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Adriatic adventures: Dalmatian Coast offers rich glimpse of history

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By Neil Sawyer

The Adriatic Sea, long and narrow, stretches along the entire east coast of Italy across from Croatia and Albania. The Adriatic, anchored by Venice on the northern end, was well represented by explorers dating back two millennia, searching for new territory and shipping routes, and doing what early sailors did — sailing to unknown and uncharted waters.

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Venice was home port to scores of early explorers, some well known — Byrd, Balboa, Polo and Cabot — but many less notable made significant discoveries. They had one thing in common — the Adriatic Sea was their starting point. Most explorers sailed beyond the islands they first encountered, probably answering the call to discover new worlds over the horizon.

The eastern area of the Adriatic, bordering Croatia, is virtually covered with a string of islands, often only a day’s sail away from the next island. Through time, each of the islands was explored, particularly by the earliest explorers, some of whom planted the Venetian flag on new territories. Today, all 13 islands and peninsulas are part of the district of Croatia and are collectively referred to as Dalmatia.

We boarded our small ship (50 passengers) at Split, originally settled in 1300 B.C., the second largest city in Croatia. Split was home to Roman Emperor Diocletian, whose palace, built in A.D. 305, is still inhabited and in good condition. At times, the city had a population of 9,000 to 10,000 people.

The Dalmatian coast is replete with historically famous islands, and towns. First came the island of Hvar, the longest of the offshore islands, which has recently been referred to as the “new Riviera.” The weather is near perfect year-round, with an average 315 days of blue sky blanketing the fields of lavender, olive groves and vineyards. Fishing also plays a prominent role in its commerce. While there, we enjoyed a pleasurable wine tasting in an ancient wine cellar.

‘Marco!’ ‘Polo!’
Next on the horizon was the island of Korcula and its largest city of the same name, referred to as Korcula Town, established in the 12th century B.C. It was a blustery overcast day as we strolled around and through the town doing our share of touristy things — gawking at dates on the buildings, shopping for souvenirs and looking for a coffee shop. On one especially narrow street we spotted a sign, “Marco Polo,” but upon closer inspection, we noticed an added word, “shop.” Souvenirs, of course. A smaller sign nearby read “Home of Marco Polo,” although Venetians claim he was born in Venice.

We heard a distinct yell from down the street, “Marco!” immediately followed by an echo in the other direction, “Polo!” After a moment it became obvious that the “locals” were having their bit of daily fun toying with the American tourists. They succeeded!

Flashback! I immediately envisioned earlier days in my family life with our three pre-teen children, spaced about 15 months apart in age, who practically lived in our swimming pool. Our children and their friends played what appeared to be an incessant game of “Marco Polo.” The game became popular in the United States, Australia and Canada.

“Marco Polo” is a water game where one player, deemed “it,” is blindfolded and attempts to tag another swimmer. “It” calls out “Marco” and all other players must reply “Polo,” while attempting to evade being tagged. When tagged, that swimmer becomes “it.” The cycle continues until the game must be ended, usually due to lunch or dinnertime.

So, what’s the connection between Marco Polo in the swimming pool at home and Marco Polo in Korcula, or Venice, or wherever he might be? History reveals that the real Marco Polo was a prodigious explorer with numerous excursions to faraway places, often ending up in unintended places like the Gobi Desert, Siberia or China, where he spent 24 years at the behest of Kublai Khan.

Long-distance communication was nil in those days, and no one really knew where Marco was at any particular time. It is surmised that some scholarly history buff, aware of Marco’s historic escapades, applied the uncertainty of his whereabouts to a game of hide-and-seek in the swimming pool. I’m not sure he did us a favor, as I used to wake up at night yelling “Polo,” but we always knew where our children were, along with their neighborhood friends!

Marco Polo died in 1324, at age 68, and was buried at the church in San Lorenzo, Italy.

Walled city
The great walled city of Dubrovnik, which rivaled Venice in the 15th and 16th centuries, was our next destination. The ritual at Dubrovnik is to go to the old walled city, either by bus from the commercial docks, or walk if you’re in good shape, as it is approximately two miles to the ancient town with its many steep alleyways.

There is a beautiful central plaza worthy of a relaxing stop to watch the action: people of all ages absorbing the beauty of the architecture and intricate stonework. To take full advantage of this awesome landmark, one must walk atop the wall that surrounds the town. From this vantage point, you will walk past the town harbor full of a great variety of fishing and pleasure boats, and also look down on rooftops of the town’s residences and shops.

The stroll on the wall is well worth the approximate one-hour time. You will also be able to spot the buildings damaged during the Serbian attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 — the damaged buildings all have new red tile roofs.

The finale of our cruise, through the fascinating islands of the Dalmatian coast, led us through the Corinth Canal to Piraeus, the port city for Athens, Greece.

A visit to the famous Acropolis concluded our tracing of the route of many early explorers.

Until next time: “Marco!”

Neil and Karyn Sawyer have been residents of Crystal River for 27 years. They travel frequently, having been to 48 states, 64 countries and seven continents. Neil welcomes comments and questions about travel. Contact him via email to gobuddy@tampabay.rr.com.