Croatia

Stalked in the Balkans

 

cbuhman@MiamiHerald.com

It’s the eve of Croatia’s entry into the European Union, and we’re here for a drive along the Dalmatian coast, maybe a little island hopping in the Adriatic — not to be stalked by some American tough guy.

We have to smile when we learn our hotel’s Wi-Fi password is chucknorris. And we have to wonder when we see a Chuck Norris pizza on a menu. But then it gets eerie when on Korcula, the legendary birthplace of Marco Polo, we find Chuck Norris T-shirts competing with the island’s favorite son at the souvenir shops. What’s up with that?

Yes, Croatia is rife with art and culture and history — everywhere you turn is another UNESCO World Heritage site — but this mystery needs solving. And who better to ask than a taxi driver? Anyone will tell you taxi drivers know more about their town than tour guides, and this one explains that the national obsession probably comes from watching way too much Walker: Texas Ranger on TV. Turns out Croatians get lots of American shows, all broadcast in the original English with Croatian subtitles. (That also helps explain why almost all Croatians speak at least passable English, though some things get lost in translation: An airport transfer service hopes we will enjoy the plush “conformity” of its limousines; a pizzeria entices us with a pie topped with “smallpox on Red.”)

That mystery behind us, we arrive at our first World Heritage site, Dubrovnik’s walled old town, to find a delightful maze of plazas and alleyways. Walking atop the ramparts we come across a sign that says simply “cold drinks” with an arrow pointing to, well, a hole in the wall. The place is Buza, a wildly popular al fresco bar with little tables set on little ledges carved into the enormous rocks. We have our cocktails and watch daredevils leap off the cliff next to a sign that forbids diving. And on our way back to the hotel we come across by a bit of graffiti on a storefront window: “Buza — Chuck Norris was here.”

We figure we can lose him on the Dalmatian coast drive. I’m pretty sure that if I don’t hit a speed trap I can make it to Split in four hours. We’ll make it in four days, stopping in:

Ston: Home to “Europe’s Great Wall of China.” At about five miles, it’s a bit shorter than the Asian version, but still a pretty imposing piece of work.

Mostar: Neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to the iconic Stari Most bridge, a World Heritage site. Young men are said to leap from it into the icy water below for tips. We see one fellow threaten to jump several times, but he never follows through.

The Biokovo Mountains: A one-lane road with two-way traffic snakes its way to a 5,000-foot-plus peak with hardly a guardrail in sight. Are there no personal injury lawyers?

Tucepi: One of a handful of towns along the Makarska Riviera with pebble beaches, pristine waters and inexpensive apartment-like lodgings that attract families with kids, lots of kids, and an ice cream vendor every block or so.

There have been no further Chuck Norris sightings except for the occasional T shirt shop (“Guns don’t kill people. Chuck Norris Kills People”) and by the time we get to Diocletian’s Palace (yes, another World Heritage Site), we think we’ve lost him. We are wrong. Our favorite source, a taxi driver, tells us about the local baker who decided her shop had been burgled once too often. She made a poster warning that the place was now under the protection of Chuck Norris — and she has been crime-free ever since.

A short drive away is Trogir, yet another World Heritage site we have to see, but there is no escape. Seems Chuck Norris has been thrust into Trogir politics by the People’s Party candidate for mayor Frane Žižak. According to local media reports, Žižak was inspired by other recent elections in which many Croats were actually voting for Chuck Norris. Žižak’s campaign billboard: “Maybe Chuck Norris could clean up the town in just a day, I can do it given a four-year term.”

It probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but like France, which is getting over its love affair with Jerry Lewis, and Germany, getting past its infatuation with David Hasselhoff, it looks like there’s hope for Croatia.

Turns out poor Frane got just 11 percent of the vote in the summer election and the Democratic Union candidate, a fellow named Ante Stipcic, is now happily ensconced in the mayor’s office.

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