One of Croatia’s most charismatic cultural icons is celebrating 50 years on a remote island, after a meeting with the love of her life turned her from art-loving society girl journalist into the driving force behind one of Europe’s most delightful natural destinations, recently named by John Malkovich as the most relaxing holiday in the world.
It is a story which is remarkable on so many levels, from the simple love story of a Zagreb journalist trading her cultured society world for a remote island life with no water, electricity or culture, to that same remote island becoming one of the premier celebrity destinations in all Europe, as well as a haven for art, nature and culture, all due to the efforts of one family.
It is 50 years since Dagmar Meneghello, one of the most charismatic cultural icons in Croatia, first set eyes on the Pakleni Island of Sveti Klement – or Palmizana as it is more commonly referred to – after her first visit to Hvar. Fifty years later, she is still on the idyllic island, running one of the country’s premier hospitality businesses, catering to the rich and the famous, while surroundings them with art, nature and culture.
TCN took the water-taxi from Hvar’s exclusive waterfront to catch up with Dagmar and reflect on life on Palmizana since 1965, a full fifty years ago.
(A 1963 tourism brochure for Palmizana, a long time before telephones, water and electricity)
1. How did you first come to Palmizana, and what was your first impression?
I came to Hvar on holiday in 1965, and my future husband found me on Hvar. He told me that Hvar was nothing if I did not visit Palmizana. My husband was a very attractive man, and I came to see this island which he said was a very wonderful place. For me it was a big shock, as I came from a fine town, where I had a lovely home, with lots of mod cons, I was a young journalist working for a big media house, and life in Zagreb was very exciting. It was opening to Europe for the first time, and many Europeans were coming to Zagreb, as they were very curious to see what was happening in this Communist country. So Zagreb was becoming a very cosmopolitan place. I was part of the artistic society which was open to Europe, and my total focus was to embrace this Europe and immerse my life in it.
(Dagmar, left, with TCN’s Paul Bradbury at the FIJET Marco Polo Awards at National Society of Journalists in Zagreb in December 2014)
And then my future husband brought me to Palmizana! You have to imagine this place back then as a place with a big house and farm, which needed lots of hands to do the work. For me, it was terrible. It looked terribly harsh, and I didn’t see anything special in the nature. There were no flowers, and the only flowers I saw were those given to me by men. And really I was shocked. There was nothing for me there, but my future husband did not leave me alone, and he kept coming to Zagreb to chase me. And in the end, I decided to try to live with him.
2. What did your friends think in Zagreb?
None of them believed it. They told me later that I simply disappeared to go and live on an island somewhere very far from civilisation. And I really did disappear from that exciting city close to Europe to a world where the work was very hard and physical, but it was another art of thinking. My husband was very open, and I could see that he had a new frontier that I had never experienced. And people came from all over the world. In Zagreb, everything was black and white, but here there was a whole different spectre of thinking. And that to me was an amazing thing.
3. Tell us about tourism in 1965. No Internet, no phones, no water or electricity. How did it function?
I have to say that it was much better tourism then than now, because the State opened things up for tourism after 1954, and this tourism thing was very exotic. People came here for the nature, the peace and the sea. It was very rustic. They had their comfortable houses back home, but they came here for something else. And you have to know that back then, to come to Palmizana was something exotic, like going to the Bahamas today, as there were no cheap flights like there are today. And so visiting is not as exotic as it was 50 years ago.
Everything was dictated by the State. Running private business was not allowed, but the State needed private businesses for everything to work. Everything was controlled by the State and they could shut you down when they wanted. It was like living life far from anywhere. There would be a big storm, and you would just about survive, and you would live a little. And then would come another storm, and you would just about survive, then live a little again. And so it went on.
Despite that, we started to have very good guests, as people heard about the simple but natural life we offered. But the State would control everything, sometimes sending inspectors at 05:00 to see if the rooms were full or empty. We once had the Austrian Foreign Minister staying, and they threw him out of his bed. You cannot imagine how the State behaved.
4. Tell us about the marketing. This was an era before the Internet.
Marketing was mouth to mouth, nothing else. There were no phones, no Internet, no water and no electricity. Things were very basic. People would park their car in Split, take a boat to Hvar and then on to Palmizana. People loved what we had and told others to come.
You have to understand that with no communication, we had no idea how many people would come, and sometime double the capacity would turn up, and they would sleep in tents, or one time we had to take a boat and put beds in – 20 people sleeping in a boat. This is not possible now with the Internet. An enquiry comes in with lots of questions – if it is not dealt with in 24 hours, it is too late.
5. Tell us a little about what tourism was like.
People came on holiday for a break from civilisation. We have always had great food, the very freshest, and my husband would catch the daily supply. There were no freezers, so we only sold what we caught that day. We also had sheep, pigs, goats, the very best meet. It was a simple lifestyle, but that is what attracted people. The sea was clean, and it was a really lovely place. People liked to have other people around, and great friendships were made.
Many foreigners came and they helped us. We were poor in Croatia and had little, but our guests brought us tools and materials from the West. One guest loved Palmizana and the amazing fish, but did not enjoy eating from a simple white plastic table with serviette. It was all we had so we asked him to bring something better, and he did. It was a simple life, and people from civilisation appreciated the chance to escape into this simple world.
The arrival of cheap flights has changed things, and now people are looking to different places for the exotic. We are no longer exotic. Too many people are destroying the beauty without creating the quality. That is the problem of tourism in Croatia. Too many average things, and not enough quality.
6. Palmizana has become known as an important art and cultural centre. How did that happen in such a remote place?
Why I came first time, I was shocked. It was primitive. I tried to leave on the boats but my husband took me back. It was hard physicial work, but there was nothing for my soul. I invited friends and artists from Zagreb. I made a place for exhibitions, and slowly we started to build up the cultural aspect of Palmizana.
Back then, it was not only the rich who would pass by boat. Artists did too, and one year the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were touring the coast by boat and came and played. Many artists came to perform and to escape, and they enjoyed the total natural freedom of the place. I brought young artists here to perform, artists who went on to be world-famous, and who still keep their connection to Palmizana.
7. When did water and electricity come to Palmizana?
For years, we had no water, electricity and only basic toilets, but we gave our guests soul, and they kept on returning. There is still no mains water. It comes to the marina only, and there is not enough. For years we relied on boats bringing water, and we still do, although we have a small desalination plant now. But there is never enough water, and my plants are all struggling due to the heat. I want to give them water, but Romina wants to keep it for the guests. Electricity has only been here for ten years, and now all is different, as we have telephones, Internet, mobiles, civilisation.
8. What is the secret of Palmizana?
Its soul. A place to find kindred spirits. It is about the people who come here. A great place for children to play, to meet other kids in this great nature. As hosts, our guests know we are doing everything possible for them.
9. You have been on Palmizana for 50 years. How has the destination changed?
We made a place for people, a place of art, an arboretum, a natural paradise. In my life I got big prizes for culture and I have tried to keep that soul in Palmizana, but around me Palmizana is no longer the same place with that closed off life. There are new people now, and they think not so much about Palmizana, but more about where the quick money is coming. They only like the quick money, and they have disturbed the spirit of Palmizana.
The biggest problem is that Palmizana is a very attractive place, and the State thinks it is entitled to some of it, and despite investing money and effort into our land, with clean papers, we have been fighting with the State over our land for some 70 years now.
I taught my kid to love Palmizana, and they do love and live it, but life here is very hard here, and still quite primitive. For six months a year, we fight with nature, and for the other six we work for money to support our families, as well as the constant fight with bureaucracy. Add to that the complications of family life – school, access to doctors, shopping, and the reality of life is a lot different from the holiday brochures for our guests. I am not sure if I have got back from Palmizana what I have put in during these 50 years.
10. You are a cultural icon in Croatia. You must be proud of your achievements.
A lot of the young artists who came are now professors in academies, internationally well-known. They still keep in touch and visit, and I am proud of that, and I am always delighted when they come and visit us on Palmizana to find out what is new on our island.
My terrible disaster is the lack of culture on Hvar. Hvar is an ancient town with lots of culture and heritage, but there is no culture today. People are simply not interested. I put on an exhibition in Hvar and only seven people came. There is just no interest. One has to think about oneself a little more, and my problem now is what to do with all the rich herigage we have, the arboretum, the amforas, the art. I will have to make a museum or something.
11. And after 50 years, are you happy you made the decision to move to Palmizana?
It is sad to say, but I mostly remember the terrible tragic things that happened. I have had so many tragedies here. The fight for this beauty you see has been long and intense, and it has cost me a lot. I do not know how I survived. I ran away in the winter for five years to Munich, to experience a little of life and culture. There was so much pressure from the State who wanted our land. Now everything is beautiful with the trees, the flowers, the cicadas, but behind that beauty is lots of suffering.
And then an email comes in from America. Dagmar, you remember me. I came to Palmizana every summer, from 5 to 10 years old, and I am coming again this summer. You gave me the happiest moments of my childhood.
My favourite time of year? Before summer was not so nice as I worked 18 hour a day, but now my daughter runs things, and I do the paperwork. I like winter on Palmizana. I miss culture and people, but when I am alone in winter, I can make music, read books, and I have dogs.
(At this point, we are joined by Dagmar’s sister-in-law, Branka Gebauer, and I ask her about Dagmar)
“We met in 1986. I have never met a woman like Dagmar, with such strong energy, so devoted to this beautiful island, and with so many great ideas for the future. I was a PhD student in Munich when we met, and she told me that I had to come, that there were such nice people, and it was here that I met her brother, my future husband.
“For me, Palmizana is all about the people. They open themselves up in 7 days here than maybe a year elsewhere. People from 30 years ago are still coming every year. It is such a pity that she has to do everything alone with her family without the State or a foundation. She has made such a great contibution to Croatian art. She represented Croatia in Munich as well. If she had some help, who knows what could be achieved. She gave people and Palmizana soul.”
A true paradise on Earth, Palmizana’s tourism story started as far back as 1906 with the Meneghello family. Its quality and unique appeal continue today, and John Malkovich was but one celebrity guest who has praised its unique appeal, calling it the most relaxed vacation in the world after his two-week stay.