Here & there: History from the outside in

The author overlooking the City of Ston atop the 14th Century Walls of Ston. Ston, Croatia. Sept. 5, 2017. | Photo courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

FEATURE — I’d been in Croatia for three days before I even heard about the Walls of Ston. The first news of them didn’t come from any of the locals we’d befriended or our native guide. Instead, news of this great Croatian treasure came via a chance encounter with a yacht-sailing British couple.

View approaching the Walls of Ston via boat. Ston, Croatia. Sept. 5, 2017. | Photo courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

The cultured pair, Fee and Eddie, told us we simply must visit the Walls of Ston. (She later also told us that the key to having a close relationship with your teenage boys is to let them have sex in the house – “don’t let them do it in a car!” But that story is for another column).

She went on about the cities of Ston and Mali Ston, through which the Walls of Ston pass. Mali Ston, Fee said, is entirely charming. We must visit them all; but mostly the walls.

From the table opposite them at the intimate seaside restaurant we happened to share one evening, my girlfriends and I looked at each other sheepishly, hating to admit to this refined duo that we had no clue what they were talking about.

Fee went on to confide that they once took some American friends to see the walls and they weren’t impressed. “Can you believe it?,” she asked imploringly. My friends and I assured her we could not and we would make no such mistake when we visited.

We left the restaurant and promptly started researching the Walls of Ston. Visiting them was our new No. 1  priority on the trip.

What we found with some quick Google searches amazed us: The Walls of Ston is a 4.3-mile-long limestone wall constructed in the 14th century along the Pelješac Peninsula to protect that part of the Croatian Coast (then Ragusa) from the invading Ottoman Empire. It is second only in size to the Great Wall of China.

None of us seven educated Americans had ever heard of it.

Based on the recommendation of our new British friends, we hired a water taxi the next day to take us to this important wall, with a little stop at an island food “shack” along the way. There, we got grilled sea bream and lobster pasta – and also a history lesson from the proprietor, Luka.

Luka told us about the Ottoman Empire spreading into Ragusa, allured by the valuable salt mines and wine exports and olive oil; about Napoleon coming in and invading with a flag as virtually his only weapon; and about the violent struggle to separate from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Limestone stairs along the Walls of Ston. Ston, Croatia. Sept. 5, 2017. | Photo courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

From Luka’s account, Croatia had been trying to fight off outside invaders for most of its history in one way or another. The wall seemed to be the emblem of that struggle.

If we hadn’t already been compelled to see it, we were then.

After our four-hour lunch and history lesson, we found ourselves approaching the Walls of Ston in our small water taxi. From the sea, the wall is an entirely impressive sight. The stepped walls snake the Croatian countryside like a dragon warrior guarding its treasures.

Our group was almost silent, stunned, at the site before us. When we did speak, it was only to remark about seeing something so incredible – and also the irony of not knowing it existed less than 24 hours before.

It took us 20 minutes to walk from the dock to the wall entrance, which was indicated by a humble sign affixed to a staircase and a one-room ticket office above it. Unlike the Great Wall of China, with vendors and tour buses and crowds, the Walls of Ston were nearly deserted.

Moments later as my friends and I climbed limestone step after limestone step up a massive vertical incline, our awe of the wall only increased. We were walking on history. And we all felt it.

The next morning, my group congregated at a local café back on the island of Šipan. We had befriended the grouchy old man who owned the place, a local whose family has been in the church books on the island for over 500 years, and we wanted to get his take on this great wall over our cups of chai lattes.

He flicked his hand dismissively at the mention of the wall. “I have never been.”

We were all shocked. “But it’s your history,” I protested.

A brief smile flickered over his eyes as he slowly walked away. “History is all around me,” he said. “My mother (a 91-year-old invalid for whom he cares) is the biggest history.”

And the discussion was over.

I’m still processing what he meant exactly. But whatever his meaning, it got me thinking: Perhaps some treasures can only be seen and appreciated from the outside and not by the ones living it.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected] | [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • mctrialsguy September 18, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    A poser who lets her children have sex in the house, nauseating self-gratifying article. OMG.

    • mctrialsguy September 18, 2017 at 1:12 pm

      My bad, the author did not say that she lets her children have sex in the house, the couple that she’d met and spoken with said that, my bad!!

  • commonsense September 18, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    I’m interested to read your column on letting teenage boys have sex in your home. That might get a few comments.

  • comments September 18, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Probably a little awkward for dad though, letting the teen daughter have sex in the house. How did we get on this…..

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