Dejan Lukic has included material on Goli Otok in his dissertation. See Lukic 2007
- On Location
- » A Boat Ride
We leave behind Senj, the medieval coastal town on the north coast of Croatia from which we will drive south to the ferry that will take us to Goli Otok. Five of us are taking the trip, among us the Croatian anthropologist Dejan Lukic. Senj is a cosmopolitan town that has retained all the vestiges of its long history: thick town walls, tall clock tower, small winding streets, all of which congruously absorb the vacationers who are walking around in their bathing suits, eating ice-cream, and languishing in the afternoon sun.
We leave Senj behind and start driving south on a narrow, winding road that skirts the coast and takes us from thickly forested mountains with towering deciduous trees, to a Mediterranean landscape of pine and juniper. The sea to our right is strewn with small islands, most of them covered in pine forests, others completely bare, just rocks that jut into air. I have read countless accounts of Goli Otok that describe it as a bare rock that jutting up from the calm water of the Adriatic. I wonder whether we can see Goli Otok from the road this far north, and which of the islands it is. We still have to drive for over an hour to reach the island of Rab, where we will spend our nights.
We get to the juncture where we must leave the main road and drive down a smaller, equally winding one that will take us to the port at the town of Jablanac, from which the ferry to Rab will leave. The queue for the ferry is long, and while we are waiting, two handsome young men jump up, squeegees in hand, to clean our windshield. “Is it globalized aesthetics or globalized response to the economic meltdown?” we wonder, thinking of New York in the nineties. From up here, set in the cove of a fjord, we can see the village--tiny, compact, with buildings from the medieval, Renaissance, and imperial periods still intact, and a tall clock tower. It is early dusk, around 8:00 p.m. We slowly make our way to the ferry, which leaves as soon as we all embark. From the moving ferry I see Jablanac, nesting in its cove, surrounded by thick forest. When I turn my back on Jablanac and face west towards Rab, I am surprised by the sight. Rab appears as a rock jutting up from the water. Surely, the vegetation must be invisible because of the distance, I think. The ferry must have brought us straight to Goli Otok, whose descriptions fit this site much better because all photographs that I have seen of the island show a lush landscape with Roman, medieval, and Renaissance settlements. As the ferry approaches closer, it becomes clear that what we are going to be setting foot on is a rocky, barren place.
The port is ensconced in a small cove, from which a wide road winds upwards, though its direction and destination are not clear. The incline is not steep, the slope is gentle in its contours, but the landscape is one of the most barren I have ever seen. It looks like the detritus of a strip mine, since there are no large rocks or boulders, just pebbles and thin soil, the whole area swathed in a reddish color. We drive up the slope and from its high point we see a lowland plateau with sparse vegetation here and there, just low shrub. As we drive in towards the town, we witness a radical change in the landscape. The complete barrenness of the port slowly gives way to low vegetation which mounts until, at the outskirts of the town, we are in a deep pine forest. I remember I have read that Rab is a corruption of the ancient name Arba (meaning “forested”); it was given to the town because of the thick forests that surround it. All this, however, happens only on the western side of the island; the eastern side is nothing more than the bare rock we kept seeing from the main coastal road.
Along our way are tourist settlements. Here are the ubiquitous (along the Mediterranean coast) maisonettes, two-story single-family structures with red tiled roofs, large balconies, and a look of conformity about them. They are built in clusters, bowing to the post youth-culture widespread desire (by now transformed into need) to vacation by the seaside. Here are SUVs, loaded with boats and jet-skis, here are clusters of residences that give little sense of villages or neighborhoods. There are no central squares, no central market, only convenience stores here and there. If there is agricultural production or animal husbandry on the island, it is not in evidence.
Around nine o’clock in the evening we arrive at the town of Rab, which is magnificently beautiful. Lush and calm, it is built in a deep cove on the Adriatic that faces west. Continuously inhabited since antiquity, it was first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pseudo-Skylax in 360 BC. Under the Romans, it was the chosen place of Octavius Caesar, who built fortifications that are still visible. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the town came under the Byzantine Empire, then the Hungarian king, then the Venetians, then the Hapsburgs, before it became part of Yugoslavia after the First World War. The succession of so many different sovereignties, so many hegemonies, so many imperial projects has left layers of visible traces in the town, which, however, in its historic center, bears the unmistakable mark of Venice. We walk along the small harbor and see advertisements for boat rides to “nearby islands.” We make inquiries about Goli Otok, but we get nothing definitive about transport to the island other than that there are boats going there both from Rab and from the small resort village of Lopar. We decide to go from Lopar, as it will be a shorter boat ride and will give us the opportunity to drive through the island. We retire early in order to make our way to the prison island in the morning.