A Day In Dubrovnik - TwiceSaturday, March 14, 2009
I have lingered in Dubrovnik twice. The first time was in June 1985 (note the Yugoslavian visa in my Argentine passport) when Yugoslavia and Marshal Josip Broz Tito were indivisible. My journey to Yugoslavia was memorable before I even got there. Travel writer Garry Marchant had obtained a free trip for me on his fine literary coat tails. At the time he was the best travel writer in Canada.
I’m a collector. I collect countries.
I don’t just go to new places to add them to the list, though, despite accusations of some friends. I am genuinely interested in every country, curious about the most remote, unlikely places. I didn’t start out this way.
Marchant, by then, had traveled just about everywhere in the world and he was (rare in his profession) completely unglazed in the eyes. Every voyage was a trip into the unknown. Alex,” he told me, “do as I do and all will be well.” So by the time our Yugoslavian Airlines plane was queuing for take off during a busy Toronto Airport morning, we were drinking Champagne. Somewhere in between (on our way to Zagreb) I distinctly remember staring at a marvelous mural dedicated to Nikola Tesla in the partition bulkhead in front of me. My memory then slipped away. The alarm that woke me came in the form of the noise of our plane’s wheels and the subsequent brakes as we landed in Zagreb. In my right hand I had a glass of Champagne. Marchant had expertly taught me how to shorten long trips with inimitable class.
I’d discovered the gypsy in my genes,
the nomad in my soul. A few short
trips followed – to Mexico and the
Caribbean. When the chance came to
live in Japan, I abandoned university
forever and headed for the exotic East
– the long way.
Yugoslavia was a delight. I tried many versions of the great delicacy that is an uncooked ham that comes from the pig's neck. It varied in saltiness but it was always delicious. I ate it three-times a day while Marchant washed his down with slivovitz. At a restaurant in Split, it was a sidewalk evening affair with monstrously large peaked serviettes to mark our places, we sat down to enjoy the warm evening. Just as I was about to feast on ham, butter and bread, Marchant stood up suddenly and was gone like a light. He returned a half hour later with a grin on his face. “I spotted a young woman walking a Dalmatian. We are on the Dalmatian coast, aren’t we?"
Although no longer a member, I
follow the criteria and the official list
of the California-based Travelers’ Cen-
tury Club (TCC), which requires that
applicants have visited 100 countries
to join. I do not count countries twice,
just because they change their name.
Haute Volta became Burkina Faso, but
I still only count it is as one country.
However, the former Czechoslovakia,
now the Czech Republic and Slovakia,
counts as two. That’s fair, as I’ve been
to both parts.
The rest of Yugoslavia was beautiful but there was almost no comparison to what awaited us in Croatia's port city of Dubrovnik, the old capital until 1918 of the city-state of Ragusa which for a while competed with Venice for fame, fortune and excellence in architecture.
If I could only find and editor to take the story, I would love to visit Easter Island, to see those mysterious giant statues, faced resolutely inland. Although I’ve walked the dusty streets of such African towns as Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dialassou, I’ve yet to see Timbouktu – a major gap for a traveller. My collection includes a number of South Pacific Islands (Tonga,Samoa, Saipan,Tinian, Palau,Yap, Truk and many others),but I would gladly take the cruise from Tahiti to the Marquesas. It is a big, wonderful world out there, so many places, so many countries – 317 according to the TCC. Like all collectors, I want the full set.
For a few years I felt disappointed that I never had the chance to photograph Karen Kain. Then I photographed Evelyn Hart and my disappointment faded. Unlike Rosemary I have never been in Venice. Every once in a while I have felt that Karen Kain loss. But then I remember that I have been in Toledo, Guanajuato and Dubrovnik. Those three beautiful cities are my geographical Evelyn Harts.
While in Dubrovnik, I sampled some startlingly white cherries, with some bread, butter and… in a nearby offshore island called Lokrum. There is the legend that when Richard the Lionhearted was returning from the crusades around 1192 his ship was almost wrecked there but was sheltered by the protective old Lokrum cove, Skalica. Thanking God for his survival he vowed to build a church in honour of the Virgin. According to old Dubrovnik chronicles, as soon as the people of Dubrovnik noticed the anchored ship, they sent a delegation, welcomed the king and brought him into the town. They honoured Richard with gifts and let him rest and recover. Coincidentally, at the same time, the Senate planned to erect a new church, so they succeeded in persuading the king to intend his votive present to the cathedral, and they would in return fulfill his vow by building the church on Lokrum. Afterwards, Richard sailed towards his destination on a Dubrovnik ship. We know he did not get to his destination and the rest, be it history or fantasy, (Robin Hood and Ivanhoe) is well known.
But it was the ash in an ashtray that really brought Lokrum into my heart that day. Our guide told us that Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, who became Emperor in Mexico, had lived and vacationed on the island. While he affirmed that the ash was from one of Maximilian’s cigars I doubted it but I was still overcome by how two far away places, Mexico and Dubrovnik (from my now native Vancouver) suddenly had a strange but beautiful bond. Our guide told us this story:
The Austrian ship Triton exploded in the Lokrum canal in 1859. There was but one survivor. He had been imprisoned in the war ship’s hold for some crime. The explosion expelled the man with remnants of the chain onto the shore, unharmed.. The Austrian Admiralty entrusted the investigation of the catastrophe to a commander of the imperial fleet - Maximilian. He fell in love with Lokrum, purchased it and started the wheel of fortune that led him to a firing squat on the Cerro de Las Campanas in Querétaro, Mexico, June 10, 1867. During his stay on Lokrum with his wife Carlota, the lovestruck Maximilian engraved a heart containing the first letters of his and Carlota’s name into a huge oak dating to the 14th century, located next to the palace he built for her. According to romantic legend, he thereby incurred hostility. It was a historical oak, under which the Dubrovnik Senate met frequently. A storm appeared before he returned to the shores of Lokrum. Lightning struck this oak tree and the engraved monograms disappeared, leaving only the heart. Before he faced his firing squad Carlota would plead to various European kings to intercede. They didn’t. Carlota slipped into insanity. Many suspect she never accepted her husband’s death.
For me what is most remarkable of this romantic tragedy is that Carlota lived on thinking she was the Empress of Mexico until 19 January 1927, modern times! To this day I marvel on how the ash of a cigar can transport us to places that are so unexpected and yet so historically logical but fantastic.
My second journey to Dubrovnik came Thursday night via four black gentlemen wearing white summer tuxedos in Freiberg, Germany.
A couple of years ago Rebecca had enjoyed dancing in our living room to the Prestige (7109) CD Bags Groove- Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonius Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. I gently pushed some more jazz CDs in her direction and she genuinely developed a liking for Milt Jackson's Bags Groove in as many versions as I own. So for Christmas I gave her a DVD, The 35th Anniversary Tour - The Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis, piano, Milt Jackson, vibraphone, Percy Heath, bass and Connie Kay, drums. At dinner on Thursday night I noticed the DVD in a pile of film DVDs. I did not bother to ask her if she had ever seen it. I put it into my overcoat pocket and went home.
I watched the video. The concert includes many MJQ standards like Django and Rebecca's favourite Bags' Groove written by Milt Jackson. But it was the last number that floored me into Dubrovnik nostalgia. The quartet played an 18 minute long composition called A Day In Dubrovnik. I have a cassette tape version but it is a collaboration with The New York Chamber Symphony called Three Windows which many experts call an almost perfect melding of jazz and classical music. It is a beautiful tape. But it was nothing like this quartet version. All three movements Afternoon, Night and Morning (in that unusual order) are seamlessly joined.
As John Lewis explained with a smile, the tourists arrive in their cruise ships in the afternoon, the city comes alive in the evening and by morning Dubrovnik is its busy normal self.
Dubrovnik, the first time.