The second night of my road trip down the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, as blackness settled over the water, I wasn't totally lost, but I didn't exactly know where I was, either. So I pulled over to check my map. A car stopped beside me. The driver's window was rolled down.
I'd just passed through Senj. The tranquil seaside town had once been the stronghold of the Uskoks, the most rapacious pirates that ever pillaged the Adriatic. Uskoks liked to nail the turbans of Turkish prisoners to their heads and cut out the hearts of Venetian sea captains, protectors of the cross whose hearts made fine hors d'oeuvre at Uskok feasts. Granted, I was on the edge of the Balkans, a place perfectly suited for the mind to run amok. But this was April 2007, not April 1607. Tired and hungry, I lowered my window with some trepidation.
Ivan Samarzija didn't wear ear loops or have a moustache, but he was a descendant of the Uskoks. Instead of rowing out to sea in a galley with other pirates to prey on ships, Ivan waited along the highway, swooping down on unsuspecting travelers like me and taking our loot the modern way.
"You want room?" he asked.
"You will follow."
His single taillight led me to a house overlooking the Adriatic, with the bulk of an island in the near distance and Venice about 150 miles due west as the gull flies. In his kitchen, Ivan said, "I am seaman. Six-month contracts. Asia. Singapore. Hong Kong."
Then he got serious. "Now, tell me, please, why is dollar so bad? I am on United States salary."
Surprises are the essence of a good road trip: an unforgettable encounter like this one, a startling vista, a thrilling series of curves, an odd roadside attraction, a detour that becomes a trip unto itself. I'd enjoyed them all today. All the planning in the world can't guarantee such surprises. You just have to be a little lucky.
My luck on this trip began in Prague. Two weeks ago, purely by chance, I'd met a musician and told her I was taking a road trip - six days, 500 miles - from Trieste, the Italian capital of nowhere, to Tirana, the Albanian capital of paranoia. And she'd said, "Visit Tamara Obrovac. She's the best jazz singer in Croatia." I had leapt on her suggestion like a gift.
This very morning, I parked my Audi A4 cabriolet near a medieval castle in Svetvincenat, a village in central Istria, a pie-shaped peninsula an hour south from Trieste, where the Vespas outnumbered the cars, and took a seat at a caf overlooking the moat. Soon the jazz singer appeared.
Small, intense, with brown eyes, Obrovac wore jeans and a white tee. She looked about forty. Over tea, she said that she'd trained as a classical flutist and then fell in love with American jazz. "Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Coltrane . . . I was eating them." Then came the Balkan War. Ironically, the ethnic hatefest was fruitful for her. It gave Obrovac time to shape a musical style seeded in her regional dialect. Now she performs from Rome to Belgrade but is worried some about a new force. Glancing quizzically at me, an American with a slick new car and a lot of questions, she said, "We are not used to your hard-rock capitalism. If you lose your culture, you lose everything."
Obrovac sent me to "a special place," the island of Cres, which I reached by ferry from Istria. Top down, sunscreen on, I drove through a sun-baked landscape of karst, a limestone filled with caves, sinkholes, and fissures, a place associated with pagans, Roman conquerors, sheep, olives, and a rare bird, the Griffon vulture. I glanced up at the dazzling blue sky, hoping to spot a Griffon vulture soaring overhead. Huge birds of prey, the vultures have eight-foot wingspans, a top speed of 75 mph, and eyes several times as sharp as yours and mine.
I didn't see a vulture, but I did visit an eco-preserve for the birds in Beli, a stone village overlooking the Kvarner Gulf and reached by a goat path of a road on which you are protected from a long plunge to the sea by a railing encrusted with rust. I drove farther south on Cres, down another narrow lane, and parked by an ancient settlement called Lubenice, which, like an eagle, was perched about 1000 feet above the sea. You could hear the wind blowing through the bell tower of a fifteenth-century church and easily imagine liburnia - swift little fighting galleys developed by pirates in these waters and later copied by the Roman navy - being rowed far below, chasing a Venetian galley.
Day three dawned, as did every morning on this trip, blue-skied and cloud-free. I lowered the top, left Senj, and climbed up through the Dinaric Alps on a winding road past lavender flowers and stone huts. The mountains form a belt from northeast Italy to Albania and are a joy to cross. I passed a Renault 4 GTL, a boxy little wagon ideal for goat-path narrow lanes. I slowed behind a diesel truck belching particulates, the bane of a cabriolet. Then the truck was behind me and I kept climbing.