DESTINATIONS Travel

Finding the coast in Croatia: Dugi Otok and Kornati

What it means when people say "the coast" in Croatia.

“Croatia!” exclaimed the villa concierge driving the golf cart to take us to the resort and slapped the steering wheel. He slapped the wheel again and said, “Football! In Russia.”

I nodded. Such is the reputation of the small boomerang-shaped country, which gave one of the best underdog stories in the 2018 World Cup. But little might the world know of Croatia, apart from its recent surge as a top travel destination, the fact that it hosts a location for the second film in the Mamma Mia series and the highly popular television series Game of Thrones.

We were tired from a 24-hour journey from Europe to our holiday destination of Bali, so I didn’t have the energy or inclination to educate the villa concierge on the many beautiful places that Croatia offers.

But when my friend Light Chaser invited me to guest post on her brand new blog, I knew I had to share what makes Croatia more than football, more than the backdrop for films with beautiful landscapes.

Croatia for me is the Adriatic Sea and the Croatian archipelago of more than a thousand islands, about 60 of them habitable. The Adriatic Sea, Jadransko More to the locals, holds small secret stops for an itinerant hedonist like me.

When Croatians dream of summer in the deep chill of winter, their thoughts turn to what is simply called ‘the coast’ – and it sounds like it’s one place where everyone you talk to in Zagreb refers to as their dream destination when the weather is warmer and the water is a good temperature for a swim.

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One of the Kornati islands, Croatian coast.

The coast is not one place you can get directions to in a GPS. It is, essentially, a highly personal location, different for each person, but always somewhere lulled by the gorgeous turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea.

When I refer to the coast, the first trip that comes to mind is Dugi Otok with a side trip to the Kornati islands. (Minimum travel time required for this trip is three days.)

Literally meaning “long island,” Dugi Otok is the seventh largest island on the Croatian Archipelago, in the region of Dalmatia. You can reach it by ferry or catamaran from the city of Zadar on the mainland. We took a car across on the ferry, knowing that Dugi Otok is somewhat like a place that has been lost in time, with driving the most convenient way to get around.

We rented a second floor apartment about 20-minutes drive from the ferry dock, from a family, which welcomed us to their island and home with shots of their own rakija, the liquor made from fruit that Croatians use as an aperitif or a digestive, depending on the timing and the type of drink you choose. The homestay was a great choice; it was quiet and within walking distance of poppy lined fields of produce. Close by to our homestay, we stumbled upon fields of wild poppies. Sometimes, the itinerant wanderer who is open to surprise and serendipity finds the simple treasure of a day surrounded by the insistent and irrepressible abundance of natural beauty.

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Poppies in late May, Dugi Otok.

Day trip to Kornati islands

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “On the last day of Creation, God desired to crown His work and thus created Kornati islands out of tears, stars and breath.”

The Kornati islands number some 150 and sailors love the narrow water between these islands. From Dugi Otok, we booked a day trip by speedboat to these islands clustered around a National Park in the Croatian Archipelago. On the boat, we glimpsed the rocky cliffs of the Kornati cluster with their gray rock surfaces worn smooth by the winds that blow from the Adriatic.

We stopped for lunch in an austere tiny village near the historic Tureta fort, build by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.

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Grilled fish and simple salad, Kornati.

After grilled fish with a simple salad, we walked up to the fort, following the dry walls that separated one property from the next, built to keep sheep from wandering across properties, shambling in flip flops up the paths of loose stones. The view from the top was breathtaking.

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Kornati islands from Tureta fort.

The expansive, majestic beauty of Kornati islands on the first day contrasted with the simpler moments that highlighted our weekend once we were back on Dugi Otok.

We drove to Sali, a port town that is the central marine landing point of the island, for breakfast the next day. Sali is a large town by Dugi Otok standards. On the main thoroughfare, there is an ATM and a good-sized supermarket where one can buy a selection of Dalmatian wines and a variety of products.

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Sali on Dugi Otok.

We chose one of the many cafes lining the main boulevard and savored our croissants and fresh brewed coffee from our perch. This is one of my favorite things to do on the coast: to sit with a good cup of coffee and observe life. As a storyteller, I am fascinated by the pleasure of turning human behavior into words as an interface between humans.

Over many cups of coffee on the coast, including Dugi Otok, I’ve rediscovered our common humanity. The loves we hold on to. Love in the way a mother asks if the croissant she’s ordering for her child has real butter as opposed to margarine, because butter is healthier than the substandard stuff. Love that’s evident in the face of a man when his wife returns from the ATM machine, triumphant that they can pay cash for lunch when they stop on the way to Zadar because some small, family owned restaurants do not have the facility to pay with a card. In the kiss they share it seems as if she’s returned from a long voyage, and he is happy to have her by his side again. The way they look at one another, a voyeur of life finds it difficult to look away. Those are moments worth witnessing.

It is these small moments that I savor. A cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee on the coast. It is part of a long and loving study of what it means to be content in this great big life. In a world where the latest word of the year is ‘toxic,’ the contentment that I observe from the nameless cafes of the coast brings me back to faith in humans. As long as we chase after the light in our relationships, we will find a good thing that we might not even know we were looking for.

On the morning of our last day on Dugi Otok, we took a long walk and came across a scene at a cherry tree teeming with ripening fruit. On the tree’s branches, a boy who had biked with his friend to the tree on an unpaved path was busy gathering the wild fruit and dropping them to his friend waiting below, who promptly stuffed the cherries into his shirt. The catcher handed us some, and we ate the sweetening cherries amid the boys’ excited chatter at their clever harvest.

Later that day, the host shared news that a few octopi had wandered close to the property, and they caught them. Promptly, they baked the catch under a wood fire, in a clay pot, a Croatian technique of slow cooking called peka. (When someone offers you something cooked peka, say Yes. If you can’t have peka cooked food at someone’s home, some of the restaurants in Zagreb sometimes prepare lamb or veal this way, and it is beyond-description delicious.)

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Dugi Otok sunset.

The simple beauty of that three-day trip to Dugi Otok and Kornati was in how time seemed to slow down. Being in the moment during the long walks, the breakfasts in cafes, the long lunches and gradual changing of the light as the day turned toward quiet nights on the terrace of our weekend home defined time on the island.

And time, the stretching of it in the slow pace of the archipelago; and the slices of time in moments I’ve savored with loved ones, this is what the coast means to me.

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Kornati dock

I am sure that if you go to Dugi Otok and Kornati, and it becomes part of what you mean when you say, “the coast,” the meaning you make of the phrase will be different from mine. The coast, what it means to each of us that have been somewhere on the Adriatic Sea off Croatia, is going to be a personal marker of time and emotion.

The coast is what you create of it from the places you will go. Wherever you may find yourself on the Croatian Coast, the experience is punctuated by the ebb and flow of time and the people you meet, spotlighting the small moments you let yourself find joy.

These snippets of life in the small havens of towns by the Adriatic Sea are eclipsed by the narrow knowledge of Croatia that makes it to the news. But in your mind, it might be a most meaningful story, one you will tell again and again as the destination that you look forward to in your travels.

A note on the author
Antun Miron is an itinerant traveler and author of Superficial, a novel partly set in Croatia. His frequent travels make him a student of what it means to be human.

 

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