Where CaLypSo meets Odysseus and so much More
Day one of the latest Croatian Language School summer immersion course got off to an impressive if slightly unorthodox start when nine of the students, our guide Marina and intrepid CLS head Linda were to be found early in the morning clambering into a rib, which is essentially an inflatable dingy kitted out with space-hopper-like seats, for the 40-minute super-fast passage from Orebić, our home for the week, to Mljet National Park. Mljet is the island where Odysseus is reputed to have been taken prisoner by the nymph Calypso. After a guided tour of the monastery on Santa Maria island, followed by a swim and lunch the party returned to their craft for the journey back to Orebić. The whole idea of our mode of transport was treated with severely raised eyebrows not to mention amusement by others of our party, who had been watching out for sightings of us. They had seen the rib speed by but it never occurred to them that we could possibly have been aboard such a craft. Maybe Odysseus might have been able to escape Calypso’s clutches had he had such a wessel at his disposal for a quick getaway! After bumping across the Adriatic Sea that day, we were to come down to earth with another bump the following day when lessons began in earnest.
This is where all the elaborate planning of the past several months was put to the test. Linda’s students broke down into two groups, taking turns in having lessons and going on excursions. Marina, our guide, had the dubious pleasure of going on the excursions twice in the same day– but at least she didn’t get any lessons! Monday’s excursion was to Ston and Mali Ston. The first stop was the salt pans, which once upon a time produced salt which commanded the same price as gold. How tragic that now this self-same end product as like as not will end up being used for salting roads. Surely there must be restaurants and other consumers across Europe and even the world who, if they were only made aware of this high quality sea salt, would put it to a far better and more fitting culinary use. There’s surely an opportunity here for a budding entrepreneur.
A visit to the monastery of the Dominican sisters alongside the Church of St Michael followed, where jolly Sister Rafela showed us round the church and the cloisters. The excursion culminated in walking part of the famous Ston Walls, which were built to protect the entrance to the Peljesac Peninsula, the town of Ston itself and the salt pans.
For the morning excursion group, the afternoon brought three hours of intensive Croatian study, conducted in the dining room of our base for the week, the Hotel Adriatic. Meanwhile the morning study group set off for Ston and Marina could look forward to clambering up the walls all over again.
On Tuesday our elaborate bifurcation continued, this time with the previous day’s afternoon group first in to bat in the lesson stakes. Excuse my allusion to cricket but at least one among our number had been so eager to keep up with the Test Match results that it had clearly rubbed off on me by now. Meanwhile, those first into lessons on the previous day got to go first on the excursion this time.
To-day’s trip comprised a short excursion around the small neighbouring islands, landing briefly on Badija before sailing on to Lumbarda on the Island of Korčula. Here the highlight of the trip was a visit to the Cebalo winery, specialising in the white wine Grk and the red wine Plavac Mali. Our host there, Maja, gave a very detailed account of their operation, explaining such things as the fact that vines are never irrigated as this ensures a more intense taste, speculation as to the origin of the name Grk, the nature of the grapes and the market they sell to and so much more. The morning group and Marina our guide enjoyed tasting the wines and tucking in to delicious cheese and bread dipped in home-made olive oil before returning to Orebić for a quick lunch and three hours of trying to concentrate while under the influence. Marina set off again gamely with the afternoon group and the whole process was repeated. At least all this group had to do was find their way back onto the boat and the passage home was aided by the introduction of a parlour game called ‘I like apples but I don’t like pears’ which kept everyone guessing until we arrived back.
On Wednesday the two groups came together bright and early and then shuffled themselves up into different combinations and clambered aboard two minibuses for our day out in the Neretva Valley. The weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse thanks to the Jug wind which had blown in the rain but this did nothing to dampen spirits among the predominantly British group who would never let a bit of rain spoil their fun. After the two hour journey, we arrived at the small town of Vid, which was built on the ruins of the Roman settlement of Narona, and we visited the newly opened archaeological museum there. We learned, among other things, that Roman Emperor Augustus, who established a settlement here and to whom there is a temple dedicated on this site, died almost exactly 2,000 years ago on 19th August in the year 14AD.
Then two by two, one down each side so as not to rock the boat, we boarded our awaiting traditional lađa boat and settled down to our trip along the Neretva river. We were plied with delicious locally made rose petal rakija and fresh figs from our skipper Ivo’s own trees and the whole trip was accompanied by Josip playing traditional klapa music and other tunes on his accordion. Because of the rain, rather than concentrating on the flora and fauna we had come to see, our attention was rather more focused on the activities within the boat, where the atmosphere was jolly bordering on the riotous at times, as the music geared up and the rakija was washed down. Josip serenaded one or two amongst our number and Ivo presented a crown hastily made from a freshly plucked water-lily to the Neretva queen for the day. The whole afternoon was polished off with a tasty meal including eels and frogs, which are local delicacies and then thanks to Josip’s continued playing of his accordion, some impromptu dancing added to the festivities. We learned later that Josip had been a hasty last minute addition to cheer us up because of the rain, a trade off that we were definitely very happy about and added immeasurably to the whole atmosphere. Thank you rain! At last we all clambered aboard our minibuses for the journey home. All in all a magical day and probably the highlight of our trip.
After Wednesday’s crescendo, Thursday was taken at a rather more leisurely pace. While the morning group were discussing the relative merits of the various London airports in Croatian, the afternoon group were free to enjoy a few hours of relaxation, when they could linger over a leisurely breakfast or take a walk to discover a bit more of what Orebić has to offer. As ever, in the afternoon the roles were reversed. For once Marina was off the hook and she decided to take a walk and check out the restaurant for our farewell dinner tomorrow evening.
At seven o’clock our water taxi awaited us for the short hop across the Pelješac Channel to Korčula, where after an early supper we were booked to attend a short performance of traditional songs sung acapella followed by a display of Moreška sword dancing, which is now unique to Korčula. As the weather was still proving unpredictable, the proceedings had been moved indoors, which rather detracted from the atmosphere, particularly as there were fire extinguishers dotted around the walls where turrets, battlements or whatever else should have been. For a moment I thought we had landed in a rehearsal of the Eurovision Song Contest, when the commère started to make her introductions in multiple languages. Dobra večer, Korčula, may I have your votes please……..In spite of all this, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. In a nutshell the Moreška story is the age-old one of two men fighting over one woman. The black king, who was obligingly dressed in black, was the baddie and the white king, who was the good guy, must have been either colour-blind or misled, as he was dressed in red. A huge battle ensued with lots of fighting and brandishing of swords and predictably the white king won. So it was douze points to the white king and nul points to the black king. Actually, had I been Bula, the lady in question, I would have told the white king not to bother and stayed with the black king but that would have rather torpedoed the whole thing.
In our water taxi on the way home some of us had been so taken by the whole event that one of our knights in shining armour decided to stage a mini re-enactment. In spite of the preferences of most of the women in the group, he opted to be the white king. Ah well, there is no accounting for taste!
And so we came to the finale of our brilliant week. There was one last lesson in store for each group. Thursday’s afternoon group became Friday’s morning group and vice versa, which gave Thursday’s early birds a chance to savour a leisurely breakfast at last. When school was finally out for the week, there only remained the farewell dinner to be attended and our goodbyes to be said to our wonderful hosts at the Hotel Adriatic. We have all so enjoyed the time we have been able to spend between lessons and activities simply sitting around, chatting and eating in the open-air restaurant of the hotel. Sandro and Teo have looked after us so well, keeping us plied with coffees, pancakes and salads made to order, always with a cheerful smile, a lot of banter in a mixture of English and Croatian and, in Sandro’s case, quite often a song too. We will remember their marvellous hospitality and unfailing cheerfulness for a long time to come.
Our farewell dinner took place at the Panorama Restaurant perched way up on a hill behind Orebić with breath-taking views over the Pelješac Channel towards Korčula. For one final time, our group was subdivided into two parts on separate tables according to who was eating what. I shall call them the hobotnica-istas and meat-eaters. The hobotnica-istas, as the name indicates, were those who had chosen octopus for their main course and the meat-eaters had opted for lamb or veal with yummy potatoes. When the meal was finally finished and the wind had blown up, we made our precipitous way back down the hill to Orebić in our two awaiting minibuses, which had transported us around so efficiently throughout the week. After we had all taken our leave of each other, with many promises of ‘see you in London’ and ‘see you next year’ on the 2015 CLS summer immersion course, which is already in the planning, we made our way back to our respective homes for the week. Just time for one last drink in the Hotel Adriatic water’s edge restaurant for some of us, one last goodbye and thank you to Sandro and Teo and then off to bed. Some of us had to be up before dawn to catch the catamaran to Split. Others would take their leave throughout Saturday, some were going straight home, some prolonging their stay in Croatia elsewhere.
Wherever and whatever we are all doing, we go away with wonderful memories of a brilliant week. Thank you Linda for all your hard work in making such a trip a reality and to our lovely long-suffering Marina for shepherding us so expertly on our excursions, even when it meant having to experience two wine tastings in one day! Bog, bog i vidimo se druge godine!
Just to let you know, as I write, the plan for next year is to move a little further south and we hope that the CLS immersion course in 2015 will take place in Cavtat near Dubrovnik. Nothing is yet carved in stone but watch this space for developments.