off the throngs and memories of war. On our first evening, we head to Zitna beach — where the water is that luminous blend of blues and greens that otherwise exists only on National Geographic. The next morning we drive to Pupnatska Luka, a pebble beach with pellucid turquoise waters. Once again, I look out for the local water nymph, but she’s too busy on guard-duty.

That evening, we stroll the narrow, atmospheric streets of the Old Town (which are arranged in the pattern of a fish skeleton) and plan to pop into churches and museums. Korcula, though, has other plans — a rousing Half Year Party that it holds every June 30.

As we enter the town we see little girls being daubed with make-up. By dusk the island has spilled onto the streets. Fat men dressed as watermelons, young mothers done up as cotton-woolly clouds carrying infants dressed up as little suns, senior citizens in polka-dotted dresses boogying to a catchy song. Everywhere, islanders are strumming guitars, snapping selfies with pot-bellied cupids and having fun.

****

Two nights later, we happen upon another exuberant evening in Zadar. After exploring the ruins of the Roman forum and enjoying berry yoghurt, we head to the tip of the long quay to listen to the ‘Sea Organ’ and watch the ‘Sun Salutation’. The first is an art installation of pipes cut into the promenade. The waves push air into these pipes, which then hum, whistle and shriek.

Next to the eerie ‘Sea Organ’ is another installation made from 300 glass plates that absorb sunlight. As the sun starts to set, turning the sea into liquid gold, the large glass disc flashes with coloured lights. The crowd erupts with excitement. Chinese tourists pose with abandon. Children frolic, skip and cartwheel.

We watch in delight. While planning our trip, we had heard about the clean beaches and beautiful scenery of Croatia. But little about the impromptu celebrations or the compelling street art; the overwhelming friendliness or the unique energy of this young country. We’ve met smiles and surprises around every corner.

The next day is our last in Croatia. As we drive towards Plitvice National Park, we spot bullet holes and the decrepit houses of Serbs who fled during troubled times.

At the park, we walk past 16 dappled lakes linked to each other by gushing waterfalls. But even in this glorious water wonderland, the water nymph remains elusive. I’m not too crushed. I’m saving a few mysteries and surprises for next time.

Shabnam Minwalla is a Mumbai-based journalist and food writer

Published on August 04, 2017

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