Photograph by Aaron Huey
I've been warned that, like almost everyone living in Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands, Jure Kvinta suffers from pomalo, a condition said to be so insidious, so overwhelming, so unstoppable, that it could undermine my entire mission. That would be tragic. I’ve come all the way to Croatia to find Jure, to conduct business of the utmost importance with him. Jure is the lighthouse keeper on Lastovo Island, one of the most far-flung and isolated of the Dalmatians. By all accounts, Lastovo is an enchanting little outpost, a place of limestone peaks and hidden inlets with just 600 people living in a medieval village surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
The lighthouse itself is like something out of a fairy tale, I’m told, a majestic beacon perched on a 229-foot cliff overlooking the shimmering Adriatic. Jure’s father kept the lighthouse, as did his father before him. Admittedly, I’ve become fairly obsessed with the structure ever since seeing a photo of it online. There are 48 Croatian lights scattered across the Adriatic, all built in the 19th century, each stunning and inspiring in its own way. But only the one on Lastovo has a connection to my decidedly obscure, Slavic last name—Kvinta. Given that there aren’t that many Kvintas on the planet, my mission is simple: travel to Lastovo, meet Jure, determine if we’re kin, and claim possible bragging rights to having a fabulous European lighthouse in my family.
BUT THE FULL implications of pomalo don’t reveal themselves until halfway into my five-hour ferry ride from the mainland city of Split, when I notice that my fellow passengers can hardly keep their clothes on. By the time we reach Brac Island, the blonde to my left has discarded her sweater and is sunning herself in a lacy, push-up bra. By Hvar, the two hairy, middle-aged men to my right have abandoned their shirts and ordered more beer. By Korcula, the young guys behind me are down to their boxers and smoking a hookah pipe as big as a barber pole.
Things deteriorate from there.
When I can finally make out Lastovo in the distance, the push-up bra has disappeared completely, the hookah is making its way around the entire ship, and several crew members have joined the hairy guys in belting out a medley of Croatian folk songs.
“Pomalo,” mutters the Italian grandmother seated next to me, shaking her head.
She spits out the word like an unexpected anchovy on a pizza. Pomalo, she explains, is an entrenched Dalmatian philosophy of life that suggests some combination of “easy,” “slowly,” “no problem,” “maybe tomorrow,” “relax,” and “have another coffee.” All of which is fine, Grandma concedes, unless you actually need to accomplish something. “I have a 400-year-old house on Korcula,” she says. “It needs work. You think I can get these people to work on my house? Look at them. Mama mia! It is impossible!”
I’d been assured that Jure would meet me at the ferry terminal on Lastovo, but after all the passengers disembark and disperse, I’m left standing there alone with a suitcase in one hand and my passport in the other. I had entertained romantic notions of presenting my ID to Jure, of embracing him right there on the dock as my long-lost cousin. But he’s nowhere in sight. I dig for my cell phone.
“Jure, this is Paul Kvinta.”
“I cannot get you,” he says, sounding like he’s still waking from a nap. “Take a taxi.”
“A taxi?” There are no taxis. There are no cars. I’d studied the map. The village is six miles from here, the lighthouse two miles beyond that. I look across the dusty road. There’s the ferry office, a tiny grocery store, and the Lizard Lounge. That’s it.
“I will call you a taxi,” Jure says and hangs up.
I lug my suitcase to the Lizard and wait.
THE CAB WINDS THROUGH pine forests and over hills until I finally glimpse the lighthouse rising alone at the end of a windswept peninsula. It seems the epitome of something Luka Bekic had told me the day before back on the mainland: “We are a seafaring country. We’ve been that for centuries.”
Croatia has 1,244 islands sprinkled along its rocky coast, and Bekic, director of the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar, spends his time trolling their shores, recovering evidence of the maritime powers that have historically battled for control here: the Romans, Illyrians, Venetians, and others. “Even the Romans probably built some kind of lighthouses,” Bekic explained, “maybe just metal baskets with fire.” By the 19th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire had erected 48 proper lighthouses in the islands, locating them near strategic shipping lanes. Later, after Croatia declared its independence in 1991, the government refurbished several of the lighthouses and assigned them double-duty as inns. Today, island-hopping travelers can rent apartments in 11 Croatian lighthouses, including Jure’s.
“Mr. Kvinta?” a woman inquires as I step from the taxi. She’s leaning against the low stone wall encircling the lighthouse. She pronounces “Kvinta” not like I do (kuh-VIN-tuh) but like some of my relatives back in Texas: “Quinta.”
“That’s me,” I say, handing her my passport.
She studies it.
“Yes, Quinta,” she acknowledges and introduces herself as Nada, Jure’s wife. In broken English she explains that Jure should be back soon from errands. She has auburn hair, gentle eyes, and an inviting smile, and my heart warms at the thought that she might be family. I whip out my notebook and begin rifling questions. Is Jure’s family originally from Croatia? How long have Kvintas been on Lastovo? Where…
Nada throws up both hands. “Easy, Quinta, easy,” she protests. “Pomalo, pomalo.”
“No working!” she insists. “Coffee.”
Their cottage sits in the shadow of the lighthouse, and we cross a patio to their front porch. On a picnic table Nada plunks down two coffee cups and two shot glasses. In the former she pours thick, black Turkish coffee. In the latter she pours rakija, a grape-fermented Adriatic liquor. Coffee and rakija. That’s how they roll in the Dalmatians.
“Zivjeli!” she says, clinking glasses with me and downing the sweet nectar. We have some more. Then some more after that.
After several fortifying rounds, I wobble over to the lighthouse to see my apartment. The structure, built in 1839, consists of a single-story, whitewashed building with green shutters and a limestone tower rising from the roof. My apartment is reached via a dark and moody corridor, but the digs themselves are delightfully spacious and airy. I park my gear and climb 98 steps to the top of the tower, where I find a five-foot-tall, rotating glass lens and a mesmerizing view of the Adriatic. I look south, where there’s no land for over a hundred miles between me and Italy’s bootheel. I step onto a catwalk outside and, circling around, catch a bird’s-eye view of Jure and Nada’s life: their vegetable garden, the vats where they ferment rakija and wine from their own grapes, the table where Jure cleans his daily catch. On the patio, a torn fishing net waits to be mended. Their curly haired dog suns itself on the lighthouse steps. In the distance I spy a moped sputtering up the unpaved road. By the time I descend the tower, Jure is strolling through the front gate. I introduce myself.
“Yes, yes,” he says. “You are Quinta, I know.” Jure resembles a lion with a mane of wild curls, intense eyes, and several days of stubble.
“We might be related,” I suggest, hopefully.
“Maybe,” he says, eyeballing me. “There is plenty of time to discuss that. Have you had coffee?”
Nada pours us more coffee and rakija.
Sensing that we’re not going to discuss genealogy anytime soon, I inquire about activities on the island. I’d heard about hiking, scuba diving, boating.
“You could take a nap,” Jure suggests, lighting a cigarette.
“Yes, nap,” Nada seconds. “This Robinson Crusoe place. Peaceful. You must to relax. Later for working.” She extends both hands in an Eastern meditative pose and closes her eyes. “Ommm.”
“Yes,” says Jure, exhaling. “You must relax.”
I CHOOSE INSTEAD to explore Lastovo village, only to find that everyone is doing exactly what Jure and Nada are doing—drinking coffee and hanging out. In the cafés along Ulica Pjevor, clusters of old men laugh and talk animatedly with their hands. I order a cappuccino, and in no time I’m chatting with white-haired Luka Fulmizi, who tells me something mind-boggling. “My house is a thousand years old,” he says. “We’ve been in it for 40 generations.” Would I like to see it?
Soon Fulmizi and I are climbing the narrow stone streets of Lastovo, a vertical village set in a natural amphitheater, that, curiously, faces inland rather than toward the sea. Unlike other Dalmatian towns laid out proudly on seafront real estate—places like Split, Hvar, and Dubrovnik—Lastovo has hidden completely its churches, bell towers, and red-roofed villas from the scrutiny of passing ships. Fulmizi shrugs. “We were notorious pirates,” he says. After the Venetians destroyed the then seaside Lastovo in 998 as punishment for its pirating ways, residents built a new village undetectable to the outside world. They then promptly resumed attacking Venetian ships.
Fulmizi’s four-story home with its thick walls and gracious veranda was the third house built after the Venetian sacking. To underscore just how old that is, he leads me to the indoor well that provides his drinking water. There’s a five-inch-deep groove in the lip of the well where ropes have worn down the stone, the result of ten centuries of hoisting water to the surface. “But why have water when we can have wine?” Fulmizi says, as we segue to his wine cellar. He pours me a glass of dry red from one of four stainless steel vats on a table. His grapes, he explains, come from the 1,500 vines he tends not far from the village.
“Jure makes his own wine, too,” I tell him.
“Many people here do,” Fulmizi says. “It is difficult to export; we are so isolated. We make it for ourselves.” He takes a sip and adds: “We enjoy life.”
Later, after we part ways, I seek more perspective by scrambling to the top of 1,368-foot Hum peak, Lastovo’s highest point. From here I can see not only Jure’s lighthouse but two others, just barely, one on Susac Island 20 miles to the west and one on Glavat, almost the same distance to the east. Both islands are even smaller than Lastovo and uninhabited. Gazing at these lighthouses and at the endless water in all directions I sense the isolation Fulmizi mentioned. I can see why folks here might be wary of energetic, overeager outsiders who can’t sit still.
I decide to embrace pomalo.
This doesn’t mean I cease all activities. In fact, over the next several days, I manage to scuba dive the site of a Roman shipwreck off Lastovo’s northeast corner, where the seafloor at 90 feet is littered with amphorae, the ceramic vessels that Romans used to transport wine. I also take a boat to Glavat Island, a speck of land 150 yards wide, where the only residents are thousands of shrieking gulls that circle round and round the lighthouse like some eerie scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.
But mostly, I spend my time chilling with Jure and Nada at the lighthouse. We talk music. We talk soccer. Jure takes me fishing. Nada makes me exquisite meals from our catch: pan-fried bonito in olive oil, grilled lobster, octopus goulash, all washed down with bottomless glasses of wine. “Eat, Quinta!” Nada exhorts. “Eat!”
Slowly, bit by bit, some family history emerges. “It’s funny,” Jure says one afternoon while patching his net on the patio, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “When my grandfather kept the lighthouse, this place was Italy. When my father was here, it was Yugoslavia. Now I am here, and it is Croatia. We have lived in three different countries, but we have not gone anywhere!”
Then, one evening at sunset, with a breeze coming off the sea and Nada’s specialty spread out before us—chilled tuna and vegetable antipasto salad—the information dam breaks. We’re well into our first bottle of red when my hosts suddenly produce a trove of books, family photos, ID cards, documents of every sort. One book mentions the name Kvinta on Lastovo as far back as the 1600s. Hmm. How do I square that with the fact that my great-grandfather came from what is today the Czech Republic, some 700 miles north of here?
“The Austro-Hungarian Empire included both Croatians and Czechs,” Jure says. “Maybe they moved about within the empire.”
Then Nada raises another complicating factor: What if Jure isn’t Slavic at all but Italian? It’s possible that his name really is Quinta, which is common in Italy. We’re stumped. Uncertain how to proceed, we start a second bottle.
I ask Jure for his story, and he launches into it, how he was the lighthouse keeper first on Palagruza Island, then Susac, then Lastovo; how he and Nada survived Serbian bombing runs; how they happily raised two children here at the lighthouse.
“Family,” Nada says, becoming misty-eyed.
“To family!” Jure toasts. “Zivjeli!”
By our third bottle the lighthouse is flashing its mighty beam across the dark sea, a bazillion stars are twinkling above, and Jure’s face has begun blurring into Nada’s. “Do you have children, Quinta?” Jure-Nada asks. There’s a little girl, I explain, in an orphanage; I’m trying to adopt her. Intrigued with this, Nada grabs my hand and begins reading my palm. Jure translates. “You will get your daughter, Quinta,” they tell me. “But wait. There’s more.” Nada carefully examines my creases and swirls. “You will have a son too. A biological son!”
According to my palm, there’s only one way this son can come into being. “You and your wife must come to the lighthouse,” says Jure-Nada. “We will lock you in there for ten days. The food we will pass through your window. Outside we will parade around the lighthouse and cheer you on: Go, Quinta, go!”
I hold on to the table, trying to digest this astonishing prediction and trying even harder to keep from falling into my salad. That’s when Nada, with eyes burning, thrusts her face within inches of mine and howls, “Quinta, come home!” She points at the lighthouse. “Come home to lighthouse, Quinta! Come home!”
We laugh. We cry. We haven’t a shred of proof that we’re related, and yet, via the mysteries of pomalo, Jure and Nada graciously accept me as family. As for the lighthouse, not only can I claim it, I can call it home.
Writer Paul Kvinta is still waiting for the adoption of his daughter to go through—and looking forward to taking her to Lastovo. Aaron Huey photographed “Landscapes of My Father” in our March issue.
Shop National Geographic