Croatia Trip review by Ihab Zaki
The first thing we noticed about arriving to the Dubrovnik Airport was the relaxed security. Tourism might be the largest industry in the country and the security guards were not going to jeopardize any part of it. They barely looked at our passports; over a hundred people passed through the passport control in less than 5 minutes. In Greece, this would have taken at least an hour. In London, we’d be there all day. Leaving Dubrovnik was even more relaxed. No need to remove the laptop or the plastic bag of liquids. The bags went through the security detector but the guards were too busy having a conversation with each other to even look at the monitor screen. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad one.
The second thing we noticed about the Croatia was how clean it is; no graffiti on the walls. In fact, the old stone building in the old town look as if they were just laid into place, which in many cases is the truth. The city was bombed pretty badly on October 1, 1991 when the Serbian lead Yugoslavian People’s Army attacked the city hard. The shelling went on for 7 months and in the end, over 30% of Old Dubrovnik was destroyed. The Serbs called it a Civil War; the Croatians called it either a War of Independence (on their part) or a War of Aggression (on the Serbians). No matter what name you attach to it, over 110,000 people were killed and over 1.8 million were displaced. In Dubrovnik, 114 were killed.
The city fortress held off invaders from the 15th through the 18th century but then in 1806, when General Alexandre Lauriston, commander of Napoleons Army, offered the city French protection from the Russian fleet that just appeared in the harbor, they accepted. Napoleon also told them they would be able to keep their independence, but then Napoleon said a lot of things he never really meant.
After the fall of Napoleon, the 1815 Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe and Croatia ended up as part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, the country was thrown into the Serb-Slavic-Croatian mixture known as Yugoslavia. The Italians invaded from 1941-43, then the Nazis came in.
Towards the end of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt promised to take care of them. And so they did; they gave them over to Stalin and the strong arm of Marshall Josip Broz Tito.
The city is really beautiful, one of the most beautiful 15th century city we’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because we’ve come here in the summer filled with happy tourists relaxing on the aquamarine Adriatic Sea, the sun bleached stone buildings and the outdoor cafes linked together from one end of town to the other, as if they all belonged to the same owner. Over 4,000 people live inside the walls. In the summertime, the population probably triples.
But even with all the people, things move at a very relaxed pace. There are no cars in the city; no motorcycles, no bicycles, no roller-skates, no skateboards. Most all the merchandise is delivered the same way they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, by hand pushed wagons. You really have to be in good shape to be a deliveryman in Dubrovnik.
The walls of the city cover about 2km in length. It takes about 45 minutes to walk around them but it was one of the best walks we’ve had since the Great Wall of China. The views from up on the walls are amazing.
Tourists do come from all parts of Europe but what we’ve mostly seen are Italians and Brits.
We’re here during the annual music festival, but that might not be good news for anyone looking for slut goddesses or baggy pants rappers. The music festival in Dubrovnik is heavier of the classical side, filled with chamber orchestras, Jazz quartets and Croatian folk concerts. Concert stages are set up all over the city. One of the favorite locations is The Rectors palace, a 1464 Venetian style Palace built by Florentine architect Michelozzo at the same time he was building Cosmo de Medici’s Palace in Florence. The acoustics are renowned throughout the world.
Summertime in Dubrovnik also brings in lots of street performers, guitarists, singers, violin duets, flute trios and a guitar strumming harmonica blowing singer we called Bob Dylanovic. So far the Peruvian panpipe bands haven’t come here yet and fortunately, the street mimes are nowhere in sight; no signs of the painted human statues or that annoying Pharaoh-mummy guy either.
The music festival also features Shakespeare performances on the island of Lokrum, a 15 minute boat ride from the Dubrovnik harbor.
Well, after all, this is the Illyria of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”.
On his way back from the crusades Richard the Lionhearted was shipwrecked on the island of Lokrum. He gave thanks to the people of Ragusa (the old name of the city) by giving them money to build a chapel on the island. A Benedictine monastery was added to the site in the 11th century. And all was well here for about 800 years until Napoleon came.
Napoleon disbanded the monastery and took possession of the island. That’s when the curse began. As the story goes, the monks spent their last night on the chanting a curse upon anyone who would own the island after their departure. Napoleon’s three representatives were the first to go; one was drowned, one killed by his servant and the third, defenestrated.
In 1859, Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria bought the island. He planted gardens, imported exotic peacocks and slept in the monk’s cells. In 1863 Napoleon III offered Maximilian the title of Emperor of Mexico. In 1867, four years later, he was put in front of a firing squad and killed. The curse continued.
Between 1867 and 1880 the island passed hands through several businessmen who lost their money and reputations within months of signing the ownership papers. They got off easy.
In 1880, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph bought the island back. His son Rudolf celebrated his honeymoon on Lokrum; a few years later, he killed himself at his hunting lodge known as Mayerling near Vienna after first killing his 17yr old mistress. According to the coroner’s report Rudolf shot his mistress in the head, then sat by her body for several hours before shooting himself.
Nothing of the grand palace remains today except some ruins and some peacocks that might have descended from the gardens of Maximilian. I think people are afraid to build anything else on the island. We had no interest to even visit. I have a thing about cursed places. I just leave them alone.
Our hotel is a 20 minute walk from the old town (10 minutes in hotel distances). Our room overlooks the Adriatic Sea and a really nice beach, it’s quiet and we have a terrace. In the old town, it’s crowded with tourists. I think we made the right decision. We sit on the terrace, watch the local boys dive off the cliffs and watch the ships come in and out of the harbor. There are a couple of old replicas of 16th century sailing ships that really add a great historical flavor.
The mega yacht “Christine O” docked in the harbor a few days ago, the famous floating palace of Aristotle Onassis. The new owner of the yacht rents it out for a mere €65,000 a week.
The main entrance to the Old City at the Pile gate leads into the Stradun.
The original name of this 1000 ft long promenade was the Placa, but when a Milanese officer in the Austo-Hungarian army saw it for the first time he remarked “che stradone” (what a big street). It’s been called the Stradun ever since.
A lot of the old renaissance buildings collapsed in the big 1667 earthquake but the Venetian looking Sponza Palace still remains standing. It used to function as the Customs house and Mint. The old Ragusans prided themselves on their honesty and printed above the central archway of the inner courtyard is the motto “As I weigh merchandise with these scales, God is also weighing me.”
Outside of the Sponza Palace and in front of the main cathedral is the Orlando Column (Orlando Furioso) erected in 1419, made in the image of Roland, Count of Brittany and nephew of Charlemange, the hero of the Song of Roland.
According to the Ragusan legend, Orlando led an army of Ragusans against the Saracens in the 9th century, which is somewhat confusing since according to the “Song of Roland”, he died in 778 at Roncevalles in northern Spain, in an attack by the Basque Moors. But through the miracle of revisionist history, here he is,still protecting the city. In his hand is the famous sword “Durendel”, once belonged to Hector of Troy and given to Roland by the magician Maugris. Legend says that hidden in the hilt of the sword is a thread of the Virgin Mary’s cloak, one of St Peter’s teeth, a hair from the head of St Denis and a drop of St Basil’s blood. It was invincible, and as Roland was about to meet his death, he hurled it into a poison river rather that have it end up in the hands of the enemy.
A few years back we were at the fortress of Rocamadour in the Dordogne region of France (see 2002 post on the Dordogne). In this mountain city they believe the “real” Durandel is embedded into a crack the stone face of the castle fortress. It’s also chained to the rock to make sure it didn’t end up in the hands of thieves or tourists.
Aren’t myths and legends fun?
In the plinth under the statue is a faint straight line, supposedly the length of Orlando’s forearm. It was used as the measure of a “Dubrovacki lakat” at 51.2 centimeters (around 20”), the official length of cloth. The column is just across the square from the customs house so this was probably the main marketplace where cloth merchants would sell their goods.
The Cathedral is dedicated to St Blaise, who body parts are deposited all over the city, his arms, a leg and his head. We saw the ornate armored leg in the Franciscan Friary but we never got to see the rest of the parts in the Cathedral. His right arm is covered with 30 engraved rectangular images of the saints. In 1925, a tourist stole one of them. A more efficient caretaker now guards the remaining 29.
And amongst the more bizarre treasures of the Cathedral is the “ diaper of Jesus” (I have no idea) that was kept by nuns at the convent of St Clare till the 1667 earthquake when it was transferred to the treasury and put in a silver chest. The nuns of the St Clare orphanage used to cut a small piece from it to give to women having problems with childbirth. Since I really didn’t didn’t see the “diaper”, I have no idea how much of it still remains, if any.
Ragusa was a very open minded, liberal and forward thinking nation even back in the 14th century and 15th centuries. State sponsored medical services to the city were introduced in 1301, services for senior citizens began in 1347, slave trading was abolished in 1418, the first orphanage opened up in 1432, and the first pharmacy in the Franciscan Friary opened in 1317. It’s still open for business. You can still buy crèmes and lotions dated 1317, apparently made from the original formula.
Aside from the Music Festival and concrete and stone beaches, you have a choice from dozens of restaurants (Konoba) serving fresh seafood; squid, prawns, octopus, John Dory, Sea Bass, Gilthead, Mussels Bouzzara (local stew), risotto nero (in squid ink), langoustines, lobster and other local catch I can’t remember. Everything is cooked with a healthy dose of butter.
The wines are also worth mentioning. Years back the wine was so potent; the Croatians would dilute it with water. These days they are world class. We enjoyed the Dingac wines a lot. The Plavac Mali grape used in making a lot of the Croatian wines is rumored be the original source of American Zinfandel.
Dubrovnik is also noted for its love of Water Polo; kind of a combination of swimming and European style handball (soccer using hands instead of feet). It’s not just a sport over here, it a religion.
The sport goes back to the early 1900’s but its popularity really hit in the 1950s. In the 1980s, the Dubrovnik “Wild League” opened up and now there are as many as 1100 players and 55 clubs. Last summer there were over 27,000 spectators watching the 100 games played. In the early years of the game, the object wasn’t just to win the game, but also to pull the referee into the sea.
Split and Trogir
Before I get into the amazing destination of Split on the Dalmatian Coast, let me tell you that the airport is close to an hour from the old city. The cost for a cab is 336 kuna ($65). However, there is a bus transfer (run by Croatia Airlines) from the airport to the old town for around $4 per person.
But anyway you can get here is worth it. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Riva, the long promenade along the Adriatic sea is filled with café tables and awnings. It is the perfect pause from the heat for a cool refreshing beverage while watching the performance of people pass by. The narrow, winding white marble streets of the 13th-16th century Old Town meander through ancient houses and small shops, eventually spilling out onto the grand stone thoroughfare called the Marmontova, a promenade named for Auguste de Marmont, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, and former Duke of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), Governor of Dalmatia and Governor-General of all the Illyrian provinces between 1805 and 1809. He might have only ruled here for less than 4 years, but he made a big impression on the city. Our Hotel (Hotel Marmont) is also named after the General.
The big thrill of Split, however, is the enormous (710’ x 600’) 3rd century Roman Palace built by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305), who was born in Solana (now Solis), a few kilometers from old Split.
The 3rd century Palace takes over a 3rd of the old town. Built in only 10 years between 295-305 AD, it’s entirely made from white Croatian Marble. In 305, ill and tired of Roman politics, Diocletian abdicated the throne and retired here, tending his gardens. Unfortunately he only lived another 6 years at age 67.
Unlike many other ancient Roman ruins that were torn down and re-used as building materials, Diocletian’s Palace has kept its shape, continuity and much of its original detail. Instead of tearing down the walls, the centuries that followed used them as a protection, building their homes inside. By the 16th century, the Palace walls protected over 200 buildings, including houses, shops, a 16th century synagogue and churches going back to the 5th century. Today there are over 3000 people living inside, sharing this amazing piece of history with souvenirs, trendy clothing, restaurants, bancomats and the daily onslaught of international tourists snapping photos at every turn. No matter which way you look there is another great photo opportunity.
Some of the ancient buildings require an entrance fee but most of the Palace is entrance FREE. It is a living neighborhood after-all.
The 3rd century Mausoleum of the Emperor Diocletian and his wife, Prisca was transformed into the 5th century Cathedral of Saint Duje (the 3rd century bishop of Salona). However, the transformation didn’t change much. Inside it still looks like a Roman Mausoleum. The gold of the domed ceiling was stripped away and there were probably other beautiful wall treatments removed but the shape, the classical lentils and columns and the floors are all original. Bravo to the Cathedral for its respect to the old building. It’s kind of ironic through, since Diocletian was well known for his persecution of the early Christians. But there you have it.
The church also kept the Temple of Jupiter in original condition. They just replaced the statue of Jupiter with Saint Duje and added a baptistery font. The ancient coffered 3rd century ceiling of the Temple was water tight until the 1940’s when a tin room was put over the top. It’s been the baptistery of the St Duje since the 5th century.
The great Prothyron Arch and the giant domed vestibule that led to the Emperor’s Private Palace (now the Ethnographic Museum) are still here. The 4 original entrance gates to the Palace still exist, so do the North /South Street (the Cardo) and the East/West street (the Decumanus).
The remains of the black granite Sphynx Diocletian brought back from Egypt (currently under wraps for restoration) still sits at the entrance into the Vestibule. The Peristyle courtyard, a beautiful sunken terraced courtyard surrounded by columns and arches was, and still is the heart of the old Palace.
During the days the Peristyle courtyard is filled with tourists, locals and vendors. At night the visitors take their seats on the terraced steps and listen to live music under the reflection of the ancient buildings glowing behind soft amber light.
Through the ancient Brass gate (the southern gate) that arrived into the Palace from the sea, is a grand barreled hall where cargo was once brought in and stored. It does keep nice and cool down here. These days it’s the location for local artisans to sell jewelry and assorted bowls crafted from the marble quarried from nearby mines.
Our hotel, the Marmont, is technically outside of the Palace walls, but it’s in that grey area where you can’t tell if you’re in the Palace or the 12th century old town. Wherever we are, it’s really wonderful. The room is comfortable, the view is charming, the air conditioning is so refreshing, the internet access is fast and free, the staff is wonderful and we are getting the best sleep we’ve had in weeks.
There is no end to great people watching in and around the Palace, the Riva and the old Town. This is a destination for people of all ages of all countries, young couples, old couples, families, college students and local residents. The people at the cafes and restaurants watch the people walking by and the people walking by watch the people sitting at the cafes and restaurants. They watch the ultra-high stiletto heels navigate the old stone streets. They read the t-shirts of every language. They watch the boats sailing in and out of the harbor. They watch the children chase pigeons through the stone paved squares. They watch the activity of vegetable and fish markets. And after a long day they go back to their rooms for a short pause and then come back for dinner and more entertainment.
We’re here one week prior to the annual summer festival. The larger performance is in rehearsal but the smaller stage is filled each night with ethnic dancing and local cultural bands.
The Operas used to be staged in the Peristyle but the square is undergoing some renovation these days, so the Opera season has moved to the Republic Square just off the Marmontova. The staging (scenery, lighting and audio) is loading in for Othello and last night we saw the first rehearsal with cast and orchestra. Aside from the stages, the more intimate entertainment is over at the Peristyle square as folk rock musicians entertain the crowd. The visitors (like us) sit on the steps of the square and sing along to favorite tunes from the 60s through the 90s.
The transportation hub near the harbor is called the Lazaretti. It’s a large sprawl of bus terminals, boat docks, the train station, and ferry terminal. The name comes from the original Lazaretto was the quarantine facility for merchants and their goods. Merchants (and occasionally sailors) would need to spend 40 days here before it was determined they (and their goods) were clean of pests or disease. The Italian word for 40 is “quaranta”. Quarantine = quaranta.
Walk along the Marjan to the Mestrovic Gallery
We walked away from the old town towards the Marjan Park above the old city to the Archeology Museum (it was closed). The Ivan Mestrovic Gallery, which was our intentional destination anyway, was just another 15 minutes away and it was a beautiful walk, mostly along the water.
Ivan Mestovic (1883-1962) was the only man to ever have a one man show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York during his lifetime. He built his home in Split as a home and gallery and in his later years and then donated the building to Croatia. It now houses a permanent (really wonderful) collection.
In Split, Mestrovic is most famous for the statue of Gregorius of Nin (the 10th century Croatian bishop) that stands by the Golden Gate of Diocletian’s Palace. The left foot of the statue is polished from people rubbing it for good luck.
The bishop statue is big and very impressive but the pieces at the Mestovic Gallery are well worth the visit. Mestrovic immigrated to the US after WWII and taught in Universities from Syracuse to Notre Dame.
We walked to the Lazaretti and bought two tickets on the local bus to Trogir, another UNESCO Heritage city. It was a 35 minute nauseating ride as we listened to old Croatian women screech and cackle around us. The ride cost about $4/person. The entertainment value was priceless.
Although the town dates back to the 3rd century Roman city, Tragurium, it’s now a well preserved mixture of Romanesque churches, the Renaissance Lucic Palace, the 15th century Kamerlengo Fortress and lots of 15th-17th century houses. The only damage it has ever seen was in 1420 when the Venetians bombarded it into submission. The Venetian occupation lasted till 1797.
In many ways it’s similar to Split, another tranquil setting along a beautiful promenade and an old town square with tourist shops, restaurants and a church bell tower that we climbed and got the worst case of vertigo either of us has had in many years. It was one of those towers built for vertigo, open sides and small steps.
The treasure (or one of the treasures) of Trogir is “The relief of Kairos”, a 3rd century stone relief of the Greek god Kairos, god of the happy moment, discovered in an abandoned house in 1928. Kairos is the ancient Greek expression for “the opportune moment”, the instant between sequential times when something really magical happens. Chronos is “quantitative time”, Kairos is “qualitative time”. The treasure is now kept in the Benedictine nunnery with the church of St. Nikola. We never saw it. The “opportune moment” never showed itself.
Many people think of Croatia as a poor war torn country. The war with the Serbs was complicated and long; something that was brewing since before World War I. Tito held everything in control under his iron fist, but when Croatia declared independence in 1990, the Croatian Serbs rebelled and all shit broke out for about 5 years till the 1995 Dayton Accord was signed in Paris. It’s been pretty quiet since then. We saw very few scars from the 1990s war and very little evidence of a Soviet style communist country.
It’s an hour by Catamaran from the Lazaretti in Split to Hvar. It’s a big Catamaran and the ride is really relaxing. Th eonly problem is you can only buy the ticket on the day of departure and this time of year the boats to Hvar fill up very fast. The ferry office opens at 6am. I was there at 6:30. There was already a line but I got 2 tickets for the 11:30 sailing. The costs are 47 kuna (about $7.50) people. It’s a great deal.
The closest island to Split is Brac, the largest island on the Dalmatian Coast. Brac is a hot, dry island whose main crop is rocks. The White House in Washington DC was built from the white stone of Brac. Hvar, on the other hand, is a green island that produces olive oil, lavender and wine; we discovered a great red wine here called Pakleno Luviji, a local version of the Plavac Mali, ancestor to the American Zinfindel. We chose the green island.
Hvar reportedly receives 2,724 hrs of sunshine a year. There are 8,760 hours in a year, and figuring that close to 4,000 of them are at night, that’s a lot of sunshine. The weather is so reliable, hotels give discounts on cloudy days and fee stays if it snows. The population of Hvar is around 11,500, but in the summer months it probably doubles with visitors and tourists.
The island was first settled in the 4th century by the Illyrians. It’s been a port of trade for the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Slavs, Austrians, French, Serbs, and Croats. During Tito’s Yugoslavia it was a vacationland for the wealthy Soviets. It’s still a vacationland for wealthy ex-Soviets and lots of other people like us.
Hvar town was built in the 13th century and there are some old Romanesque buildings that date back to the origins, but most of the polished marble streets and stone buildings have more of a Venetian feeling. The town is built up a hillside reaching the large Fortessa Spagnola that guards the town and the harbor from the top of the peak. The 16th century Venetian fortress (built during the war with the Ottoman Turks) is in great shape and the old protective curtain walls leading down to the harbor are still in place although they haven’t had to protect anything for at least 300 years. The main gate from the harbor to the fortress is now a quaint spot for cafes and souvenir shops.
Back down in the harbor, the main square, Trg Sveti Stjepana, named for the 3rd century Pope, Saint Stephen I is the largest square in all of Dalmatia, over 4500 square meters of marble stones polished from years of footwear.
At the end of the square are the old Theatre and the Armory. The armory was used as the town cinema during World War II. These days it’s a big exhibit hall. The theatre goes back to 1612. It was the first European theatre that allowed poor and rich to sit side by side. The small theatre fell into disrepair in the 1980s and although it looks like it’s being restored, the locals just shrug their shoulders when we ask them about the progress of the renovation.
Our hotel is literally a 2 minute walk from the gangplank of the Ferrydock. As you get off the boat, there are countless elderly women holding up signs for rooms and apartments, trying to get you to stay in their houses for a few kuna per night. I’m sure it’s an amazing story and experience, but we chose the Hotel Riva, one of the Sunicar Hvar hotels developed in the past few years. There are at least 5 Sunicar Hvar hotels along the harbor and probably more of them around the island. Some of them, like the Amphora are large beach resorts, although the beaches on the island are all rocks or pebbles. Our receptionist told us that at the Amphora you go to see the other people, you come to the Riva to “be seen”.
The Riva is a small hotel with very small rooms. In fact for one person to move around the room and use the bathroom, the other person had to stay on the bed. However it does have a great position along the harbor promenade where we spend our late afternoons enjoying cool refreshing beverages, watching the people go by, or maybe, as the receptionist points out, they’re watching us.
We’re also directly across from the dock where the Katarina Cruise line parks their old wooden hulled cruise ships at night. These mini “love boats” have a few cabins, a dining hall and a lounge deck. They travel throughout the islands in the Adriatic and at night they line up parallel to each other at various island ports. In order to get to your boat you have to walk through one boat to the next. In Hvar, they were parked 5 across. It was really beautiful to watch from our window out to the harbor. At around 2:30am we also discovered that 5 boats across made for one hell of a party. But, not a problem. We fell asleep minutes after it woke us up. As the receptionist said the next morning, “hey, you were once young.” He was right.
We rented a couple of motorini (50cc Piaggio Scooters). You really have to turn them full throttle to get them moving. Going uphill takes a while.
We took the old north road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad, through the wild lavender fields and old terraces of stone walls that cover almost every hill.
Stari Grad founded in 385 BC by the Ionian Greeks. It was the first development on the island. The locals don’t say that the old town has been restored or preserved; they just tell you it hasn’t changed much.
The ships from Split come into Hvar Town but most of the maritime traffic come to Stari Grad. It’s a much bigger Port. We stopped for lunch and chatted up a couple from Piedmonte who drove to Split and came over from Split on a car ferry. It’s a pretty town but we were eager to get back on the bikes and explore more of the island.
Onto Jelsa, a beautiful harbor coming off the tallest peaks on the island, St Nikola and Hum to the south and Vrh, Somotorac and Gozd to the north. Jesla is much smaller than Hvar Town and Stari Grad but it seems to have a younger and more energetic scene. This was one of the posters we ran into for some local music.
On the way back we drove through a 4.5km tunnel through the mountains and stopped off at a stone beach for a couple of hours of sun on the rocks and a swim in the clear acquamarine Adriatic.
The following morning we took our last moto trip up to the Fortessa Spagnolo. Supposedly the foundations were built by Justinian in the 6th century.
On Oct 1, 1579 a lightning bolt hit the gunpowder storage and blew up a third of the castle, but we only saw a sign telling us of the explosion. Everything was rebuilt pretty quickly.
The fortress has a small museum showing some ancient amphorae from the 3rd century, long before the fortress was built and there is a long climb down some very slippery stone stairs to the old Zatvoz (the Prison). The cells are small, dark and damp, but on the bright side they have a beautiful view of the harbor.
Istria, Porec, Pula, Rovinj and Opatija
We rented a car in Milan and drove it through the Friuli region but it’s still not easy to drive Italian rentals into Croatia. It’ll happen soon, but not yet. We had to drop off the rental in Piazzale Roma in Venice and get on the Ferry across to the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia. Not a problem at all. We parked the car in the rental return lot , got on the #2 vaporetto and rode three stops to the Ferry Boat Terminal at San Basilio. We parked the bags in the luggage hold (4€ each) and had a relaxing walk into the Dorsoduro Siestre. We’ve stayed in this area a few times and we always heard about the gondola repair shop somewhere near the Grand Canal. We’ve tried to find it a few times in the past, but this time we walked right by it. Everything comes if you wait long enough.
It’s a relaxing 2.5 hr. cruise across the Adriatic Sea to Porec (pronounced Porridge) on the northern part of the Istrian Penninsula. Between April and November, this town gets over 700,000 visitors per year. The vendors are happy and aggressive. You can’t walk by a restaurant or small shop without them trying to snare you in for a sale or a meal. Everyone offers the best price and all the prices are the same.
Porec town still lives with the old Roman street grid, the Decumanus going east to West and the Cardo going north to South. If you can take your eyes out of the shop windows there are some really well preserved 13th and 14th century Venetian style Romanesque houses. The streets are covered in large Croatian marble stone and both are crowded with jewelry, sunglasses, beachwear, handmade trinkets, art, fashion clothing, gelaterie and restaurants. We had a good meal at the Restaurant Cardo one block north of the main intersection of the two roads. The tables are set into a beautiful garden like terrace, the waiters are friendly (and not pushy) and the food is local, fresh and excellent. I highly recommend the scampi buzzara, a sauce of white wine, garlic and red pepper. It’s amazing.
The big draw here, aside from the beautiful view of the Adriatic, is the Basilica of Euphrasius, named for the 6th century Bishop who created this Christian complex for the Emperor Justinian. Inside the Bishop’s complex are some great views from the Campanile and the 4th century mosaics in the Bishop’s Palace, including the famous toothed fish. I know the fish is an early sign of Christianity but I have no idea why this one has teeth? It’s almost as if the these Christians were in a gang of toughies and their fish symbol had teeth, so beware. The toothed fish was so popular it’s been adopted as the symbol of the city.
The 6th century mosaics from the Cathedral are definitely one of the best examples of Byzantine art we’ve seen, right up there with the mosaics of Ravenna.
As the story goes, Euphrasius, so egotistically proud of his Cathedral, included himself in the Apse mosaic holding an image of his Basilica, standing adjacent to the Saints and the Virgin Mary. The Pope thought this so blasphemous, he, supposedly, excommunicated Euphrasius from the Church. But maybe he was reinstated. His mosaic portrait is still there and he is still revered by the city.
Our hotel is directly in front of the harbor and we can sit on our balcony and watch the boats, and the people, come and go. It’s pretty relaxing for a tourist town filled with thousands of people.
Pula (ancient Pola)
The town was supposedly founded by the Colchians who were pursuing Jason and the Argonauts after Jason stole the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis (present day Georgia).
Pula is the location of one of the greatest Roman Amphitheaters in existence. As the story goes, Vespasian’s girlfriend Antonia Cenida was from Pula and somehow convinced the emperor to build a 23,000 seat amphitheater for a city of just 5,000. Vespasian was building the Amphitheatre in Rome (the Colosseum) at the same time so he just doubled his production efforts.
Like all the other amphitheaters, once the gladiatorial games were outlawed by the Christian rule, the dismantling began and a lot of the grand building ended up in nearby houses and buildings.
In the 16th century, the Venetians wanted to ship the entire amphitheater back to the mainland and reassemble it. It didn’t happen. By the 18th century a law went into effect to stop further removal of any more of the original building.
During the Italian fascist rule there were a few more attempt to tear it down and reassemble it somewhere on the mainland of Italy. Once again, didn’t happen.
These days it’s used for concerts and mostly for the annual summer film festival of Pula.
Pula has a few other worthwhile places to visit the old Roman city. The Temple of Augustus is the only great piece left from the Ancient Forum, although a lot of it was rebuilt after the bombing of 1945, it’s still very impressive. It now houses a Lapidarium , which we’ve learned is another word for ancient Roman sculpture and broken chards.
On the other side of the Forum, down a nice winding street is the Arch of the Sergii, the triumphal arch to one Slavia Posthuma Sergii whose family aided Augustus in the 31 AD Battle of Actium, when he defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.
The gate was once considered so magnificent it appeared in the sketchbooks of both Michelangelo and 17th century British architect, Inigo Jones. Now it opens up onto the Café Uliks. (Uliks is Croatian for Ulysses). A bronze statue of James Joyce sits at one of the café tables. In 1904, Joyce was paid £2 a week from the Berlitz School near here to teach English to Austro Hungarian naval officers. Although the Croatians of Pula might celebrate his time here, he actually hated the place, calling it naval Siberia. He left after only 5 months.
Somehow we ended up on a small road out of Pula and after about 10km or so we drove into the town of Vodnjan (Dignano in Italian). Inside the 18th-century Church of St Blaise (sveti Blaž) are the ‘mummies’ of centuries-old saints, whose bodies mysteriously failed to decompose, are considered to have magical powers. It’s a mummy bonanza. There are 6 complete mummified corpses stacked in boxes like display items in a department store. But that’s not all. Nearby are hundreds of mummified parts of other great Saints, like the heel of Santa Barbara, and the preserved tongue of Saint Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who after visiting the grave of Christ, repented her life, using the same tongue to convert so many others.
For those looking for the truly famous, there is the torso of the 3rd century St Sebastian, without the arrows in his chest, but complete with the leathered remains of arteries and veins, looking like a mixture of polished wood and molded leather.
St. Leon Bembo died in 1188 but when he was exhumed a hundred years later he was still in pretty good condition. The same condition he’s in today.
St. Ivan John Olini died in 1300 after he cured thousands from a plague. Even after he died people were cured of diseased just from sitting on his grave.
Saint Nicolosa Bursa died in 1512, on April 24th, the day she predicted she would die. When they opened her grave supposedly a pleasant odor came out of the tomb. Making the story even more incredible, supposedly she was left in the open air for 163 yrs and still didn’t decompose. Her mummy is considered the best preserved corpse in Europe. Bioenergy healers have proved that the body of Nicolosa Bursa emits a 32-meter bioenergy circle. It is also said that there have been 50 miraculous healings in the body’s close proximity.
As they will tell you, this is one powerful room of magical mummies.
All of these treasures were scooped up by an artist named Gaetano Gresler and stored away in a safe house when Napoleon came into Venice and Croatia. In 1818, he brought them to this little church of St Blaise and they’ve been here ever since. We just found it very odd that none of the larger (more famous) churches or cathedrals would have petitioned for the relocation of these miraculous relics to more pilgrim friendly locations.
Heading back north we stopped in Rovinj (pronounced Roveen). It was a fortress island city built under Venice rule but by the time the Habsburgs took it in the 1700’s they connected the island to the mainland for easier access. These days it’s hard to tell if it every was an island. It’s another beautiful small city with winding streets and lots of arts and crafts shops, souvenirs and cafes by the water. It has the look and feel of Venice, Prague and a ton of other small beautiful cities we’re been to along the way.
The main square Trg Marsala Tita (named after Marshall Tito) is the spot to watch people and watch the harbor. It’s also where most of the thousands for tourists congregate.
After a walk up the very slippery marble steps of the old streets is the Baroque Church of St Euphemia. According to Christian lore, Euphemia (the patron saint of Rovinj) was thrown to the lions in Constantinople in 304 for denouncing the pagan gods of Emperor Diocletian. Fast forward 500 years later to July 13, 800 when the stone sarcophagus of Euphemia mysteriously washed up on Rovinj’s shore and was hauled up to the land by a small boy and a team of oxen. Euphemia (and the sarcophagus) are now interred inside the cathedral. You really have to admire the great lengths that the church pushed the leap of faith. The could have just gone 40 km down to the road to Vodjan and grabbed a magic mummy.
Porec is on the westside of the heart shaped Istrian Peninsula. Opatija on the eastside. Inland Istria is truffle country and in late September thousands of truffle hunters with thousands of truffle hunting dogs invades the woods. In 1999, a man named Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana rooted out a 1.3kg (about 2 ¾ pound) truffle. It’s still regarded as the largest in the world. Zigante now calls himself the truffle king with a slew of Zigante Truffle restaurants around the world.
Opatija was one of the grand resorts of the old Austrian Riviera, founded as a holiday resort by the railroad entrepreneur Friedrich Julius Schuller in 1844. The resort was an immediate success and has been a magnet for tourists ever since. And why not. It’s a perfect location, mountains gently sloping into the sea, sheltered from the really nasty and cold “bura” winds that freeze the pants off of the rest of the Kvarner Region of the Istrian peninsula.
In the late 19th century, this was the place to see and be seen, especially after Emperor Franz Joseph started to vacation here. By the early 20th century Opatija was hosting the likes of the empress Elisabeth (Sissy) of Austria, Gustav Mahler, Anton Chekov, Isadora Duncan, Sigmund Freud, Giacomo Puccini, James Joyce and lots more.
There is still an air of old world resort charm, with lots of old Viennese Recession villas climbing up the hillside from the harbor. In the early 19th century Opatija was on par with Nice, Cannes and Biarritz as a health resort spa destination. On the night we arrived we saw many of the townsfolk dressing up in their favorite turn of the century costumes for Kaisernacht celebration, recalling those good old days when Opatija was under the thumb of the Austro Hungarian Empire.
The big activity, as it has been for years, is to walk the Lungomare promenade, a 12km seaside stroll that was completed in 1889 as part of the spa and recuperation resort activities. It’s a meandering stroll past Hotels and cafes, restaurants and shops, through flowering parks and alongside sunbathers. There is no actual beach in the town. Some of the seaside cafes imported sand to make them seem more beachlike, but there is no local sand. It’s all rock. The seaside promenade has been paved with concrete and graceful steps carry you down into the Adriatic Sea. It actually looks like a giant swimming pool with waves.
We had a great night, another upgraded room to a suite, a delicious meal of stuffed grilled calmari and in the morning we were off to Split to catch the Ferry to Korcula Island in Southern Dalmatia, very close to the Peljesac Peninsula, the heart of the Plavic Mali red wine district.
Korcula; home of Marco Polo
In one version of the Island’s origin, when Jason and the Argonauts stopped here on their way back home, the island reminded them so much of their beloved Kerkyra (Corfu) that they named the island Kerkyra Melaine (black Kerkyra). The island eventually became Korcula. Our hotel in Vela Luka is named Hotel Korkyra.
Korcula is the (supposed) birthplace of the great adventurer, Marco Polo. He is regarded as a Venetian, but Korcula was part of Venice in 1254, when he was born. The registry of the Depolo family in birth records adds to the credibility, although the Depolo Street house that claims to be his birthplace wasn’t occupied by the Depolo family until the 1400s. Marco Polo died in 1324.
The house is more or less an archeological dig. The bones of the house are still there but it’s more of an ancient ruin than a tourist attraction which is strange because every other building on Depolo Street is totally renovated and squeaky clean, including the Marco Polo Souvenir shops at each end of the two block long street. I guess the town council is still fighting over the plans to renovate this historical treasure.
Polo is a interesting historical character. The mystery surrounding his birthplace is nothing compared to the mystery of his life.
We know he was captured by a Genovese ship during the 1298 naval Battle of Korcula between Venice and Genoa that took place off the coast of Lumbarda, south of Korcula town. Polo spent a year in a Genovese prison where he met Rusticello da Pisa, the romantic novelist who took Polo’s adventures and romantically embellished them into the medieval adventure saga “Il Millione” also known as “Tales of Marco Polo”. The book does mention the discoveries of eyeglasses, ice cream, coal and paper money which could have come from Polo’s account from his time with Kublai Khan in China, but he never mentions things like chopsticks or the binding of women’s feet. His embellishments of riches and dinner parties for 6,000 people tend to be a bit overwhelming. Rusticello daPisa was a fiction novelist and couldn’t help him. Between Polo and daPisa, they came up with some whopping tales. The book, by the way, was a best seller in the 14th century.
Polo told so many fantastic stories that eventually, no one believed him. When he was near death, a priest come to him and asked if he would like to repent his lies and admit he made them all up. Marco Polo supposed last words were, “I did not tell half of what I saw.” The legend of Marco Polo is probably much better than the truth.
Korcula town is a 14th century town filled with marble streets, fortress towers and Venetian gates. You’ll find lots of craft shops and wonderful (and relaxing) cafes and restaurants. You can actually see the entire town in a couple of hours. The “Land Gate” with its Venetian symbol of the winged Lion of St Mark is still the main entrance to the old town. It’s been the main entrance since 1391.
Other towers of the fortification walls have literally been cut in half to accommodate the ocean walkway. It’s a bit weird but it all works.
Sitting at the cafes outside the old fortification walls is one of the most relaxing meals you could ever have.
The fortifications (mostly gone these days) did manage to hold off pirates, Arabs, Turks, and others for a while.
In 1571, on route to the Battle of Lepanto in western Greece (a major whooping to the Ottoman navy), the Algerian Corsair Uluj Ali Pasha (originally an Italian from Calabria named Giovanni Galenti) took a slight diversion to attack both Hvar and Korcula Town. The Ottoman naval power was too powerful but just as the walls of Korcula started to fall, a mighty wind came out of no-where and wiped out most of the Corsair Fleet and saved Korcula Town. It was truly a divine intervention although we can’t find any reference to any Saint who saved the city. Usually with an event like this, some Saint of the church always gets the credit.
We’re staying in Vela Luka on the other side of the island about 45km up and over the hills. Our Skoda Fabia chugs to get up them, our ears pop when we come down them and the views from the top are unbelievable.
Vela Luka is the big harbor on the island. In fact, the name in Croatian dialect means “Big Harbor”. It’s a small relaxed harbor town with fishing boats, a town hall, a church, a post office, a few grocery stores and family style konoba restaurants surrounding the harbor. It’s very laid back, a much slower pace than the bustling tourism of Korcula town. We like it just fine. Vela Luka is also a direct ferry from Split. To get to Korcula Town from Split would have taken a lot longer.
On Sunday, we watched an old passenger ferry cruise around the harbor carrying a marching band. They started around 11am playing oompah songs as the old boat marched around the harbor. By 7pm the concert cruise was over. It was right out of a 1950’s foreign film.
We seem to be spending a lot of time at the Konoba and Bar/Café Casablanca. We go to the konoba for dinner and for coffee in the morning. We did try the Restaurant Pod Bore at the other end of the harbor one night. I read a review in some book that it was a good place for fish. The meal was so bad we looked to see if there were any reviews on the internet; Tripadvisor, Google, anything. The only review we found was from virtualtourist.com where the reviewer wrote “The food at Pod Bore wasn’t much to write home about, but it didn’t kill us”. That pretty much says it all. We went back to Casablanca where the fish is fresh and delicious, the wait staff is fun and entertaining and the Plavic Mali wines are dark and spicy.
We used to the ink the Primitivo wines of Puglia were the ancestors to the American Zinfindel but now the feeling is the true ancestors are the Plavic Mali of the Peljesac Peninsula. Korcula is less than 3km from the the Peljesac Peninsula. We can see it from Korcula Town. The peninsula is right behind Gretchen in the photo.
Its odd that the most contemporary hotel on the island is over here in Vela Luka where it’s mostly a working class population. I guess when they built they main road between Vela Luka and Korcula Town the owner of the hotel thought they’d attract a lot of the tourist trade.
The Hotel Korkyra opened in 2010. We have a beautiful, well-appointed room overlooking the harbor. The windows are very sound proof, the air conditioning is great, the internet connection is very fast and the bathroom is like a fishbowl. It’s a big glass room with no privacy.
Gretchen brought a roll of gaffers tape with her (a great addition to the road pack) and we taped Korcula maps to the glass door. I applaud the lack of modesty of the Korcula Croatians. I used to love the photo of Frank Zappa on the toilet, but for us, there is something comforting about being removed from the rest of the world for such private moments.
There are a few small towns between Vela Luka and Korcula. We did a few drive-byes but never got out of the car.
West of Korcula, is Pupnat where they revived the tradition of severing the head of an ox during a festival dance in 1999. The revival only lasted a year. After the public outrage poured in, the Pupnats toned it down a bit.
Close to Vela Luka is the wine growing district of Blato, which is a perfect name for a wine growing district. These days the town is also famous as the birthplace of Marija Petkovic, a local nun who helped sick and neglected children around the world. She was beatified in 2002 and there is an annual pilgrimage to her home. She smiles at you from a large road sign welcoming you to Blato. She is wearing dark sunglasses. It’s pretty surreal.
We did not visit Vela Spilja, the cave about 13km from Vela Luka where prehistoric earthenware was found and supposedly where Neanderthal man lived a few years back.
We did not see a local tourist version of the 17th century sword dance called the Moreska, commemorating the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This dance is one of the tourist attraction that haunt most hotels and large restaurants in Korcula Town. However, we did eat a pizza called the Moresco with bacon and gorgonzola cheese.
We did not get out to any of the nearby islands for a day trip. The island of Proizd, a short water taxi ride away, was voted the most beautiful island in the Adriatic in 2007. The beaches are supposed to be splendid and, as our front desk agent told us, most of the beaches don’t have shadows. We tried but we missed the last taxi boat over so we hung out at the local beach in Vela Luka. It was splendid enough.
And we never made it to the island of Lastovo where they celebrate the Poklad festival on Mardi gras Tuesday. The festival commemorates the public ridicule and torture of a messenger sent by Catalan pirates. The townspeople paraded him through the street, then burned him at the stake. The modern version uses a straw Poklad.
On our last night in Vela Luka we were sitting up on the balcony of the Bata Grill when 20 or so costumed locals started marching up and down the through the center of town. They ended up at the church for a grand ethnic folk festival of songs and dance. It wasn’t the Moreska sword dance but it was a lot of fun in this small working class community. Vela Luke is where you want to go to see the real Korcula. Korcula Town is where you want to go to see the precious tourist filled Korcula.
Zagreb; the Gornji Grad and Donji Grad
The name Zagreb comes from the shape of the area at the base of Mount Medvednica that looks like it was scooped out of the landscape. The old word for scoop is Zagrab.
It was a marvelous malevolent looking sky as we arrived to Tomislava Square and the old Glavni Kolodvor train station, once a stop on the fabled Orient express from Paris to Istanbul.
There is a great statue of King Tomislava, the first King of the Croatian Empire in the 10th century in the center of the square. Also on the square is our Hotel Esplanade, the grand Art Deco Hotel built in 1925 to entertain and pamper the passengers of the Orient Express. It’s been recently renovated and restored since then and I have to say it’s one of the most beautiful hotels we’ve ever stayed at, ever. It’s also very affordable. A hotel like this in any other western city would cast 3times as much.
Most of the history of Zagreb goes back to 1094 when King Ladislas I founded the 1st settlement known as Kaptol. The Mongol horde wiped out any memory of the old settlement and when the Croats signed an agreement with the Hungarians in the 13th century to rid themselves of the Mongols, they pretty much ended the Croatian Empire. The Hungarians didn’t leave for centuries.
In the 16th century, the Habsburgs, who seemed to have their DNA in almost every country in Europe, married the Zagreb throne just in time to go sword to sword against the Ottoman Turks. Between the plague, the rebellions and the crumbling buildings, in 1756 the Habsburg Empress Maria Teresa moved the capital of Croatia up north a bit to the new city of Varazdin. When Varazdin burned down 20 years later in 1776 and the capital was moved back to Zagreb and the city received a great old Viennese style upgrade; tree lined boulevards, grand homes, commerce building, parks, cafes, theaters, hotels and a grand Opera.
The historic Zagreb is separated into the older upper town known as Gornji Grad where the original town of Kaptol was settled in 1094 and the newer 18th and 19th century lower town called Donji Grad.
The center of the old town(s) is Jelacic Square, the grand 18th century marketplace now the cultural center of the city. It’s the meeting point of theatres, cafes, trams and great people watching. In the center of the square is a statue of local hero Ban Josip Jelacic, the 19th century Viceroy of Croatia who led the 1848 revolution against Hungarian rule, abolished serfdom, promoted civil rights and fought for Croatian independence. The statue was erected in 1866, seven years after the death of Jelacic. In 1947 Marshall Josip Broz Tito removed it. After unifying all the Slavic countries into Yugoslavia, he decided the statue might instigate a new Croatian revolution for Independence. In some ways he was right. In 1991, then President Franjo Tudman, reinstalled the statue as a call for Croatian Independence from Serbia.
This is a fun square to sit and watch people, trams and lucky for us the annual Zagreb International Folklore Festival.
We arrived just in time to catch Argentine dancers, Macedonian dancers, an Austrian bar singer 18th century soldiers in 18th century costumes marching in formation.
The Square is big enough to stage the concerts at one end and the associated crafts market on the other. We watched some women making felt at the crafts market.
Close by Jelacic Square is Dolac Square, the most famous farmer’s market in all of Croatia. Women have been operating these booths since 1930, but these days the men have gotten into the game as well. There is even a bronze statue to the women who have presided over these tables for the past 80yrs.
The streets emanating from the Dolac Market are filled with cafes, small parks, bronze statues of famous Zagrebians and great people watching. On the street called Pavla Radica there is a statue actually looks a lot like Rod Blagojevich, the convicted ex-Governor of Illinois. We found out later she was a writer of famous Croatian fairy tales.
Kaptol, the original 1094 settlement of King Ladislas I, was named for the Christian body of Canons known as “a Capitulum”. As of 1217, these laws and regulations controlled the city through the religious arm of the Zagreb Cathedral. Unfortunately this body of laws proved to be of no use in battling the Mongol invasion in 1242 when the Mongols just destroyed the church.
The church was rebuilt. It was rebuilt again in 1624 after a great fire and again in 1880 after an earthquake. The two neo-classical spires are supposed to be like two eyes looking up to the heavens above. While we were there one of the eyes was undergoing reconstructive surgery.
From the Cathedral we walked down a few café lined streets and then up a 250 step staircase into the heart of the old Gornji Grad,Trg Markov (St Mark’s Square), the top of the city. It was from here in 1918 when Croatia finally declared independence from Austro-Hungary. It didn’t last long. 39 years later, Croatia was swallowed up by Tito’s Yugoslavia. With the death of Tito the strains of national pride rose up again and in 1991, from the same place in St Mark’s Square, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia.
The centerpiece of the square is St Mark’s Cathedral with its colored ceramic roof designed with the flags of Croatia and Zagreb side by side.
Down the hill from St Mark’s square is the “Stone Gate”, the only surviving relic of the old 13th century defense wall. The gate doesn’t look very old nor does it look very stone like. It’s covered with a stucco finish. What’s important about the gate is what’s inside of it, a shrine for the 16th century statue of the Holy Virgin.
She has been working miracles from her little niche inside the arch for close to 400 years. Inside the shrine, the walls are filled with plaques reading “Hvala”, thank you.
The ceiling of the arch is black with smoke residue from the thousands of candles lit for the faithful. A woman tends the candles and when they are reduced to pile of molten wax, she scrapes them up and removes them to a bin, making way for more candles for sale for 1,2 and 5 kuna (5kuna =$1).
Also a little walk from St Mark’s is the Lotrscak Tower was built in the 13th century. The bell on top was called the “robber’s bell” in 1646 because it rang at the end of the day when the city was about to close up, warning the residents to beware of thieves. Cannon was installed in the fourth floor of the tower on January 1, 1877 to signal noon. Originally it was a signal to the church bell ringers, but now it’s a tradition and supposedly goes off every day. We never heard it. Maybe the tradition ended or it’s on summer break.
In front of the Tower is the Zet Uspinjaca Funicular that travels 66 meters (close to 218 feet) from the upper town (Gornji Grad) to the lower town (Donij Grad). It goes the other way as well. It’s got to be one of the shortest public transportations in the world. Built in 1890, the old steam engine was updated to electric in 1934 but everything else is pretty much as it was. The car has a capacity of 28 people (16 sitting down, 12 standing up). The cost was 4 kuna per person (about 80 cents) and well worth it.
We had two days to stretch out in Zagreb, which should be enough. On the first day, the weather was warm with bright blue skies and we walked from the upper town to the lower town and back up again. That night however we both fell over with some kind of tourist disease. It could have been the Cevapici (pronounced Chipchee) a local log shaped mixtures of ground beef and pork and spices we ate in Split. The waiter told us, “This is Croatian food, we love it.”
In Vela Luka, we found an internet restaurant review of a place we hated that read, “It was nothing to write home about, but it didn’t kill us.” For the Luxor Restaurant in Split, I can now write, it wasn’t very good and it almost killed us.
And so, the second day we took it easy. The skies were cloudy and rain was in the forecast. We made it up to Jelacic Square for the morning concerts of the Zagreb International Folklore Festival. We sat in a café with a great view of the costumes and when it ended we walked over to the Mimara Museum.
This is the private collection of one Ante Topic Mimara, whose remains as mysterious as his collection. Some say he was a peasant farmer’s son named Ante Topic Matutin who added Mimara (Turkish for builder) as his “nom de plume” while he was studying under an Italian portrait painter. Other stories say that he stole the name Ante Topic from a soldier who died he found on the battlefields of World War I and added the name Mimara as a reference to his own name. He was a painter, an art dealer, a restorer, possible a forger and art thief. He is sometimes referred to as the “Master Swindler of Yugoslavia”. In some stories his name even comes up as a spy.
He told people the collection came from confiscated Nazi loot but he also said he was the art adviser and court painter to Hermann Goering and even painted a portrait of Hitler for Goering in 1943. He met Marshall Tito in Paris in the 1930s and probably used this introduction to get into the Allied Control Council in Germany in 1946 as an adviser to the Yugoslav military. Armed with full diplomatic immunity he was able to travel to any country without a passport and collect stolen art. In 1949 he became the advisor in Restitution Affairs for the Yugoslavian Government, which included restoring art, silver, platinum and zinc to their rightful owners. It was one of those one for you and one for me arrangements.
But the greatest con of all is that Mimara sold the entire collection of 3,600 pieces to the Yugoslavian State in 1973 for an annuity of $100,00 a year plus a house in the city and another on the coast. After his death, his widow, Wiltrud Topic Mersmann was to receive an annuity of $50,000. The state thought they were getting a collection worth billions. Mimara died in January 1987. As of 2001, Wiltrud Topic Mersmann was still collecting the annuity. I have no idea if she is still alive today. There was also a son, Nikolaus Topic-Matutin. I have no idea how he plays into the inheritance.
The Museum opened its doors in 1987, very soon after Mimara died, only to discover that many of the pieces were fakes. As we walk through the amazing collection of Goya, Bosch, Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, Velazquez and many others now listed as “Radionica” or painted by someone in the style of. But even with the fakes, there are still some amazing pieces. After all 3,600 pieces of art is pretty impressive.
One of the galleries is a tribute to Mimara. It contains his personal furniture and in a glass case in the corner of the room are bronze casts of his hands and death mask. He is smiling. Why not?