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Last Exit Magazine « On The Rocks

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[published: March 31, 2008]

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On The Rocks

Returning to the tiny Croatian island of Lokrum more than 15 years after war forced her family abroad, a native leaves the sandy beaches for a better way to take in the Adriatic.

Sand is for tourists.

If you’re Croatian, you ditch the sandy beaches and hit the country’s traditional pebbled or rocky areas instead, where it is less crowded, the sea is clearer and the cliffs lend themselves to endless views of the Adriatic Sea.

So when I went to the tiny Croatian island of Lokrum this summer, it didn’t take long for me to get to the rocks. Of course, there was not much choice – like most Croatian islands, rocks frame this green islet.

I was there with my sister and several friends from Romania. When the Romanians saw the rocks, they lost no time in leaving the island in search of a sandier beach.

“Stijene, stijene!”
My sister was running around yelling the Croatian word for “rocks.”

I couldn’t help but share some of her relief that now it was just the two of us. We no longer had to worry if it would be too tricky to get in the water, if the rocks were too steep or if they faced the open sea – all things that intimidate tourists but thrill Croats.

We found a section where the rocks were flat enough to lie down, sharp enough to keep the tourists away and close enough to the sea that a swim was only a few steps away.

It was my first time on Lokrum in more than 15 years but soon memories of growing up in Croatia started flowing. Not much seemed different – lush greenery, clear Adriatic, hot August sun, crickets, pine trees, salt-covered rocks.

Mrtvo more – or Dead Sea – the island’s 32-foot-deep salt lake, was just as I remembered it. A few skinny boys were climbing the cliffs surrounding it, while several middle-aged women took a dip, preferring the shallow, warm water of an enclosed lake to the open sea hugging the island.

Of course, things are also different. Lokrum, like its surroundings, saw shelling in the early 1990s during the civil war that broke up Yugoslavia. About 50 projectiles hit the island’s botanical garden, which was established in 1959.

Croatia, with more than 1,000 islands dotting its coast, is no longer a part of Yugoslavia, but a country of its own. And I am no longer a kid worrying about whether my classmates would make fun of my bathing suit during a class trip to the island.

Lokrum is only a 15-minute boat ride away from the coastal city of Dubrovnik, where I grew up. The island has always been a popular destination for school excursions because of its proximity as well as the educational component – it was declared a natural forest reserve in 1976.

Lokrum’s name comes from the Latin word “acrumen,” meaning sour fruit, and indicating plants have been grown here since ancient times. Reflecting Dubrovnik’s tradition as a trade city with many sailors, it is believed that men have brought plants to the island from voyages around the world. It is said to have some 500 plant species, including about 70 types of eucalyptus, the most outside the Australian continent.

Like Croatia, Lokrum is small but filled with history – the Benedictines built a monastery with a church there in 1023. The island covers only about a third of a square mile, but many locals go there to cool off during the hot, dry Croatian summers. Boats from the old town leave as often as every 15 minutes during season.

Peacocks walk around unfazed by photo-snapping tourists and the local children who chase them. Like typical Croats, they seem stubborn and refuse to spread their tails when you want to capture that perfect Kodak moment. I’m still impressed by their blue and turquoise colors, just as I was as a child, perhaps because I so strongly associate those shades with the Adriatic.

But instead of a juice box in my backpack, this time I sit down for coffee in a stylish new café steps away from the ferry dock. Instead of a homemade sandwich, my sister and I share octopus salad and perfectly grilled squid with vegetables in the island’s outdoor restaurant.

After swimming and climbing the rocks some more, we take a walk around the island. We appreciate the familiarity of the constant cricket sounds, the feel of the pine needles covering the island’s trails and views of the Adriatic.

Having grown up in Dubrovnik, I can see how locals may take Lokrum for granted – it is so visible from many points of the old town, you feel you can reach out and grab it. And while pretty, it can hardly be compared to the much larger, inhabited islands that are also a boat ride away and offer shopping and nightlife in addition to swimming. But perhaps because of my years living in New York, or because I’m on the island for the first time as an adult, I soak in its tranquility and isolation.

My sister can’t stop talking about the beautiful rocks. As an obsessive amateur photographer, I can’t help but marvel at a photo I captured of a small white boat, with only the rocks and cliffs keeping it company in the blue sea. It reminded me of growing up in Croatia, when my family would go away for several weeks at a time, jumping off the boat in the sea during the day and going for walks on the islands in the evenings. Often times, my two sisters and I would sleep in the cabin while our dad drove the boat and by the time we emerged outside, we were near a new island.

At one point, we encounter a trail littered with condoms that leads to views of naked backsides. We realize we stumbled on a nudist beach so we have a quick laugh and speed off to another part of the island. We throw our stuff on the rocks and seconds later we are cooling off in the Adriatic again.

At this point, I have spent more of my life in North America than in Croatia. But there is something about a place you come from that always pulls you back. And when you come from a medieval, walled seaside city best known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” you get sucked in.

I expect this from Dubrovnik, but I was surprised to also feel it from Lokrum – there are many Croatian islands that I have more fond memories of. I’m not sure if it was the smell of the pine trees, the taste of the sea salt or those stubborn peacocks.

There is just something about those rocks: Maybe it was the sound of the Adriatic Sea hitting them, which used to ease me to sleep at night. Maybe it was the comfort of the heated rocks underneath my feet, which reminded me of running around during countless trips to the islands. Maybe it was the feeling of adventure that comes with standing on a rock when nothing but blue sea surrounds you.

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