Monday, 5 September 2011

A fishy prisoner

Last full day. Yesterday we tacked our way up to Ston – a tiny place of immense strategic importance for hundreds of years. The long Peljesac peninsular sticks out of the coastline some way north of Dubrovnik, pointing out to the north west, and it is attached to the main land by a low, narrow spit of land. Control over this little isthmus therefore gave power over a much greater area than its actual size, and the maritime city of Dubrovnik had such an interest in the place that they built a mighty wall on the mountains overlooking the isthmus, to keep out anyone wanting to attack their city from the north. This wall is like a baby version of the great wall of China, and although it suffered damage in the earthquakes of 1996, it still presents a stupendous obstacle and sight. Ston has more treasure… in particular, down by the sea’s edge, a wide flat area of saltpans. These have been managed for at least 4000 years, making them the oldest in Europe, and the equivalent of a goldmine or oilfield in terms of wealth. The saltpans are enclosed now by a battered wall and railings, with each pan or field divided from the next by a narrow bank, and with a tiny railway track along each bank. In the distance we saw a gang of workers sitting in exhaustion in the sun, while a tiny engine hauled a row of salt-laden wagons off to a depot at the far end of the site. Later we bought one little bag of salt – about 100 grams for 5 euros. I think we will have a salt-party when we get back, tasting various kinds of natural salt we have gathered from round the world. I know we have pink rock salt from the Himalayas, brown sea-salt from France, and more..
Ston itself is a little grid-town with cafes and an execrable art gallery, and access to the might wall which rears up above it in a terrifying swoop. How on earth did anyone manage to build such a thing? Slave labour, it looks like. The other three elected to walk along the top of the wall and thus over the mountain and I stayed on the flatter ground, to walk to Mali Ston – the little settlement on the other side of the isthmus. It’s less than a mile by land, but would several miles by water to the north and perhaps five round the southern end of the peninsular. In my 15 minute stroll I got sunburned and hot, and the others were even more sunburned and hot going over the hill, but they descended in triumph at the other side. There we admired the tiny little village with its split pepper-pot fortress and shaky looking walls (more earthquake damage), and had a lunch of mussels etc overlooking the bay. The setting there is almost Roman – very little to show the trappings of the 21st century. The resto is called Bota Sare – Bota meaning ‘vault’ and Sare the family name. The building, right on the quay, is a finely constructed military stronghold with a huge barrel-vaulted room, very reminiscent of the little castles in Cyprus – the fortress of the Knights of St John, or the castle in Limassol where Richard I married Berengaria.
We strolled back over the flatter path to Ston, took the boat off its scarily shallow berth beside the saltpans, and tacked for three hours down to Sipan. (When I write these place names, I am omitting lots of accents and diacriticals as I have no idea how to create them on this computer). Tacking is a marvellous thing, time-consuming but rewarding, allowing you to progress into the very teeth of the wind which wants to blow you in the opposite direction. The landscape changes all the time on either side in this complicated seascape, with the mountains achieving various heights of ambition and the greenery more or less dense, depending on the soils, the depredations, the aspect. Once again we had the place almost to ourselves… ‘Who would sail in the Solent when you could come and sail here?’ asked Andrew. Occasionally, a massive great Goldfinger-like fuck me vessel goes past, with layers of deck and unknown sybaritic pleasures ranged around inside. These always have very pointy front ends which are very attention-seeking and waspy looking. Andrew has been giving us lessons in the rules of the sea – who should give way to whom, how to see what tack someone else is on (that has a bearing on who has precedence if it looks like there could be a collision). In practice, these neat rules are undermined by the fact that so many of the other yachts are chartered and of course you have no idea whether their skippers know any of the rules at all. The best tactic is to assume they know nothing and keep well clear. When the huge pleasure ships go past, they are (for the most part) crewed by professionals who take them slowly enough not to create too much wake, but that is not always the case either.
Sipan nestles in a northward facing bay in yet another island, served by ferries from Dubrovnik. The bay is about 300 yards across, and the hills slope back quite gently, with some very old Italianate houses overlooking the water and some new ones scattered about, with pinkish terracotta roofs and stone or stucco fronts. One ferry, called Nona Ana, we have seen at various ports of call – a tall, ugly looking catamaran which chugs peacefully around. Another is called Postira, a fantastic old rustbucket from the old days, made of hand-rivetted steel plates, and not part of the ubiquitous Jadrolina company. It is evidently controlled by a dreadful grumpy old man who spends his hours between sailings in the bars – the suspicion is that he is sometimes quite drunk.
(Wierdly as I sit and write this, our captain is sitting beside me reading earlier postings on his iPhone, and has corrected a mistake… Vrboska is known as the Venice of Hvar, not Brac. I got the wrong island).
We’re anchored on the hook here in Sipan bay, outside Marka’s restaurant where last night we ate one of the finest meals I have ever had – a present from our kind hosts who were not able to come to our recent 30th wedding anniversary party and took us out for a meal here instead. This was cooking and service of the highest quality, in a fantastically beautiful setting, as the reflection of all the lights around the harbour slid magically across the water towards us, and Gino (the owner’s son) brought us dish after dish of fishy perfection. This place has jumped to the top of my lifetime list of best places to eat – if you ever get a chance to come here, you must do it…. Oh dear, I have given away a precious secret.
At the back of the restaurant, on the way to the immaculate loos, is an aquarium which is home to various fish including a big old grouper called Maria. She is about six or seven years old. Groupers are the most extraordinary fish, with faces perfectly suited to London lawyers or bank managers. They look at you so meaningfully. This one rose to the surface of her tank and I rubbed the back of her head with my finger, feeling very sympathetic to her and all her kind. But she very courageously opened her great mouth and bit at the air beside me, a rebellious prisoner, prepared to fight despite her predicament. She may be there for many years to come.
We strolled right round the harbour after supper, to the moorings of the Postira and some very pretty fish-picnic boats on a nice stone jetty on the far side. Cats and their kittens sat eating little feasts of fish sneaked from café tables, and took no notice of dogs running past them. Huddles of men sat on cool shadowy doorsteps, smoking and talking. There were plenty of bikes propped up nonchalantly on trees and walls, no sign of a lock anywhere. I took some pictures of the ferry and the fishing-trip boats – with their mixture of handmade and modern plastic mooring ropes, washing lines, gangways and the like. It was all done on available light some some have blurred, unfortunately, but I will post up what I can when I get home. That will be tomorrow evening.

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