Fascinating history and attractions make Croatia a treasure in Southeastern Europe
Two brothers returning from a voyage on July 22, 1452, were surprised to find an icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on a small rock in the middle of the Adriatic Sea near Perast in Montenegro.
“They believed it was a miracle and said they would build an island with an altar to honor the icon,” said tour guide Diana. “They started bringing stones here and that is how we got this small island.”
It took almost 200 years for the tiny “island” known as Our Lady of the Rocks to be built. It is the only artificially built island in the Adriatic Sea. Over centuries, the island was constantly enlarged and reinforced by both deposits of stones and scuttled sailing ships.
Today, it has become tradition for visitors to the tiny island to bring stones of all sizes to the site, as do sailors to keep the island afloat and to thank the Virgin Mary for safe passage. In fact, once a year on July 22, people of the Bay of Kotor deliver stones to the island at sunset and lay them in the depths. The festive event is called Fašinada.
Our Lady of the Rocks boasts a church, small museum and gift shop. Among museum items is a large tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović of Perast. It took her 25 years to finish it while she waited for her darling mariner to return from a long ocean journey.
“She used gold and silver fibers and her own hair for some of the thread in the tapestry. You can see her hair slowly change colors over the years from black to white,” Diana said. “As she embroidered the tapestry, she would pray. It is a symbol of love and devotion. She finished the tapestry in 1828. But her husband never did return.”
Marco Polo and Korcula
Montenegro’s neighbor Croatia is a popular spot on the Dalmatian Coast. A democracy with Zagreb as its capital, Croatia is filled with fascinating history and attractions that draw visitors, especially on cruise ships and group tours. Located in Southeastern Europe, Croatia covers 21,851 square miles and has a population of about 4,500,000.
Travelers like to stroll the streets of Korcula and have their photos taken at the birthplace of that original world traveler — Marco Polo. Only one stone wall remains of the house where many historians believe Marco Polo was born in 1254. With its round defensive towers and cluster of red-roofed houses, the island of Korcula is typical of the beautiful medieval walled Dalmatian Coast cities.
In Croatia’s second-largest town of Split, we heard how townspeople finally got their revenge on Roman dictator Diocletian who believed he was the son of a god. So evil was this megalomaniac that he persecuted Christians in unbelievably barbaric ways. Built like a fort, the Imperial Palace was where Diocletian lived from A.D. 300 to 313. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Imperial Palace is considered the greatest Roman ruin in Southeastern Europe.
When we first started walking in Split, a lady asked when we were going to see the famed palace. Surprisingly, we were standing in it. It is the city’s living heart with 220 buildings within the palace boundaries and about 3,000 people living there. It did seem a bit eerie to watch housewives hanging out their laundry overhead, folks sipping drinks in courtyard cafes and kids playing ball amid the ancient walls.
Dubrovnik is a popular spot to visit because of its medieval Old Town and massive fortifications. A compact city, Dubrovnik is very walkable. In fact, Old Town does not allow motor vehicles, which enhances the feeling of walking through history. In the early 1990s, some of Dubrovnik’s historic sites sustained damage during the Balkan conflicts and you can still see remnants of that today. The city has been peaceful for more than 15 years and largely restored under UNESCO supervision.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw called Dubrovnik “the pearl of the Adriatic” and was so enchanted by the Croatian city that he said, “Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik.” If parts of the city look familiar, Dubrovnik was the main Croatian filming site as the fictional city of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.
Zagreb and the Museum of Broken Relationships
Croatia’s capital since 1557, Zagreb deserves many days of visiting to do it justice. The city is filled with medieval landmarks, museums and major attractions. Riding the funicular railway (constructed in 1888) up the hillside between Lower and Upper towns in Zagreb, I had planned to spend my afternoon sightseeing through some of those amazing historic attractions — until I stumbled upon a new museum in a very old building. The name alone — Museum of Broken Relationships — made me want to find out more.
Entry fee was $3. When the museum greeter asked me where I was from — Bloomington, Indiana — she said the museum has an item from my hometown. Sure enough, it did — a sad lakeside photo of a handsome young man with a written memory by the girl whose heart he broke.
Founded in 2006, the unusual museum was the brainchild of two Zagreb-based artists, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, whose four-year love relationship came to an end in 2003. The two joked about creating a museum to house their leftover personal items. Three years later, they really did it. And they starting asking others to donate objects left behind from breakups.
Exhibits range from sad to bizarre, from a vinyl record that a teenager played to ease her pain during a breakup four decades ago to an ax that a Berlin woman said she used as a “therapy instrument.” Wielding the ax, the woman chopped up her former lover’s furniture after being discarded for another woman.
The museum has room after room of exhibits. A wisp of hair in a jewelry box came from a Macedonian woman who cut her hair in a moment of madness when her lover left. A tiny container is filled with tears from a German man mourning the loss of his love. A wedding dress, well-worn teddy bear, red stiletto high heels and a suicide note left to a child by his mother are sorrowful reminders.
Then there was the holy water bottle in the shape of the Virgin Mary. The note with that bottle was somewhat hilarious. Donated by an Amsterdam woman, the bottle was part of a goodbye note from a man who had lived with her for two months.
“Then suddenly, he was gone,” she wrote. Along with a farewell note, the man had left the bottle that he said he had bought to pray for a true love, which he had assured her that she was. “What he didn’t know,” she wrote, “was that I had once opened his bag and found a whole plastic bag full of these bottles.” S
Croatian National Tourist Board
Article by Jackie Sheckler Finch