BootsnAll Travel Network


(I am uploading three of these in a row because it took me this long to find a place I could do so… )

This summer, Croatia was listed as the hottest new tourist destination by both the New York Times and one of the hip travel guides like Lonely Planet.

They were not talking about the place I came to.

To review the historical path of travel thus far: the Venetians and (mostly French) Crusaders are sailing to Zara, which the Venetians want the French to help them conquer. The French leaders agree because they owe the Venetians a ton of money, but they are severely irked about attacking Catholics.

I’m going to gloss over my favorite part of the story, which is where (in the most Pythonesque of all Monty-Python moments), a splinter group of crusaders, determined to protect Zara from harm no matter what, attempt a good-hearted but brainless stunt that ends up harming Zara far more than if they had just kept well enough alone. As a result, the Crusaders and Venetians DO attack Zara, Zara surrenders, and its people flee into the countryside as winter is coming on. The army and the Venetians move into Zara for the winter. Now that this “diversion” to Zara is over, they all just want the winter to pass uneventfully so they can head to the Holy Land in the spring. However, the winter is not quite uneventful — and the future of the western world will be altered as a result

But we’ll come back to that.

It took the crusading fleet more than 5 weeks to get to Zara from Venice (they had to stop to get fresh water and do the odd plunder), so I can’t really complain that it takes me 18 hours. First, a train down the Italian coast to Ancona, then an overnight ferry across the Adriatic sea to Croatia, straight into the port at Zadar (the place that used to be Zara), arriving at 6 am.

I join forces with five American college students I met at the ferry terminal; through the tourist office, we rent rooms in a private apartment. Our host is a retired ballet dancer, and his name, improbably, is Robert Wagner. His apartment is the top floor of the tallest apartment building in the old city. The elevator hasn’t worked for years (talk about a work-out), but the panoramic view is AMAZING – Zadar is a tiny peninsula, a tongue of land covered by a semi-walled city teeming with old churches, and forming a natural protected harbor with the mainland; a few miles inland, huge white limestone cliffs jut dramatically toward the sky; in the other direction, out into the Adriatic, islands that look like the tip of submerged mountains erupt from the water.

Later, I sit down with my guidebooks and the section of my novel that takes place here, to put together a research itinerary for tomorrow. It’s not easy, because the thing that put Zara on the map is the same thing that wiped it off the map: the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians tore down the entire city when they left (except the churches). In fact the current “hot” Fourth Crusade historian didn’t even come here for research — there’s simply nothing left. Zadar, like most of Croatia, has far too much recent tragedy to care about anything from 800 years ago.

I know the Fourth Crusade fleet sailed into the harbor (which must have been awfully cramped). The army set up camp on the mainland, and then various Pythonesque, melodramatic things happened before the army ended up within the city walls for the winter. So I need to scope out the mainland as well as the old city.

The harborside, now commercial wharf, has been built out and fortified, so I can’t even tell if there would have been a sandy or a rocky beach where they landed. I have almost nothing to go on, but I actually love this kind of thing, which isn’t research so much as a combination of trespassing and guesswork – and, in this case, a little nautical archaeology. A tiny swatch of the harborside (about 5 feet) receives the brunt of a passing current, and a mini-beach has built up. I examine the sand (coarse, multi-colored) and organic detritus like seashells; I stare at what else is, or isn’t, in the water; I wander into private apartment grounds and examine the soil. I scope out the relationship of high ground to harbor-access to the city’s one land-gate. A woman wandering around solo already attracts suspicious attention around here, but I’m making it worse for myself by acting like a bad CIA operative. I think I figure out where the army camped, but I’m aware that I’m pretty much just making it up. (Of course, I’m a novelist, so I’m allowed to do that.)

Then I go into the city for an urban version of the same thing. Conclusions are harder here. My main problem is that I must determine where in the city my (fictional) characters passed the winter, but I can’t pick a spot at random; it has to have a certain relationship to real-life historical stuff, which means I have to figure out where that real-life historical stuff took place. If I can guesstimate that, I can then work out where my characters were in relationship to it. This might sound obsessive, but it’s a fun exercise in practical logic and more than that: I’m the characters’ mom, I can’t leave them homeless!

So I wander the streets for an hour, noting where the streets slope a little higher or lower. I figure out the highest point in the city, which is is probably where the leaders stayed. Then, on a street map, I deduce where my characters must have stayed relative to that, and finally, I head toward that spot to see it in real life. I’m tired and cranky, but increasingly excited as I finally approach the passage that, once I exit it, will take me to the spot where my characters would have passed the winter.

I exit the passage, turn the corner…

And find myself in front of my own lodgings.

After all of my tortuous visual engineering, the whimsy of this makes me burst out laughing. I take it as a message from the gods: stop worrying so much, we’re putting you exactly where you’re supposed to be. Take a break!

So I go to look at Saint Donat’s, the oldest church in town, built in the 800’s by a traveling Irish saint. Outside this church, I meet 3 actual (Northern) Irishmen, elderly academics who are sailing around the region just for fun (they had no idea this church was built by a fellow Irishman, but they’re not proud; “Oh, aye, we were always goin’ off and doin’ that sort of thing,” says one casually). We spend the next three hours looking at churches and imbibing various things; one of them is an experienced Adriatic sailor, so is able to give me all sorts of unexpected useful information for the book. I love the Irish!

I part company from them, just in time to watch the sunset from the steps of the Water Organ, a public-art invention that uses the pressure of waves slapping up against the sea wall to force air through pipes, which play music (tourists often go there and hold out their cell phones so the folks back home can hear it). It sounds sort of like hump-back whales singing in a perfect pentatonic scale. It’s a phenomenal accompaniment to a sunset. And not a bad way to end my Zara research. I have one more day here, mopping-up, and then it will take me three days and nights of travel to reach my next stop (but hey, it took the crusaders more than three weeks, so I’m not complaining.)

So: to recap the history stuff, and hint at what’s to come.
The Franks and Venetians are wintering in Zara, and as soon as spring comes they are supposed to head to the Holy Land to smite the infidels. But the French still owe the Venetians a lot of money. A lot of money. More than nine tons of minted silver. Where the hell are they going to get that kind of money?

Funny you should ask. Alexius, deposed heir to the Byzantine Empire, is in Europe, where he propositions the Crusaders: “Hey, I have lots of money but I need a fierce army to get me on my throne. You have a fierce army – and you need lots of money. What a cool coincidence!”

Can you see where this is going? Tune in next week…

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