Adriatic: the rise of sea power, by Tristan Rutherford

Camper & Nicholsons Magazine, May 2020

The Palazzo Giustinian overlooks the Grand Canal. The five-storey Gothic mansion was built during the 15th century to showcase Venetian sea power. At the time Venice was like Singapore, Dubai and Monaco - rolled into one. A superpower microstate that traded, shocked and awed, while importing apples from Anatolia, carobs from Egypt and silk from China. 

 

In 2020 the Palazzo Giustinian hosts the Venice Architecture Biennial. Once again global powers will sail in, this time to solve pressing issues using good design. The American pavilion will highlight eco-friendly wood framed architecture. The Dubai pavilion will showcase salt, one of the Emirate’s most abundant resources, as a building material. 

 

This year the world’s largest luxury yachts will be able to dock alongside the show. A recent initiative, Venice Yacht Pier, promotes mooring at 800m of city-central quays. From here superyacht guests are able to paddleboard down the Grand Canal.

 

From the Grand Canal, Venice turned the Adriatic Sea into a Venetian Lake. Dominating the 1,000km-long waterway were castles, lighthouses and timber yards for Venice’s fighting galleys. The sea is now shared by a mere 3.5m residents across seven disparate nations. 

 

Venetian expansion is at its most picturesque in Istria. This heart-shaped peninsula dangles from Croatia, a two-hour cruise past Slovenia from La Serenissima. Red-roofed towns like Rovinj speak dialectal Italian. Such that a Veneto native could order spumante bianco and spaghetti al tartufo without changing accent or currency. Visitors from Venice included Casanova. The aristocratic lothario gobbled 50 oysters a day from the adjoining Lim Fjord to fuel his strenuous form of holidaymaking. Today’s guests can moor at Rovinj’s brand new marina, which welcomes yachts of up to 50m (or longer with advance notice). 

 

Istria’s biggest event of 2020 resides on its eastern coast. This year the shipbuilding city of Rijeka is Europe’s Capital of Culture. Croatia's largest port hosts arty open air pop-ups, while its fish market becomes a photo gallery - albeit one decked with red shrimp and Adriatic tuna. Rijeka’s most ambitious exhibition is the freshly renovated 117m presidential yacht Galeb, which Yugoslav leader Josip Tito once sailed up the River Thames to greet Sir Winston Churchill. The ship, originally built in Italy in 1938 to transport bananas from Eritrea, has become a floating museum dedicated to Rijeka’s maritime past. There has never been a better time to sail in. 

 

President Tito certainly knew the highlife. His private presidential islands off the Istrian coast, the Brijuni Archipelago, were used to host celebrities and royalty from Gina Lollobrigida to Queen Elizabeth II. The 17 sun-drenched islands are now a National Park - with a difference. Sea-loving Tito installed a private yacht harbour and turned the Adriatic’s first golf course into a private zoo. Visitors can now tee off next alongside an elephant gifted by Indira Gandhi and a herd of antelope from Haile Selassie. 

Potentates, presidents and private yachts have long cruised south from Istria to the Adriatic island of Rab. Here four centuries of Venetian suzerainty rises in Italianate campaniles and alfresco palazzi. In 1936 the spotlight shone on Rab when British monarch Edward VIII sailed in with Mrs Wallace Simpson. 

 

King Edward VIII tried to keep his liaison a secret. A tricky task when you’re aboard the luxurious 91m Nahlin, a vintage yacht recently renovated by Blohm + Voss. It’s unlikely the holiday of a senior royal and an American divorcee would attract such attention today. Joking aside, several Camper & Nicholsons yachts, including 36m Metsuyan IV, regularly tie up in Rab’s historic harbour where the monarch disembarked. The island’s hiking trails, wine cellars and naturist beaches - the latter utilised by Mrs Simpson - are as tempting as they were a century ago. 

 

The Lion of St Mark also hangs above Vis. The tiny island, which can be circumnavigated by mountain bike in half a day, is among the most isolated of Croatia’s 1,240 island gems. A microclimate cossets lemons, thyme and ancient Italian vines, which fruit a full month before the Croatian mainlaid. All items are used to make the unctuous grappa served in Vis’s quayside bars. It looks like a sunny suburb of Venice - albeit several centuries ago. 

 

The cerulean seas around Vis are so tempting that everyone has wanted a slice. After the Venetians came the Kingdom of Italy, the Austrian Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte and the British, who introduced cricket to the tiny Adriatic isle. During WWII the cricket green became an airstrip. One Flying Fortress bomber missed Vis’s runway and sits intact on the seabed 100m from shore. It’s now laced with gorgonia fans, which form a rainbow dwelling for moray eels and lobster, alongside 20 other significant air and shipwrecks. All in all, a scuba diver’s dream. 

 

Adriatic islands like Vis, Lastovo and Mljet were off-limits to private yachts for most of the 20th century as naval bases. As was the Montenegrin port of Tivat. This strategic harbour, a day sail away from six other Adriatic nations, served as a top secret submarine base. A 30km no-fly zone meant the adjoining fjord of Kotor, which is riven with cathedral-high submarine pens, was quite literally off the radar. 

 

Tivat has now been reborn as Porto Montenegro. The ne plus ultra of superyacht harbours couples maritime history (Tivat’s sailors planted the port’s park with trees from China to Brazil) with every fashion label from Alexander McQueen to Zadig & Voltaire. In 2020 Porto Montenegro promises a regular action-packed programme. May ushers in the Trans-Adriatic Race to Bari in Italy. In September the Thousand Islands Race will deliver exactly that, as the regatta sweeps past countless forested islands in Croatia up to Rijeka and back. Finally, the Winter Superyacht Games sees harbour denizens compete at splitboard snowboarding and fat tyre downhill cycling at Montenegro’s Kolašin ski resort. 

 

A final nation makes it to the superyacht start line in 2020. Cap Rodon in Albania is a former Venetian bastion - which will soon become a luxury marina. From here 500km of Albanian coastline, riven with islets, beaches and submarine bases, beckons to the most exploratory of souls. Due south is one of Europe’s largest abandoned islands. Sazan, which sits in National Park waters alive with beaked dolphins and sperm whales, only opened to day visitors in 2018. It’s freshly accessible to sailors from another new marina, Limion Port, near the leafy ruins of Butrint. Once again every Adriatic overlord, from Ancient Greece and Rome through Byzantines and Ottomans, left their mark in the form of agoras, aqueducts, frescos and hammams. Hungry for more? The UNESCO-protected town of Corfu is a 5km swim away. 

 

Corfu was ruled by Venice for four centuries. La Serenissima’s legacy is best tasted in the form of a masked carnevale and pastissada, a meaty Venetian stew that remains the island’s most popular dish. The voyage back to Venice is best made using another Italian navigator, 60m Sarastar. This state-of-the-art superyacht has the power to invade tiny islands using wave runners, seabobs and a fully fledged sailing dinghy. All of which makes 2020 a winning year to plant one’s flag in the Adriatic. 

Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti author travel writing from around the Mediterranean for The Guardian and The Times.  

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