Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Let's aim for the 8pm ferry then?

Magical nature
Another week, another European capital city. London. Zagreb. Belgrade. Sarajevo. I feel like a fashion carrier bag. As I write I'm heading towards Sarajevo but unlike last time, I'm approaching it from the north through Serbia. A return is making me feel nostalgic for those early summer halcyon days.
 It was May when I made one of my first inter-Balkan forays to the exotic East. Having reviewed what I wrote I was pensive about this city. That was clearly a difficult month. I was unused to being alone, suffering hours of bus travel, was still apprehensive about who and what I'd find waiting for me. This time I'm immured to miles, and confident of a warm welcome. Last weekend I spent a happy family weekend with my old Sarajevo host in Belgrade, and him and his youngest son will be joining me there on Saturday. I'm also excited to catch up with another old friend, and may even catch a rendition of Cabaret in the national theatre. It seems I even have a coffee date courtesy of this bus journey.
Still, although I've a lot to look forward to, it's what I've been doing which is more important. In my last post I got as far as Christmas in Split and was looking forward to the long journey north. My friend was determined to make my last full day there as memorable as possible with an island excursion. Who doesn't love a ferry trip in the fresh, bright sunshine? It was useful to go because at that time I was pondering a move to one of them for January-April. As I've now got into February without a move, it seems less likely. No information is ever wasted though and at least I could consider and discuss options.
I've been to Brač a couple of times but never to its other more beautiful side. It takes a meandering 90 minutes through the most varied landscapes to reach Bol. Given it was still technically Christmas and calories don't count at this time, I scoffed most of a gloriously greasy burek on the way, stuffing remnants into my handbag pocket. We laughed the entire journey as if there was no tomorrow. I got hugely excited as we went through Postira, the village after which my favourite ferry is named. We arrived in Bol and headed towards the famous zlatni rat beach just along the coast. The silent path with its sculpture and views of emerald sea was stunning. Only feral cats seemed to guard the road, though it was clear from the diving schools, clubs and restaurants that summer is a different story.
There were vague plans to meet up with a gentleman to whom my friend had been talking. I had no idea it was to be on the beach which is why I did the logical thing. Apart from us two there was no one around so I stripped. The sea had been serenading me with her blue loveliness and the biting wind had dropped, leaving her glassy and inviting. Left in only my black pants I danced into the sea. I think they heard me in Italy as I immediately ran out again shrieking with laughter. Realising the worst was now over, I went back in and the water took on a calm cool, and paddling around was bliss.
Me on the beach in December
Then I saw a gentleman in shades walking along the beach...great. It was him. I hoped he appreciated the real life birth of Venus as I emerged from the sea. Because Zephrus was blowing a bit, and Flora was being tardy with the cape. Hauling on clothes and stuffing wet knickers into the burek pocket of handbag doom*, I casually strolled up to my friends as if it was perfectly normal to be found in the sea in December.
Accepting things as they happen, we jumped into this stranger's car and headed for a tour of the island. This time to the highest point. I can't tell you how cold it was at the top. In the space of 30 minutes I went from being naked and wet, to cold and shivery with 3 thick layers. Even the sheep looked a bit miserable.
But we stayed to watch the sun set over Vis and Lastovo. One of those truly unexpected magical moments. The cold finally drove us off the mountain and he gave us a lift back to Supertar, given we'd missed the bus. We found a warm bar and I believe there was hot punč. Puno punča. There may also have been banter as only fireman can get away with. And then the free beers from the barman arrived because he knew someone in London. And inevitably we missed the 6pm ferry. 'Let's aim for the 8pm one then?'
Never mind I only had my packing and flat cleaning to do. Did I mention my London-via-Zagreb flight meant a 04.30 start?

*I've since consigned this handbag to the toxic waste bin in the sky

Monday, 23 January 2017

Advent and Events in December

Home Sweet Home
They say that Advent is a time of planning, preparation and waiting. In my case I don't think I've ever done so much of all three. Much of early December was spent working. Yes I know. This is something that I've been plotting for some time and finally reached fruition this month. More of that anon. However having some extra cash coming in meant that I could be a better friend and aunty, and get to the UK over the festive period. So my trip to Split expanded to include London and Wiltshire.

Despite my earlier decision to spend longer on Šipan, the plan was never to stay on the island over Christmas and New Year. I think that would have been an isolation too far. If circumstances had been different...still, there is no use crying over broken hearts. And my lovely friend in Split would have been rightly cross with me. As it happened another friend there was going to be away so I could happily and warmly take my laptop and work in her cosy apartment.

I was excited to reach Split because as usual I had no idea what to expect. An early start on a cold, dark ferry meant that my hugely heavy rucksack and I arrived there in bright early afternoon sunshine. The winter market on the Riva was alive to the sound of music and excited conversation. Festive aromas of frying fritule and kuhano vino filled the fresh air...I felt drunk just on the atmosphere. Wanting to dump my bags, I headed up to Maria's first but soon realised I had the wrong keys. Or the right keys for the wrong lock. Resisting an eye roll at my uselessness, I went to see my redoubtable friend to get help. Once in I was happy to relax into the swing of Split life.

I went back to hers picking up ham, cheese and wine on the way. Situation normal. And took my homemade sloe vodka with me. As we sat in the kitchen chatting about everything and nothing, it was like I'd never been away. The children were doing homework, the dog was trying to get on my lap, and we made no plans at all. There was loads of Christmas things to be done; cakes, decorations, food shopping, some exciting exam (not mine!) paperwork... so no planning really needed. Ahem.

I arrived on 16 December and that first week was spent industriously writing several January blogs so I could relax into the new year. The weather continued to be sunny so I did lots of running around Marjan park. And discovered punč - fruit tea enhanced with golden rum. There had been an announcement that our favourite bar was closing on 25th December. This place had contributed so many memories earlier in the year, so it seemed fitting to celebrate their end with the last karaoke session. Catching up with familiar faces was fabulous. It did mean that as of 23rd of December I was officially on holiday! After a working interlude, Split was back to the whirl of singing, dancing, lung and liver bashing, and general hedonism. And an Elvis impersonator, not to mention a Bulgarian clown who is also a sushi chef.

I'm not a big one for Christmas but this year's was the most perfect I've had. We baked Christmas tree cakes, decorated the actual tree, lit advent candles...and drank plenty of kuhano vino. Our shopping was completed on Christmas Eve. We had plenty of coffee breaks to enjoy the sun whilst shopping. If I had been in the UK I would probably have had a nervous breakdown. But the shopping centres were quiet and relaxed, so she and I only had to contend with my general dislike of shops. Fortunately we have very little money so apart from presents for her children, there was nothing we could buy anyway. Food is a different matter... Our trip to the butchers was characteristically unorthodox.

On 23rd Dec it was karaoke night with a Christmas hat competition. I placed faith in my good friend that something would present itself regarding headwear. Given I'd totally failed to get my hair done as is usual when I'm here, I wasn't looking my best. Still, it was glorious sunshine and we shone with the usual contrary glow of happy friends. We were heading to the afternoon Hvar catamaran to deliver a chocolate cake*, when I saw the perfect hat.

Only the images can do this justice. These conical Christmas trees were tarted up with white fur and fairy lights and turned heads everywhere. Strolling up Marmontova later on where polite Split goes to show off, we styled it out. It's fair to say our arrival was NOT low key. We dived into the hot smoky melee and sang and laughed the night away. Under Chatham House rules, I can reveal nothing about my friend. However at 3 my feet decided they fancied a dance and so I found myself in Klub Central. Though my hat chose to stay at To Je To. Apparently this club is where all the cool kids go; there were dancers in cages, fire jugglers and hot half naked ladies on stage. Perhaps I just dreamt it.

Strolling home later, I bumped into my friend. Given there is a tradition of raiding the bakery in the early hours, we headed up the road to Varoš. The butcher was standing outside his shop taking in the morning air, and he watched with interest as we cackled noisily up the street. She decided then was the perfect time to order beef for Christmas Day pasticada. He is a sweet guy and I decided his morning could be improved by asking to kiss his cheek. He seemed keen. He blushed. With promises to pick up his meat later we continued to wobble up the hill. For hot jammy bread.

Hot jammy bread at 5am is the best.

Christmas Eve is traditionally a fishy sort of day. There is a communal lunch in Split where they make a cauldron of bakalar and serve everyone. Those that haven't been out the night before had finished every last morsel so we arrived too late. Never mind. We went on a wander around the bright sunny city taking in the sights, scents, sounds...ah the sounds. The gentlemen struck up hymns to Dalmacija just off the main square. Tearful and transported, we gathered for a moment in time. Just being. We carried on with festive meeting and greeting as people just enjoyed their holiday. We picked up our last ingredients for the following day.

So I'd be less tired for Christmas Day I decided a nap was in order. My hat was still in the bar so I called time on its shenanigans and went home via the sunset. By 8am I was back at her's where we prepared potatoes for njoki, a platter for breakfast and made sure everything was perfect. For once that week I had an early night and was back in bed for midnight. Enjoying yourself is exhausting!

Christmas Day. It had its family dramas. Don't they always? I even spoke with my mum where I arranged my trip to Warminster. I finally had a rough plan for the UK. By midday we'd eaten and were out taking in the sunshine on the Riva. The day passed by in a haze of food, good wine, and friends. The greatest gifts you can possibly get.

As this day was the final night of To Je To, the plan was to help them clear stock. 50 kunas all you could drink. They wanted nothing left by the end of the night. So letting her have a nap, I popped down there for 9 to see what was happening. It was full of the regulars and we passed a lovely evening. There was gin and lemonade, vodka and vodka, and finally vodka and red stuff. I have no idea. By 3am a cheer went up at the bar. We were dry. What to do now? The owner had a craving for Mexican food so opened the restaurant opposite to refry beans. Guys brought their guitars, and I sat and pondered the meaning of life. The sheer weird fun of it all - what a start to Boxing Day. After an impromptu party we parted, wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

*everything from oranges, suitcases, 'things' in Croatia get delivered by bus or boat. You give it to a man, they pop it on, then your friend or contact goes to pick it up when the transport arrives. Simple. Imagine National Express doing this!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Protecting people counts for everything

This follows on from my previous post. Dubrovnik's St Nicholas' Walk was the pinnacle of this perfection of collective heart. I've covered my reactions to the historic suffering of the people in this place in previous posts. But this time I got an opportunity to join in the remembrance of 6th December 1991.

As a special cultural site, Dubrovnik believed itself relatively safe from the destructive war which was raging in the region. It was not to be. On this day the people saw their beautiful city shelled continuously, with the most vulnerable in society in grave danger as they struggled to unexpectedly evacuate.

As my dear friends here have talked about their determination to fight for their land, way of life, it has encouraged me to question my passions. What would it take for me to don a uniform and fight? I have frequently asked those who fought 'why would a foreign invading force want to do this' but they can only shrug in collective anger, despair, determination and incomprehension. Pride and fierce protectiveness of their nearest and dearest drove normal people to abnormal acts. It's their city therefore they protect it and its inhabitants, just as they would their home and family.

We wound our way slowly up to the Srđ, the fortress and museum. Pausing at each of the stations of the Cross, you couldn't fail to be moved at the chanting and prayer. We followed a little behind as we were being respectful, and remembering in our own way. With entertaining conversation and exchange of thoughts. I adore this matter-of-fact spirited island woman, and miss her when I'm away.

We had coffee and hot chocolate in the cafe below the cable car. The views from have to be seen to be believed. Totally beyond the scope of words or photos. The city below eased into twilight as the sun slid into the sea. As usual the light was incredible and fireworks unnecessary; the mountains went pink and everything else gold and turquoise. Rather misty-eyed, I followed her towards the easy route down. As locals we didn't pay for the cable car and whooshed over where we'd laboured up earlier.

It was cold without being unpleasant, and we were both peckish. First we headed to the Mexican but it was shut for the season. We turned back. She explained that the fashionable little cocktail bar near there used to be a dark smoky hangout for local old guys. I guess young people drink more sweet alcoholic beverages than regulars drink cheap beer. The best pizza in town was en route to Stradun and it's merits were discussed. We agreed. Pizza!

The contrary being strong in this one, we walked straight past the pizza restaurant, and down into the main part of town. We eventually sat outside at a place called Ludo More. Its speciality is local produce served in a really simple way. Think tapas. But with Dalmatian pršut, cheeses, raw marinaded tuna, anchovies, large capers, olives washed down with fruit liqueurs. We admired the city decorations and watched the festive world go by.

We still had a date with one of the kuhano vino stalls. We'd impressed one of the vendors with our capacity for hot wine on a previous visit. So we headed off there as we had a couple of hours until our 8pm ferry departed. We didn't disappoint. It's fair to say we were a bit merry as we stumbled back to the bus stop to Gruž.

I mean, we were absolutely sober lady citizens. We carried out some essential shopping errands at the pharmacy, kiosk and supermarket. We collapsed onto Postira and decided that it was one of the most wonderful days we'd had in Dubrovnik for a long time.

Just as I think she appreciates my fresh perspective on Croatian history, I am so grateful for her view. Although the day had been about remembering what happened to friends and family, it's about making new memories. As we cautiously enter into 2017, wondering what the heck is going to happen next, we need the certainty of family and friendships. Old and new. Because I'd want to protect them with all my heart.

Seasonal rhythms

From 5th November to 28th December is an outrageous gap of time to not make any blogpost entries. I've mentioned before that time in this place plays tricks on the unwary. For the outside observer it seems everything can happen, or nothing. 

In the grand scheme of seasonal rotation, my few weeks have seen a march towards an island going into private mode. The olive oil factory was the hub of activity for many familiar  faces. With the best impromptu home produced cheese and wine parties I've ever known. But now as many olives as possible have been picked and pressed. These wonderful trees have been pruned and the resultant wood chopped and stored away for what will turn out to be one of the coldest and snowiest Januarys in many years.

The harbour sees only brief activity as the rare ferries come and go. Fishing boats continue to work and nets inevitably need mending, whilst engines get fixed. There is also swearing as the harassed boss has to dive into the water to untangle propellers and detritus. But conversations and transactions seem to happen quicker. People dash back to their closed warm homes out of the biting wind. There is always the tiny bar on the harbour, which remains resolutely open. But although the usual gathered gentlemen continue their talking, it seems quieter and more perfunctory than before.

I've spent a few evenings in that bar happily celebrating some olive picking, and taking the odd dance lesson. I remain astonished at Croatians' ability to melt into a musical rhythm and dance the night away. As long as the gentleman is stern enough to lead, and his toes nimble enough to avoid my clodhopping, it's a lovely way to pass the time. I still can't believe that the sea dances to its own tune just outside, glowing orange in the sodium light. 

This was v late at night!
If the bar palls, they obviously have the choice to head into Dubrovnik's old town. Even if it does mean spending a night in a hostel. Everyone seems keen and happy to escape the island cold and quiet. From the 1st December the winter festival in Dubrovnik is a must-visit for everyone. Festive wooden stalls offer cooked wine, local rakija, large grilled sausages and mustard. There are other advent and Christmas bits and pieces too.

Finally the people reclaim their city. They make this tiny show city feel like a living breathing place. The red lights and silvery stars jump-start the warm local heart. People who have known one another for years meet and greet, with warmth to heat the entire Stradun. Though not as flashy as Split's Christmas Riva, you get a sense of what it was like before it came a mere theatrical backdrop for thousands enjoying a cruise.