A View With a Room
The spectacular coast of Croatia is studded with centuries-old lighthouses. Eleven of them have vacation rentals that allow guests to play keeper for a week.
Of course there's a ghost.
If you're staying in the base of a 189-year-old lighthouse, the kind that juts out from a rugged cape and has 152 spooky spiral steps leading to a mist-cloaked tower--well, you'd feel a little cheated if there weren't a spirit or two tromping around the place.
We encountered ours on our first night in Savudrija, a small town on the northern tip of Croatia's Istrian Peninsula. We'd rented an apartment attached to the whitewashed, two-story, courtyard villa that sits underneath the 105-foot-tall lighthouse, the oldest in Croatia. My husband, Nick, my year-old daughter, Willa, and I were drifting off to sleep when the banging started. I suspected the kelly-green wood shutters that covered each of the sea-facing windows, so I padded around the two bedrooms and kitchen, securing the shutters. The clattering got quieter but didn't go away altogether.
When the clanking continued the next night, I consulted Milan Milin-Ungar, Savudrija's lighthouse keeper. Seven of the 11 Croatian lighthouses with vacation rentals have on-site superintendents, whose duties vary depending on the lighthouse. At remote island spots, like Susac, he might catch a fish and cook it for your dinner, although this is something you can certainly do yourself, as all of the lighthouses have kitchens. Otherwise, the keepers act more as hosts: helping you procure groceries, picking you up from town or the port if you don't have wheels of your own, offering sightseeing advice.
One thing the keepers don't do much of anymore is turn on the lights or keep them flashing. A sensor detects when it gets dark and automatically activates bulbs not much bigger than the sort found in a bedside lamp. I was surprised the dinky things could create such a high beam, but Milan showed me the mirrors, mounted on top of the white-block tower, that magnify the light. Over the past 30 years, Milan has worked in four of Croatia's lighthouses, sometimes with his wife and two sons with him, other times--as when he ran Palagruza, which sits on an otherwise uninhabited island in the middle of the Adriatic--mostly on his own. As such, he bears that streak of nuttiness you might expect from someone who's spent much of his life away from civilization. A wiry, excitable man with graying hair and blackened teeth, he's prone to hopping around, waving his arms in the air, and speaking broken English in bulleted duplicate imperatives, like Roberto Benigni's long-lost nautical twin.
"Ghost! Ghost! Legend! Legend! Yes! Yes!" he said when I asked if there was someone spooking us. "Metternich! Metternich!" he exclaimed, referring to the 19th-century Austrian prince who was a power player in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Over the next two days, in an elaborate game of charades, Milan and his wife, Danica (with the eventual clarification from their English-speaking daughter-in-law, Andrea, who also lived at the lighthouse with her husband and baby son), gave me the whole story: Prince Klemens von Metternich fell in love with a Croatian woman he met at a ball in Vienna and ordered the construction of Savudrija, not to keep seafarers from crashing into the rugged coastline, but to escape to with his lady friend. Unfortunately, she died of pneumonia on the very day her lighthouse was completed.
Justifiably unhappy about this unfair turn of events, she now haunts the home that should've been hers.
When most people think of Croatia's ghosts, their reference point is more modern--and more bloody. The country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and shortly thereafter Slobodan Milosevic began the ethnic cleansing of Croats from what he saw as Serbian soil (a practice that continued in Bosnia and Kosovo). After more than a decade of peace, there's little evidence of those dark times. These days the only invading forces are tourists: 10 million of them visited in 2005, according to the Ministry of Tourism. While the influx has been great for the economy, it has had less-positive effects on parts of the landscape. Construction cranes are permanent fixtures along the Adriatic Riviera as concrete apartments and bars shoot up. In addition to being inexpensive, the lighthouses are an excellent way to experience a coastal Croatia that's threatened by a growing layer of tourist ticky-tacky.
But like all good bargains, the lighthouse slots go quickly. Nick and I wanted to travel in late September, and I was hoping for a miracle when I called the booking agency in July. A helpful rep told me autumn was officially off-season, so prices were not only lower, but the minimum stay--a week in summer--dropped to three days, and, best of all, there were still pockets of availability. (He didn't mention that many restaurants and hotels in tourist areas shut down between October and May.) He then gave me the rundown on the different lighthouses. "Families with children prefer Savudrija and Rt Zub, both on the mainland, or Veli Rat, which is reachable by ferry and has a village nearby," he advised. The only other mainland lighthouse, Sv. Petar, is too close to Makarska for us: "It's one of the hotspots during the summer," he said. "Not recommended for people seeking peace and quiet."