Thursday, 31 August 2017

Plitvick National Park and the Croatian War of Independence.

Plitvick National Park, Croatia. Breathtaking, beautiful, serene, unspoilt, magical. And then there was the war. The struggle to create an independent Croatia was resisted by Croatian Serbs and had its first military conflict in these mountains. Serbian/Croatian militia took control of the park headquarters, seeking to control the route between Zagreb and the south and established it as command HQ. The Croatian police responded (Croatia had no army at the time, still being part of Yugoslavia). The central Yuglosav Government intervened and put their own police force in control. Two men had died. Although the situation appeared to settle it marked the beginning of hostilities between Serbia and Croatia, dubbed "The Homeland War' which stretched from 1991 to 1995 and then extended to become part of the larger conflict involving multiple Slavic states and the break up of Yugoslavia. The number of conflicts between the various parties almost defies description. I get lost. Conflict in the region continued until 2001.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The day Harry got stabbed by a Roman

Jo: I left the boys (Harry and Richard) at the Living Museum and was browsing in a gift shop in the square when I noticed a commotion. A Roman soldier was rushing a young boy towards the public fountain. There was blood.

Richard: We paid our money and went in. At first we were the only
ones in our group and the Roman (well, actually a volunteer dressed as a Roman) began his spiel about Roman weapons. By this time another kid, a German boy, had joined Harry and the Roman repeated his story and described how the Romans used to fight. I turned away for a few moments and next thing I hear this screaming

Harry: It wasn't my fault. He gave us each a Roman dagger.

Richard: A metal one.

Harry: Yeah. And a shield and said we could play at fighting if we wanted. So we did. It wasn't my fault.

Richard: No, of course it wasn't Harry. He shouldn't have said that.

Jo: Suddenly I recognised Harry's voice and rushed over. Blood was streamimg from his eye and this idiot kept saying - it's alright Harry it's only a cut. Harry was freaking out. So was I.

Richard: It wouldn't stop bleeding. They didn't even have a first aid kit. Can you believe it?

Jo: The young volunteer was distraught. Is there a hospital nearby? I asked. I could see it was going to need stitches. Luckily it was near the bridge of his nose between his eyes.

Richard: God! I thought it was his eye at first. And we'd only been in there a few minutes. What a way to start our beach week at Split.

Harry: The other boy was dressed in a kilt. He was a bit strange. I thought he was Scottish but he said he was a Viking. We were just playing. He didn't mean to hurt me.

Richard: The poor kid was really upset.

Jo: And his parents were mortified.

Richard: They were really lovely. Invited us to come and visit them in Germany. They couldn't have been sorrier. Maybe we should go?

Jo: Imagine that. A kid gets cut by a metal sword and they go snd rinse his eye out in the public fountain. It was crazy. Anyway the young volunteer who was doing his best offered to drive us to the hospital.

Richard: So there we were, Harry hysterical but beginning to calm down and us following along behind the Roman soldier through the cobbled lanes of old Split trying to find his friend's car. He had to borrow his friend's car!

Jo: Which turns out to be so small he suggested that one of us stay behind.

Richard: Of course we weren't about to do that.

Jo: And so we crammed in. No seat belts, no nothing. I'm still not sure if the car was registered. And he delivered us to the emergency department and stayed with us while we negotiated our way through the system

Richard: To cut a long story short, they took him (Harry) in. Wouldn't let us in with him, and put two stitches in.

Harry: And they said I can't go swimming for three days. Till 2:30 Friday. Boring!

Richard: The Roman boy stayed with us all that time.

Jo: From 10:30 until 5:00pm.

Richard: He did his best Jo.

Jo: I know, but how did they let that happen? Surely they can see how dangerous that is.

Harry: Can we go back there? They said I could get in free.

Richard: And do the archery?

Harry: I'll be careful.

Harry: Can we?

Harry: Can I have a special dessert tonight, mum?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Slavic Style

Travelling between Montenegro and Croatia should be simple. It's no further than from Brisbane to Tweed Heads. The narrow roads between Kotor and the border can be slow but after the border I expected it to be plain sailing.

We took a short cut from Kotor and headed in the opposite direction to our arrival route, towards Tavir. We were taking the car ferry to cut off the drive around the shores of Boka Kotorsky Bay. Queues for the ferry can be a nightmare we were told. But it was Sunday morning after the "Boka Night" festivities in Kotor, so we caught the Montenegrins napping. No queue.

We used a bit of Slavic attitude and barged our way on to the ferry. The crossing is quick and all was good until we approached the Croatian border. Again we had two check points about one kilometre apart to negotiate, one Montenegrin, one Croatian. This time we were prepared. We were stocked up with water, fruit, books. We were  of little interest to the Montenegrins because a) it's clear we were not any threat and b) we weren't exporting large quantities of local cheeses or narcotics (hidden in cheese blocks) and c) we're leaving not arriving; so we sped through the first checkpoint. 

Not so at the Croatian border. There were guards and guns everywhere. I figured that unless they mistook us for refugees entering the country ilegally in a Thrifty Rental Car; or worse Serbian we should be okay. Now this is where the Croatian/Slavic style made an early appearance. The border guard who collected our passports was deeply involved on a mobile call. I can only guess it was to his girlfriend. He holds our passports in one hand, the mobile in the other and has an: "I'm a bit busy right now" look on his face. No wonder this lane is so slow. As luck would have it we've only taken 40 minutes to traverse these two gates as opposed to two hours on the way in. And then we're in.

Whoopee. Into Croatia. Hugging the coastIine. Granite ranges plunging into the sea. The Adriatic sparkling below. And then another queue of cars. Oh, God. What's going on?  We've already crossed the border! Perhaps it's the entrance to the motorway? The line splits into three. I choose the shortest and then find we're in the trucks and bus line! How did that happen?

Turns out, it's another border check.

Guess what - there is a stretch of land about five klm long where Bosnia jags a piece of coastline between Croatia and .............. Croatia???!!! Exit Croatia, enter Bosnia, exit Bosnia, enter Croatia. Thankfully the guards give us a cursory look and wave us through each time. Didn't notice we weren't a bus. Still, it involved a queue each time. And not a criminal in sight. Demonstrates that the policy must be working I guess.

And then ..... plain sailing. We by-passed Dubrovnic; looked down on it from the high coast road. It looked lovely. By now it was after lunch and we were starving. We'd been on the road for more than four hours and travelled about 120ks. I spied a bakery cut into the cliff-face and pulled in. Andrea was desperate for a toilet stop.

Do you have a toilet? Shrug of shoulders. Took that to mean yes. Could you point me to it? Wave of hand in a non discript direction. Translated as "could be out the back; or up the road; or in here somewhere." And there it was, behind Andrea, disguised as a storeroom. No sign, no help. 

Next, onto the motorway and 'here we come Split'. We have a coffee break at the half way point and are served (loose use of the term) by a grumpy young woman who refuses to look at coins and notes being proffered by the confused man before me. He's trying to convert Euros back to Kunas (local currency). She Just keeps repeating the price.

I don't often make generalisations about national character but in the Croation case I'll make an exception. One word - SURLY. Maybe they're sick of tourists by end of August but it seemed more pervasive than that. 

Of course there were exceptions - Davros, our host in Split, who lives with his mum at the age of 47 was delightful; Slobie our host in Kotor, who is Montenegrin born but lives in Manchester, UK, smiled all the time; Alex, the Serbian boatman who took us for a three hour ride from Kotor to the Adriatic was very funny; the man at Thrifty Car Rentals who apologised for having to charge me for the broken mirror on the car was matter of fact but not churlish; while others in shops in Split were pleasant if not effusive. But overwhelmingly the service has been abrupt, dismissive and unfriendly. 

Maybe that comes from many years (generations) of hardship and oppressive regimes - the Venetians (400 years), Tito and his Russian allies (though he is regarded much more affectionately than the Venetians); and most recently Milosovic and the Balkan War of the 1990s.

Pity. It's an area rich in culture and natural beauty. And tourists are flocking here.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

We got the Sea.

Ekscus mi. One euro, ples.
   What's in there?
   Ther are two rms. One wth precious objicts and the other wth church vestments. Hnd made and stitchd.
   I hand over my coins and she adds:
  Also you vil see the church which is began in 19th century, but run out of money and never complet. Vas meant to be fifty metre long but only one third finished.

I go in. The rooms are well presented - very simple and minimal. The precious objects are in a series of glass cases. Each is numbered but there are no notes or any sign of a panel to tell me what I'm looking at. Not that it takes much to get the gist. There are chalices, small plates, cups, those ornate holy things where the consecreted host (body of Christ) is stored and locked away in the tabernacle between shows.

   It's all very famiIiar from my childhood. Every object has a sacred purpose associated with the mass or other religious ritual - benediction. christening etc. My memories are of gold and rubies. Our local parish priest, Fr. Whelan (same as my grandmother's maiden name), was an Irishman with a taste for the exotic and expensive. He had a fearsome reputation as a fund raiser, turning up unannounced for breakfast at parishioners' homes and demanding to know why our weekly contribution to church coffers was so small. He was one of the first priests, to my knowledge, to develop a system which did away with the blind offerings which had been standard previously. He wanted to know exactly how much everyone was giving. Families signed up for set amounts and Fr Whelan personally kept track of progress. There were implied threats, withdrawal of privilidges. He stripped the church and the presbetary bare when he retired and took his loot, his ill-gotten gains, back to Ireland with him. He had a big hand in causing my mother to lose her faith. She became disillusioned with his greed and then the church dumped the Latin mass and changed the service so the priest faced the congregation. She much preferred his back.

   Anyway in Perast, Montenegro, on the shores of the Kotor Bay  where this story takes place, silver was the precious metal of the day. These pieces were remarkable. Ornate and superbly crafted. Every culture has its collection but I am still surprised when I come across such a collection in places so remote. This area would have been a remote appendage on the backside of the Serbian/Venetian/Ottoman/Roman empire. It's hard to imagine how trade and communication took place over the imposing mountains of what would have been an inaccessible area. The sea would have been critical for food, trade and communication.

   The vestments were equally impressive, as was the sunlit filled, but incomplete nave of the church. Religion inspires amazing creativity and has supported so many exquisite craftsmen over the millenium I am almost prepared to forgive the hell that they have imposed on people's lives. No, that's going too far.

   It felt familiar, Catholic, but I knew I was in an Orthodox country, Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox. But t/here were too many images of the Virgin Mary in styles that lacked that ornate over the top Orthodox style.

   Is this Orthodox? I asked the young woman who had taken my money. No Catholic, she replied. There are twenty two churches built in Perast but twenty one of thm are Catholic. Only wun iss orthodox, she told me.

   She went on to explain that Kotor Bay (Boka Kotorsky) was Venetian for two hundred years and, particularly in the late 16th century when the town of Perast was destroyed by a massive earthquake, the Venetians rebuilt it and their Catholic faith became dominant. And it's true. From the water it's a replica of an Italian town from the baroque period. Red tiled roofs, symmetrical rectangulat houses and palaces in ordered lines. Distinctly different from the rest of the bay. The Catholic/Orthodox mix repeats itself through the coast of Montenegro, while inland is the reverse with the addition of a significant Muslim influence. The Ottoman Empire failed to establish an effective long yerm hold over this part of the world. Neither did the Germans in ww1 and ww2, nor Napoleon. Only the Venetians succeeded, largely because they were traders rather than invaders I suspect.

   So, what's the difference between Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox? I asked. .She looked at me blankly. I rephrased my question. What makes Montenegro different from Serbia? They both speak the same language, same religion, same Slavic roots?

   She looled at me as if I was an imbecile. Simple, she seemed to say and shrugged.

   We got the sea.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Runaway Women

Strange how themes emerge when you travel. Often apparently unrelated conversations seem to have a resonance with new conversations over following days. Perhaps my subconscious is always seeking connections. The challenge is how to weave them together and make sense of them.

This one began in Singapore where a young French woman from Versaillaise told the story of her tearful farewell from her mother when she announced she was leaving France to go and work in Dubai. She had first left home at 17. She just had to. The world was calling. And she followed. That was to Barcelona, which was bad enough in her mother's eyes but Dubai was a step too far. Now at twenty seven she works for "Cartier" selling expensive and exclusive items to wealthy visitors from Saudi Arabia and other countries for which Dubai is shopping mecca. She not on the sales counter but behind the scenes. France is home but Dubai is where she wants to be.

On the Turkish Airline flight to Dubrovnic (and that dramatic series of events), Ibtis, from Morocco, talked about how strongly she felt about her mother in Casablanca who she visited regularly. But, despite that bond, she had chosen to relocate to Paris. For work? Yes. For excitement? Yes. And at twenty five, she was already a woman of the world but still essentially Moroccan. Her Arab heritage evident in her skin tones, her dark eyes, her constant reference to the marvels of Fez and Marrakech, Essaouira.

It is 1350 steps from Kotor old town to the highest point in the ancient fortifiations, the walls built precipitiously above the town to protect it from maurading tribes. The wall just climbs the seemingly vertical mountain behind Kotor. No wonder it took ten centuries (1000 years) to complete. At the 1000 steps mark (I was counting), there is a panoromic view over Kotor Inlet - an extensive fijord which has created a deep waterway that snakes inland twenty kilometres with Kotor at it's inland extremity. It's deep. Giant cruiseships, six decks above and six below, sail to Kotor and anchor metres from the shore for an overnight stay. When they are in town the place is crawling with tourists eager to experience everything in the eight hours allocated.

I was alone and wanted a photo of me and the fijord. That's where I met the three Russian girls. They offered to help me with my photo and we got into conversation. The eldest, aged twenty three, was the talker. The other two were sisters, one a sixteen year old. They love Putin (no other option), hate Gorbochov (he broke up the USSR), are sceptical about Russian interference in the US election, and love their country. And in keeping with the theme, the eldest talked about her mother. Has she travelled much? Yes, mainly in Eastern Europe but also a year in Germany (Bavaria) as part of her university studies. She lives east of the Ural Ranges. Chelyabinsk I think she said. I had no idea. Her mother was aghast at the thought of her daughter spending a year in Germany. And she was right to be afraid because she now has a taste for travel and sees a world in which she can play. Would she ever leave her beloved Russia and her mother? Maybe. Possibly America. Never Australia (too far). And her mother? (Avoid Moscow was their advice btw. Choose St Petersburg instead)

Finally there was Slobie, our host in Kotor. Kotor born but living in the UK, I suspect she is the one who has run from her mother and this small community. She is older, maybe late thirties. When she was introducing us to our apartment her accent swung wildly between Montenegran English, to Scot, Irish and then settled as a recognizable Manchester brogue. That's where she lives with her Manchester husband and three year old daughter. She returns every year in summer to help her mother with the business but has little affection for her country. She is, at best, accepting of its quirks, but is despairing of Montenegro ever becoming a truly modern and prosperous country. She is here on sufference. And her mother? I got the distinct impression that their relationship is functional rather than close. Slobie is loyal. She supports her mother but would much prefer to be away. In Manchester.

I don't recall having many conversations with men about their mothers, though I'm sure the relationships are every bit as complex. It just seems like men can do a runner and it's regarded as them making their way in the world while for women, there is a sense that they have somehow abandoned their mothers, their filial duty. Nevertheless the impulse to escape for women seems just as strong, but with more strings attached.

Perhaps I should strike up a couple of conversations with men on planes about their mothers?  Just to make some comparisions. But maybe not. Too risky.

AustraIian politician Mathias Corman might call me out as a "girly-man", as he has of opposition leader, Bill Shorten.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Border Crossing

On the ground, in the hire car, on the rightside/wrong side of the road heading for Montenegro and Kotor. Twelve kilometres out of Dubrovnic airport we find ourselves last car in a long queue of vehicles which stretches up and over the crest of the distant hill, curving  left then right like a snake basking in the sun. This must be the border crossing we've been told about.

Croatia in part of the EU but uses its own currency, while Montenago is not EU but uses the Euro. Go figure. Such a small country (and recent - separated from Serbia in 2006) it can't afford its own currency apparently. The line of cars is mostly stopped. We have the aircon blasting and move a couple of car lengths every five minutes. Harry's in the back, already frustrated. Are we there yet? It's too cramped in here? Can I get out and walk? No. Just get used to it Harry. And no you can't get out. It's difficult to argue and enforce that one as he can see others walking past us. Outstripping our snail pace. Where are they walking to?

After an hour we see the border post in the distance. The air con is struggling. Harry is still whinging. The border inches towards us. It's our first day of our holidays. We've already almost died; we've visited the Montenegran capital but never left the aircraft; Jess has been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and influenza A (we heard this as we sat in the departure lounge in Brisbane - so, add guilt to that coctail of events and emotions). We're buggered. We left Brisbane 30 hours ago, fatigue is setting in and I'm the driver - "remind me if I wander into the path of oncoming traffic". Travelling at 5kph makes that pretty unlikely. "STEVE!! Watch out!"

At last we're through the border post - paperwork all okay, and we're cruising to Kotor, mostly on the correct side of the road. I remember how much I enjoy driving manuals. I' m getting my confidence up. Moving through the gears on the hairpin turns and then suddenly ..... we're looking at another queue of cars lining the road as far as we can see. Harry's chorus begins again.

I'm tempted to abandon the car and suggest we walk; to call "Thrifty" and tell them to collect the bloody car. We'd prefer to do the rest of the trip on foot. Of course its only the jet lag talking. My passengers calm me down and we crawl towards what i realise is the Montenegran border - the last one was goodbye Croatia. This one is welcome to Montenegro.

What is it about borders? I thought Europe had decided to open them. Oh yes, I forgot. Montenegro is in Europe but not of Europe - despite its currency. Montenegro is so protective of its tiny landmass that you can't bring across the border more than one (1) kilo of food. That's less than lunch for our carload. Luckily we didn't plan ahead. The guards are pulling apart a kombi van ahead of us. Clearly importing contraband sandwiches and more than four pieces of fruit. We must look too exhausted to be smugglers, so they let us through.

The next hour is largely incident free as we track along fifty kilometres of beautiful waterways - Kotor inlet. It's the largest fjiord in southern Europe. It'magnificent. I have to concentrate so can only see the spectacles as they appear around bends in the road through my windscreen. That works perfectly until we are within sight of our destination and I am momentarily distracted by the overwhelming beauty of the scene we're passing through and veer, not left (bad) but right, towards the water.

"STEVE!! WATCH OUT!!" There's a loud bang. My external rear view mirror has kissed a parked car. It's loud, but I look, and we still have a mirror and there's no way I'm going to stop and inspect the damage. Or leave a note. It's been thirty three hours in the sky and in transit and on the road and I DON'T CARE! Is that bad? Have I done a bad thing?

Hello KOTOR.

Monday, 14 August 2017

KOTOR first impressions

Crumbling facades
Abandoned hotels
Gray granite pinnacles
A shortage of vowels
Traffic snarls
A cruise ship
Men in early morning bars
Ancient fortifications
A garish doll perched high on the city walls

Everything that makes old Europe special
And while men with money make some attempt to make things shiny and neat,
It is the smell of chaos and decay that I find intoxicating.

Mosul report

I was a little nervous when I saw on the flight path that we would be overflying Mosul and Bagdad on the way to Istanbul. The planet has a good stock of madmen in positions of power currently  - perhaps no more than in past eras, just more visible due to a world that never sleeps and insists that I know every terrifying thought that these nutters have.

So overflying Mosul would not be my preferred route to Europe. It's not on my bucket list. But I have lived to report that all is calm in the region particularly the space at and above 10,000feet.

I can also report that Turkish airlines has the most cramped seats I've ever experienced and food that does nothing to entice me to mosey through the back streets of Istanbul savouring the culinary delights. A pity given that I remember Istanbul as one of the delights of the trip Andrea and I made in 1977 (did I just admit to a 40 year gap between touchdowns?). My memories may be distorted since we had eaten pretty ordinary fare in Iran and Afghanistan immediatly prior to arriving in Turkey. The days we spent in Istanbul remain one of my favourite travel memories. Anyway I'm sure the food of Istabul is still magnificent, though the airport food looks very familiar. Call it International airport food and you have the picture.

Last time I flew to Europe was via Dubai, one of the more bizarre airports on the planet. Part theme park, part millionaires playground. I've never seen so much gold jewellery. Both Singapore and Istanbul by contrast feel much like home, Sydney even. A broad cross-section of faces and faiths and languages but with a strong sense of the secular. Comforting in a weird way. 

Oops, there's my call. Will be in Croatia in two hours all being well. And in Montenegro by the afternoon.

Montenagro - my near death experience

This might look like an everyday image of people exiting a flight? Wrong. It is in fact a shot of a planeload of frustrated passengers sitting in an A320 on the tarmac in the backblocks of Montenegro after trying unsuccessfully to land at Dubrovnic three times over a 45 minute period, each time aborting the approach at the last minute due to strong crosswinds. We'd get within a few hundred metres of the ground and things would start to buck and sway and the pilot wisely powerered us into yet another circuit.

The first hour was delightful. Ibtis, a young woman born in Morocco and resident of Paris was  our entertainment captain and authority on all things French and Moroccan in that refreshing way only optimistic young people can be. And then the pilot informed us we were gong round again, and we thought he said not to be concerned as we had fuel for an hour yet. At least that's the message we got.

So, of course that meant that on every circuit of Dubrovnic we were acutely aware of the minutes ticking by. That was of concern of course but, when, at the fifty minute mark he told us we were heading for Montenegro we flipped. The minutes slipped by while we seemed to be gliding over open ocean with our dwindling fuel supply and our eyes watching the second hand spin around our wrists.

 People's responses varied. Ibtis, who has deep olive skin, developed an English complexion, Andrea seemed to be meditating, though it could have been symptoms of a severe state of shock. The woman opposite us just started throwing up and her partner seemed to be sending an awful lot of texts. In front of me a woman continued to do an intricate traditional needlework piece depicting an airliner plunging into the sea. For my part I was, for once, completely unable to lighten the mood.

I was preoccupied with survival plans. The nearest exit door - check; location of floating device - check; read the emergency card - check. Then the scenarios. Land on water - minimal chance of survival; land on runway and flip, or over-run the strip - better chance; land in a paddock - not much better; run out of fuel and ....- not good survival prospects. It was then that I became really scared. I had this growing sense that perhaps the pilot had lost his nerve. I had an image of him in the cockpit curled into a little ball in the grip of a panic attack. Then my brain sent me a series of headlines - MH7 OR 17 whatever it was, all the disasters it could muster in a series of quick flashes.

And then I relaxed. I was surprised. I felt calm. Andrea said she felt the same. What would be would be.

Ibtis had the window seat but couldn't sight anything resembling an airstrip as we flew further south then inland until, suddenly there it was - what looked like a 100 metre bitumin strip with a few light aircraft pulled up alongside. It truly looked like a plasticine model airstrip it was so short. I've never experienced a plane pull up so quickly.

The cabin crew had no idea where we were and the pilot seemed to have no plan B. So here we sit, and sit. Maybe this will be our first night in Montenegro?

No wait! We've just been informed that we're going to have another go at Dubrovnic with a new tank of aviation fuel and if that fails we'll be heading back to Istanbul.

Jo and Rich and Harry are in Italy, in Bari, sitting on the tarmac awaiting their opportunity at immortality having been diverted there for  the same reason.

Quite a start to our Croatian holiday. We can't even get to land there.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Adriatic Sea

About to head off to Europe for four weeks.

A week in Montenegro - I know? Where is that? You mean Mongolia? Macadonia? No. Montenagro. It was part of the former Yugoslavia and is bordered by Crotia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and the Adriatic Sea. It's one quarter the size of Tasmania with a population of 600,000 (half the population of Brisbane). 117 beaches along a short coastline of 73km. Mountains, national parks and historic hill top villages.

Then a week in Split in Croatia followed by two weeks on the road between Split and Zagreb. following the Dalmation Coast and plunging into the mountains. Possibly a a short side trip to Slovenia and its capital Ljubljana. Last three days in Zagreb.

We'll be with nephew Harry, Andrea's sister Jo and husband Richard for the first two weeks and since Harry loves the water he'll be in his element.
I hope there'll be a few stories and photos to share.