Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dubrovnik and Kotor

(This is a continuation of my previous blog entry, describing my recent visit to Croatia)

I can recommend our hotel at Dubrovnik, which was the Valamar Argosy, on the coast at the outlying district of Babib Kuk (which, we were told, means “Grandmother’s Hip”, owing to a Turkish misunderstanding of the Serbo-Croat name). It had good rooms, good food and a splendid outdoor pool, and had the inestimable benefit of being the terminus of the No. 6 bus to the old city, so it was impossible to get lost. Ciccadas were very noisy in the trees, and swifts were flying very low.
We had two days in Dubrovnik, separated by an expedition into Montenegro; a very strange country. The only currency accepted there is the Euro, which is surprising because Montenegro is not a member of the E.U. It was suggested to us that the principal business was money-laundering, as shown by the fact that there were no British banks to be seen, but plenty of Russian ones. To coin a phrase: I couldn’t possibly comment… In the wars of the 1990s, the Montenegrans supported Serbia in the bombardment of Dubrovnik (see later).
We had two stops there, at Perast on the Bay of Kotor,
 where we had a boat-trip to a little island with a pretty church, 
and then at the city of Kotor itself. Both these places were devastated by a massive earthquake in 1979, and were rebuilt as they had been; but as my parents’ Communist-era guidebook said, it was unlikely that all the architectural details could ever be reconstructed.
So Kotor is still a mediaeval city, with defensive walls running up the precipitous mountainside behind, and a tangle of alleyways from which motor vehicles are excluded. We were issued with maps, but since hardly any of the narrow, twisted streets bore names, it was very easy to get lost.
 I found the easiest strategy was simply to hand the map to a shopkeeper and ask to be shown where I was. Eventually I managed to find the cathedral and other impressive buildings.

But the highlight of the week was always going to be Dubrovnik. It was once known as Ragusa: a strongly-walled mercantile city-state on the Dalmatian coast, which for centuries managed more or less to retain its autonomy by striking a balance between the neighbouring powers of Venice, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. It was even occupied by Napoleon’s troops for a brief period in 1806. In 1815 it was incorporated into the Austrian Empire, and after 1918 assigned to Yugoslavia. This was the position when my parents visited in the 1970s, but when the Yugoslav state fell apart Dubrovnik came under attack from Serbian and Montenegran forces in 1991-2, and was badly damaged by shellfire. Repairs have been made, but the episode has not been forgotten: there are maps posted around the city showing the extent of the destruction.

The classic view in Dubrovnik is the street called the Stradun, which leads eastwards from the Pile gate. 
Alleyways climb steeply on the north side. It passes the Large Onofrio Fountain 
and the Franciscan monastery
 before reaching the Square of the Loggia; the centre of the city.

Here you can find the church of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city, with a statue of the hero Roland in front of it,

and close by the Rector's Palace, with a splendid interior courtyard, a museum, and most elaborate capitals to the columns in fornt of the entrance

From the harbour nearby 
you can take boat trips along the sea-walls
or out to the Elaphite Islands.

Fine views over the city can be gained by walking a circuit of the walls
but the classic view is obtained by taking the cable-car to Mount Srd, where there is also a monument to those who died defending the city in the 1991-2 "Homeland War"

All this barely scratches the surface of what there is to see in Dubrovnik!

Monday, 10 July 2017


My parents visited Yugoslavia, as it then was, some forty years ago, and took masses of photographs. This summer I signed up for a tour of Croatia and neighbouring republics, eager to see Split and Dubrovnik for myself, and find out what had changed in the interim, with the death of President Tito and the collapse of the Yugoslav state.
We flew into Dubrovnik airport and embarked on a coach drive to our first base, which was at Omis, some distance to the north. This took even longer than appeared likely on the map, because it is not possible to drive very far northwards along the coast from Dubrovnik whilst remaining in Croatia. Soon you come to the small resort town of Neum, which Tito had granted to Bosnia. Going through two border crossings within a handful of miles necessitated stopping the coach for passport checks. We had to go through this process several times in a week, and it was impossible to predict how long one would take. Would the officials scan each passport individually, or wouldn’t they bother? Also, Croatia and Bosnia now have their own currencies, though Bosnia also accepts Euros. (Montenegro is different again, as we found out later).
Eventually we arrived at Omis. My parents’ guidebook from the 1970s dismissed this as a scruffy place, but now it has new hotels along the beach, with a network of tiny stone alleyways behind. The setting is dramatic, being overlooked by massive cliffs.

 It lies on the estuary of the river Cetina, and in earlier centuries was the home of notorious pirates who preyed on Venetian galleys sailing down the Adriatic, and then retreated upriver out of sight behind deep limestone gorges. We took a boat-trip to these waters.

 Nowadays the overwhelming majority of businesses are cafes, restaurants and tourist shops; but our hotel, the Plaza, was comfortable, with a good selection of food. There is a castle above the town, but I didn't climb up to see it.

Our first expedition was to the Krka national park, inland from Split. The this part of Croatia proved to consist of rough scrubland, with few trees more than 6 feet high, with plenty of bare rock showing. We were told that wildfires were common. I saw signs of stones having been piled up for field boundaries and terraces, but these appeared to have been abandoned. Krka park consists of a large area where the river tumbles over a series of small waterfalls, and a broadwalk meanders through the woods and across the many small streams. 

It was all very pretty. The water was very clear, slightly blue, and there were plenty of fish to be seen, though not, unfortunately, any of the terrapins, frogs or snakes also advertised. 

My only complaint would be that there were far too many people about; which proved to be an annoyance throughout the holiday. We were then taken by boat to the little town of Skradin further down the river

Next day we drove north to Split; a fair-sized town with a harbour and sea-front promenade but unpleasant suburbs, famous for Diocletian’s palace.

 Diocletian was a native of the district: a rough soldier who rose to be Roman Emperor and revived the crumbling empire in the late 3rd century. He then, uniquely, abdicated and retired to his homeland, where he built this huge rectangular structure which more resembles a fortified military camp than a palace as we would understand the term. 
Much of it is still inhabited, with four gates known as Gold, Silver, Iron and Bronze, 

and alleyways laid out in a regular grid pattern.

Since my parents' visit the vast storerooms beneath the palace have been opened to the public

 Diocletian was the last great persecutor of Christians, so it was ironic that his mausoleum at the heart of the palace was later converted into an ornate cathedral.

 The peristyle and vestibule next to the cathedral must be the most photographed places in the country, and it was a shame we couldn’t get a better view of them. 

But alas, there was a new invasion of barbarian hordes, in the shape of several huge cruise ships had anchored in the harbour, and we had to elbow our way through dense crowds, particularly of Chinese intent on taking selfies in front of any place of interest. It was amazing that we all kept in touch with our guide and didn’t get lost.

After some time wandering inside and outside the palace, our group reassembled and were taken a few miles along the coast to Trogir, a mediaeval city on a small island reached by a single bridge.

 Fortunately there were fewer tourist parties about. Like every other place we visited, the construction was of a particularly hard white limestone, with the streets polished like marble by the feet of generations of visitors. There was a Venetian fortress at the western end. 

The cathedral was particularly fine, with splendid carvings around the west door. 

I climbed the hazardous steps up the campanile for a view over the town.

On the next day, a Sunday, we said farewell to Omis and passed through a very long tunnel through the mountains en route to Bosnia. (Technically we were to enter Hercegovina, a matter of considerable importance to the inhabitants). As soon as we crossed the frontier, the sparsely inhabited grazing-land was replaced homes with small market-garden plots, notably of tobacco. There was also a profusion of car-breakers’ yards: we were told that most of the stolen cars of Europe ended up in these. Finally we reached Mostar, just before midday.

The city is built in a bowl in the mountains, and is incredibly hot. It used to be a city with a mixed Moslem and Christian population, famous for its bridge over the river Neretva, constructed for the Sultan Sulemein the Magnificent in the 16th century. 

The bridge was deliberately destroyed by shellfire in 1993, in the wars that marked the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and a replacement, closely copying the old bridge, was opened in 2004.
 Nowadays the city is segregated, with Christians on the west bank and Moslems on the east. A new Franciscan monastery has been built, with a tower deliberately planned to overtop any of the Turkish minarets. Despite the heat I climbed the minaret of the Koski Mehmet Pasha mosque to get the best view of the bridge and the city.

 Then we drove south, once again passing through Neum, to reach our next base, at Dubrovnik. I shall describe this in my next entry.