Just across the Bay from Mlini, our little Croatian village on the Dubrovnik Riviera, one can faintly see Cavtat. Founded by the Greeks in the 6th centuiry B.C. as Epidarus (which became Epidarum under the Romans), inhabited before that by Illyrians, the town was destroyed by Slav invaders in the 7th century and re-established in the Middle Ages. This information has nothing to do with the gorgeous, perfectly situated little Mediterranean town that Cavtat is today, but it is fascinating to realize that such a place has been inhabited since ancient times.
We had rented a car because we had to go over to Bosnia again, to pick up our computer, which we had left there for (hopeful) repair (they couldn’t fix it). We were going to continue further in to the mountains between Bosnia and Montenegro, but we find this country so rugged and so downtrodden that we decided instead to go back to the coast and visit what we had heard was such a pretty seaside town. The air was luscious, and the sun was brilliant. We ate at what had been touted as the best restaurant in town, Kolona, and were the only people there. We found out that this was because they had only opened for the season the day before–in summertime the place is packed. The food was excellent (sea bream and black risotto), and with pleasantly full stomachs, we headed out to walk around town.
Nestled around a lovely harbor–now filled with the yachts of the super-rich, since a place this beautiful would have to be appropriated by glitterati–the town has several alleyways of narrow steps leading up from the waterfront to the houses placed along the pathways. St. Nicholas Church’s steeple dominates the skyline. There are a few historic signs placed on significant buildings, but the tourist office offers no maps and not much historical information. But I had already read about the town’s one well-known artist, and sought out his house, which is now a gallery for his works.
Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922), born Biagio Faggioni in Cavtat, had a wildly peripatetic life, with extended periods in America, Peru, Prague, Paris, and Zagreb, among other places. After a traumatic early childhood, in which he was sent to rich relatives in the U.S., only to end up in an orphanage, he returned to his family’s home in his birthplace at 15. Perhaps because of guilt over his abandonment, his parents allowed him to paint the walls of the house with imaginative images of animals and colorful ornamentation. He became a better artist as he developed, but I found these primitive drawings charming.
I love these kind of finds: a regional artist of the period from 1870 to 1920 who tries his hand at a variety of styles, and gains inspiration not only from his wide travels, but from reproductions in magazines. And the house was simply heavenly: situated up one of the steep alleyways, it had a garden with scent-laden trees and a view to the harbor.
Bukovac married and had four children, and the best of his paintings feature his family–including one rather creepy painting of the heads of himself, his wife, and his children hanging from strings. Apparently, this had something to do with the death of his mother, but it is an example of his reading of Symbolist works, too.
After walking through all the rooms of the house, we walked back down to the harbor and around to the red villa we could see on the other side of the harbor. Now a municipal building, this villa was one of the most elegant and voluptuous structures we have seen, largely because of its stupendous view out across the bay, with Dubrovnik itself faintly visible in the distance.
As we strolled around the villa’s overgrown gardens, we could see right next to the property the hulking mass of an unfinished hotel–a common sight here in Croatia, where projects were begun, tons of concrete poured, and then the money ran out. Such eyesores appear in Greece as well, evidence of the overwhelming effects of the global financial crisis. Perhaps once the vegetation begins to creep up its sides, it will look like an ancient ruin–of which there are many on this peninsula, which was also the site of some of the earliest bombardments of the 1990s conflicts, where whole villages were wiped out.
But strolling around this bay in the glorious sun and scrumptious atmosphere, it is hard to imagine such past tragedies. It’s no wonder that now celebrities from Europe and America have found Cavtat. And again, I am so happy we found this place in the off season!