June has come round again and with it the CLS Language and Culture course and this time we are turning our attention to the Elaphite Islands lying just north of Dubrovnik. Saturday lunchtime saw a host of familiar faces gathering at the port of Gruž awaiting the two o’clock ferry to Šipan and the ninety minute boat trip gave us all a chance to catch up on what had been happening in each other’s lives over the past twelve months. The evening was time for our welcome party and a very jolly affair it was too. Our school this year is situated in an idyllic spot perched above the sea with breathtaking views of the bay of Suđurađ and our hosts, Zdravko and Kate Šimunović (firstname.lastname@example.org) made us feel so welcome by laying on a wonderful spread of pršut, cheese and home grown salad washed down with homemade wine.
One could have been forgiven for thinking that the occasion was also a trial run for a new school uniform, when Linda and Julia both emerged wearing red and white polka dot dresses while John was resplendent in a red and white chequered shirt. The explanation for the latter turned out to be easy. Tonight was the night that Croatia was playing her opening match in the 2018 Football World Cup. The team’s two goals against Nigeria were marked by fireworks being set off in the centre of Suđurađ. There was no such obvious explanation for the explosion of red polka dots but maybe the culmination of all the planning for this week has caused us to start seeing spots!
On Sunday our programme began in earnest, with our guide Alberto Frka joining us for breakfast prior to our departure by private boat on the first leg of our opening day of discoveries. Clearly Alberto is an absolute mine of information and, even as we sat chatting over our morning eggs and freshly baked bread, the carob tree that was affording us shade became the subject of a fascinating snippet of information. Apparently carob beans were believed to produce seeds of a remarkably consistent weight, which in olden times were used as a control weight for precious jewels. This early weighing system eventually evolved into the grading method still used to this day which we now call carats. The same word was also absorbed into the Croatian language, although comfortingly predictably it is spelled karat. However, it bears no resemblance to the Croatian word for carob which is rogač and of course none of this has anything to do with a carrot, which in Croatian is called mrkva. Oh and while we are at it, the beans of the carob tree are used to produce a delicious digestif, a home-made carafe (not carat or carrot) of which was ours to enjoy as a gift from our hosts. Got it?
Our first port of call today was the atelier of Josip Trostmann, located within the Villa Flora on the Lapad peninsula. A renowned Dubrovnik artist, the 80 year old Mr Trostmann and his son Teo, an amateur artist himself, made us welcome and, gathered together in the studio, we enjoyed viewing the numerous paintings on display and hearing about his life and work. Before we left we had the chance to purchase some of his signed prints and we were each generously offered a copy of a beautiful book about his work which he was happy to sign for us.
Our boat then took us to the smallest of the inhabited Elaphite Islands, Koločep, for lunch, which we enjoyed in a small family restaurant overlooking the bay at Gornje Čelo. After lunch the more energetic amongst us set off under the guidance of our intrepid Alberto to explore some of the interior of the island, while others preferred to relax or have a refreshing swim. On our walk we saw a number of tiny ancient churches, a small stone Bogomil monument and other signs harking back to the heyday of the island in the fifteenth century. We walked through large tracts of cypresses, pines and Mediterranean maquis, all of which add up to a considerable fire hazard, when the frequent lightning storms hit after prolonged dry periods. We admired the dramatic rocks in places along the island’s perimeter and heard the song of a nightingale, the national bird of Croatia. Our visit to Koločep was rounded off by a walk across the centre part of the island to Donje Čelo and we learned that the two settlements of Gornje and Donje Čelo were thus named not because of their relative altitudes but their relative proximities to Venice. We passed the school, which Alberto informed us had recently had just one child on its roll but this had swelled to three during the temporary residence on the island of a visiting family. Our private boat, bearing those who had spent the afternoon relaxing, was there to greet us on our arrival at Donje Čelo and bore us safely back to our island home on Šipan. The signs for the week are looking good.
On Monday morning it was time to dust off our Croatian books and get down to the serious business of trying to improve our linguistic skills. I had severe doubts whether it would even be possible to focus on such things as we took our seats in our ‘classroom’ in the shade of the carob tree with the most gorgeous views out over the bay. However, I should have known that our teacher Zoran wouldn’t allow any slacking and so we got down to work. Who could imagine that three hours could fly by so quickly while delving into the intricacies of this most beautifully infuriating language – but it did. Given the growing popularity of the CLS summer school over recent years, it has now become an exercise in military precision, with two classes operating in tandem both in the morning and the afternoon, with classmates painstakingly matched by Linda to ensure that everyone was in the class best suited to their level of proficiency. It is wonderful that almost everybody from last year’s trip has returned and we have been joined by a few new fellow language travellers as well, so it really is gaining an amazing cohesion as a group and it is such fun to meet up again in such wonderful surroundings.
With classes done for the day, we all boarded our private boat for the short hop to the neighbouring island of Lopud, which is an absolute delight. It is the most developed of the Elaphite Islands but still retains its peaceful laid back charm, due in no small part to the complete absence of cars. Alberto met us and took us on a walking tour along the esplanade pointing out various churches as well as the Franciscan monastery, which finally is being refurbished by Francesca von Habsburg after years of dereliction. We stopped outside the former Grand Hotel, which was built way back in 1936 in the Bauhaus style at the time of the first mini tourist boom on the island. It too is in need of refurbishment but, as a protected building, it is causing a bit of a headache as to how this should be tackled. We also paid a visit to the Your Black Horizon project, which has now found a permanent home on Lopud after its inauguration at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. The real treat for this evening was a special concert arranged for us in St Nicholas’ Church. The musicians were Vanda Đanić on cello and our very own Alberto Frka on piano. Alberto has so many talents and, apart from his tour guiding activities, he is also an inspired pianist as well as qualified in medicine. The evening concluded with dinner at the very water’s edge at the Obala Restaurant on the esplanade. As we enjoyed a convivial evening we could also watch the sun setting gloriously over the bay. And when it all finally came to an end, our private boat was waiting to speed us back through the darkness dropping us off at the jetty just beneath our school home. A perfect end to a perfect day.
By Tuesday we had settled into our pattern of lessons either in the morning or the afternoon, although the weather seems to have been intent on disrupting the afternoon sessions, as each day right on cue the class being held on the terrace was interrupted by a short but intense downpour, which meant that the classroom had to be swiftly rearranged under the kitchen awning. The plus side of this was that it gave us a brief respite from all of our brain cudgelling.
Today had been billed as a free day with an optional walk across part of our island to Šipanska Luka for those who wished to participate. Our ‘walk’ started off with a visit to Suđurađ Castle which was originally the summer homes of Tomo Skočibuha and his son Vice, who built houses side by side for the apparent reason that Vice’s wife couldn’t get on with her mother-in-law. They built up a successful shipyard in front of the houses as well as a merchant fleet, which were the foundation of their wealth, and they became big wheels in the local society. Our guide for the visit was Marija, who was later to lead us on our walk.
After the castle, the walk began in earnest with a steep climb up several flights of stone steps wending their way up above the village and out onto the pine clad hills that clothe most of the island. If we thought the walk would settle down and level out once we had reached a certain altitude, we were in for a surprise. The steps and track seemed to climb ever upwards to the extent that I was beginning to wonder whether we would need to absail down the other side when we finally reached our destination. By the time it did become less steep it had narrowed to an overgrown path and before too long it was nothing more than a goat track strewn with small rocks and pebbles. It was however beautiful and often the aromatic smells of all the herbs growing all around wafted across our path. Our intrepid band marched on chatting away and in generally high spirits with Marija leading us, which was just as well as otherwise we would surely have become irretrievably lost among the myriad tracks that crisscrossed our path.
We paused for a few minutes at an isolated homestead that revelled in the delightful name of Brdo 1 (No. 1 The Hill) and were welcomed by the owners, who both, though certainly not young, were enviably lithe, probably because they spend half their time running up and down these tracks. With a house thus named, they must surely qualify as the Folks who Live on the Hill. At one point our path was seemingly blocked by a fallen tree, which caused several minutes of hilarity, as we all attempted by our own different methods to find a way through the gap between the branches. Some contemplated limbo dancing under the lower branch, others seemed to negotiate the blockage with relative ease but one or two of us made a sufficient meal of it to reduce the rest to tears of laughter. Eventually after more than two hours of this odyssey we finally reached our destination and happily settled down to a well earned and delicious meal in a waterside restaurant washed down with plenty of wine and beer. At the end of the evening we were driven back to base by a young man who even by Dalmatian standards was a giant and must have been little short of seven feet tall. He coped with us with good humour and then for an encore had to return to bring a second party back home from the restaurant. Our habit at the end of each eventful day has become to sit on our terrace for a while enjoying some of our host Zdrako’s fortifying home-made rogač and this evening we had truly earned it.
Wednesday’s full day excursion started at the ungodly hour of 07.40 but Alberto was determined that we would arrive at the border with Bosnia Herzegovina ahead of the crowds so that we could make the most of what would turn out to be a very busy and fascinating day. We have been fortunate in that we have been able to use the landing stage in front of the nearby hotel and so all we had to do was roll down the slope and hop into our awaiting speedboat and in no time at all we found ourselves slicing through the water at a great lick on our way to the mainland. At Brsečine we were met by Alberto and our driver Zlatko and we set off bound for the border. It is strange to realise that, although this was once one country of borderless states in the time of Yugoslavia and although it is a mere stone’s throw from Dubrovnik, it is now necessary to go through the whole rigmarole of going through two sets of Customs controls if ever you want to make the short hop inland.
This hurdle seamlessly accomplished, our first real stop was at the Vjetrenica Cave, where we all had to don hard hats and waterproof jackets before venturing inside the cave system. For the first fifty metres or so a strong cool wind was blowing, which is apparently a summer phenomenon presumably because of the discrepancy between the temperature inside and outside the cave. Once well inside, the wind dropped and we walked some six hundred and fifty metres along a lit path right into the heart of the cave with our guide. We were entering a world of stalagmites and stalactites, underground lakes and cave sculptures. It was just the kind of place you would imagine bumping into Gollum from Lord of the Rings and indeed we did catch sight of a proteus lurking in the bottom of a lake. This strange white creature, which is also called the ‘human fish’ has adapted to living in complete darkness and can go several years without eating. It can live for around one hundred years and I wonder whether it could have been the inspiration for the weird troglodyte of Tolkien’s trilogy.
Next stop was Trebinje with its small old town and distinctly Turkish influence. The central square with its huge old plane trees provided a peaceful oasis and the thriving market was full of tables groaning with fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses and herbs and improbably large tomatoes. After spending a while in the town centre, we visited a beautiful Orthodox church situated in a park on a hill with an impressive view of the town and its bridges and river spreading out beneath us. Another highlight of the day was lunch at the Studenac restaurant situated on the banks of the Trebišnjica river where the food and drink were excellent and very reasonably priced in comparison with the littoral and the location was idyllic. After lunch Alberto and Zlatko renegotiated the border for us with little delay and our last port of call for the day was the 16th century summer residence of the author and poet Ivan Gundulić in the port of Gruž. Later in its history the sculptor Ivan Mestrović was a regular visitor and the villa is still lived in to this day. We were shown round by the grandson of the present owner. It is a beautiful old house which is gradually becoming surrounded by all the dubious development that is taking place in the port area of Gruž but, once the garden gate was clicked shut behind us, it felt as if we had taken a step back into Dubrovnik’s rich history. And so ended another fulfilling and fascinating day as we boarded our boat for the return journey to Suđurađ.
There was a lot to pack into Thursday’s schedule, so our now customary yoga session started at 7.00 this morning for those who were able to drag themselves from their beds. I am not a natural early bird but I have to say that, stretched out at the water’s edge listening to the gentle sound of the water breaking on the pebbles and feeling the warmth of the sun intensifying while fellow student Donna, in her voice that was clearly made for yoga, softly told us to relax and yield to our surroundings, I couldn’t imagine anything getting much better than this.
Of course, Zoran soon shook us out of our reverie in our morning lesson. Amongst other things on the agenda today was revision of the vocative case, which I have always done my best to ignore. In this little gem of a case apparently adjectives behave in just the same way as the nominative case regardless of gender, masculine nouns have two different endings depending upon what letter they end in and women temporarily appear to turn into men by adding an ‘o’, unless of course they have foreign names that don’t end in ‘a’ in which case they don’t have to go in for this gender bending and can ignore any case endings at all. Oh, and if you feel moved to address anything inanimate and neutral you can do so without worry as just like an adjective it stays the same as the nominative. You couldn’t make it up! By the time you have worked this lot out, the person you are aiming to address will be half way back to Dubrovnik.
As soon as lessons were done for the afternoon, we once again hopped on our speedboat for the quick trip to the mainland where, for the last time, Alberto and Zlatko were waiting to greet us and whisk us off on our next excursion. This time the destination was Ston at the entrance to the Pelješac peninsula and our first stop was at the Frano Miloš winery. No CLS summer school would be complete without at least one visit to a local vineyard or winery. We heard all about the casks that were used to obtain the desired flavour for their wine and learned that their oldest cask still in operation dated back to 1942. Then, of course, we got to taste some of the wines they produce and various amongst us were then seen climbing back into our minibus bearing bottles, so it had clearly been a satisfactory visit for all concerned including the family Miloš.
Next we took a short walk around the small town of Ston and then we were off to visit the oyster and mussel beds in the bay of Mali Ston courtesy of the Bota Šare restaurant, whose boat bore us to the little platform out in the bay, where we learned about the management of the beds and had a chance to sample some of the fruits of this particular sea washed down with some more lovely local wine. The evening culminated in another very enjoyable meal in the Bota Šare restaurant itself and then it was time to say our farewells to Alberto and Zlatko and hop back on to our speedboat for another journey back through to darkness to our island home. And so, once again, we had arrived at our final day of this year’s trip, which, after lessons, was rounded off with a jolly evening of good food and music in the Tri Sestre restaurant situated just above our summer school home and run by the brother and sister-in-law of our host Zdravko and his wife Kate. While we were their guests for the week, Zdravko told us stories about life on Šipan in earlier days but that is a subject for another blog “At the House of the Yellow Cats”.
Thank you Linda, we have had a brilliant time again and we all go home with very happy memories of an action-packed and fun-filled week. See you all again next June in Slavonia, plans for which are already taking shape!