From Trieste - Joe Sherman



From Trieste - Joe Sherman
Down the Dalmation Coast in an Audi A4 cabriolet.
he second night of my road
trip down the east coast of
the Adriatic Sea, as blackness settled over the water,
I wasn't totally lost, but I
didn't exactly know where I
was, either. So I pulled over
to check my map. A car
stopped beside me. The driver's window was
rolled down.
I'd just passed through Senj. The tranquil
seaside town had once been the stronghold of
the Uskoks, the most rapacious pirates that
ever pillaged the Adriatic. Uskoks liked to nail
the turbans of Turkish prisoners to their
heads and cut out the hearts of Venetian sea
captains, protectors of the cross whose hearts
made fine hors d'oeuvre at Uskok feasts.
Granted, I was on the edge of the Balkans, a
place perfectly suited for the mind to run
amok. But this was April 2007, not April
1607. Tired and hungry, I lowered my window
with some trepidation.
Ivan Samarzija didn't wear ear loops or
have a moustache, but he was a descendant of
the Uskoks. Instead of rowing out to sea in a
galley with other pirates to prey on ships, Ivan
waited along the highway, swooping down on
unsuspecting travelers like me and taking our
loot the modern way.
"You want room?" he asked.
"You will follow."
His single taillight led me to a house overlooking the Adriatic, with the bulk of an island
in the near distance and Venice about 150
miles due west as the gull flies. In his kitchen,
Ivan said, "I am seaman. Six-month contracts.
Asia. Singapore. Hong Kong."
Then he got serious. "Now, tell me,
I 121
Svetvincenat 0
please, why is dollar so bad? I am on United
States salary."
Surprises are the essence of a good road
trip: an unforgettable encounter like this one,
a startling vista, a thrilling series of curves, an
odd roadside attraction, a detour that becomes
a trip unto itself. I'd enjoyed them all today. All
the planning in the world can't guarantee such
surprises. You just have to be a little lucky.
My luck on this trip began in Prague. Two
weeks ago, purely by chance, I'd met a musician and told her I was taking a road trip-six
days, 500 miles-from
Trieste, the Italian capital of nowhere, to Tirana, the Albanian capital of paranoia. And she'd said, ''Visit Tamara
Obrovac. She's the best jazz singer in Croatia."
I had leapt on her suggestion like a gift.
This very morning, I parked my Audi A4
a slick new car and a lot of questions, she said,
"We are not used to your hard-rock capitalism.
If you lose your culture, you lose everything."
Obrovac sent me to "a special place," the
island of Cres, which I reached by ferry from
Istria. Top down, sunscreen on, I drove
through a sun-baked landscape of karst, a
limestone filled with caves, sinkholes, and fissures, a place associated with pagans, Roman
conquerors, sheep, olives, and a rare bird, the
Griffon vulture. I glanced up at the dazzling
blue sky, hoping to spot a Griffon vulture
soaring overhead. Huge birds of prey, the vultures have eight-foot wingspans, a top speed
of 75 rnph, and eyes several times as sharp as
yours and mine.
I didn't see a vulture, but I did visit an ecopreserve for the birds in Beli, a stone village
overlooking the Kvarner Gulf and reached by
a goat path of a road on which you are protected from a long plunge to the sea by a railing encrusted with rust. I drove farther south
on Cres, down another narrow lane, and
parked by an ancient settlement
Lubenice, which, like an eagle, was perched
about 1000 feet above the sea. You could hear
the wind blowing through the bell tower of a
church and easily imagine
libzwnia-swift little fighting galleys developed
by pirates in these waters and later copied by
the Roman navy-being
rowed far below,
chasing a Venetian galley.
Day three dawned, as did every morning
on this trip, blue-skied and cloud-free. I lowered the top, left Senj, and climbed up
through the Dinaric Alps on a winding road
past lavender flowers and stone huts. The
mountains form a belt from northeast Italy to
Albania and are a joy to cross. I passed a
Renault 4 GTL, a boxy little wagon ideal for
goat-path narrow lanes. I slowed behind a
diesel truck belching particulates, the bane of
a cabriolet. Then the truck was behind me and
I kept climbing.
This topless driving is all right, I thought.
I flashed through tunnels, had on my tuque,
sunglasses, more sunscreen. Obrovac's hauntingly beautiful voice sang loudly:
My angel
Don't be without wings
Most beautiful and brilliant they are
Shining in the sun.
Gradually, in the distance, rose the silhouettes of more mountains. Smoky blue promontories, some smeared with snow, they were
in Bosnia. It was in the early '90s that Croatia
broke off from the rest of the Balkans and then
fought for independence against Serbia. Now,
with its long coast, 1000-plus islands, inland
lakes, and green valleys, Croatia seems poised
to be a new Balkan powerhouse. "For centuries, we were killing each other," Obrovac
told me. "Now self-awareness is growing.
Before we kill the planet, we may realize what
we're doing."
I drive into Split's maze of one-way streets
cabriolet near a medieval castle in Svetvincenat, a village in central Istria, a pie-shaped
peninsula an hour south from Trieste, where
the Vespas outnumbered the cars, and took a
seat at a cafe overlooking the moat. Soon the
jazz singer appeared.
Small, intense, with brown eyes, Obrovac
wore jeans and a white tee. She looked about
forty. Over tea, she said that she'd trained as a
classical flutist and then fell in love with American jazz. "Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis,
Coltrane ... I was eating them." Then came
the Balkan War. Ironically, the ethnic hatefest
was fruitful for her. It gave Obrovac time to
shape a musical style seeded in her regional
dialect. ow she performs from Rome to Belgrade but is worried some about a new force.
Glancing quizzically at me, an American with
and traffic and soon find myself being shouted
at by young men whirling their arms. Somehow, in the mess anchored by Diocletian's
palace, built between 295 and 305 AD by the
Roman emperor who retired to his boyhood
haunts, I've gotten myself into lanes of cars
being directed onto ferries to the so-called
"new Riviera": Brae, Hvar, Korcula, and Vis.
"I don't want to go onto a ferry!" I shout.
EventualJy, a friendly cop grasps my plight and
stops the flow of traffic, allowing me to turn
and head back into the gritty city.
Three hours later, though, I drive into the
cavernous, noisy maw of a different ferry and
head toward Korcula, the island where Scottish soldier and adventurer Fitzroy McLean,
used by Ian Fleming as a model for James
Bond, lived for a time and where, according to
popular legend, the patron saint of travelers,
Marco Polo, was born.
En route, I pass Hvar, a jetsetters' popular
hangout, then dock at Vela Luka, off which
yachtsmen typically blow their horns as a
salute to Marco Polo. In the interior town of
Blato, I have another surprise.
On the town square, about twenty men are
skipping and whirling swords over their heads
as drunuuers pound out a military rhythm and
a pig's skin squeals like a Scottish bagpipe.
Pairs of combatants face off and exchange
blows, their swords shooting off sparks.
Sweaty and breathing rapidly, a dancer named
Bacac tells me, "It is tradition of the island.
My father did it. My grandfather. I got my
uniform from my grandfather; it is 150 years
old." The dance, adopted from a real military
routine, is now for show, he says, as we watch
a flurry of blows ending with two fighters
leaning graciously over each others' shoulders
and then slowly laying down their weapons.
"It is the kiss," Bacac says. "After the kiss,
everything is OK."
"You speak good English," I say.
Bacac smiles as a flag-swirling dancer spins
past. "I was born in Detroit," he says. "I live
there one year. Here I am mechanic. On tractors and cars."
The morning of day four, on a narrow road
in Korcula, I smell flowers and look up at a solid
slab of blue sky. Another paradox of the road
trip is that too much speed ends the journey
too soon, while too little speed stirs no adrenaline. On Korcula, I want to stop and dalJy. On
the adjacent peninsula of Peljesac, I do.
I've been joined by Rich Newton, a British
photographer. Maybe it's him or the McLean
and James Bond linkage playing in my mind,
but when we pass a half-moon bay tucked in a
natural amphitheater,
boats bobbing, stone
houses snoozing, one cafe open, I dub it "Dr.
No's Hideaway." And we're soon sitting by the
cafe, where it doesn't take much imagination
to see Ursula Andress-white
bikini, tannedcoming out of the blue-green sea and asking
if we've seen 007. Begrudgingly, we leave idyllic Trstenik and head on a detour, a night drive
into the mountains of Bosnia.
There, the Audi struts its stuff. Although
the A4 looks classic and reserved, it changes
character with speed. From the powertrain
2.0-liter turbo) to the
reassuring brakes to the cabin ergonomics
(excellent lumbar support, good front legroom, easy-to-read gauges), everything seems
to skip up a notch when the tach revs. Some
kind of superglue seems to seep out of the rubber. The dash lights get a little brighter, suggesting that the sun chaser has transformed
into a night rider on a mission. Or at least
that's what I think with Newton now behind
the wheel.
Overhead is the Big Dipper. Orion's Belt.
Few drivers nowadays get to savor such a glorious night sky. It's another paradox: those
who can afford new convertibles seldom enjoy
them far from urban sprawl. Soft tops are
extremely rare here. All it takes is a knife. Slit,
slit. In you go.
In Sarajevo, our host, Morgan Sowden, is
an English expat who came to the Balkans in
1995 with the idea of starting an Internet cafe
in a war zone. By the time it opened, the war
was over. But the cafe became a hangout,
drawing UN officials, journalists, and foreigners eager for java, talk, and Web access.
Sowden sounds a tad irked when I refer to
coastal Croatia as the new Riviera.
"It's not a Riviera. It is a spectacular place.
Very clean."
That tag does seem like a real-estate gimmick fostered on the coastal region by developers and promoters trying to sell prime
seafront and bus tours. But plenty of Croa tians
have bought into it. The people up here are
different, Sowden says. "Bosnians and Serbs
still shoot off their guns at weddings."
At breakfast, from a city overlook, it
appears that they've also buried a lot of dead
below us.
umerous cemeteries are packed
with white crosses. In the distance are
minarets. "Today," Sowden says, alluding to
the city's tense mix of Muslims, Christians,
and Orthodox, "everyone here wants to trade.
They just don't want to live together."
Leaving Sarajevo for the coast, Newton and
I pass through a roadscape of postmodern eye
trash, tacky service buildings, and bullet-ridden
reminders of ethnic cleansing. In the daylight,
Bosnia looks scared and exploited. But soon we
are driving through a spectacular gorge alongside a green river. An Islamic settlement is
carved into a stone hillside south ofMostar. We
pass through customs and rejoin the coastal
highway, leaving the real Balkans behind, and
are soon in Dubrovnik.
The once-independent
republic whose
ships traded goods across the Mediterranean
for centuries is showing signs of tourist wear.
Dubrovnik feels like Aspen-by-the-Sea.
do a fast walkabout, through plazas and to the
harbor, then head farther south to Cavtat, a
seaside town that also has been discovered.
"Prices have gone up ten times in the last five
years," a construction worker tells us. Eating
dinner by the harbor, we see why.
"It's the British dinner-party set," Newton
says, glancing over his shoulder at blazers and
colored slacks. "Ugh."
Morning is better. Pointed cedars poke
through mist. As it burns off, there's a moody
blue sky. We enter Montenegro and are waved
through customs with no problems.
There are still rare places on the road that
told by an Albanian guy in Prague. "It's like we
got the golden keys from Mercedes," he said.
At any rate, the main road to the border suggests none of this. It's like a class three Vermont
highway: badly paved, potholed, without signs.
A customs station appears like the set for a
grade-B film, complete with dusty idling trucks,
men lounging on the hoods of dented cars, and
guards whose suspicious gazes linger on an Audi
A4 with two gringos aboard. A guard scrutinizes
our papers, then disappears inside.
I'm not feeling good. My luck has held for
days, but half an hour ago, at the last gas station in Montenegro, a talkative attendant said,
"The fuel in Albania is bad." Still, I didn't fill
up. It wasn't smart. And my back hurts. The
Audi's great ergonomics and supportive seats
notwithstanding, all the miles and hours in the
A4 seem to be catching up on me.
touch our dreams, where we are Kubla Khan
entering what in our time is as close to Xanadu
as we're going to get. Driving around the long,
undulating shore of the Bay of Kotor, which is
carved out of rock, the town of Kotor itself
huddled in a deep finger bay, Venetian ruins
strung like an antique necklace high above and
white cruise ships in the harbor below, I feel
I've entered such a place. Newton, a road salt
who has been virtually everywhere, soon stammers, "I've never seen anything like this." This
is the Ladder of Cattaro.
"Daunting but thrilling," Jan Morris called
it in The Venetian Empire, "a dizzy zigzag path
[that] clambered up the sheer face of Lovcen in
a series of seventy-three narrow and precipitous loops." The Ladder of Cattaro was for
centuries the route to the mountain stronghold
of Cetinje, the royal capital of Montenegro.
Everything from the sea left Kotor, traveling
up on the backs of mules and the shoulders of
men. Today, the ladder is a road. There are
fewer switchbacks but little traffic because a
new, faster route has been built. In the Audi,
the old road is simply a knockout thriller. Even
though it lacks all-wheel drive, the A4 exits each
corner crisply, the transmission seamlessly
drops a gear or two, the tires dig in, the next
corner comes into sight. This goes on and on,
the cruise ships getting smaller and smaller far
below. I have only one complaint: the rank stink
of garbage. Montenegrins ought to stop throwing their trash over these banks or erect signs:
Most beautiful view in the world from a dump.
We spiral down into Cetinje. We drink coffee. We stop at the president's house, where two
guards stand in colorful regalia. Historically,
Montenegrins were known for flamboyance
and individuality. Swaggering, argumentative,
often armed to the teeth, they never surrendered to the relentlessly aggressive Turks. I was
advised to be wary of their descendants, thieves
and worse who might rob me. Today, from
what I can see, there is little to fear. The men
behave much like the rest of us, sitting around
beneath awnings that advertise beer and cigarettes, drinking espresso, talking, wasting time.
Leaving delightful Cetinje, I drive down
into a lush landscape that looks and feels tropical, with pine trees and big aloe plants. I cross
the inland sea of Skardarsko, the view to the
north a vast panorama of mountains-soft,
high, wild, almost untouched-and
it brings
to mind Tahiti when I first saw its mountains
from the water almost thirty years ago. Then
it, too, was off the beaten track. Now it's paradise trashed.
Today, however, our destination is Tirana.
The former capital of paranoia is said to be hip.
A young mayor, Edi Rama, commissioned
artists to pain city buildings to brighten up
decades of Stalinist gray. The streets were filled
with Mercedes-Benzes
driven by twentysomethings with sketchy backgrounds, I was
A theatrical character, official-looking, with
close-cropped white hair and a pistol riding
high on his hip-he's a Montenegrin through
and through, I think-comes
to the Audi, looks
it over, then at me in the driver's seat.
"No stampa," he says. He holds out a paper
that says Audi provided the car for this trip.
"No stampa, no stampa," he repeats, making a
stamping motion on the admittedly unimpressive little document.
An Albanian guy came to the car a few
minutes earlier. Curious and killing time, he
said, in decent English, that he passed
through here every day and that he did a little business across the border. I look at him for
guidance and wonder if! should offer a bribe.
But the friendly Albanian looks down at the
dust as if to tell me not to aggravate this guy
any more than he's aggravated by this lousy
job already.
The guard does make one thing clear:
there is no way this Audi is crossing his border to Albania, a quarter mile away.
"How are we supposed to get out of Montenegro ifhe won't let us out here?" I ask.
The Albanian translates. The guard gestures back at the trucks and cars behind us.
"Get out the way you came in."
"Well, damn," I mutter as he starts waving
me around in a U-turn.
I turn to the Albanian. He shrugs, as
though this happens a lot.
"It's the Balkans," he says.
My luck has snapped. Irritated, reminded
that not all the surprises of a great road trip are
good ones, I bump over the median that separates those going into Albania and those
coming out. And we're out of there .•

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