The Dragon of Dalmatia

Korcula Island, Croatia – I heard about The Dragon even before I arrived in Korcula.  On Hvar Island, there was an American girl who was spending the summer traveling the Croatian coast.  She had the misfortune of finding work at a tiny backpacker hostel in Korcula, one of the quieter Dalmatian islands. The hostel was called The Dragon’s Den, and it was run by a skinny Croatian in his thirties who was reported to reference himself in the third person as The Dragon. (“They can’t handle the Dragon.”) In her first week working at The Den, the girl was asked to proofread a scene from a screenplay The Dragon was writing. It contained sex. (Nasty, dirty sex.) She did not work a second week.

Several days later the girl showed up in Hvar where there was chatter about The Dragon’s Den. After hearing her story, some travelers speculated that The Dragon wasn’t writing a screenplay at all—that his filthy scrawl was just a device for coming on to young travelers.  Either way, the prevailing view was that The Dragon was a pervert who creeped on customers. One backpacker who stayed at the hostel later reviewed it as “Very Rapey.”

But a recent arrival in Hvar—an amicable Portland native named Jim—had stayed at The Den during the American girl’s short tenure. The Dragon, he recalled, had somehow gotten it in his head that Jim had Hollywood ties (being American is sometimes enough) and he pestered Jim to share the manuscript with his friends. Jim had politely declined. But was the movie script real?

I was headed for Korcula, so I decided to stay at the Den. If there was a dirty screenplay, I wanted to read it.

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Photo: A boat anchored off Hvar Island. At night, after bars close, you will be tempted to jump from these boats. (But you will get urchins in your feet.)

The tourist season was just picking up when I left Hvar Island. The throngs of tourists hadn’t arrived yet, but each night waves of young backpackers poured off of cruise ships lining the harbor. These were two- or seven-day party-boats from the mainland. Kinderpackers would emerge from their hulls, groggy and sunburned from a day at sea, and stream into Hvar’s pubs. At 3am they tumble out in pairs and copulate on the beach or on the bows of anchored boats. And at sunrise they shuffle back to their ships and disappear into the Adriatic before a new set of boats arrives. The scene is repeated ad nauseum up and down the coast from Split to Dbrovnik. One continuous nautical drunkenness, set to the rhythms of techno and reggae.

I boarded an empty ferry destined for Korcula, and slouched into a seat for the two-hour cruise. We glided slowly past massive island hills as I read a copy of Tender is the Night that I picked up in Ljubljana. Fitzgerald’s novel is an account of hedonism on the French Riviera during the Jazz Age. A group of young Americans is consumed by a lifestyle of empty pleasure-seeking and eventually their lives fall apart. It reminded me of the Dalmatian Coast, and I listed in my journal some of the similarities:

“Sunbathing. Beaches. Drunkenness. Debauchery. Parties. Sex.”

Croatia’s islands can be lovely—and it was the first stop on my trip where I made a group of good friends—but like a wine that’s so sweet it’s cloying, enough was enough.

I decided I was a bad writer and went back to recording the scrubby island landscape that passed as we drifted down the coast.

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Photo: Korcula Town in the late afternoon sun.

Our ferry trundled up to Korcula Island, a 40-kilometer rock sliver pointing toward Italy. The old town, crowded with stone buildings, glowed in the late sun and I was half-temped to stay in town. But instead I hoisted my pack onto my shoulder and headed south out of town, following the edge of an inlet down a quiet road. Thirty minutes later I arrived at the Den.

A girl answered the door—a guest. She said The Dragon was out and directed me to the kitchen where I poured myself a glass of water and waited. The house looked more like an Undergraduate Den, with tacky couches, a sleek stereo system, and a pair of dumbbells in the living room.

Eventually a van pulled into the drive and The Dragon burst in the front door. He walked past me and began fiddling with something in a cupboard.

“How many nights?” He was skinny and short with lean features and a shaved head. His sudden bursts of movement and speech were more suggestive of a salamander or a nute than a dragon. “How many nights,” he repeated.

“Two. Maybe three. I’m not sure.”

“20 Euros,” he said, and halted suddenly to stare me in the eyes. “20 Euros. Two nights.” He stared, and repeated it one more time. “20 Euros.”

“Can I see the room first?” This is a common request.

He cracked his neck with a jerk of the head and dismissed me with a wave of the hand.

In the basement, a dozen bunks were crammed into a dark narrow space. The place was empty save the girl from the front door and her friend. They were packing, so I tucked my bag on a bunk and returned upstairs. In the living room The Dragon was chewing gum and pumping a 3-pound dumbbell in his left hand while fiddling with a TV remote in the other.

“20 Euros.”

“Okay.” I paused, taking out money. “Has it been busy lately?”

“Where do you go next.” He ignored my question, then answered his own. “Dubrovnik. You’re going to Dubrovnik. I’ll get you a ride. 40 euros. Includes taxi and boat. Car to Dubrovnik. You can’t get it cheaper. I got a friend. I know the guy who runs the boat. 40 euros.”

“You know the guy?” Korcula is a town of 5,000—everybody knows the guy.

“Do you want it or not.” He aimed the dumbbell at me. “40 euros.”

The two girls came upstairs and passed through the kitchen behind me. The Dragon paused and his eyes traced the movement of their legs. He chewed the gum.

“40 euros. The Dragon will take care of you.”

I shuddered a little, but I accepted. I wanted to shift the subject away from money so I could hear about about his dirty screenplay.  I assumed it was trash and badly wanted to read it. But how do you ask a guy with dumbbells, “Hey are you writing a porno screenplay?” I beat around the bush for too long, and after several minutes The Dragon stopped responding. The Dragon didn’t want anything to do with me, and he was even less interested after I paid him. So I gave up.

* * * *

I spent the evening in Korcula town, comfortable with my decision to leave for Dubrovnik the next day. The Den was a pit, The Dragon unpleasant, and the pornographic screenplay totally unconfirmed.

By contrast, I found Korcula Town completely lovely. I walked the city’s stony ramparts as Croatia’s black island hills disappeared in the pail light. Masts of boats etched lines across a sky of pink, yellow, and blue. Dimly lit cafes sprawled out along the north side of the little peninsula where lively tourists—mostly families—ate fish dinners. I walked past St. Mark’s Cathedral and the house where locals claim Marco Polo was born, then I wandered back to the city gate.  A jazz band was playing nearby, so I uncorked a bottle of red Croatian wine and sat in the small plaza reading about the region’s vineyards.

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Photo: The ramparts of Korcula at dusk (very good ramparts).

Korcula is wine country. Winemaking in Croatia dates back 2,500 years—some say the craft was even invented here. You could certainly argue that the current era of winemaking has its origins here. Ten miles east of Korcula is the Dalmatian town of Desne, childhood home of Mike Grgich. The son of a winemaker, Grgich (GER-gich) studied winemaking in Europe before moving to northern California in the 1970’s where he helped turn the wine world on its head. At that time, the finest wines were produced exclusively in Europe, and “serious” California wine was considered a joke. It was Grgich who crafted the now-famous 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay that bested the finest French competitors in a blind tasting in Paris that year. The story made international headlines and put California winemakers on the map.

Grgich and others made it acceptable to make fine wine outside Europe, in places like California, Argentina, Australia, and South Africa.  Ironically, it has taken decades for Croatian wine to gain similar acclaim. But it’s happening now, and some wines of Korcula and nearby are highly sought-after today.

I took a sip from the red Croatian plavac mali and read on. Around midnight I sauntered reluctantly back to the Den.

* * * *

In the morning I woke to the bleating of a car horn. Outside, The Dragon was talking with my driver. As I approached the car he complained that I was too slow. Groggy, I ignored him and got in the car. The Dragon slammed the door turned toward the house. But before pulling away, I rolled down the window and called him back.

“If you’re ever in California, look me up. I’ll bring you by the Warner Bros studio,” I lied. “You have my email.”

“You work in movies?”

“Just production,” I demurred.

The Dragon’s eyes widened. “Hold on a minute.” And he ran back into the house.

The driver turned to me, “What did he say.”

“He said bye. Let’s go.” And we drove off.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Dubrovnik was block his email address. Then I uncorked another bottle of Croatian wine.

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