Eugene Buchanan explores remnants of Cold War caves while sea kayaking Croatia
July 31, 2018
The Cold War cannons are long gone, but their tunnels remain — catacombs bored deep into a limestone hillside on the Croatian island of Molat. They were positioned to blast intruders entering Yugoslavian waters in the northern Dalmatian Islands of the Adriatic Sea.
The passage they guarded along the 250-mile, 1,000-island chain — one we’d soon paddle across — is one of only a few big enough for ships to traverse; defend it and the government could protect the mainland city of Zadar.
The islands’ same protective properties make them as prime for kayaking as cannon fire.
I’m here with friend Marko Mrše, 35, of outfitter Malik Adventures, whose company is fast making a name for itself in war-torn, post-communist Croatia. “Word is quickly getting out about traveling here,” he says as we dim our headlamps and emerge back outside the tunnels overlooking the sparkling sea. “Croatia is safe, beautiful and easy to get to. And the Dalmatians are perfect for paddling.”
We paddled here from the village of Molat, where Marko grew up. It’s our first of several stops. It takes my eyes awhile to adjust to the light. All I can see ahead of us are islands and blue, blue sea.
I’d ferried to the island of Molat from Zadar two days earlier, meeting Marko at a sleepy harbor restaurant, one of the only businesses open in May. Up to 600 people used to live on the island, Marko said, but now it’s dropped to 70 — mostly retirees and fishermen. Cats run a close second; one eyes the squid on my plate from a nearby railing. “The young people are leaving,” he said. “There’s more opportunity on the mainland.”
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Indeed, Molat’s residents are content to grow flowers, as well as lavender and rosemary, whose smells waft from every yard. Marko — an energetic oddity here with his sea kayaks, sups, bikes and even inline skates for the town’s narrow passageways — helps the local gardening efforts by running an apiary, which produces 600 pounds of honey per year. The word “Molat” stems from mellitus, Greek for “tastes like honey.”
It’s certainly a sweet, carefree life for those here — and like the bees, rather incestuous. “Most people here are related,” said Marko. “There are maybe five last names.” He relates a story about the island’s lone baker, whose five girls were the only students in the elementary school.
This off-the-beaten-pathness, however, was what he wanted for his paddling operation. And the Molat harbor is protected from all three prevalent winds: Bura, from the mainland, which can top 100 mph come winter; maestrale, which arrive around noon each day from the north; and jugo, which brings low pressure from the south, often changing people’s temperaments. One ancient law, he said, voided contracts signed when jugo was blowing. This positioning, as well as the islands’ proximity, means there’s always a sheltered sea kayaking route.
In the morning — after a Euro-sized breakfast of yogurt, muesli, granola, toast, homemade cherry jam, soft-boiled eggs, and fresh bread with prosciutto and cheese — we paddled out of the harbor with bura at our beam. In a cove below the cannon tunnels, two goats watched us disembark. They’re an indicator of bura, Marko said; sheep, with their thicker fur, congregate on the ridges while goats retreat to the leeward bottoms.
Leaving the tunnels behind, we surf the bura swell across the passage, stopping off Lagnici Island to snorkel the wreck of a sunken cargo ship. From there, we round a lighthouse on Dugiotok Island and lunch on a cobblestone beach. We pick leaves of the motar (rock sampfire) plant to add a citrus tang to burek pastries, tomatoes and garbanzo beans. From there, we paddle to an alcove where Marko, also an accomplished climber, attempts a deep water solo climb. He spiders twice as far as I do on the limestone overhang before we each plunge into the cold water. Then we begin the long paddle home, the head-on bura winds now thankfully replaced by the maestrale at our beam.
Back at our harbor nook, next to a three-story agave plant which blooms only once every 50 years, the sun bathes the village’s orange-tiled rooftops in alpenglow. After a 22-mile day my winter-atrophied arms are toast, but they’re replenished with the tentacles of fresh octopus baked with potatoes. With a bottle of local wine (Zinfandel is an ancestor of a Croatian grape) and homemade, herb-infused rakia, a local elixir distilled from plums, we toast our host: “Zivili! May we live!”
The next day, now joined by Andy Taylor, an editor for Britain’s Ocean Paddler magazine, we paddle to the island of Brscak before crossing to Dugiotok’s near side, the bura winds shifting to maestrale. Today’s destination: a 100-yard-long abandoned submarine cave, also built to protect the region from invaders. The opening appears around a hidden bend, and we tentatively paddle inside, cueing off a vertical yellow stripe painted at the far end to guide captains. Refreshed by the cool air, we climb out at a rusty stairway and explore its tunnels and equipment rooms, many blocked with corroded metal gates.
Long sandwiched between opposing superpowers — and within striking distance of the ancient Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires — the Yugoslavia region is known as the Barrel of Dynamite. When Yugoslavian president Josip Tito died in 1980, the ensuing power vacuum boiled over in 1990 when Croatia declared its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army. They fought for it until 1995, with 20,000 people losing their lives.
Back in the sun, we paddle across to Zverinac, a spitting image of Molat down to its Spanish tiles and sleepiness. Four old men join us on a white concrete wall in the shade, watching an acquaintance paint his boat white. Marko relates us the odd story of two nearby villages: in one, most of the men have died so its residents are mainly widows; in the other, just a mile away, most of the women have died, leaving only men. The latter is the one with the bar.
Paddling home, paralleling a terraced grove of olive trees, a pod of dolphins breeches, their dorsals blending in with the backlit waves. Marko takes note. He collaborates with the country’s only dolphin research association, which gathers information on their behavior.
Tonight’s dinner is at Marko’s friend Ivan’s house. He’s baked “peka,” veal and potatoes in an outdoor pizza oven. It means “under the bell,” using an actual bell as a Dutch Oven lid. Again, we toast with rakia to prime our palate.
The next day we bike five miles along the spine of the island to Zapuntel, where Marko meets us with the kayaks. He shows us the terrace of an overgrown home, like the one his grandfather lived in. A porch is topped with vines for shade, a water well borders a potato garden and stone oven, and a traditional konoba, or work place, lies off to the side, harboring wooden wine and olive oil barrels stacked beneath fish nets. “As many as 10 relatives would live here at a time,” Marko yearns. “But now that old way of life is disappearing.”
Parking our bikes — no need to lock them, Marko says — we paddle out in our calmest seas yet, the water mirror smooth. No bura or mastraele. We paddle around a small island that served as an ancient Roman stone quarry and then make our way to a stone stack, where we snorkel around a spire of limestone.
From there we paddle to the island of Ist (pronounced “East”), where we hike to a church high on a ridge. It offers our highest vantage yet, islands dotting the water as far as we can see. We see our routes from the past three days — the caves, shipwreck sites and orange-tiled villages — and countless more awaiting further exploration. More importantly, we see the land’s colorful past merging with the present, creating a culture far removed from cannon fire.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatToday.com