Croatia: In Search Of The Sea Organ

The Adriatic Sea

There are times in life when everything feels like hard work.  I had been having one of those years.

By standard measures, I was successful, but my career had grown into a monstrous commitment that was asking more time and energy of me than my friends and family combined.  I may have been winning the rat race, but what I really wanted was to get off the hamster wheel.

I was sitting in the airport when I found my new mantra published in the pages of The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss: there’s more to life than work, and if you’re smart, it shouldn’t take you eight hours a day to get the important stuff done.

I knew this.  I idolize my grandmothers for having never once used a computer, and never once sending an email.  I’m lucky enough to still have one very precious piece of living proof that it is possible to function without the Internet, and she spends half of her time in the garden because she knows how to prioritize. 

I wanted to honour that family wisdom, and shut out the constant cyber-babble infiltrating every corner of my life via mobile device.  I wanted to rid myself of technology’s shackles, to tell time by the heat of the sun, wash away my sense of obligation, and to bury the memory of my eternally overstuffed inbox deep under the sand.

The Adriatic Sea, I decided, was just far enough away from my reality to accomplish all of these goals.  I made a plan to work my way up the Dalmatian coastline, starting at Croatia’s southernmost tip, Dubrovnik, and ending in the capital city, Zagreb.

I first became obsessed with the idea of visiting Croatia after reading an article about The Sea Organ, a large musical instrument on the coast of Zadar that is played by the wind and waves.  The organ, built in 2005 by architect Nikola Bašić, transformed what was once a gloomy stone barricade into a popular gathering place and a living work of art.

Much of Croatia’s beauty exists behind walls and fortresses that were built in response to the relentless attacks on the country’s schools, hospitals and churches during the Second World War.  In addition to the cities, the residents themselves seemed highly guarded to me; smiles and trust were not easy to earn.

I received an inhospitable welcome upon check-in at Hotel Splendid in Dubrovnik where I was greeted by three surly hotel attendants arguing over an envelope full of Kuna.  When I was finally acknowledged, it was by the angry, sour-faced woman who demanded my passport and then disappeared into a small doorway behind the counter.  After a few minutes, I asked one of the men she had been yelling at if I could have my passport back to which he simply replied, “Ne.”  I later discovered that it is typical for hotels in Croatia to keep your passport as collateral until you pay your bill.

One of the men handed me what looked like a small metal bat and pointed down a yellowish hall. Why was the keychain on my room key so ridiculously heavy?  Did they think I was going to lose it?  Steal it?

There was nothing to steal in the room but a crusty wool blanket or a dilapidated lampshade covered in dead flies.  The bed was almost too small for one person, but after a quick inspection of the rest of the hotel and its deserted basement bar, I decided that sleeping was my best option.

Lesson one: don’t arrive at night.  I felt vulnerable leaving the airport with my luggage and getting into a cab with a driver who didn’t speak any English.  I became increasingly uncomfortable during the long, winding journey up the mountainside.  It was impossible to gauge our whereabouts when all I could see out the window was an eerie, endless, black abyss.  It wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered that the emptiness had actually been the sea, hiding under the cover of night.

I awoke to its navy blue splendor, stretching out beyond the field of yellow and white striped sun umbrellas perched behind the hotel.  Across the water, white stone houses with terracotta roofs dotted the mountainside, resting peacefully in the grass like lazy sheep.  There were no skyscrapers, no unsightly billboards or signs, just a few gentle dabs of civilization, seamlessly intertwined with nature.  The view was so beautiful that I went straight out into the early morning air, climbed over the rocky shore, and dove into the water to float under the perfect skyline.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Dubrovnik’s Old Town, starting with a chocolate milk shake at Dubravka 1836.  Run by the same owners as the famous Nautika restaurant (renowned for being the most romantic restaurant in the world) and sitting just across the public square, 1836 boasts the same stunning views of Fort Bokar, a fairy tale castle floating in the middle of an endless sheet of sparkling sea.  Since 1836, the café has been a popular place for literary types to go to write, read the newspaper, and drink coffee, or on Sundays, for families to eat ice cream.

Weekends are viewed as a sacred time for family, and generally speaking, Croatians don’t allow work to interfere with spending time with loved ones. Going out for ice cream (or “sladoled”) on weekends has been a longstanding tradition in Croatia, and there is a dazzling array of delectable flavours and colours to choose from.

You can get a bird’s eye view of the countless vendors and their tasty wares from The Old City Walls.  To walk the city’s entire perimeter costs about $20 and takes about two hours (depending how quickly you can climb the hundreds of stairs.)

The view is definitely worth the hike.  Watching the moving diorama around Onofrio Fountain, I felt as though I was looking right at the heart of Dubrovnik, its beauty safely nestled inside the city walls like a precious photo inside a locket.

Big Onofrio Fountain

George Bernard Shaw once called Dubrovnik “paradise on earth” and indeed, the city is so beautiful it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to leave.  Maybe this is why no one felt it was necessary to offer rail service in or out of the city.

Lesson two: Don’t bother buying a rail pass. Trains in Croatia are unreliable, and rail travel seems to be used only by those tourists who don’t know any better. Bus is by far the quickest and least expensive way to get around.

Taxis are hard to come by, and inconsistently priced (though reliably expensive), and some drivers will take you the long way if you don’t know the route yourself.  I was surprised to find that many drivers did not speak English but understood French, which is often taught as a second language in Croatian schools.

It was impossible to flag down a cab in any language at the Zadar bus station.  After the eight-hour bus ride from Dubrovnik to Zadar via Split, I was beyond eager to get to my hotel, but the only cab that passed by refused to take me to Borik where my hotel was located because it was “too far away.” It turned out I had one more bus ride to go before I would get to my spa paradise.  Luckily it was worth the wait.

When I finally arrived at Hotel Adriana’s breezy yellow entrance, I was greeted with a friendly “Bog” (hi) and a glass of champagne.  I had booked an online special called the “Zadar Kulturist” which included: a transfer into Zadar’s Old Town and access to its museums, three nights in a junior suite, a private breakfast on my spacious balcony overlooking the sea, gourmet five course dinners, unlimited access to Adriana’s private garden pool and world-class Aquapura water spa, and a 60 minute massage followed by a manicure or pedicure.  This was every bit as magnificent as it sounds and an amazing value at less than $500.

Encouraging a ‘more play, less work’ mentality, Internet access came at a premium ($10 an hour or $30 a day), but Adriana had a public computer in the lobby for checking emails for those who couldn’t resist.  The only other things that were not included in the package were lunch and beverages, but that problem was easy to solve with a Konzum grocery store located one block from the hotel.  I stocked the mini fridge in my room with caviar, champagne, Heineken, salami, bread, fruit, and cheese for less than 50 Kuna (approximately $8) and had decadent picnic lunches on the beach every day.

From start to finish, Adriana was the perfect getaway, and I definitely would have stayed longer had they not been fully booked (a common problem during the peak season in Zadar.)   I decided to try their sister property “Club Funimation” which was part of the same Falkensteiner resort complex.

The name should have tipped me off that “fun” was the name of the game here, as opposed to say, relaxing or sleeping.  Funimation was designed for families, and was more like a theme park than a hotel, with kids on water slides and blaring arcade games in the lobby.  It was difficult to believe that I paid more for Funimation’s boring buffet and fizzy, watered down wine from a tap than I had for fresh caught fish, organic vegetables, and Adriana’s blissfully peaceful atmosphere.

Thankfully, the Aquapura spa (which was shared by both properties) provided a lovely escape from the noise.  The spa had a number of sunny, sleep-inducing relaxation areas with couches and waterbeds cocooned behind silky curtains, as well as a Kneipp treading pool, cold plunge pool, aromatic Turkish steam bath, Finnish sauna, and a heated outdoor whirlpool.  The spa also featured a tea lounge where I was ecstatic to discover some “real” herbal tea.  In Croatian, “tea” is a term loosely used to refer to any drink made of boiled water with plant extracts in it.   I’m not sure which extracts exactly are used in their version of black tea (čaj), but it seriously lacks punch.

After a day of much needed soaking, steaming and pampering, my travel weary body was satiated.  I had gone three whole days without checking my email – a personal record – and I was ready to go out in search of the Sea Organ.

From the moment I set foot through its gates, Zadar’s Old Town revealed a seemingly endless stream of delights to me. As I grew closer to the water, my internal compass hummed, and every step was like peeling back the cardboard doors on a Christmas advent calendar.  At every turn, gifts appeared: bedazzled leather slippers ($3 and just my size), a gaggle of children walking their dogs, The Garden’s pillow-covered terrace overlooking the harbour.  It was as though the cobblestone pathways were strewn with small surprises designed specifically to bring me joy.

In my version of the world, joy, connection, and meaning exist in unlikely hiding places and my job in life is to find these things.  So far, whenever I have succeeded in this task, it has been as a result of following my gut instincts. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for, and sometimes I don’t, but I suppose that is all part of the journey.

As I walked along the boardwalk towards the Sea Organ, I began to hear what sounded like the far away yawns of a waking whale.  The glistening blue to my left was beckoning me to jump in, but I continued to walk, mesmerized, towards the source of the soothing, ambient drones like a child under the spell of the Pied Piper’s flute.

I joined the crowd of local kids gathering on the sea organ’s massive white steps, under which hides the complex maze of underwater pipes responsible for the organ’s strange, arrhythmic outpouring of sounds.

The kids began daring each other to jump, and soon there were cannonballs, and tiny, tanned bodies soaring through the air, disappearing into dark blue splashes below.  Their courage inspired me.

I descended onto the bottom step, water lapping at my toes and my skin shivering with anticipation as my feet touched the mossy, slippery surface.  I took a breath and dove into the cold, salty water.  The mountains and people disappeared from view until all that was left was me, pure me, and the surge of frigid, muffled bubbles that enveloped my body, shaking my senses out of their slumber.

When I emerged, a large boat was passing.  In its wake, waves rose and crashed against the sea wall, causing the organ to emit an erratic burst of moans and howls.   The children screamed with glee as they bobbed up and down, all of us scrambling against the powerful current towards the shore.

I climbed up onto the Sea Organ’s steps, finding that most of them were now empty and wet, including the one where I had left my clothes, purse, and towel.  Before I even had time to panic, a man began waving at me, my belongings clutched tightly in his hand.  I approached him, dripping and smiling. “Hvala” I said.  Thank you.

The Sun Salute

I waited for sunset, when the sea organ is reputedly at its loudest, and when crowds gather nightly to witness the Sun Salute’s technicolour light show.  Built by the same architect as the Sea Organ (and just a few feet away), the Sun Salute is a large, round solar panel that collects energy from the sun throughout the day and emits beams of coloured light at night.

True to its promise, the Sun Salute crackled to life as the sun melted into the water, and colours began dancing across the ground in lines of light, pulsing in time with the wave’s rhythm.  While others jumped and clapped with excitement, I stood completely still, in awe of nature. Not since I was a small child have I experienced so much wonder in one day.

Was it the reminder of my carefree youth that prompted my misguided decision to visit a roadside carnival on my last night in Zadar?

When I got to the front of the line for the bumper cars, the attendant pointed to the kids in front of me and asked me which one was mine.  “None of them,” I said, as I stepped past the rope and wedged my legs behind the steering wheel of the tiny car.  I whizzed around the rink, and had only enjoyed one or two neck-rattling mini-collisions before the buzzer sounded.

I had some tokens left so I tried another ride.  It wasn’t long before the memories came flooding back of my dad consoling me on a ferris wheel: “Just look at the horizon,” he had said.  Here I was more than twenty years later, zipping through the air in Zadar, repeating those words to myself over and over as my sweaty, white hands clasped the miniscule metal bar that was somehow defying gravity and holding me in place.  How could I forget?  I have always hated rides.

Live and learn, as they say.  I wish I had finished off my trip in Istria eating gourmet truffles, olives and cheese, but I had already booked my return flight home from Zagreb, hoping that the country’s capital city would have some good scenery to offer.

Unfortunately, if Zadar is the Montréal of Croatia, Zagreb is the Ottawa, and it felt quite stuffy in comparison.  It didn’t help that I went from lying on the beach sun tanning in Zadar one day to walking around getting lost in the rain in Zagreb the next.

Whereas Zadar opened up a world of splendour, Zagreb seemed to shut me out, and I found that many of the shops and cafes I wanted to visit were closed. I wandered around in circles trying to find Škola (a hip bar I had seen listed in the 2009 Croatia Lonely Planet guide) but finally discovered (thanks to some locals) that it was no longer there.

I had better luck with Booksa, a small café/library run by three women writers that also doubles as the home of the Zagreb Literary Association.  As it turned out, the eccentric meeting place for local creative folk also happened to have some earl grey tea!

Sufficiently warmed by a tasty cup, I ventured back into the rain to seek out the famous Dolac market.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived (at 1:30 PM) it was already closing for the day, so I had to settle instead for watching the vendors pack up their carts from the terrace of Kerempuh restaurant.  A local institution, Kerempuh uses the market’s fresh ingredients to make classic Croatian dishes, and was named after a character made famous by Zagreb’s controversial writer Miroslav Krleža.

My waiter did not seem to agree with me that the patio umbrella would provide sufficient protection from the drizzle, and he tried on multiple occasions to urge me inside.  We battled it out, me insisting on sitting where I could watch the dismantling of racks full of painted souvenirs and produce, and him snarling back at me, “why outside?!”

He remained agitated throughout my meal, scurrying to the table and wiping it furiously each time a raindrop made its way onto my calamari or štrukli (dumplings with a brown, gritty sauce.)

Knowing that I was leaving for Canada the following morning, I decided to give him a handful of left over Kuna (about $10 worth.)  It was a generous tip, epecially given the semi-hostile service, but I got the distinct sense that this guy could use a break.  When I handed him the bills and said “keep the change,” his face softened.  First there was astonishment, and then appreciation, followed by a huge, surprising smile.

“Doviđenja,” I said.  See you later.

His parting look was one of pure joy; a big reward, I thought, in exchange for such a small gift.  All I hoped for in return was to remember the feeling of the Adriatic against my skin, to hold on to its deep blue calm, even long after I had returned to my desk.