Characters of the Sea: The Bench

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by Paul Bradbury,

Continuing our Total Sailing Feature, Characters of the Sea, meet an institution which has seen it all over the years – The Bench.

Our series ‘Characters of the Sea’ normally focuses on the fascinating personalities of the Adriatic, but the character of the region’s coastal towns has more ingredients than the people who inhabit them.

And if there is one institution which has seen more seafaring from the coast than any other, it is one of Dalmatia’s most endearing images – The Bench.

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Wherever you look, no matter how small the village, there tends to be a bench, where the community elders (always male) gather at different times of the day, with early evening being a favourite, to discuss weighty topics such as olives, local politics and, of course, weather and tales from the sea. It is a way of life that is well engrained in the Dalmatian way, and one does not simply sit and join these wise old men – a seat at The Bench is strictly invitation only.

As followers of my blog over the years will have come to realise, I have developed a mild obsession with The Bench in Jelsa, passing it every day on my way for my morning cold one of the main square.

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Known also as The Original Google and The Island Wikipedia, I have become mildly obsessed with the wise old men of The Bench over the years. And in an era of signs and tourist rules for dress and eating and drinking on the street, not once have I seen a member of The Bench eating, drinking, smoking or being inappropriately dressed. The Bench is the original Dalmatian role model… It is a place where weighty topics are discussed – olives, local politics (The Bench is an extremely important local political meeting point), the weather and of course, tales of the sea. As proud island men, each has decades of experience on the Adriatic in some shape or form, and The Bench’s position overlooking Jelsa’s harbour makes it ideally placed for comment on incoming vessels.

For such a lively social meeting point, conversation rarely gets too animated, and there is less shouting and grunting that you see in the cafes around. It is almost as though there is an unwritten rule about noise. Perhaps there is… But there are some occasions when the wise old men do become animated, such as when a pretty Czech model from the Ivan Dolac fashion photography course struts by for the cameras.

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The highest honour that can be bestowed on a man in Dalmatia is an invitation to sit at The Bench. It is the equivalent of being awarded an OBE by The Queen, or the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping a world war. It was my one remaining wish in life to receive such an invitation, but I knew it would ever happen, for I was not local, and one has to put in a lifetime into the town to even stand a chance. And then, just 13 years after my arrival, the unthinkable happened. An invitation to The Bench! My life was complete! A sign of acceptance into the community after ONLY 13 years (and I do mean that genuinely). As if to validify the enormity of the invitation, when I posted the photo on my personal Facebook page, the 400 likes it got made it my most popular photo ever.

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This is my favourite ever photo of The Bench. At first glance, it may look as though the ladies are recovering from a wild night out, but in fact it was taken at 08:00 on Good Friday, with Jelsa buzzing with joy after the 22km UNESCO religious procession through the night, and they were enjoying a well-earned nap after their long journey through the night. But it was business as usual for regulars on The Bench.

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The Bench in Jelsa has achieved a certain notoriety in recent years, and it is certainly setting the trends. Last year it became (I believe) the first Dalmatian bench to host a live concert by an international group, as Cellar Doors jetted in from San Francisco to perform on The Bench – here they are with Jelsa Mayor, Niksa Peronja.

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Wherever you go as you visit Dalmatian towns and villages, you will find The Bench. Often located in prime locations by the water, their regular visitors will have observed all aspects of life at sea and in the harbour over the decades, and there are many stories to be told. On the island of Zirje, for example, this bench close to the ferry performs an important social function in front of the only supermarket on the island. It is the only bar which is open all year. Simply buy your beer in the supermarket behind, take a seat and start chatting. There is even a bottle opener attached to The Bench.

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Bench styles vary, and if you head inland to Imotski, for example, you will come across these beauties.

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But once you leave Dalmatia, the rules change completely – a recent photograph of a bench in Medjimurje, in northern Croatia…

So next time you sail into a Dalmatian harbour, look out for The Bench. It will be there. If it is full of wise old men, leave them be. But if it is empty, as it is at certain times of the day, take a seat, look out to sea and feel the history and stories of a lifetime of observing the comings and goings of the Adriatic into the harbour.

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