Archive | June, 2018

I’ve just been to Croatia, but was I really there?

17 Jun

I’ve just returned from a 10 day visit to Croatia, staying on the beautiful Adriatic coast. It was a relaxing, family holiday, linking up with my wife’s relatives who drove down from Milan.( Chris’s daughter is married to an Italian and so she has 2 delightful Anglo-Italian grandchildren) We all had a lovely time. I’ve been to Croatia before, when it was still part of the now defunct state of Yugoslavia. I’d taken 2 of my own children for the same sort of relaxing holiday by the sea with a bit of sight-seeing thrown in. That was in 1990, just a few months before the terrible civil war broke out and Yugoslavia started tragically tearing itself apart. Back then I was in Istria near the Italian border. A boat trip to Venice was one of the highlights. This year we were based in southern Dalmatia, staying in the Split and Trogir area on the coast. Both holidays were very enjoyable.

However when someone recently asked me what Croatia is like, I had to admit that I didn’t really know. This would have applied to my 1990 trip as well. On both occasions I had physically been present in Croatia, but apart from the landscape and some historical buildings, I cannot claim to have experienced much that was genuine or authentic Croatian. I didn’t even speak a word of the language, as conveniently, all the Croatians I met in the tourist industry spoke good English. I am actually a bit ashamed to admit I was so lazy. Even Chris’s grandchildren, encouraged by their father, said the occasional “hvala” ( thank you) and “dobar dan” ( hello) This always raised a smile from the waiter or shop-assistant who had been resigned to conversing in English and maybe a bit of German, Italian or French. It is a conceit of the British abroad that they expect every other nation to speak English, so that they can stay in their linguistic comfort-zone and not put themselves out in any way. They are just lucky that their language is spoken by Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and many others. The former British Empire has given us the convenient opportunity to be idle.

For the first few days we stayed in a small guest house on a hillside overlooking the centre of Split, Croatia’s second biggest city. It is a residential area and so one would expect that we would have experienced some every-day Croatian life. But this did not really happen. We were greeted in English and as soon as we neared the city centre most of the signs and adverts were in English too. We were in an area named Veli Varos on Marjan Hill. It was ( is) charming, with winding, narrow streets and quaint old buildings with tiny gardens and courtyards. But were we really in a real Croatian neighbourhood? A generous sprinkling of parked cars had Austrian, German, Italian and even Dutch plates. Many of the old dwellings had been turned into apartments and holiday homes. The most we saw of Croatia were a few old men chewing the fat on the street corners and the odd lean and lithe cat lazing in the sun. It seems that the old parts of Split are gradually metamorphosing into tourist zones. Thus they are slowly losing their original character and are ceasing to be genuine Croatian neighbourhoods. If this process is taken to its extreme then the Croatian tourist industry will be in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This, in my opinion, is what has happened already in areas such as the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain. A beautiful coastline has been scarred by a procession of high rise, concrete hotels and apartment blocks, thrown up to pack in as many holiday-makers as possible. Many still flock there for their holiday in the sun, which is fair enough but are they really experiencing Spain? ( or do they actually want to?) Coming back to Split, we eventually discovered where many of the locals live — in ranks of Socialist-era tower blocks, marching up the hills that encircle the city. Needless to say, we did not visit those areas, merely affording them a brief glance as we sped past in a car.

Later, we moved west from Split to a lovely apartment near the historical town of Trogir. From our balcony, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise and blue sea punctuated by green islands. As we sipped our drinks we were entertained by a kaleidoscope of yachts and boats gliding and scurrying in all directions. Occasionally, usually after dark, an enormous, flood-lit cruise-ship would glide out of Split and weave its stately way through the picturesque patch-work of southern Dalmatian islands. Every evening we would prepare a meal in the summer kitchen and eat it in the garden. It was idyllic ( except for the pesky mosquitoes) and we all enjoyed it. But on this occasion we were not travellers, finding out about the culture and life-style of the country we were visiting. We were simply content to be tourists, having a relaxing time and enjoying the sun, the scenary, the food and the wine. We were enjoying our little slice of the good life.

The trouble with me is that I am a former history and geography teacher. Everywhere I go and in almost everything I do, I want to be learning stuff or be stimulated by new experiences. Apparently the Victorians had this approach to travel as well. ( well, according to Michael Portillo on his TV railway journeys.) For him and for them, travel was primarily an educational experience. This is the sort of travel bug I have got. It is both a joy and an affliction. It has driven me to visit all sorts of places, far and near to seek out exciting experiences and discover fascinating facts. It has led me to read extensively about the places I visit so that I can appreciate them and try to understand them in a deeper way. My aim is to scratch beneath the surface of a place and see what lies beneath. I have often said that “every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.” However, this approach also has its disadvantages. It means that I don’t often allow myself to truly relax and recharge my batteries. I am not one for lying on a beach or by a pool, sunbathing or reading a “page-turner”, day after day after day. I am usually wanting to get out and about to see the sights and experience the life of the place that I am visiting. Unfortunately this has led me to be a bit of a travel snob at times, unfairly looking down on people who go away simply to have a rest and a “chill out.” I now try hard to curb this attitude. My excuse is that being judgemental is an unfortunate family trait. Afterall, everyone can do what they want . Everyone to their own.

Having said all that, I am still a little disppointed that I didn’t see much of the real Croatia.( if there is such a thing.) The old centres of both Split and Trogir are World Heritage Sites because of their historical and architectural importance, but I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing something distinctive Croatian or Balkan. Both old towns have been turned into largely artificial theme parks created to amuse and service tourists. Sometimes they seem to be completely swamped by visitors, especially when an enormous cruise ship has docked. The tourists, decanted from their ships or planes, proceed to trawl around the old towns, passing a procession of historical buildings that have been converted into: cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, leather shops, jewellery shops, art and craft galleries, tourist information offices selling excursions and ice cream parlours. Does the local population like jewellery, crafts or ice cream so much that it needs such a dense concentration of shops and stalls? Do the locals never eat at home? Both Split and Trogir have some interesting old buildings, especially their respective cathedrals, and their, narrow old streets were certainly atmospheric, but a lot of the time, as I was walking around I felt it was an artificial experience. It felt as if I was in a cliched, fantasy world, divorced from reality. When I walk down the street at home I am never assailed by people wanting me to eat at their restaurant or go on their walking tour.

I travel to seek out the unfamilier, but this had more than a hint of familiarity about it. I had seen this sort of scenario in many places. I remember walking round an old town full of restaurants, jewellery and craft shops in Nice, France. I experienced it again on the striking Greek island of Santorini. There it was again in Benidorm, Spain and Sorrento, Italy. I call it “Tourist Land.” Tourist industries in countries like Croatia are extremely important because they contribute a lot to the local economy and provide a significant amount of employment. The tourist industry, by definition, exists to please tourists by giving them what they want. The danger is, in my view, that by supplying visitors with what they want and what they feel comfortable with, the individual character of unique and fascinating places is gradually squeezed out. In the end, tourists may end up with one homogenised experience after another. Every place they visit will start to resemble every other place.

On our penultimate evening on Croatia we left the touristy coast and headed inland for ¬†just half an hour. ¬†Giuliano, my wife’s son-in-law, had found out about a rustic, restaurant in the countryside that served a traditional dish called peka. It was potatoes and meat, slow cooked in special dishes in a wood fired oven, for as long as 2 hours. It wasn’t my normal cup of tea as I am a vegetarian. However, they kindly prepared a colourful and delicious dish of roasted vegetables in the same manner for Chris and myself. There was nothing else on the menu and no dessert. There wasn’t even any ice cream! But the food was great and this was the closest we came to a Croatian experience. There was even a group of Croatians eating there. As they waited patiently for their food, this group of local men drank beer and sang emotional-sounding folk songs in rich, 2 or 3 part harmonies. We imagined they were all about love and loss, or were proud, patriotic songs. It made a change from the western style pop music we had mostly experienced up to this point. Just for a few hours, it felt as if we had escaped tourist land to experience a little bit of the real Croatia.

So for that one evening I felt as if we were really in the country we were visiting. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing holiday. However, if I go to Croatia again, and I probably will, I’ll leave the tourist- dominated coast and head inland in search of more authentic experiences. In other words I’ll get as far away from the cruise ships as possible. It will possibly be a more challenging and less convenient holiday but, as I read on a t-shirt recently, life begins one step outside your comfort zone.