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Adriatic: a sea of seven nations
Tristan Rutherford for Camper & Nicholsons
7th April 2020
The Adriatic is a scatter of countless islands along a 1,000km waterway. All are shared by only three million residents from seven disparate nations. From the sea’s Venetian castles to royal retreats, there’s never been a better year to set sail.

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Adriatic: a sea of seven nations

The Palazzo Giustinian overlooks the Grand Canal. The five-storey Gothic mansion was built during the 15th century to showcase Venitian 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 ecofriendly 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 citycentral 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 1,000kmlong 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 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 45m The Goose, 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.