2008 Audi A4 Cabriolet - Adriatic Odyssey

Joe Sherman
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Richard Newton

This topless driving is all right, I thought. I flashed through tunnels, had on my tuque, sunglasses, more sunscreen. Obrovac's hauntingly beautiful voice sang loudly:

     My angel

     Don't be without wings

     Most beautiful and brilliant they are

     Shining in the sun.

Gradually, in the distance, rose the silhouettes of more mountains. Smoky blue prom-ontories, some smeared with snow, they were in Bosnia. It was in the early '90s that Croatia broke off from the rest of the Balkans and then fought for independence against Serbia. Now, with its long coast, 1000-plus islands, inland lakes, and green valleys, Croatia seems poised to be a new Balkan powerhouse. "For centuries, we were killing each other," Obrovac told me. "Now self-awareness is growing. Before we kill the planet, we may realize what we're doing."

I drive into Split's maze of one-way streets and traffic and soon find myself being shouted at by young men whirling their arms. Somehow, in the mess anchored by Diocletian's palace, built between 295 and 305 AD by the Roman emperor who retired to his boyhood haunts, I've gotten myself into lanes of cars being directed onto ferries to the so-called "new Riviera": Brac, Hvar, Korĉula, and Vis.

"I don't want to go onto a ferry!" I shout. Eventually, a friendly cop grasps my plight and stops the flow of traffic, allowing me to turn and head back into the gritty city.

Three hours later, though, I drive into the cavernous, noisy maw of a different ferry and head toward Korĉula, the island where Scottish soldier and adventurer Fitzroy McLean, used by Ian Fleming as a model for James Bond, lived for a time and where, according to popular legend, the patron saint of travelers, Marco Polo, was born.

En route, I pass Hvar, a jetsetters' popular hangout, then dock at Vela Luka, off which yachtsmen typically blow their horns as a salute to Marco Polo. In the interior town of Blato, I have another surprise.

On the town square, about twenty men are skipping and whirling swords over their heads as drummers pound out a military rhythm and a pig's skin squeals like a Scottish bagpipe. Pairs of combatants face off and exchange blows, their swords shooting off sparks. Sweaty and breathing rapidly, a dancer named Bacac tells me, "It is tradition of the island. My father did it. My grandfather. I got my uniform from my grandfather; it is 150 years old." The dance, adopted from a real military routine, is now for show, he says, as we watch a flurry of blows ending with two fighters leaning graciously over each others' shoulders and then slowly laying down their weapons.

"It is the kiss," Bacac says. "After the kiss, everything is OK."

"You speak good English," I say.

Bacac smiles as a flag-swirling dancer spins past. "I was born in Detroit," he says. "I live there one year. Here I am mechanic. On tractors and cars."

The morning of day four, on a narrow road in Korĉula, I smell flowers and look up at a solid slab of blue sky. Another paradox of the road trip is that too much speed ends the journey too soon, while too little speed stirs no adrenaline. On Korĉula, I want to stop and dally. On the adjacent peninsula of Pelješac, I do.

I've been joined by Rich Newton, a British photographer. Maybe it's him or the McLean and James Bond linkage playing in my mind, but when we pass a half-moon bay tucked in a natural amphitheater, boats bobbing, stone houses snoozing, one café open, I dub it "Dr. No's Hideaway." And we're soon sitting by the café, where it doesn't take much imagination to see Ursula Andress - white bikini, tanned - coming out of the blue-green sea and asking if we've seen 007. Begrudgingly, we leave idyllic Trstenik and head on a detour, a night drive into the mountains of Bosnia.

There, the Audi struts its stuff. Although the A4 looks classic and reserved, it changes character with speed. From the powertrain (Volkswagen/Audi's 2.0-liter turbo) to the reassuring brakes to the cabin ergonomics (excellent lumbar support, good front leg-room, easy-to-read gauges), everything seems to skip up a notch when the tach revs. Some kind of superglue seems to seep out of the rubber. The dash lights get a little brighter, suggesting that the sun chaser has transformed into a night rider on a mission. Or at least that's what I think with Newton now behind the wheel.

Overhead is the Big Dipper. Orion's Belt. Few drivers nowadays get to savor such a glorious night sky. It's another paradox: those who can afford new convertibles seldom enjoy them far from urban sprawl. Soft tops are extremely rare here. All it takes is a knife. Slit, slit. In you go.

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