On the Dalmatian coast we drive by blue seas and Ottoman forts and Romanesque bell towers, past glowing shores of Byzantine tiles of turquoise and gold and over there an ancient Greek colony’s favoured swimming spot like a carved stone tub set at the water’s edge. The city of Zadar has stood 3,000 years, Skradin is more than 6,000 years old, and Croatia was inhabited 130,000 years ago. Did Viking eyes glide past these white beaches? Everyone else was here: Illyrians, Avars and Hungarians, Mongols, Celts, Arabs, Franks, Goths, Huns, and Venetians. Napoleon ruled here briefly; after Venice fell it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and during World War II, Tito’s partisans roamed these temples and Turkish turrets.
In our time new armies of refugees trudge across Croatia and Slovenia toward closed borders and razor wire, toward Vienna’s walls, a route so many Turks marched centuries before. And there are tourists like us.
It is best to approach the walled city of Trogir from the water, the Venetian fortress looming larger beneath white mountains. Is that snow? No, the Karst’s pale stone, the Velebit range’s marl and lunar limestone. Two-masted clippers dock by cafés dreaming under tropical palms and Algerian glare. What world is this? No cars and Trogir in November is quiet, but there’s a sense of a living village, that haphazard market by the water, boats moving and children running with marmalade cats and black dogs and fishermen gathering after work around the small trash can outside the grocer, an inexpensive spot to drink and chat.
Trogir’s name was Tragyrion, from the Greek for male goat (tragos), the same root as tragedy and goat song and sacrifice. This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1991 war for Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Near Trogir’s cathedral, I enter a shrine to those dead, almost a cave, a whited sepulchre of a chapel. Twelve thousand died in the Homeland War; I try to imagine twelve thousand Canadians killed in our own streets and fields over sovereignty. Photos of martyrs in the shrine strike me as odd because their look is so recent, not World War I or World War II. These could be yearbook photos in our epoch: jeans and T-shirts and Freddie Mercury moustaches.
Clarissa and I wander tiny crooked lanes, under our feet soft soapstone worn smooth by eons. Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and The Vampires of Venice filmed in this walled Roman town. We get lost, but you can’t really be lost; a few blocks each way leads to a gate in the wall. Metres from the war shrine and kitty-corner to the Cathedral of St. Lawrence, we choose a dim café.
The cathedral’s Romanesque portal by the Master Radovan is a stunning arch of carved saints and apostles and centaurs and mermaids and, lunging out as guards, stone-jawed lions with naked Adam and Eve standing on their backs. We can see the famous portal, but we can’t get close as the church’s iron gates are locked shut.
A pleasant afternoon of sun and dark beer and red wine. November, but mild enough to stand outside to avoid the smoke inside, and Croatia is cigarette smoke. We’re not in Italy, but I think of this square as a piazza, and this place was once Roman and much later Venetian. Why do I love these corners of empire, these shards? Saracens sacked Trogir and its cathedral in an age of myriad crusades, armies marching south and boats sailing north and men jumping ashore to kill here where we stroll clock towers and palaces, where we admire architecture and marmalade cats and wonder what to drink next. Two hundred years to build a masterpiece, an afternoon or so to raze it, dismiss it.
Near us a man smokes and orders Tomislav beer two bottles at a time, a grizzled look, closely cropped hair and a baggy sweater; perhaps a local fisherman. Fish abound in the shops and cafés, fish caught that morning. He downs one beer and on to another, talking to himself, a drinker with purpose. A drink, a cigarette, a drink, a cigarette. We move down a few tables to avoid his smoke. The young bartender is very friendly to us. We chat and gaze at the Loggia, a kind of open meeting place with pleasing pillars and frescoes close enough for us to touch. The Loggia is not locked up.
A woman wanders the tables, asking us for money. As ID she shows me a certificate from the Pope and a banknote pressed under plastic. I decline. She approaches me several times. Does she think I am five different people? I tire of her asking me for money but know that with few visitors hanging around in November I am a target. How did this woman end up begging in Trogir? You have to try to get here, off the main route, though in ancient times it was a rich port and trade route. Salt, olive oil, goat meat, wine, spices, coffee, slaves, blood. She sings a song, sings that she slept on a side road and someone stole her shadow. Like a slave, she was transported from the east, from the south, but I still don’t want to give her money.
The smoker passes her a few coins and later calls to her again. Change on the table, he is drunk and more generous than I am; he calls the woman and places more coins in her hand. She walks away, but he decides he wants a hug for his coins. He chases her, grasps her shoulders, wraps his arms around her, but the woman fears him, tries to elude his grip. They struggle in the open piazza under the cathedral tower. The woman moves away from him, but he yanks on her hoodie and her head comes back toward him, her back bent and arms flung up. The woman is held by her hood, but she turns wildly, she slaps at him, she ducks and wheels and, finally escaping his grip, runs past the cathedral. Will she call the police? The man returns to his table of Tomislav beer and Drina cigarettes. We look up later and he is gone.
Curious about the cathedral’s repeated destruction and the word Saracen, I email a medievalist, Dr. Christa Canitz, who replies in seconds:
The Trogir cathedral is extremely interesting for its references to Islam. Some of its pillars are supported by Muslim figures (alongside Christian supporting figures), and, as was common in the western Mediterranean basin, the sculptural programme and its execution are strongly influenced by Muslim craftsmanship; indeed, many of the craftsmen would have been Muslims (yes, Muslims working on a Christian edifice). As for the word ‘Saracen’—the cultural and linguistic accretions are enormous. Hard to know where to start, but in medieval terminology, the word tends to be applied to Muslims in general and it is both romanticising and vilifying. Saracens are the ‘other,’ in every way. Also, the early 12th century is too early for the term to be applied to the Ottomans; they weren’t on the scene yet.
Leaving our small table to walk again, we see that the cathedral’s iron gates are wide open. The famous portal by Master Radovan! Lions! Let’s look inside! We happily admire the portal carvings, take photos. A few women pray inside, and I look toward the main altar. Clarissa and I glance into a side nave where a man arranges long-stemmed roses around a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps church staff, but he belches: it’s the drunken smoker from the café. In a nimble move, he leaps onto the altar, standing high on it and lifting Mary into his arms, sloppily kissing and hugging the statue. His kiss in the square didn’t transpire, so he turns to Mary in the nave. Mary understands his needs. His rough worship at the relics, trembling at the altar and leaping to her side, kissing Mary in tears now, and I think of all the tears shed in this few acres by the Adriatic.
A red-headed woman with a baby is upset and wants the priest. I tell her I’ll stand guard below the man in case he falls or drops the statue; I should care about a human, but I’m more worried about Mary. Is the statue an ancient treasure or is it made in China? A rare copy of the Satyricon surfaced in Trogir and many Croat masters made art here, so Mary may be a valued relic.
I stand, but he doesn’t see me below him, his eyes closed in a private moment, head leaning in to her, rubbing her neck and shoulders and stomach and back, kissing and moaning, almost sobbing into her face, Maria, Maria! Croatia is a very Catholic country, I know this, and I was an altar boy, but I’ve never witnessed this exact sort of devotion.
Roses are falling from him and the statue intimate in his arms. He tries to hold on to the roses and the statue both and seems to wake from a spell, to realize his precarious position. He places his beloved back on the altar and looks down, roses falling. The man leaps from the altar, and I dread his landing.
Strangely enough, in the middle of the man’s flight I am reminded of seeing Bruce Springsteen jumping from a piano; he was no longer young and I was filled with worry rather than enjoyment of the rock ’n’ roll moment; such impact is hard on the knees. What if he fell in pain? But the Boss did it and this man does it. He lands on his feet, arms out like a surfer; he stands and all seems well. But after a Pinter pause he topples backwards into the stone altar and bonks his head, a palpable hit. He crawls around my feet groaning. I decide Mary’s virtue is safe for a few seconds and race to the café and the friendly young bartender.
I’m not sure how much English he knows, but I point at the man’s table: your best customer is in trouble! We run back to the cathedral doors, the stunning portal, and the stunned man. Very exciting. Locals take over and Clarissa and I slip out. I saw none of the church interior, just a man necking with Mary. His whole serious life here and we witness this loopy fragment. A young Maxim Gorky tremblingly and intimately pressed his lips to the beautiful Virgin Mary’s mouth and was backhanded for his adoration. Mary is beautiful but not sexual; Gorky did not kiss her correctly.
A Filipino woman who was praying fled the cathedral, but we see her again on the other side of the bridge to Okrug. Eye contact and we nod, a smile hinting at our shared knowledge. She is spooning gelato, though it’s cool out. So she prays after work. When was the last time I prayed? Does Clarissa pray? Note to self: ask her. Note to self: really, don’t forget. We walk back over the bridge to pig out on risotto and stroll afterwards to the square. The man drinks and smokes at his table as if he never left the spot to neck and bonk his head.
The red-headed woman with the baby sees us and rushes over to thank us for helping her. I’m surprised as we didn’t do much, but it’s a pleasant feeling to be thanked by a local.
His wife has died, the red-headed woman says, the poor man is mad with sorrow and alcohol.
Now we feel sorry for the drunken man, a widower. He will feel his head tomorrow. She says something is wrong with his son as well, or maybe the son is away. I’m not sure.
The widower sits at his table and two women stand vigil in the arched doorway of a shop under the Ćipiko Palace in case he tries to seek Mary again in the cathedral. They can’t go home. The Gothic palace gone to gift shops, the priests vanished, and women guard the entrance now, guard the ancient square sacked by Saracens in 1123.
And Venice demolished this cathedral in 1420. Jesus, how many times can you rebuild after such destruction? How many palsied flags in this square, on this shore, iron cannon concussions, men throwing axes and forged swords having their swift word, saying, This is mine, a bloody succession of empires and rulers.
And Clarissa and I travel a succession of squares and piazzas, Venice, Murano, Trieste, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Zadar, Trogir, Split, Opatija, where we walk milky soapstone past the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, past old wars and new wars and sieges and sackings and shrines. And also a succession of obnoxious tailgaters in costly German cars, and a succession of hotels, each memorable, each necessary, but immediately supplanted by the very next front desk and key and room, held in a photo or two or simply lost when we leave.
We leave Okrug and drive by iris and lavender, olive groves and sage and cypress trees and white stone. No GPS, so error guides us: north of Trogir, I miss a turn, and by accident we stumble on a gorgeous view of tiny Primošten floating out on the water. I love the look of this sunlit village crammed on an island and must stare out (but stay on the clifftop road!), must steer and stare at this heap of vivid red roof tiles glued to white walls, a village so compressed that domiciles lean on one another in a cartoon jumble and yet a mélange perfectly designed to please my eye, a hundred houses covering a small island hill, roofs rising up to a skinny tower plopped at the top like a candle, their high tower perched in the best random place.
I want to rent a room inside those walls and admire cliffs and islands in blue sea and be warmed by her ardour and curves, no car crashes and no death and only life and her eyes like part of the rain as she tries wine from Primo and feeds me Ston oysters. Turrets and towers by the sea in magic light, they feed my eye, but there is a stark reason to build out on an island, and every pocked wall attests to that ancient fear of boats and swords on the horizon. But most days we lie on a pier in sun with a picnic, blue sky and a view of the sea and no wind, and we are lucky.
Croatian fare is far tastier than what we ate in Venice, and meals cost much less. Here we enjoy piglet pizza, bread-crumbed frogs, frog brodetta, eel brodetta, truffles, tripe, Drnis prosciutto, Lika potato, Lika lamb, Cres lamb, sheep cheese, horseradish, horse salami, garlic sausage, smoked and cured pork, sauerkraut beans, raw red tuna steak, bonito, oval emperor fish, fish paprika, catfish, cuttlefish, oyster stew, Kvarner scampi, sardines, mackerel, mullet, mussels with wine, blackberry wine, fruit schnapps, grappa, pear brandy, dark beer and black risotto, chestnuts and cherries, pumpkin seed oil, buckwheat gruel, corn pudding, pepper cookies, asparagus, olives, and Pag cheese. And my new fave, served in Split and the best meal I’ve ever tasted: octopus stew with chickpeas. There are times I think I have a good life.
Some in the Balkans may be less optimistic. One woman says, We got the worst of both systems. They no longer believe in communism, they no longer believe in capitalism, and they don’t believe in lung cancer. A man says, The corporations took the best from us without declaring a war or firing a shot. People are friendly and grim both! They seem grim until you ask anything and they open up, blossom. The transformation surprises us time and again. The Adriatic Sea has eagles and dolphins that are grim, then friendly, and they smoke cigarettes from Bosnia.
Opatija and Trieste are just to the north of Trogir and yet they look completely different, no resemblance. The first two show the clear influence of Vienna, which seems not to have trickled farther south. James Joyce taught Berlitz in Trieste and Pula. How many eye operations? My eyes worry me as we drive tunnels punched through salt-white mountains, hundreds of blinking lights inside these tunnels and I feel stoned, hurtling inside a pinball machine. I’m nervous about scraping walls and worried my eyes will go wonky from flashing lights. It happened in an Okrug grocery, a spastic flicker of fluorescent lights over yogourt, and it happened in a Belfast Oxfam shop, the same staccato flicker and my eyes wouldn’t focus and I staggered back to a hotel half-blind, some new transaction in my brain nervous as a banner.
Serpentina roads fall to the sea from heights above the white desert. Take a fast exit off an ultra-modern autobahn and travel back five centuries. Signs warn of bears and wolves and wild boar; spavined farms sag in mud, no one visible, no kids running, no women squeezing giant udders for milk, farm buildings grouped together like a fortress expecting heathen hordes. Our route lacks room for a donkey with a rick of hay, a cart track zigzagging from peak to sea, yet there are roaring lorries and a big black Mercedes in my mirror, inches from my tail lights. Cliffs and hairpins, blind corners, but the black Merc flies past, no way to see what’s coming, lorries speeding both ways. One lorry pulls over slightly to allow me to pass, but a second big lorry follows me and takes too long and we hear a shriek of metal on stone and in the mirror I see the first truck bouncing off a cliff wall, long trailer scraping and shaking on this narrow road above deep ravines.
In Zagreb I met a Croatian couple at a party. Car coming in the wrong lane, he says, his car at 60, the other car over 90, 150 total of force. To avoid the head-on, the man turns left, but the other driver turns the same way and enters the front corner of their VW. The man’s legs are crushed, femur split like wood, and his left knee smashed to particles, his left leg pulled out of the hip socket; he looks, says, That’s not where my leg should be. Conscious the whole time, no pain until they tried to get him out, an hour to get him out. The other man died across from him.
So I worry about blind corners and hope angels are roaring in the curves with us. I don’t want my leg split like wood; I wish to walk. A few scary drives from the autobahn to the sea, but our hejira’s reward is Opatija, a postcard city visited by Nabokov, Mahler, the Habsburg royals, and now us.
Goran the filmmaker, whom we haven’t met, asks us to look for him on the terrace of a venerable hotel. Ask, he says. Everyone knows it. We park, lucky to find a spot, and on the street they know the hotel, pointing us to where it faces the sea. A charming town of camellias and fountains, deco hotels in pastel colours and steep hills rising behind, the Nice of the Adriatic.
Goran’s latest film is set in India and the Himalayas, both tough places to shoot, but he sold the film to Amazon. We talk of our stops and Goran says he doesn’t dare drive down to Trogir or Zadar; he has Belgrade plates on his car, so can’t safely go south of Rijeka.
Serbs are blamed for the war, Goran tells us, and those places south of here had it the worst, and they don’t forget. Goran was not in the war; he left Yugoslavia. We are the exact same people, he insists, but they hate us. Belgrade was the capital and Serbs called the shots. Serbs took the Communist side in World War II, Croatia the German. Croatia Catholic, Serbs Orthodox. Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Zagreb, but the visit was not allowed by Belgrade. Serbs attacked Croatia in 1991 to try to force it to stay in Yugoslavia. The twelve thousand. A very long list and people remember.
Hating the war, Goran went into exile in France, stayed decades, but recently his French wife suggested Opatija and its feel of France. So Goran moved south to Croatia. Istria is safe for him but not below. I think of the many changes in the map and the sailor who said to a journalist, I was born in one country, now I live in another, maybe I die in yet another country. The names may change, but all the time, God stay one.
One god, but many permits and tense borders, binoculars trained on traffic, a human hand waving out of the black Plexiglas, asking for an eighty-one-cent toll. I am happy to pay eighty-one cents to get past the checkpoint. Some borders to the north and east were sealed last year when I was in Croatia, refugees stuck in the rain and I was in the rain too and shivering with no coat, but I had a beautiful hotel room (an upgrade to the top floor) and a hot shower and a change of clothes to go hang out with His Excellency the ambassador. Refugees all around us as we travel, but the refugees are not visible; not having Earl Grey tea on this sunny terrace, the refugees do not study the seascape statues and talk of Mahler, Nabokov, and the Habsburg elite. How did we get to Opatija? As random as going to Trogir because Katia’s father owns an apartment there. In Canada, we rented a room to Goran’s son Vladimir, also a filmmaker, and Vlado said we must visit his father. Now we meet Goran, and he offers us his apartment here for the future and I want to come back. Goran can’t chat long, he’s very worried about his old dog, a test for cancer and very hard to get an appointment with the vet. And you know how pets become close, part of the family.
Yes, that’s fine, as we need to get the rental car back to Ljubljana tonight. Clarissa sends Vlado a photo of us with Goran on the terrace. Vlado replies, He’s drinking juice! Is he sick?
We make the bright lights of Ljubljana that night. High desert and coastlines, flowers and snow, twisting roads and autobahns, flat green fields and icy mountain passes and kicking the sun beach to beach. Are all these landscapes possible in the same day? Clarissa flies to Montreal and I cross the universe to Pearson Airport’s cellar, what I call the Maritime ghetto. Arrive at my last gate and told I’ve been bumped from my plane: welcome home! The blinking bulbs and a runway’s murky tundra past the plate glass, Gate 34’s shadowland.
No more cathedral portals, no more oily sardines and bread on the white stone beach, no more guarding the Virgin Mary, robes the colour of Croatia’s turquoise sea. Behind the widower’s town, sunlight leaps on spectral mountains, a wall of lunar peaks. The grieving widower kissed Mary in tears, wanting solace, reassurance that someone cares for him, that he is not alone. He does not want to be alone in his house.
I land alone in Canada. The Air Canada woman does not offer knockout octopus stew; she offers the news that I have been kicked out of my seat, that Air Canada did not think I could make the connection.
No, I do not want to stay the night in Pearson Irrational Airport, I want to be in my own bed.
She must check with someone on a walkie-talkie whether I am allowed to sleep in my bed. In Croatia, it was warm on the seaside, then we’d drive a tunnel to snow on the other side of the peaks and that lovely sunlight after a snowstorm, such bold light a good portent, a pleasing pact of sorts. Into snow then back to the coast and out of snow, switching worlds with a tunnel. Pearson Airport is like that, through a tunnel and back to this world.
I wait with a drink in the lounge where we pray to the Virgin Mary of Trogir, pray to Our Lady of Those Not Allowed on Board the Dash 8. We lost sailors pray to the God of corners, to the God of the mountains and tunnels, and to the God of the sick dogs in crooked valleys, and we pray to Jesus driven out of high school. And we pray until the Air Canada woman’s walkie-talkie crackles magically and, blowing kisses, she invites me to run out and vanish in the tarmac shadows.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He has published in Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Hobart, the Barcelona Review, Vrij Nederland, and the Globe and Mail.