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Croatia's Kvarner Coast

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

West of Pag is the island of Losinj, whose main towns, Veli Losinj and Mali Losinj, suffer something of an identity crisis: veli means "big," but it's actually the smaller of the two; Mali (small) is more populous. Approaching Veli Losinj, I was struck by the joyous abundance of color. Tiny stucco buildings are lined up in rows like a rainbow of toy soldiers; even the sailboats in the harbor are painted playful yellows, peaches, pinks, and blues. Up close, the whimsical colors become even more riotous, each house competing with its neighbors.

Mali Losinj is busier, its buildings still colorful but more subdued. I visited on the day school let out for the summer, and got to watch the customary Croatian end-of-the-academic-year ritual: pushing your classmates into the sea. The kids laughed and splashed, schoolbooks bobbing around them like rubber ducks. Mali Losinj—well touristed in the summer months—contains a trove of villas built by sea captains in the late 19th century, when the town was at the peak of its prosperity. I climbed to the highest point, where my reward was an old white-brick church surrounded by a black-and-white-tiled patio and a perfect view of Mali Losinj and the Kvarner gulf beyond.

Rab, the main town of the island of the same name, reminds me of a miniaturized and bejeweled Dubrovnik, encased in the remains of a fourth-century stone fortress. It sits well above the Adriatic and has a multitude of Escheresque staircases that dissect the narrow cobbled streets. When I took a swim along the rocky shore, I could gaze back at the series of campaniles towering above me—Rab's trademark skyline. The four Romanesque bell towers line one street, Gornja Ulica, and date from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

Although Rab's waterfront has cafés and restaurants that cater to tourists, there's more authentic fare to be found off the beaten path. Riva Restaurant, a homey konoba, is built right into the old city wall, providing a quiet niche in which to enjoy the catch of the day—sardines when I visited. There is also the Pension Bratomil, a beautiful stone house overlooking the sea. After an elderly man there insisted that I looked familiar, we discovered that he knew my father and uncles. Nostalgia filled him with generosity, and he invited me back to his house for lunch.

Near the Istrian town of Pula—famous for its classical amphitheater, one of the best preserved in the world—is this group of 14 islands, now a national park. The Romans colonized the Brijuni Islands in 177 B.C., turning them into summer getaways for wealthy citizens. In 1893, an Austrian industrialist developed them as a resort. After World War II they became the official summer residence of Yugoslav president Tito and were closed to the public. It wasn't until 1998 that overnight guests were once again welcomed.

Veli Brijun, the main island, more closely resembles the Masai Mara than it does the rest of the Dalmatian coast. Deer, antelope, and the occasional zebra or peacock—gifts presented to Tito by other heads of state—roam its savanna-like plains. There are ruins at every turn, so you can take a swim, then dry off while sitting on a fallen Roman column. There are no security guards or floodlights, and after the last ferry leaves for the mainland, there's just you, history, a handful of hotels, and, fortunately, bicycles. I took one out to visit the remains of a Byzantine castle, guided by the full moon. Deer acted as the only guards, gazing curiously at the intruder.

I thought about castles, and history, and fairy tales. And I realized that when my father described his native country as a dreamland, he was being modest.


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