Trsteno. The word is missing vowels. The map is missing kilometers. I’ve finally reached the crest, and it’s much further to the beach than indicators appear to have indicated. My heart is beating as fast as the legs of the millions of crickets drumming, hidden in the spiny grasses, and the temperature of my body and the air have neutralized – both hotter than they should be.
Below me is the bluest sea in the world.At least the rest of the walk is downhill. I walk it in a dream, like a desert nomad clutching at a mirage. As I approach sea level, I round a rocky corner, and a stone bowl of beach is exposed. To the left is an arched bridge, it’s reflection waving at me from the water. A car passes over it, and looks entirely out of place. The simple bridge is too old, and I realize not a single vehicle passed me on my way down. To the right is a stone wharf. It’s populated with a motley mix of about twenty souls. Young and old, thin and fat, tanned and bleached. They bake, jump, dip, sleep, watch and fish.
The scene is framed with limestone, both the irregular jutting of the cliffs and behind the bathers, a tiny fort. Steps have been chocked into the rockface – they are concave with age, slippery, and enclosed only by a few bodies taking a break from the blaring sun. At the base is a circular cave, manmade, yet also ancient. Possibly an old boatshed of the Gucetic family, patriarchs of the 15th century Arboreteum above. Now it is a cubby hole for swimming noodles, lilos and beach bags.
I walk along the edge of the tiny harbour. Minnows and dingheys, matching the blue of the water or the white of the stone bob delicately over perfectly transparent water. I can see straight to the bottom through varying degrees of aquamarine, from pale turquoise to deep peacock, and a rich shade I will forevermore call “Trsteno Blue”. So many colours, but always crystal clear. I’m so hot. It’s the prettiest water I’ve ever seen. I quickly strip down and discard my belongings in a heap to throw myself off the edge of the pier like a child.
The ice of the water hits my heart before I reach the surface. I almost take a gulp of water in shock. How can water so beautiful be so painful? I now understand why people only bathe close to the edge – their bodies don’t let them swim out, but drag them back to shore and onto the haven of hot rocks and a beach towel.
I return to my heap, and make a home on a sunny perch near the fort. Before I lie down, I am met by *Malik, the owner of the apartments we reside in down the coast in Zaton. He’s in his late forties, hanging onto youth quite admirably, and yet also precariously. He talks a million miles an hour, with a few inches of truth. It was he who told me to come here. He also tells me he was engaged to Nicky Hilton, but her family’s posse shot him. Where? In the head. Shortly before he shot himself in the foot. He slugs out of a long bottle of water. “You want?” he asks, thrusting it at me. I do. I just realized there is no café down here. It’s lunchtime, and all there is to eat up is the view.
I stare vacantly off, and Malik finally realizes I want solitude. I’m studying the diminutive fort, wondering why somebody isn’t serving frosty beers between its rusty iron gates. And then I realize, it’s a gatehouse, whose entry is obviously open. This is worth an explore. There are not many folk on the pier – I leave my gear without a care, and teeter up the steps and through the pointed arch, expecting a secret garden to reveal itself. But the way is blocked. It’s abandoned. Ramshackle. A teenage boy is using the pigeonniere as a urinal, and I nearly cry.
Earlier, Malik, a patriotic Croatian, had joked with me – “God gave Croatia everything. The sea, the trees, the mountains, the food. But then he f**ked it all up with the people.” I’d seen his scars from the war, both a source of pride and shame to him. After all this time, he could not understand how a country so breathtaking had taken so long to find its peace. And like on his body, scars of the latest war remain all over this land. This sleepy beach, with it’s most perfect pocket of the Adriatic, a backdrop of a world class renaissance garden, and architecture that has withstood wars, now has to withstand neglect because funding, national pride and tourism are still only in their infancy. Part of me wants to take this abandoned child and nurture it to full potential, but watching what tourism has done in the rest of the world, do I really want Croatia to grow up?
Trsteno is on the Dalmation coast, about 20km from Dubrovnik, and just far enough up the road from the sprawling Radisson hotel at Orasac (map here).
The walk from the main road is quite a long one – I’d suggest taking a car if you can – there are about 10 parking spots next to the water.
The shore is slabs of limestone and there are occasional sea urchins on the water floor, so reef booties are advised. You will also want to take your lunch, because the nearest amenities are at the caravan park a couple of kilometres away (and up the hill!)
Just above the beach is the Trsteno Arboretum, also well worth a visit – link here.*Malik is not his real name. I have quoted him word for word, and have witnesses. I believed about 10% of what he told me.