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october 2, 2004 -> vis a vis

C is pronounced ‘ch,' as in ‘children'
Š is pronounced ‘sh,' as in ‘fish'
Ž is pronounced ‘zh,' like the ‘s' in ‘treasure' 

Dubrovnik had quite literally been a wash-out.  The “Pearl of the Adriatic,” the “City of Stone and Light,” could have done with a little more light.  It rained every day, and even that failed to keep away the busloads of tourists.  I can only imagine what the place must be like in summer.  Of course the Old Town is beautiful, almost perfect: viewed at sunset from the wide ramparts of the muscular city walls, the yellow stones and red tiled roofs glowed with a light that was distinctly Mediterranean.  Dubrovnik has recovered quickly from the heartless (and militarily useless) shelling inflicted on it by Serb and Montenegrin forces in 1991-1992.  Most of the roofs had been hit directly or damaged by shrapnel.  Only a few roofs had the patina of age, most were a new, rich red.  But unlike Sarajevo, it is hard to find bullet scars on homes, or even mortar indentations on the Plaka (the main street) which took dozens of direct hits.  Even on these rainy days, the Plaka was crowded with knots of tourists, generally stuffing their faces with gelato to try to ease their disappointment. 

Croatia touts itself as “The Mediterranean, The Way it Used to Be.”  Things are changing quickly, however.  The rest of the world has discovered what the Italians long knew, that a beautiful stretch of coastline and islands laid just across the Adriatic.  When the American and European tourists invade Italy, the Italians head to Croatia.  Stodgy Slavic fare has been given the Italian boot, replaced by spaghetti and pizza.  In Dubrovnik, Croatians were far outnumbered by Italians, Germans and Scandinavians.  We enjoyed a delicious (and surprisingly cheap) seafood dinner just outside the city walls, beside the harbor.  After dinner, we walked along the harbor to the sea wall.  The harbor itself was choked with trash, including a large number of condoms – the toilets from nearby hotels must empty straight into the sea. 

We had hoped to arrange a sailing trip up the Dalmatian Coast - calling at numerous island ports, eating fresh seafood, drinking cheap wine, and swimming in the incredibly clear waters of the Adriatic.  Our Australian friends had gone on such a trip after the Athens Olympics; their photos and stories filled us with envy and excitement.  Alas, the sailing season had ended by the time we arrived in Croatia, so that plan was out.  To console ourselves, we decided to spend as much time as we could on one island: Vis. 

Croatia has more than 1100 islands, but only 66 are inhabited.  Vis is one of the more remote islands, but even so it is only 70 kilometers from the coast.  During the low season, one slow (2.5 hours) and one fast ferry (1.5 hours) make the trip from the mainland port of Split to Vis Town.  Due to a large Yugoslav military base on the island, Vis had been off-limits to tourists until 1989.  Thus, it is still catching up to its larger sister islands of Hvar and Brac, whose tourism boom began in the 1960's.  Because of its relative tranquility, Vis is a favorite port of call for yachties.  Its beautiful harbor is fronted by buildings of yellow stone that seem in perfect harmony with the surroundings.  At night, the harbor is filled with laughter and languages as crew and passengers enjoy al fresco dinners on their sailboats. 

Vis is famous for its wines, particularly the high-alcohol content white ‘Vugava.'  We were not big fans of the Vugava – it was very sweet – but we enjoyed some of the other red varieties, especially when coupled with local meats, olives and cheeses.  It was grape harvest time when we arrived.  The low, gnarled vines were heavy with fruit.  Crates of grapes were stacked by the roadside, and noisy tractors pulled trailers brimming with fruit into town.  In Vis Town, I helped an old woman carry a dozen 30-kilogram bags of grapes from the trailer to her house, and she rewarded me with a small bag of plump, sweet white grapes. 

The day after we arrived, we rented a motor scooter and headed off to explore the island.  It was a wonderful, clear day.  The view from the ridge above Vis Town was spectacular.  We could see the mainland, several islands, and a dozen sail boats heeling in the brisk winds.  We sped past grape fields and down to tiny bays.  The water was a bit cold for swimming, but exceptionally clear – Croatia's waters have been declared the cleanest and clearest in the Mediterranean.  We walked down a trail to a sheltered bay and had lunch beneath stout palms that resembled gigantic pineapples.  In the afternoon, we continued our circuit of the island, the road slowly rising to the north before dropping down into Vis' other main town, Komiža.  Like Vis Town, Komiža was built of soft yellow stone.  As the cliff-fringed bay opened quickly to the sea, the harbor was protected by a long sea wall.   

One of the most popular excursions from Komiža is a boat ride out to nearby Biševo Island to see “The Blue Hole.”  Once again, the weather was perfect.  We sat on the bow of the boat and soaked up the sun.  At Biševo, we transferred to a small launch that took us around a jagged headland.  Timing our entry perfectly, the boatman eased the launch under a low arch; we all had to duck our heads.  Inside, there was very little light.  The boatman steered us adeptly through a narrow passage and into a large domed cavern of exceptional beauty.  The Blue Hole is illuminated by sun light reflecting off the sea floor; the whole cave glows with an eerie white-blue light.  The water was so clear that we could see scuba divers entering the cave at least 10 meters below us.  I was desperate to swim, to duck beneath the surface and try to swim under the overhang and outside the cave, but swimming is not allowed. 

At the tourist information office, we saw a photo of a stunning, small beach, nearly separated from a narrowing inlet by a curving wall of stone.  When we asked for directions, the man scoffed at the idea. 

“I think you cannot get there.  It is far from the road.  The trail is difficult to find and very steep.” 

Undeterred, we hopped onto our rented scooter and motored out of town.  Horrible map notwithstanding, we had no trouble finding the parking area or the trail to Stiniva Bay.  There were a few places that required a bit of scrambling, but the path was only about a ‘5' on the Kokoda Scale.  An hour later, we arrived at the beautiful, pebbly, and most of all empty beach.  A fishing shack sat just behind the beach, but the rusted locks on the windows and doors suggested that no one lived there.  We skinny-dipped, we sunbathed, we climbed around and took photos.  For a blissful hour, we had this perfect little cove to ourselves.  Vis had been ‘The Mediterranean, The Way We Wanted it to Be.'