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Croatia: Stone Cold Beauty
Travel to Croatia for Beautiful Architecture and People

by Amanda Castleman

After a breakup, some women binge on chocolate. Others buy shoes. I went to the Balkans: substituting wander for lust.
Croatia - Hvar Sunset

Oh yes, I was in Feisty Femme mode, all right. Forget heartbreak. Bring on the beer and borscht!

Every Thelma needs a Louise. But my options were limited: how many friends can dash to Eastern Europe at a month’s notice?

Enter Edward, an Alaskan-based travel writer also recovering from romantic sorrows. He is a good man, that rare thing, so hard to find. And I deceived him shamelessly.

“Come to Croatia,” I pleaded. “Balkan women are all babes. And you know Continental beaches … no bathing suits!”

Sex sells: it’s true. Edward flew halfway around the world to chaperone me through former Yugoslavia. We laughed a lot and chawed miles of grapefruit gum on this impromptu road trip. We sampled wormwood liqueur, we ate cabbage-beet-pickle salads in truck stops, we gawked at Russian fighter-pilot memorials. One night we even were the sole guests in a castle.

(The castle was a mediocre one, to be honest. But how often can I play princess, sipping white wine and nettle soup in a private palace?)

Edward and I bought goat-cheese along the roadside, bartered for honey that tasted of wildfires. We picked poppies on the horrible, hustling island of Hvar. We switchbacked through the mist, lost on Mount Medvednica, 23-km from the country’s capital, Zagreb.

We dined at the Regent Esplanade, the nation’s grande dame that had hosted all the adventurers and war correspondents and travelers of more exotic eras before drip-n-dry polyester. Then we crashed at Croatia’s first minimalist-design mecca, the genius-themed Arcotel Allegra.

Aside from the pinched portrait of Virginia Wolf on the duvet, however, broads were in short supply. Not good.

The weather didn’t help. Rain blanched the spring landscape grey, a hue somewhere between battleship and institutional gruel. Storms churned across all of Eastern Europe. Thousands evacuated as the Danube overflowed. No one was stripping to scanties at the beach.

“Where, exactly, are the ladies?” Edward asked, as we surveyed an overgrown Roman ruin. “You promised chicks,” he complained days later, as we hiked along the Plitvica Jezera, a cascading chain of peacock-colored lakes. “Maybe that Black Madonna icon could send me just one gorgeous woman?” he suggested at the famous pilgrimage church of Marija Bistrica.

And finally, in a fit of exasperation – and to distract from the bomb craters and old tank barricades on the Bosnian border – “What type of wingwoman are you anyway? I fly 5,000 miles and you can’t produce a single babe?”

***

On yet another damp afternoon, I’m flipping through the guidebook, while Edward channel-surfs. Most stations broadcast nothing but teasers for Italian porn chat lines. “Look!” I exclaim, pointing at the screen. “Sexy women with no clothes! Finally!”

He sneers: “Those are not quality nudes.”

“Picky, picky. Are you holding out for a sexy Balkanite?”

“There are no sexy Balkanites,” he says. “You lied to me.”

“Never,” I declare. “We’ve just had bad luck. But that’s all about to change: we, my friend, are going to Trogir. ‘The Stone Beauty’ is a fortress-island famous for naked women.”

He perks up considerably. So much, in fact, that I don’t have the heart to explain the joke: the city boasts the oldest nude in Dalmatia, a thirteenth-century sculpture of Eve over the cathedral’s entrance.

Instead, I plot a course along the coast, praying the clouds part and the beaches overflow with topless supermodels.

***

The windshield wipers skreek, sliming water across the car window. Edward says, “I think you drove off the island.”

Hmmmm, I did cross a second bridge. But surely Trogir is bigger than a standard Twister mat?

A good friend, he interprets my grimace. “Europe is the size of a supermarket parking lot,” he reminds me. “Who cares, as long as the girls are pretty?”

Living in Alaska isn’t helping his sense of scale … or romantic prospects. I three-point-turn the rental, fingers surreptitiously crossed as I shift. Nudes of Dalmatia: don’t fail me now.

Plitvika Lake

Brie-colored buildings pack one square mile, a marble pedestal wedged into a narrow channel between the mainland and the larger island of Ciovo. The gates, towers, palaces and churches – often proclaimed the “best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in all of Central Europe” – landed Trogir on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Americans have just discovered this town, an oval cameo on Croatia’s coast. About 30 percent of the guests here are from the United States, up from 5 percent last year. Half are Brits and a good deal Italian.

Sailboats bob in the kingfisher-blue water. Around every corner, a new spire or turret springs up, like a clown car unpacking on an Adriatic sandbar. Trogir is charming – and about to get more so, as the island pedestrianizes completely in 2007.

Not that it’s all champagne cocktails and frilly Corinthian columns; the micropolis has some edge too. The dark, smoke-stained Cathedral of St Lovro flattens visitors with its sheer weight of woes. Even the most exuberant visitors collapse into pews, muted. What atrocities have these stones seen?

We light fat beeswax tapers. I stare into the flame and recall my late mentor George, my cousin Ryan who survived his wedding by mere months. Then I consider Edward, battling not one, but two, chronic conditions. My tears fall on cloth and marble, mingling with the ubiquitous rainwater.

As I said, he’s a good man. My friend doesn’t mention my outburst; he suggests we explore the cathedral more.

I snuffle, but cheer up immediately. The Great Dalmatian Nude punch line is about to deliver. I’ll introduce Edward to Eve, then laugh as he curses me and the inhibiting clouds.

Soon we’re inside the treasury, examining reliquaries with shards of saint-bones. “Um, where is the famous carving?” I venture.

“Unveiled next month, following renovation,” the custodian replies.

Edward whips around. “Say, this wouldn’t be the Garden of Eden sculpture, would it? The 1240 Romanesque masterpiece by Radovan?” And then, as the shoe drops: “Not the oldest nude in Dalmatia?”

“Erm,” I stall. “How did–”

“– I am capable of reading a guidebook,” he interrupts. “And I have a photographic memory.”

“Well… She’s standing on a lion. It’s quite dramatic apparently … when visible.”

“You dragged me halfway around the world to see a cathedral portal?”

“Of course not,” I think. “I dragged you here to finesse the mountain switchbacks. I needed to share mini-golf and grapefruit gum and Balkan ghosts. Above all, I wanted to distract us both from heartbreaks and writerly malaise.”

In the rom-com version, Edward and I will passionately embrace under the nude’s scaffolding now, as strings swell the soundtrack. Reality doesn’t write tidy plots, though. We have no flirtatious frisson and are too old to fake it.

After some steely eyeballing, we both burst out laughing. Hysterically. Yet again.

“We’re going to the newsstand,” Edward announces. “You’re buying me every nudie postcard on the rack. You owe me, big-time."

Two weeks after we return to our respective homes, I offer an olive branch: another trip, complete with a gorgeous gal guarantee. Summer in Scandinavia … this one can’t go wrong.

Nudes of Norway, don’t fail me now.

If You Go:
Travel
Wizz Air – a no-frill carrier – launched a new route from London Luton to Zagreb, Croatia this spring (http://wizzair.com). Summer deals include two-cent flights, plus taxes and fees.

Learn
Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History by Robert Kaplan is a good introduction to the region’s character and politics. Rough Guide Croatia supplies good road-advice.

Rest
Wood beams and wi-fi grace the Hotel Pasike in Trogir’s center. This boutique hotel has just seven rooms, plus an apartment with a hydromassage tub. Its casual elegance and class don’t extend to the breakfast buffet, but otherwise the Pasike is terrific value for money (Sinjska bb, Trogir; +385.21.88.51.85; www.hotelpasike.com).

Eat
The owners of Top Baloon (sic) goofed the English-grammar test, but who cares? They’re peddling the best Italian cuisine east of Venice. Pizzas bake in a proper brick oven and the wild-rice risotto remains firm and flavorful, not a gooey mess (Obrov 7, Trogir; +385.21.88.48.69).
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