ELSEWHERE 2010: Croatia. Don’s party

A cup of coffee (long macchiato): 6-10 kuna ($A1.20-2.00)

Fifteen degrees of latitude make a big difference. Even before we landed the striking thing about Zagreb was the advent of Spring and the swathes of green. Verdant, both figuratively and literally. Don and Mike were waiting behind the airport glass for us with big cheesy grins and if our luggage had arrived with us it would have been one of the great arrivals. Don carted us off to our hotel and then to the Restoran Trnjanska to meet the folks.

There was a lamb on the table — just look at it — a lamb which during its short but very happy life had only eaten mint and rosemary while lying under an all spice bush when not doing exactly the right sorts of exercises (squats and single leg balances). It hadn’t died (died? So harsh. Passed away) so much as expired gently from inhaling so much floral perfume. With its last expiration it was heard to say, Frleta. I must be taken to Frleta. And so it transpired. It was the black lamb, to be eaten with black wine, and there was Don, the grey falcon. It had happened already. Just as foretold. (And what a lamb! Dripping onto the tastebuds.)1. Mike, Frletas and the black lamb

It was a very merry meal as such things are (these very smart Croats were multilingual), and after the second carafe the subject turned to tradition as, indirectly, it often did.

What traditions do Australians have? The criteria were stiff: involving the whole community, clothing, food, activity, maybe a holiday but not necessarily. The church might be playing a role.

Mike manfully proposed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but they didn’t quite seem to work. A bit unfocused, a bit non-nation-specific, and maybe a bit too much thongs and the beach. Then, like the racing man he is, the Melbourne Cup. That caught their fancy. A horse race! Extraordinary. What an interesting country we must come from. I said Anzac Day just to try out the idea, but these were all starting to sound very constructed and of sectional interest only. Nothing like May Day in France where the only people working are muguet sellers (I hope I’ve spelt that correctly, Lily of the Valley) and everyone has a bunch; or the particular style of hens’ night that electrified St Agreve when we were there and involved every female member of the population between 16 and 30 (not a big group, but still). Coming home from Don and Mirjana’s cottage on a Saturday night we saw several big groups in regional costume off for music and dance. At Radovici, which means I suspect ‘town of Radovices’, Mr Radovic showed us his family tree (sans women possibly for reasons of space, actually predilection). This went back to 1568 from memory, and during that time this family and all their first sons called Pero had maintained a presence right there, on that ground.

What sort of wrench must it have been for all those families in similar circumstances from northern Greece (not far from here) and southern Italy (ditto) to come to Australia on the completely invisible and so so far away other side of the world? Current Pero, our host at Cavtat, had a traditional wedding and the photos show that to be no small undertaking. Serbian history has St Vitus’s Day 1389 as a major marking point. Maybe the absence of those traditions provides the new world with a freedom and cultural licence that would otherwise be unobtainable. What did those Italians and Greeks (and Indians, Chinese, Sudanese, Maltese, Hungarians etc ad inf) choose to do when they migrated? The answer is not automatic.

We climbed into the Opel van in the morning and tootled, roared really, down the highway, past very closely settled clusters of houses (more so than in France or Italy). They couldn’t have been working the land; there wasn’t enough land. Don suggested they were families still living together, commuting to the bigger cities or other places for work. Only in the most general terms did I know where I was or where we were going. We found a cup of tea on the periphery of a busy market. Somewhere. Don’s GPS was consistently overridden by help and advice from the locals and after a few false starts we found ourselves at a spring near Otocac (if you care, say ortochack. I haven’t got the right accents on my keyboard and it wouldn’t make any difference for most of us if I did.)

IMG_0979Its splendours were hidden for a time but the more we looked the more spurts there were out of the limestone walls and the more dramatic and complex the geography. And then! The fish. I wasn’t sure the restaurant was a restaurant. Don thought it was, so it became one. Simple.

There was no one else there but a guy appeared in a waiter’s costume. What did we want? What was good? Fish. We’ll have the fish. I don’t know where they came from, maybe out of the stream under our feet ten minutes before, but that’s what they tasted like. I haven’t tasted fish that good, and that’s what the food was like in Don’s Croatia.[1]

That night a shank from what may have been an elephant cooked under a cast iron bell, the next day soft shell oysters and fish at the ‘Captain’s House’, Mike’s enduring memory of his last trip to Croatia, the amazing food at Darko and Katica’s, the bizot night which deserves its own story. But we were going on to Plitvice (say plitvitsa). We got there on evening and already it looked pretty good, although we’d seen nothing. Ate the elephant shank[2] and, with an open window and cool air, slept well.

There were options for the next day, five ‘tours’ carefully constructed by the national park management. This is an organised country. We chose the long and rugged walk which turned out to be neither, and the others something shorter which to all intents and purposes was largely the same.

Our option started good and got better. At Plitvice there is a series of 16 lakes, two big ones and fourteen smaller, all rimmed by travertine, moss and other vegetation, spilling into each other. When we were there the water levels were about as high as they get and we started off on duckboarding through the lakes just out of reach of the water, completely still until it got to the rims where it started into these cascades of ribbons, corded veils. The water doesn’t wear the barriers away but contributes to their growth. This is very young travertine, the material used for the Trevi Fountain and much else in Rome where it is highly prized for its texture. There are hundreds of small waterfalls (slap in Croatian) and several dozen larger ones. But this is water in every imaginable pose, in every conceivable line of beauty. The lakes were Mozartian in their tinkling harmony.3. Plivice upper lakes It didn’t hurt that it was a sunny and very mellow day. We walked for several hours piling delight on delight — complex, elegant, exquisite, feminine. We had a sit down for a while with a bit of bread and cheese cozened from breakfast and I thought, well that’s it. Don’t care what else I see. That’s enough. A very pleasant boat ride took us through the long lower lake and down to some additional versions of what we’d already seen. We were following our noses, and our noses took us down a track that might or might not have been closed. It was submerged but just for two or three hundred metres with very sharp pieces of limestone under (bare) foot and our sticks were very useful to take a bit of the pressure off. I note this only because there were a number of older local women coming back the other way carrying children on their shoulders apparently unconcerned.

There were larger crowds down this end of the system. Buses had pulled in somewhere with crocs of Japanese improving their strike rate for attendance at World Heritage Areas. One lake, another lake, just variations on the gornja jezera[3] and then, just as I was thinking there was no need for a grand gesture, kazang! The big one. Veliki Slap. Big slap. Big waterfall.[4] 3. Veliki Slap- PlivitceBecause they were there, we climbed the 560 steps to the top and with a rainbow accent the spectacle looked like the background of a particularly good renaissance portrait. One for the men — massive, simple, direct.

But there was something else. Plitvice, the area, also happens to be the site of one of the first actions of the ‘90s wars. A national park? Why would you choose to promote a war in a national park? The same reason, presumably, you would choose to bombard Dubrovnik, another World Heritage Site. A more salient question is why would you want to promote a war at all?

CroatiaCroatia is shaped like a bent arm. The forearm is the rocky mountainous Adriatic coast (Dalmatia, ancient home of the Illyrians and dogs of a certain type). It has a constellation of islands, extensions of the karst ridges of the mainland. Dubrovnik is almost at the point of the extended finger, the southernmost point. Croatia’s share of the Pannonian Plain (to the east called Slavonia, but not Slovenia or Slovakia), flat, and rich and lush as a matter of course, is the upper arm. Bosnia and Herzegovina with a population of 4.6 million, just a few more than Croatia, fits uncomfortably in the crook of that arm. Serbia joins at the shoulder. Physically, Serbia is half as big again as each of the other two and has a population of 7.35 million. But these are arbitrary boundaries, historical playthings.[5]

Not so long ago these three countries along with Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and whatever that bit of Macedonia is calling itself these days were for a time Yugoslavia, the nation of the Southern Slavs. The State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the Kingdom of Serbia became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 3 October 1929. This amalgamation stumbled along until the Axis powers invaded in 1943 and the arrangement was suspended. German troops occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as part of Serbia and Slovenia, while other parts of the country were occupied by Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy.

From 1941-45, the Ustashe (say ‘youstarshi’) regime (installed with the support of the Italian Fascists as the government of Croatia) killed an uncertain but huge number of people. Two hundred and fifty thousand were expelled, and 200,000 forcible conversions to Catholicism occurred. The victims were predominantly Serbs, but included 37,000 Jews. The communist Partisans (in which Croatians, including Don’s father, played a significant role) and the Royalist, largely Serbian Cetniks (‘Chetniks’) led the fight not just against the Germans but against the Ustashe as well. The Partisans proclaimed a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the war adjusting the name slightly in 1946 at the war’s conclusion. The dominant Yugoslavian political figure for next 30 years was Joseph Broz, ‘Tito’, communist, Prime Minister and then President from 1943 until his death in 1980. His father was a Croat, his mother a Slovene. The capital of Yugoslavia during this period was Belgrade in the ‘Socialist Republic of Serbia’. Yugoslavia began to dismember itself in 1991 when Slovenia chose an independent path.

This can become confusing. Croats and Serbs speak languages which can be distinguished but only just. Serbs use Cyrillic script; Croats the Latin. (In southern, predominantly Croat, Bosnia the alternative Cyrillic rendering of place names on road signs was frequently blotted out by spray cans.) Serbs tend to be aligned with the Eastern Orthodox church; Croats are more likely to be Catholics. Serbs live in Serbia, B&H and Croatia, though not as many as in the past. Croats live in Croatia, B&H and Serbia, though not as many as in the past. This is the part of the world which provided the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. Some Croats also live in Slovenia with which they share a border (and a script, if not quite a language). Serbs have never been very involved with Slovenia which is one of the several reasons why Milosevic didn’t make much of a fuss when it sought its independence.

Under the ‘Dayton Accord’ with which the formal status of the 1990s wars concluded, Bosnia was divided into two, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the post war creation, Republika Srpska, which has its de facto capital in Banja Luka and which is made up of Serbs (ca. 88%), Bosniaks (ca. 8%) and Croats (ca. 4%). Muslims (‘Bosniaks’) are the largest group in B&H, although Croats are the dominant group in the south. The ‘Muslims’ reflect the strong influence of the Ottoman Empire in this region. They are at the bottom of the pecking order, the fall guys in popular jokes. In Australia their children would be going to Disadvantaged Schools Program schools, except of course in Bosnia they are going to madrassas. To be crass: Croatia, orderly, hard working, ‘Austrian’; Serbia, lively, messy, ‘Turkish’; Bosnia, a wreck.

The first blow of the ‘90s wars might have been a game of soccer in Zagreb between Zagreb Dynamo and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990. A riot erupted between the fans, a 16 year-old died after being stabbed and the Red Star players were lifted out by helicopter. But of more concern to the Zagrebois was the impression that their police were far more violent towards them than the visiting fans. Serbs were significantly over represented in the Zagreb police force at the time and the Yugoslav army was unquestionably directed from Belgrade by Serbs.

This hints at one, perhaps several, of the causes of the wars: in any relatively poor country (for example, communist Yugoslavia) the perception of favouritism in the distribution of jobs is rife. And the redistribution of income from the comparatively wealthy western areas to the less well-off east was not especially popular. The idea that officials, buildings and monuments in Belgrade were soaking up the money made from Dalmatian tourism recurs constantly in public comment recorded in the books I’ve read. But there is also something too about just who is in the police force and the army. It’s a certain ‘class’, who are not doctors and lawyers and academics and businessmen (occupational groups in which Croats were over represented), but who might want to throw their weight around especially with people whose ‘softness’ and ‘airy-fairyness’ they mightn’t respect.

Knin a town in the southern inland Krajina region of Croatia (and not so far from Plitvice) is where things initially came to a head. A large army base was located there headed by someone destined to become famous, Colonel Ratko Mladic. (His antecedent family was wiped out by the Ustashe. Round and round it goes.) Serbs living in this area of Croatia proclaimed the autonomous ‘Republic of Serbian Krajina’, a notion which spread around the crook of the arm to Slunj, Glina and Pakrak.

This all happened before the Serbian uprisings in Bosnia, a separate but related series of wars which included the Bosnian Croat shelling of Mostar to drive out the Serbs and the Bosnian Serb blockade and shelling of Sarajevo. And the destruction of Vukovar. And the slaughter at Srebrenica. And the ethnic cleansing of Krajina, where we were, by the Croats[6]. Tit for tat. Round and round.

Fifteen years or so is not much time to get over a war; and of course some places suffered vastly more than others. One thing I realised while we were there is that the actual experience of war must be very personal and local. Fifty or even 10 kilometres can mean the difference between the devastation of your life and not that much happening to affect you. I already knew that no one wins. Later, in a meditative moment over pizza at Trogir Don remembered how much he had enjoyed some of his times in Belgrade and how fun loving Serbs could be. He also said he thought the breakup of Yugoslavia was in some ways regrettable. What was left was a series of little countries which would always struggle on the wider world stage.

We weren’t in the war, but it was always somewhere in the background of the wonderful time we were having, frankly an essential part of trying to understand where we were. The war was no elephant in these rooms, but never less than a rat in the corner. I asked Don if a Croat could get work if he or she went to Serbia and vice versa. He thought for minute and then said, they’d need a very good story.

We went to the coast to Zadar to see some sea chimes, the motion of the sea driving air through things like organ pipes to produce weird songs. It also had an pleasing old city. We hadn’t seen one of those in Croatia yet, and St Donat’s, a pre-romanesque church dated from the 9th century. It could almost have been Syrian, still standing if inaccessible to the passerby, still round, still startlingly white. A version of dodgem cars was happening round its base. And then to Skradin, not on the coast but very boat-y, on the Krk[7] River and between two large inland bodies of water, the Visovac and Prokljansko lakes.

Skradin has been the seat of a Catholic diocese in the past. It might be because of its strategic importance. It is not because of its size.4. Main Street Skradin

IMG_0230It was everything that holiday-making tourists would want: small, comfortable, picturesque, so clean it almost seemed like a film set, boats, views. We went in search of the restaurant that Bill Gates ate at, as one would, and after a time discovered that Bill didn’t eat, he drank, and he drank at a cave which provided a very wide range of home-made liqueurs. Mike, Don and I reviewed fig, rose and zuzula (no translation available) and felt them to be satisfactory. But this was only the precursor to a dinner of soup, squid ink risotto, silver bream and bizot.

IMG_0227Now Don was aflame with the prospect of eating bizot. Bizot live at the junction, he explained, of the salt water and the fresh and are rarely available for consumption. His English failed him momentarily as he tried to explain what they were and their significance (huge). Only ever at this place! Very special. Long, thin … sounded a bit like eel. They arrived on the table. They looked a bit like eel. We had some. They tasted a bit like eel. Special of course. The most expensive thing I bought in Croatia.

We sat drinking in the sun in the Krka National Park where a series of karst ridges break the Krk river into yet more amazing rivulets (water-driven mills, handcrafts etc) and we talked a bit about the war. Don was working for the Ministry of the Interior at the time which would offer a particular perspective. But it wasn’t there he became conscious that something was going on. The Frleta family were on holidays at the beach and as usual on the way home they called in on some long-standing and close Serbian friends. Something was clearly up. Don was concerned about this and made efforts to investigate. They were after all old friends. After some prompting they indicated there was a story going round that what happened in 1941 (Ustashe-backed terror targeting Serbs) was going to happen again.

That’s how wars start; not clean declarations or obvious acts, but by establishing a climate where every available insecurity is quivering with vitality and sensitive to the slightest movement in the wind. Those mortal enemies the Ustashe and the Cetniks never fought each other, Don suggested. They just killed and terrorised civilians. Mirjana, Ivan and Dina went to Germany when things heated up, although Zagreb was never truly in the firing line.

IMG_1032The boatman with strong feminist leanings took us through the reeds and across the mirror surface of Lake Visovac. 5. Franciscan monastery VisovacThe first port of call was a Franciscan monastery on an island in the middle of the lake. We could visit, and did, a lapidarium, a collection of stones the centrepiece of which was a statue of a Madonna and child by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic[8] which had been shot up by the Serbs.6. Mestrovic's Madonna- Visovac The Krk at and near Visovac seems to have been a front line for the war for a time. The church property of both sides was a particular target.

Besides a tome handwritten in Glagolitic script, the precursor to Cyrillic and a thrill to see, the monastery’s museum had a listing of the destruction and damage to Croatian church property in the area caused by the Serbs and another list with the names of all the Franciscan friars killed by the contemporary ‘Cetniks’. Next to these lists was a very carefully worded message which went along the lines of: We recognise the need for forgiveness as Christians and so on, but the bastards who did these things have not been brought to justice and this must happen.

Turning the other cheek might be the most radical and perhaps most contentious idea in the Bible.

We continued on to Roski Slap. It was okay, but we’d already and recently seen better. We got out and pottered around and as was so often the case Don had a little treat for us.7. Momma- Roski Slap We sat down al fresco and Momma (the Momma to end all Mommas; Mike with his usual keen commercial insight thought she might be valued at €1500 a day so good a Momma was she) provided us with fresh green olives, new cheese, 100 year old prosciutto, bread and local wine, and for some reason in a very competitive field this was one of funniest and happiest meals we had. No idea what we talked about. I just remember spending a lot of time roaring laughing.8. The Feed- Roski Slap

We drove along the coast to Trogir. The Tatars stopped at Trogir. The story told in most histories in the same form — there is a first hand account — is that in 1217 the Dalmatian ruler Bela IV was fleeing the Tatars[9] down the Dalmatian coast from one town to another and got to Trogir and together with the local populace climbed inside the city walls and shut the gate.

The Lord Kadan [the Tatar leader] tried several times to see if he could pass on horseback through the city walls but was repelled by the mud between the coast and the island [about 20 metres worth on the landward side]. He sent a nuncio to the town instructing him in what to say. When reaching the gate, the man cried out in Slavonic in a loud voice: ‘This tells you the Lord Kadan, leader of the invincible army has arrived. [True up to that point. They had cut a swathe through northern Europe, cleaned up Hungary and attacked Vienna.] Do not take upon yourself the crime of alien blood but deliver the enemy into our hands so that his punishment shall not fall on your heads and you shall not perish in vain.’

Thomas the Archdeacon, inside the walls at the time, wrote this. Bela had commanded there to be no response to such a challenge, not so much as a whisper. And there wasn’t.

The town slept, fitfully I’m sure, but in the morning the hordes had disappeared. It transpired that that night Kadan had received news of the death of Genghis Khan and they all returned home immediately.

I’m not sure what that means but it tickled our fancy. IMG_1078
Mike may in fact have stood at the gate, still there, delivering the message again and getting the same or similar response. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.

9. Trogir- more like coffee in the late sunFor Rebecca, Trogir is of enormous importance. She devotes two chapters to it: its beauty, its colour (depends on the time of day but I lean towards butterscotch), but mainly the form and import of Master Radovan’s masterpiece, the portal to Trogir cathedral, and the way it explains and exemplifies the Manichaeanism of the time (only 20 years after Kadan went home).

IMG_1086I looked at the portal at night and in the daytime, from afar and in close up photos and of course she’s right, but I can’t necessarily see it. There is a very strong personal style present which is most individual — folk art, we’d call it — and it’s a great piece of craft. IMG_1084But Trogir for me was sitting in the sun in the trg listening to the Mitteleuropa brass band contest with baton twirlers and a compere in spray-on jeans for good measure. An hour of amiable bliss and winner of equal first best music heard on tour. (With hindsight I note that each of the three winners was free.) Myrna points out that this is an example of the attraction of the present (active, live, sensate) over the past. And that will be right.

The coastline to Split was like holiday coasts the world over: rooms to let, fast food shops, houses piled on houses, many houses for sale where people have made the usual second house mistake, possible access to some (of very few) beaches, piers, fish shops, gear shops, ice cream shops. It was quiet, but in summer … Don showed us where he holidayed as a boy and which pier he used to jump off. Another treasure offered. We liked that. Split was riven by a major boat show which seemed to have the effect of thousands of people needing to sit drinking under umbrellas along the strip. Diocletian’s Palace remained unaffected by this and was the best example of a Roman-style agglomerative building we had seen in Croatia and would see outside Rome. But the main thing about Split was that it was the departure point for a four-hour ferry trip to Korcula (korchela).

We got off at Vela Luka on the western end of the island. Leaving Don to administer another lesson in effective shopping for seniors in the wonderfully named Konzum[10] supermarket, I caught the last ten minutes of the Korcula women’s handball final. For those who missed the final score, Vela Luka 11-10 with a goal in the last minute.

Here’s what you can find out on the internet. In the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea, there are 698 islands and 389 islets (rocks, piles, reefs etc.; uninhabited). Of the 698 islands, only 47 are inhabited in the sense that at least one person lives there fairly permanently.[11] Some sources indicate that Croatia has 66 inhabited islands, which is the number of islands that have had a settlement on them, but 19 of these islands have lost all of their permanent population as a result of the population decline due to insufficient economic activity. Korcula has the second largest population (a bit over 16,000) after Krk (not the river); and, random fact, the US White House is built out of limestone mined on Brac, another of the larger islands.

13. Darko and Katic's house - KorculaDarko and Katica talked about this decline and the lack of care and attention to the vines and olive groves on Korcula after we arrived at their house. They had spent the day clearing blackberries and other weeds from family property. They live and work in Zagreb at present, although Katica’s job seems to make her an international person. They plan to spend more time at this property on retirement which, besides a house, has two self-contained units which can be leased. These buildings cling to a very steep hill in the middle of a wonderful productive garden which is tended by Katica’s mum when Katica and Darko aren’t there. The Adriatic is at the bottom of this garden.

IMG_1100Various miracles appeared for dinner. Darko plans to spend more time fishing in the future but for now he had bought some fish and displayed very high level competence barbecuing them, thrashing them with sprigs of rosemary dipped in oil from their own olives. The fish were accompanied by wild asparagus and hard-boiled eggs with the most vivid of yolks and baby broad beans from the garden. Possibly the best meal while we were away. Possibly. Magnificent. Katica whipped up a giant crème caramel out of invisible ingredients for dessert.

We talked about food, about growing and making it, and about how while the quality is still there in the produce of Korcula rising production costs mean that more and more of the fertile and accessible areas of the island were being abandoned. The islands provided a haven for Croats fleeing the mainland in the early ‘90s (as they have in the past), but that is the only time the population count has gone up rather than down since 1920. The islands matter for tourism but are subject to the same shift of population to urban centres as elsewhere.

It had become wet and cool. Next day we drove to the town of Korcula at the other end of the island, found a house that may once have housed Marco Polo, and got on a ferry for the short ride to Orebic on the peninsula which was almost part of the island. The peninsula was almost an island itself, a political island. Bosnia has its eight? ten? kilometres of coastline on its leeward side, meaning you must drive through Bosnia to get from the rest of Croatia to Dubrovnik and the rest of the south.

11. DubrovnikMike and I had been saying to each other for six or more months, Dubrovnik on April Fool’s Day. We’d passed April 1 but we were in Dubrovnik after a visit to Mali Ston, the experience which had stuck in Mike’s dreams. The oysters came out of the sea but from the corner of a long and highly protected estuary so the shells were soft and the creatures enormous but without the piquancy of Pacific or Ceduna oysters. Clerical readers, there is a text for a possible sermon here; historians of the Balkans, an option for an extended metaphor which should not be passed up. What do we want? Soft shells and huge size; or thick hard shells and piquancy?

IMG_1139We were staying at Cavtat (suvtut) a few k.s past Dubrovnik in the Hotel Radovic operated by the eldest son of one of Mirjana’s relations. (Mirjana’s birthplace was near here in Herzegovina.) We’d also taken a Frletian detour to a winery and got a grip on the difference between the wine grown on the leeward (lighter, a little tart and lower in alcohol) and the windward (muscular, deep, higher alcohol content) sides of the very steep karst range in front of us. Dengac from the ocean side was our choice. And then Don decided to drive through the mountain. I suppose he knew it was there, but we found a tunnel and a road approximately 2.45 metres wide, a thrill a minute, which took us through to the Dengac vineyards. The vines are pruned to 40 cms. off the ground and apparently grow very strong canes and grapes with comparatively tough skins to accommodate this. Later in Italy we found vineyards where the grapes were grown and harvested well above head height.IMG_1112.JPG

Cavtat was a delight, a 1950s resort (and there’s nothing wrong with that) still with its own working domestic life and a magic longemare[12].Promenade’ is both a noun or a verb and so was this, a lovely walk of perfect length next to the water around a headland. You got to the end wanting more. The local chaps were preparing for the season: new masonry for the food outlets which would line the walk in a month, more concrete platforms for the sunbeds, new concrete paths into the water so the rocks could be avoided. (It must be said. Australia does have very fine beaches.) As we walked I was thinking to myself how many centuries have people been enjoying this path doing exactly what we were doing, and the correct answer was a bloody long time.

The pace of the tour was telling. So much experience. So intensive. So rich. So much food. The boys and Dina went to bed early and Myrna and I had a sandwich made in the kitchen of the hotel. We were the only guests: lots of space, a relationship with the host, make your own stuff in the kitchen, windows that open, great views, cheap. You don’t want any more than that.

Next day Dubrovnik. I was trying to gear up.IMG_1144.JPG

It is very beautiful from a distance. Up close it’s another old town with highly polished limestone streets, including the famous Stradun down its centre, and beautiful buildings. Ha! It rained, it hailed, it stormed. That may have influenced my judgment. Dubrovnik didn’t have as many tat shops as Venice but it had its share. We paid a lot for ordinary food. Despite its remarkable history as an independent and highly civilised state, we were at a tourist destination. In the recent war 3000[13] shells landed on Dubrovnik during the bombardment from the sea and the heights (all from about 8-10 k.s away from the city) and most seem to be remembered individually. You don’t have to go far to see photos of shell damage or a room devoted to death.

Why would you choose to smash up a World Heritage Site? For a bit of notice I guess, or because you’re dumb. To see how long you could get away with it maybe. Or because you’re so crazy you simply don’t care.[14] Tanner writes: ‘The bombardment of a UNESCO-designated historic monument generated enormous ill will among people who had never heard of, and did not care about, the humbler towns and villages of eastern Slavonia.’ He is scathing about this. ‘While foreign journalists and European diplomats complained about the damage to the tiles and red roofs of the Old Town … the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries had a free hand in Vukovar to wreak a savage revenge on the Croats who had defied them for so long. More than 2,000 people died there and the old city was destroyed absolutely.’ One city at the finger tip of the arm, coastal, touristy, well known, obvious; the other at the point of the shoulder, little known, isolated, abandoned at least from an international point of view and utterly destroyed.

12. Don explaining shellfire- DubrovnikWe talked about this. There’s a photo of Don putting me straight on a few a matters in the cloisters of the Franciscan library after we had examined a shell hole together. But we moved on. To where? Further south to Radovici, home of the Radovics, Don and Mirjana’s relations, and the parents of our host at Cavtat.

IMG_1155 There were several men of the house but the middle-aged one had a building fetish, a man after my own heart. He had built ‘two-thirds’ of the hotel we had stayed in, no small task in itself. He had also built numerous extensions onto their house which were now crawling across (above actually) a road and into their huge and meticulously kept garden. We were taken to the ‘museum’ upstairs with its photos and art works, two enormous wooden side-boards and the family tree I’ve mentioned. The massive understorey of the building housed something like a commercial kitchen, not to mention a winery, not to mention an olive pressing plant not to mention the spit roast facilities. He also had a full-time job at the airport (Dubrovnik’s airport is at Cavtat). When I asked him how he did all this, he said, despite his wrecked back, he didn’t need any more than one or two hours sleep a night. I do, with the window open.

Don had one more thing he wanted us to see that day, the seacliffs. It was just on dusk, quite light still but the evening was drawing in quickly. The weather hadn’t improved much. It was spitting and the wind had turned very cold. We were wandering round lanes headed broadly in the right direction, starting to feel a bit tired and hungry. We found the lane we were looking for by asking a man who looked but probably wasn’t extremely old and who might have been alone or almost so in a very large complex of housing. This was an area where there had been heavy fighting. Some houses had lights in the windows; many didn’t.

IMG_1158.JPGWe followed the track for a few kilometres down towards the coast. There were no houses at all near the cliffs which were as dramatic as Don had intimated, two or three hundred metres straight down with waves crashing at the base. The others had a look and went back to the van where we had found two abandoned pups which were whimpering but refusing comfort. There was a track down to the water cut into the side of the cliff by gifted amateur engineers and I thought I could run down there and back quickly and not hold things up too much. But as it turned out the engineers were probably professional and the reason they’d cut the path into the cliff and smeared it with concrete to hold it together and to help you stop falling off was that it led, just above a small beach, to a tunnel cut into the bottom of the cliff. This tunnel was used to drain the land on the other side of the hill. Epic. Croatian. But also strange. At that point in time it looked like a very lonely enterprise. And this might be a feeling, a feeling without much substance necessarily, some contortion of the mind, that grips a traveller from time to time, but a feeling that I was somewhere completely alien, somehow at the end of the world.

The twilight, the weather, the cliff, the rocks, the path, the tunnel — they all contributed. I found the workings for the path which had been left behind — coils of pipe, pools of cement wash, a dented pile of screenings, sand — as desolate as the soccer pitch with grass 30 cms high half a kilometre back down the lane. Or nowhere. Even though it had benches and shelters not just for the two sets of team emergencies but for the refs as well, no one except ghosts had played on it in years at a guess. When I returned Myrna had found some apple and Dina was trying to feed it to the dogs, and they were growling at her like some misfit children. Their fate was fairly certain and bleak, and if you were sitting in your house having tea with a fire in the stove it wouldn’t matter. It was another story looking at these bewildered young creatures and listening to them make noises that said at the same time go away, and we’re desperate and need help.

Over the lip of a hill was a car that hadn’t been used for some time either, still painted in the Croatian red-and-white chequerboard left over from the war. I wasn’t at the end of the world. I was at the southern tip of Croatia.15. The end of the world- Popovici

And now for a far greater tragedy, let’s head off to Bosnia.


[1] Rebecca: ‘In Croatia we ate and drank enormously, and so well.’

[2] With a dish made from polenta and sour milk, and another which was a particular sort of cheese wrapped in minced lamb. We drank Babic wine, a Croatian family which is now making wine in New Zealand.

[3] upper lakes. Gora, mountain, same in Polish. Slavic languages are close friends.

[4] Ah the inventiveness of place names. Vela Luka old city; Banja Luka baths city; Dublin Dubh Linn black pool, across the Irish Sea opposite? Blackpool

[5] At this point consult a map.

[6] From a Serb website: ‘August 4 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Croat attack on the Serbian majority region of Krajina in 1995 that resulted in the expulsion of 200,000 to 300,000 Krajina Serbs. This was the largest population displacement during the Yugoslav breakup in the 1990s. It was the largest expulsion in Europe since World War II. Was it the largest act of “ethnic cleansing” since the Holocaust?

In 1997, the names of 1,542 Krajina Serbs killed in the assault were recorded. Over 73% of the houses of Krajina Serbs were destroyed. Was the Krajina expulsion an act of genocide not seen in Europe since World War II?

The US and Western media referred to it as an “exodus” and an assault to “oust” Serbian rebels, “Croatian Serbs”, the oxymoron propaganda term coined by the US State Department. It has been covered-up and deleted from the mainstream history of the Balkan conflicts because the victims were Serbs and because a majority population was destroyed and denied self-determination.’

[7] Looks like a problem but just click your tongue, krrrk. Same with trg.

[8] Truly great. We found several pieces of his work in the Italian National Gallery of Modern Art.

[9] ‘Mongol hordes’ in some accounts.

[10] Rhymes with ‘boom’ and can be considered a directive.

[11] One of these islands has a population of one. It would be a quiet life.

[12] I’ve spelt that wrong I think. The same concept with similar spelling exists in Italian.

[13] This figure may have something numinous about it. It is also the number of cannon balls believed to have fallen on the city from a Russian/Montenegrin fleet in 1806 during the Napleonic wars.

[14] The British and French attitude during the 1990s wars was at least initially, Croatia didn’t fight with us in WWII. Let it stew. It was the Germans who were most active and thoughtful about external intervention.

4 thoughts on “ELSEWHERE 2010: Croatia. Don’s party

  1. Pingback: ELSEWHERE 2010: The Balkans. The Mission | mcraeblog

  2. Pingback: On Being Serbian | mcraeblog

  3. Pingback: Blog 99 | mcraeblog

  4. Pingback: Don’s Feasts | mcraeblog

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