Reflections along the Balkan coastline

We were sailing along the Croatian coast toward Albania earlier in the summer.

September 12, 2015 23:50
THE TRANQUIL island of Antipaxos features an isolated cove with crystal-clear turquoise water

THE TRANQUIL island of Antipaxos features an isolated cove with crystal-clear turquoise water. (photo credit: GRAEME STONE)

Raging spray flew across the deck as the bow of the boat plunged through the waves. We stood drenched in the open cockpit and braced ourselves against the oncoming swells. Surging through the darkness, the boat dived into the trough between the waves, pitched and tossed by their volume, was heaved by the current, and the sails pressed down sideways by the wind. Only during brief respites did the vessel regain its composure before the next cycle.

We were sailing along the Croatian coast toward Albania earlier in the summer. I had been vigilantly checking the wind gauge on the 10-m. boat when I noticed the wind strength was progressively increasing. An afternoon with mild wind conditions was turning into a squall. We had passed the shelter of the neighboring islands and were exposed to the open sea. The boat charged through formations of high-wind waves. The color of the water darkened as the evening approached and wind speed increased from 15 to 20 knots. We had reefed the mainsail and the forward sail to minimize the heeling-over of the boat. All hatches had been closed and any movable objects secured. After the last light of day melted over the horizon, the wind rose above 25 and then 30 knots. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable night.

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We were a crew of four from the Israeli sailing club Via Maris. The members included Tamir, Yair, Orr and myself, and we were delivering a sailing boat purchased in Slovenia, sailing along the Balkan coastline over 10 days to Greece, from which the boat would subsequently be sailed to Israel.

We embarked from the picturesque marina of Portoroz, Slovenia, where we had made the bulk of our food purchases for the journey, avoided the numerous casinos, and organized final preparations before setting out to sea. There was a documents and passport inspection before passing from the narrow Slovenian coastline into Croatian coastal waters.

My general knowledge of the former Yugoslavia or Balkan Peninsula had been relatively vague, and restricted to events related to the extermination of the Jewish population during World War II and the civil war that had been covered extensively by the media in the early 1990s. In preparation for this voyage, I had obtained a copy of Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts, which was to provide me with an invaluable insight into this troubled and fascinating region.

I was immediately impressed by the mountainous, forested coastline plunging into the aquamarine sea and the numerous deep-water passageways passing between verdant islands, with numerous coves and bays occasionally inhabited by small coastal villages and larger resort marinas. The magnificent seaboard was marked with medieval forts – recalling a history of maritime trading dominated by Venice and Constantinople, and threatened by piracy, plunder and conquest from neighboring regions.

After the Roman subjugation, the Slav population in the Balkans was converted to Christianity in the 7-8th centuries. Subsequently, a religious schism occurred in the 11th century, based upon theological and political differences, separating the Roman Catholic Church controlled by the Vatican and the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Eastern Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople. Regional borders determined the religious persuasion – Croatia remained Roman Catholic whereas Serbia followed the doctrine of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Religious dogma and intolerance became the divisive force among the Slav population that had previously shared the same ethnic origin, language, religion and geography.

The rise and conquest of Islam spread from the East in the 15th century. Following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople, Islam reached the Balkan region and Eastern Europe, resulting in forced Slavic migration or conversion to Islam – with large Islamic populations created in Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia.

It was around this period that there was an increased migration toward the Balkans by Jews, following their expulsion from Portugal and Spain. The composite of religious division would frequently overflow into violent conflict based upon religious and political rivalry and Machiavellian alliances.

Eventually the political assassination of the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, murdered by a Bosnian Serb, triggered the eruption of the First World War when the Great Powers decided to reorganize the division of the Balkan states.

The first days of sailing were with relatively mild winds, and created a routine of sailing and motoring between the islands and passages, keeping close to the coast while consulting local charts to avoid submerged dangers. Sometimes we anchored in isolated quiet coves or traveled through the night. When the boat was anchored we would swim and snorkel in the clear refreshing water, though there was a distinct absence of underwater sea-life along the pristine shoreline. Generally, aboard the boat we prepared and enjoyed sumptuous evening and midday meals, usually of pasta, with rustic cheeses, wholesome vegetables and local beverages. We followed the coastline of Croatia for six days, and because it was summer high season we saw plenty of sailing boats flying Italian, German or Croatian flags and occasionally English or French flags.

Oh the third day, we docked into the crowded marina on the island of Parmigiana – finding a docking berth was like reversing a semi-trailer into a shopping mall parking lot – with the potential to cause a lot of expensive damage. It was quite the opposite of tranquility, with numerous pleasure boats, party boats, floating palaces and revelers. We took a water taxi to the nearby town of Hvar – a medieval port, with a formidable castle overlooking the port from the top of a mountain. The town itself was quaint, with Venetian-style buildings, narrow alleyways, and a piazza, and overflowing with tourists and restaurants. The walk up the mount to the top of the castle provided a beautiful sunset view over the town and surrounding islands below.

The following morning we sailed toward the Korculan Islands and passed through a long passageway which functioned as a wind-tunnel, with strong headwinds that required changing course numerous times to negotiate the channel before nightfall.

We passed the beautiful fortified port of Korcula, ringed with imposing walls and towers, before we headed out toward the open sea. In the early hours of the morning we dropped anchor in the Dubrovnik River, and then found a berth in the nearby marina.

Dubrovnik has an amazingly well-preserved medieval castle, and it is a town with a rich maritime history that survived by forging alliances between feuding neighbors and maintaining a degree of neutrality. The old town appears to belong to a movie set, and in fact it was used in the filming of Game of Thrones. During the conflict in Croatia in the 1990s, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was pounded by the artillery of Serbia and Montenegro – more than 600 shells hit the town.

It is remarkable how it was restored, and today it is swamped by tourists. Today, the destructive traces of the civil war are only lingering, haunting memories.

While I was sitting in a coffee shop, suddenly a cloud burst overhead with thunder and lightning, accompanied by a deluge of rain and gusty winds. All the tourists sought refuge to shelter against the weather assault. In a flash, the streets and town square were cleared of people. I had a flashback of last summer in Israel, when the alarm of sirens sounded in response to the missile attacks from Gaza, and people desperately ran for cover.

Once again upon departure, we had to clear passports, as we were sailing for the Greek Island of Corfu, off the coast of Albania. We left Dubrovnik in the early evening to enjoy the sunset views over the water as we sailed past the ramparts and fortifications built on the rocky shoreline.

We had two nights and a day of sailing in order to reach Corfu around midday. Weather reports were threatening storms and strong winds. It was 24 hours since we left Dubrovnik.

We were surrounded by open sea. The sky overhead formed into one large massive heavy gray cloud as we witnessed approaching thunderstorms. Intermittent rain and the stillness of the wind brought a smooth change across the glassy water. Progressively, the wind movement transformed the surface into waves that appeared like fluid dunes, increasing in magnitude.

The crew was operating in two shifts through the night, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. It was now obvious we were going to hit a storm. The new boat had never been tested for challenging weather conditions. There was a lot of crashing waves, spray and foam as the wind velocity increased. We changed into storm-weather gear, reefed the sails. Darkness fell – we were in for a stormy ride, illuminated by lightning flashes. Fortunately we knew we were literally in deep water – well distanced from the Albanian coast.

It was toward the middle of the night that the storm abated, the clouds cleared and once again a canopy of stars illuminated the sky. The sea was calmer and the following morning I awoke to a beautiful blue sky and the island of Corfu was observed on the horizon.

Arriving in Corfu, after traveling the coast of Croatia, I felt a definite transformation among the local population.

The language, the gestures and the outlook seemed more relaxed. My companion, Orr, noted it was like stepping back into Tel Aviv 30-40 years ago – with small shops and lots of small outdoor cafes and restaurants. Souvlaki, similar to shawarma, seemed the most popular fast food, but the Greeks equally seemed to enjoy long languorous afternoons sipping coffee, and the streets were lined with well-patronized coffee shops and tavernas. The old town of Corfu has an impressive citadel, surrounded by large antique cannons, a reminder of earlier, more troubled periods.

It was enjoyable walking around the narrow streets of the old city – I had difficulty discovering the old synagogue despite the signposts and it was closed when I arrived there. Along the waterfront there was an outdoor music festival scheduled for the evening and vendors were roasting whole carcasses of lamb and pigs over a bed of coals. A stage was set for a musical performance. There was an illuminated musical carousel with all kinds of interesting revolving beasts, and a miniature train. However, another afternoon cloudburst washed out the activities. It seemed a weather pattern had set in and each afternoon there would be a heavy deluge followed by an extended drizzle.

In the early evening we sailed from Corfu toward the island of Paxos. Once again, in the morning we had clear warm weather, and we sailed toward the island on the horizon. In the afternoon it was quite hot when we entered a long lagoon that led into the protective marina of the trendy and touristy island. An infrequent bus service provided opportunity to travel to the more isolated parts of the island. In the evening, the restaurants and bars along the waterfront were rowdy and crowded with predominantly Italian tourists.

Next morning we motored to the tranquil neighboring island of Antipaxos, and dropped anchor to snorkel in an isolated cove with crystal-clear turquoise water that had a sandy limestone seabed. Several hours later the island of Lefkos came into view and progressively we approached the fortifications of the old port. The island is separated from the Greek mainland by a narrow channel, which is dredged to allow the traffic of small boats, and an extension bridge is raised to conduct the passage of vehicles using the causeway to the mainland.

We entered the large marina to park the boat and enjoy the final night of our journey.

The old town of Lefkos was charming, with narrow alleys leading between crowded, attached two-story buildings set around courtyards, and offered a sense of community. The wider streets were used as shopping malls and led down and along the waterfront. The evening we arrived, there was a Greek Orthodox festival and there was much parading and chanting in the street with an accompanying brass band. It was a Saturday night and the restaurants and coffee shops were overflowing, as if there would be no tomorrow.

It seemed the failed Greek economy was a myth. The following day, we took a bus to Athens and then the reality of the collapsed Greek economy became more evident, with deserted and vacant business lots trailing our entry into the city.

There is debate over whether Greece is geographically part of the Balkan Peninsula.

Some would like to see it as the point where West meets East. During its peak in ancient history, it was the source of Western philosophy and politics. Later it endured the same regional conflicts. When Constantinople reigned at the height of the Byzantine Empire, the religious influence of the Greek Orthodox Church was the divine guiding source from the East, and was later followed by the Ottoman conquest and the spread of Islam. The 19th century heralded the emancipation of Greece and territorial restoration. Its modern history has many parallels with its northern neighbors, and after World War II, political turmoil and economic problems plagued the country, with civil war and military dictatorship.

It was appropriate for us to climb the Acropolis and visit the Parthenon – the vertex of Greek history, before leaving Athens to head back home to Jerusalem.

Graeme Stone is a licensed guide for leading tours in Israel.

[email protected]

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