Join U of T writer Elaine Smith on her week-long alumni travel adventure down the Dalmatian Coast. She’ll be blogging regularly until the end of June
Greetings from aboard L’Austral, the French ship that I and 11 U of T alumni will call home for a week. We boarded our ship Tuesday evening and took part in the obligatory emergency drill before the ship set sail. It seemed as if all 250 passengers lined the railings as we slid out of Venice, enjoying lovely views of Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace in all its pink and white splendour.
This morning, we were up early to watch the ship steer through a narrow passage leading to the Croatian port of Sibenik. We could almost reach out and touch the ruins of the ancient fortification guarding the city.
In Sibenik, we toured the Cathedral of St. James in groups of 10 or 12 with our Dalmatian guides. Ivana, my Sorbonne-educated leader, was passionate about Croatia and keen to share her love of its history and tradition. We learned that St. James didn’t work alone – each town in this largely Catholic country has a patron saint and a co-protector for backup, Ivana told us humorously. We drank in the details of the marble and limestone facade, which was decorated with the faces of real people, rather than saints or nobles – an innovation back in the 15th century.
Next, we set off by bus for a walking tour of the town of Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage site located on a small island. Along the way, coastal Dalmatia – named for an early tribe, the Delmatae – revealed itself to us: vineyards, olive trees and bougainvillea, islands and coastal towns populated with stone houses topped with red tile roofs.
The walking tour took place under blue skies and temperatures of 25 degrees or more, a real treat after the grey, rainy spring we left behind in Toronto. Trogir offered narrow cobblestone streets, a plaza ringed with an ancient palace, a court and the Cathedral of St. Lawrence, the town’s main patron saint. A climb up the church’s bell tower yielded magnificent views of the deep blue Adriatic and neighbouring islands, and a walk through the square led to a different kind of delight: gelato. Like the rest of the Dalmatian region, Trogir was under the control of the powerful Venetian nation during the Middle Ages, and the influences can be seen in the architecture, design and apparently, the food.
The afternoon brought us to Split, one of Croatia’s largest cities and our guide’s home. She took us first to the ruins of the palace built by the Roman emperor Dicoletian in the third century. When he took control of Split, Diocletian – a native of nearby Salona – immediately did what the Romans generally did in their colonies: he built roads, organized the political system and constructed aqueducts, some of which are still in use today. His palace’s underground storage rooms, which provide some cool space on a hot day, are still intact, along with some of the walls. The size of his living quarters brought gasps of envy.
Afterwards, a real treat: a visit to the former summer residence of Croatia’s best-known sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, who donated his estates and many of his early works to the people of Croatia. The setting alone was delightful, high on a hill overlooking the Adriatic, but the sculpture itself was the real jewel. Mestrovic had a difficult life early on – two of his four children died young — and he was able to translate his understanding of suffering into faces and bodies expressing emotional pain, whether in bronze, wood or marble.
A full day, but a satisfying one, topped off by the ship captain’s welcome reception and dinner with U of T alumni. We headed towards our cabins or the nightly entertainment pleasantly sated.