Archive for the ‘ Co-existing Ethnic Groups ’ Category

Touring Croatia


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Croatia is the new playland of our world. Currents wash up on its shoreline at the Adriatic Sea, carrying the pollution on down the loop to the Italian side. The youth go to Croatia’s incomparable coast to plunge in its waters, soak its sun, and to party. But Croatia is more. It is historic. Split evokes Roman glory and the struggles of the nascent Christian church. Dubrovnik rivaled Venice in importance before the Renaissance. Tito hailed from Zagria. Later, Zagreb led in the dismantling of his unique experiment in multi-ethnic governance. Ever remaking itself, as a new State since 1991 Croatia seems to be searching for a national purpose. I went there for a glimpse of what it was all about. This is my report.


                        keywords: Croatia* Dubrovnik* Split* Zagreb*Tito


Dubrovnik in the Rain

            On the day I was in Dubrovnik it rained. Sunshine was supposed to be this place’s promise. Without it the water would not be that famous azure, and one could not bask on its magnificent beaches. “This weather is not that unusual in early October,” the hotel receptionist told me, “it is sort of off-season.” To be sure the guests in this resort establishment were not the tourist type you read about. Instead of eager youth, most were middle age. Instead of the Germans, Italians, and Slovenians, most were from the United States and Australia. Ironically, this weather held the unexpected promise of the unusual –a mild adventure– which they did not mind. Besides, there were occasional breaks in the storm. I had walked down to the nearby Copacabana Beach during one of those breaks the evening before when we first arrived and saw the reluctant sunset. The beauty of nature was blended with the melancholy of the summer’s end.

            We stepped into the drizzle of the morning and drove on the hilly road down to the Old Town of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In our first sighting it looked subdued, engulfed in grey. The boats were moored. A riot of colors – red, yellow, white, and blue- they pulled at their restraints.  Undaunted, our tour guide took us on a walk, umbrellas ready.  He was a member of the committee supervising the restorative preservation of Dubrovnik. His personal proclivity combined with the uncommon weather made for a special tour.  The first monument, the Onofrio Fountain, was about water shortage -ironically, the fundamental constraint of this rocky islet which was settled in the 7th century by refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum when their enemies destroyed it. The Fountain is part of a supply system that brings water from a well more than seven miles away.

            In the many centuries hence, Dubrovnik has proved spunky. The original settlement, called Ragusa -derived from the Greek word for Rock- expanded by merging in the 12th century with a settlement arising across the channel called Dubrovnik -from the local word for the native plant holm oak. The channel was paved over to become the main street of the town, Placa, where we were now standing. The resulting “County” kept the name Ragusa. Its government pursued a singular goal: securing the place for the residents so that they could engage in lucrative maritime commerce. To that end it became a protectorate of successive foreign powers: the Byzantine Empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries, Venice from 1205 to 1358, the Croatian-Hungarian monarchs thereafter until the 16th century when it began to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The last centuries of this period, which ended by the devastating earthquake of 1667, were the “golden era” of Dubrovnik that our guide was now highlighting inside a rare vintage building still standing, the Rector’s Palace

            He talked about the substantial cultural legacy of Dubrovnik, in literature and science, and its claim to the oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe dating from 1391. He showed us the impressive collection of paintings by Italian masters in the Palace Assembly Room. “Notice that there is no painting by any Venetians. We loved the Italians but hated the Venetians. They were our major rival. We had about 800 merchant ships (argosy); they had over 1000. We sent our people to study in Italy. We still use many Italian slang words. We even call Placa the Stradun like the Italians.”

            Our guide then told us about old Dubrovnik’s government. “The Rector who was our ruler was elected by the Senate for the term of one month. The voting was just like in the Vatican, using red and blue bowls. During his tenure the Rector could not leave this Palace without permission from the Senate. Therefore, the job was looked at more as an obligation than a privilege.” He pointed out the inscription on the portal of the inner sanctum of the Palace which read: “OBLITI PRIVATORUM PUBLICA CURATE” (forget all private interests and tend to public concerns).  “This epitomized Ragusan political ideals” the guide said. In fact, this was a variation of Cicero’s paraphrase of Plato’s ideals.

            Next to the Palace, we stopped at a painter’s house, damaged in 1991 and 1992 by the Serbian shelling in the war that led to Croatia’s separation from Yugoslavia. Enlarged pictures nailed on its exterior walls showcased destruction elsewhere in the town. “Nearly 70% of the buildings were hit and 75% of the tiled roofs were damaged,” our guide said. “The cost of repair was more than $10 million.” I asked how much was contributed by UNESCO. “Only $50,000” he said disdainfully, “we have funded it all.”

            The guide continued, “We are now also focusing on the problems of earthquakes,” as he recalled the damages caused by the latest in 1995. He showed us a contraption installed in the cloisters of the Franciscan Monastery to monitor the tremors and their effects. “Bringing such instruments into the Old Town is difficult. We had to use cranes and high tech devices.” This he said ruefully as he had begun the tour boasting that he was the sole guide to introduce a “high tech” way of communicating with his tour group. He had distributed receivers which enabled us to hear him without being very close to him. Alas, his transmitter had failed only a few minutes later.

            “We decided to use original materials and traditional methods in restoration,” our guide said. The factory near Dubrovnik that had supplied the original tiles for the roofs, however, had long since closed down. We could see the difference between the ochre and red colors of the new tiles and the faded hues of the old tiles from the top of the walls that enclose Dubrovnik.

            Walking on these walls might be the best way to view the Old Town.  When built between the 13th and 16th centuries, however, their purpose was to defend the enclave. They are more than a mile in length and rise up to about seventy five feet. They are from five to twenty feet thick.  When I started on the walk, the sky was only overcast. It cast its steely dark color on the waters of the Adriatic.  The pearly color of the wet marble of Dubrovnik’s street looked muted.

            The rain had earlier chased away a newly-wed couple in haste; they left their bag behind on the wall. The writing on it said: “Personal Computing & Communications- Just Married”.  Now the rain began again lightly. Two painters who had hung their watercolors on the wall retreated slowly; when the rain became a downpour, they went inside one of the 15 forts on the wall that was nearby. I followed them. There a woman was on her cell phone, while her young son stuck an umbrella out of the narrow panes of the single window. Two young men now joined us. Their black T-shirts were soaked. On one was printed Counter Culture; the letters of Culture were upside down.

            When the rain relented, I saw the tiles of another part of Dubrovnik’s roofs, brighter after the wash. A television dish clashed with the scenery, but the garments left on the clothes line -pink, fuchsia, and white- were harmonious.  School boys were now playing soccer down below. “We meet our wives and divorce them on these streets,” our guide had said; “this is a real community. I grew up here. My uncle still lives here.” The locals are, however, selling their homes to foreigners in today’s temptingly hot market. “The County Government has said when the population declines to 2,500 they will consider the matter,” the guide said, “but they have not explained what would they ‘consider’ doing, and why they chose the number 2,500. Maybe they are referring to when that was the number of residents in the high days of Ragusa. In the meantime, when the tourists are gone, we come here as we have the Stradun all to ourselves to stroll up and down.”

            That evening I met some of the locals who had moved out of the Old Town in a Pizza parlor run by an American in the suburb near our hotel. A group of about eight teenage girls came first. Five minutes later another group of boys of the same age came in. At first they sat apart.

            As we drove away from Dubrovnik the next day, we passed through the delta of the River Neretea. Our tour guide told us: “This is a very fertile land.  Agriculture was the main source of income in these areas before tourism began in the 1950s. They also have very good wines here, especially Rakija which is the traditional spirit of Croatia. It is produced from local fruits at home in hand-made distilleries. It is very strong.  The farmers dilute it with water when drinking at work. The measurements are one finger wine and one finger water. Those who want to cheat hold their finger horizontally when measuring the water.” When we next stopped to look at the splendid vista from a hill, a roadside vendor sold me a small bottle of spirit with no label. “My mother made it from tangerine; it is her favorite,” she said.

Paradise North

            “Split is different from Dubrovnik,” our tour guide announced as we approached Croatia’s second largest city. “People visit it for culture and stay only for the day, so it does not have many good hotels.” She was right, our “4 star” hotel was quaint with a spiral staircase and dark wood-paneled rooms, but my room had the thinnest bar of soap and only about 20 sheets of bathroom tissues. When I asked for more, the operator-cum- receptionist brought them up herself in her additional capacity as the room service clerk. Alas, due to poor communications, I just received more shampoo. 

            The prime symbol of high culture in Split, as we were told, is the annual performance of Verdi’s opera Nabucco. This was a part of the summer festival which took place two months before our visit. Instead, we got to see its historically apt venue: the palace that the Roman emperor Diocletian, the tormenter of early Christians, had built for his retirement at the end of the 3rd century. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace is mostly in ruins, except for the Emperor’s mausoleum, which is held up by columns he had expropriated whole from Egypt along with the Sphinxes that guard it.  These stone lions, however, could not prevent the looting in the 7th century by the Christian refugees from the nearby town of Salona. “They threw the emperor’s sarcophagus out into the sea,” our guide said, and completing the belated revenge, “turned the mausoleum into a church.”  Ever since, generations of their descendants have been occupying the huge imperial residence and the quarters that housed the soldiers and servants — building over and atop them a fungus of apartments.  The bizarre architectural ensemble curiously works, surrounded by the remnants of a wall built by Venetians in the 17th century to defend against the Ottomans.

            I had a glimpse of the exuberance of the residents later in the evening. As I strolled down the cozy back alleys the sound of a mandolin pulled me to an outdoors café where an old couple was dancing. The mood fit well with the bright colors of the 19th century public buildings in the square nearby which were the southernmost left by the Austria-Hungarian Empire in Croatia.

            These were more than matched in charm by the smaller Romanesque and Renaissance buildings of Trogir’s old walled town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, just a few miles further north. I greeted a guitar player in front of the Cathedral and climbed the many steps to its top where I resisted pulling the rope that would ring the rusty bell.  The cobblestone streets  below ushered a market place  and then houses, shops, and offices before leading to a Palm-lined harbor boulevard. The house that offered rooms to the tourists in four languages was closed , but there were signs that people lived here all year around. Three women were gossiping in an alley [26], a watchmaker was working on a customer’s time piece , and a man had settled himself at a café table.

            We left the Adriatic Sea for the Plitvice Lakes inland. Still another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this marvelous creation of water, limestone rock, and plants looked glorious in autumn colors.   We walked on wooden paths and footbridges to see the many waterfalls that connect sixteen mountain lakes as their purest water reflected the surrounding gentle hills.  Our guide said “this place is Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction.” The multiplicity of different languages of the crowd in the lobby of our hotel attested to that.

            There was only one computer with intermittent access to the internet for this crowd. As I stood in line, an Italian woman joined us. She pulled an ashtray to our nearly enclosed corner and lit a cigarette as she sat down on the chair. The expression on the face of an American showed his displeasure. “Does this bother you,” the Italian asked. “Well, yes,” he replied. In a huff, she got up and while pushing the ashtray back protested loudly “it is not forbidden!” The American mumbled, “farting is not forbidden either, but I don’t fart here.”

            This disagreement was nothing compared to what had happened in this area in 1991. The Plitvice Lakes Park was seized by the local Serb allies of the Yugoslav Army at the very beginning of Croatia’s “homeland war” and was not freed until 1995. Not far from the park, as we drove away, our guide pointed to the fields on the sides of the road: “there are still land mines there.”

            We were now snaking down the mountain. “These roads were built during the Austrian rule. The Austrians were very good with roads and railroads,” the guide said. “The roads built today do not last long. They crumble within a year. Some blame corruption for this.”

            Back at the Adriatic, we were presented with another gift of the Austria-Hungarian times, the resort town of Opatija.  This northernmost port is shielded by the coastal range from the cold wind of the Julian Alps.  As a result, its sloping narrow strip of the land is almost sub-tropical. “That is villa Angiolina,” our guide pointed to a colonnaded pretty pink building. “That is where it all started. A wealthy merchant saw this little fishing village with a church which had been built on the foundations of an abbey. Opatija means abbey in Croatian. The merchant liked the place and in 1844 built this villa which he named after his wife. They planted the flower garden and the exotic trees around the villa. They then invited guests. Many from the Austrian aristocracy came.” Soon, a grand hotel, now called Hotel Kvarner, was added. “Doctors declared that the climate was good for sea therapy and established clinics,” the guide said.

            By the turn of the century Opatija became the most fashionable resort in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the demise of that power Opatija lost its fame, but much of its allure remains. The Kvarner still stands grand.  The narrow main street is now crowded with other hotels which are full in the season. I walked on the coastal promenade that fronts the town for 7.5 miles. Two lovers were snuggling on a bench.  The breeze was soft. The vista was sublime.  I thought to myself, “I could live here.” Presently I had to return to our bus. Back on the street, I saw a man in shabby clothes collecting empty bottles from a trash can.  Life could be hard even in paradise.


            The famed Orient Express stopped in Zagreb and to accommodate its pampered passengers, Hotel Esplanade was constructed in 1925 across the plaza next to the train station.  Now calling itself the Regent Esplanade Zagreb, it promised to pamper me: “Tabari Mr. Keyvan,” as its welcoming TV promotional addressed me. That, more or less, set the tone of the mélange, old time charm and clumsy stiffness. The public rooms were plush but smoke-filled, the doorman greeted you warmly but the concierge postured as the “director general” of some bygone bureaucracy dispensing favors, if he pleased, to guests he treated as supplicants. Wearing an imitation of the original cravat, he sat behind an ornate desk rather than stand at a functional lectern.

            When my friend called from the U.S. the next day, the operator gently chastised her in order to protect my sleep: “It is 5:30 in the morning, Madam!” He was wrong. “No. It is 6:30, your time. And it is Ok. Mr. Tabari is expecting my call.” Thus awakened, I took an early morning walk through the Austro-Hungarian part of Zagreb toward its Old Town. Three flat rectangular parks were lined with prized 100 year old oak trees.  The buildings were stately. “Why are only some bright yellow?” I asked. “To distinguish them as built by the Hungarians,” I was told.

            In the main square of the Old Town, the Parliament building faced the Presidential Palace which still showed the scars of the two missiles the Serbs had fired in the failed alleged attempt to kill President Franjo Tudjman during the 1990s war. “One of the missiles was American, and the other Russian,” we were told portentously.  “Notice that there are no people here,” our guide rattled, disregarding the busload of Japanese and our group. The locals, whom she meant, were down at the foothills.

            We visited the Museum of “naive paintings” from the Hlebine School – named after the village where the original two painters, Ivan Generalic and Franjo Mraz, were discovered in 1929. I went through six small rooms of works which refreshingly framed unadorned imagination.

            In a narrow public passageway, we observed the believers light candles in a make-shift shrine next to a painting of Virgin Mary.  According to legends, it had miraculously escaped damage in the fire of 1731 which engulfed the Stone Gate to the Old Town. We moved toward the imposing Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is the Catholic center of Croatia. The remains of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac have been transferred here since Independence. He had died under house arrest imposed by Tito on charge of collaborating with the Nazis. Around the Cathedral, we saw a part of a wall built in the 15th Century to protect this furthest outpost of Christianity “against the threatening Muslim Turks,” our guide said. The Turks “were stopped in Sisak, some 30 Kilometers south of here in 1593.”

            One whole wall in the Cathedral was covered with inscriptions in Glagolithic, the early Slavic alphabet. “This script is taught at schools as a part of our heritage,” the guide said. She explained that the script was invented “by two Greek brothers who came to Croatia in the 9th Century. It is also the source of the Cyrillic script.” These brothers had been sent by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to preach Christianity to the Slavs in their own language. They spoke this language as their mother was a Slav from Thessalonica. The Slavic scripts were created for their translation of the Bible.

            We went for coffee in the shady front yard of a restaurant facing the Cathedral. The well-dressed owner, who was issuing instructions to waiters preparing for the lunch crowd, greeted us and managed to complain that when the “Socialists” were in power, they ruined her business. Shortly thereafter, in the back of the flower market around the corner, we met a surprising remnant of the Socialist times. As we shopped for souvenirs, we struck up a conversation with the owners of three small stalls who were friends. The man was Croatian, one of the women was from Slovenia and the other was a Bosnian Muslim.  The big Muslim mosque in the center of town has been converted to an art gallery. “There is another mosque elsewhere in the city,” our guide said, “and there is also a synagogue and one Orthodox Church.”         

            On Sunday, the main square of town took the appearance of an athletic meet.  “The Zagreb Marathon” was taking place. I chatted with two lanky school boys who explained that this was just a few miles run.  Tardy participants rushed through traffic lights to reach the starting line. We ran into a man who was oddly dressed in a suit and tie and a baseball cap that said Montana. I said hello and we eventually ended up in a restaurant for a lengthy conversation.

            Slim and calm, he was an intellectual Croatian who had left Bosnia because of the war. He believed that the roots of ethnic conflict were in childhood. “Transactional analysis in military studies shows that we suppress the real target of our anger and direct it to safe targets.” He said that Tito kept inter-ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia in check by force. He added, however, that Tito was also very popular. The huge foreign debts Tito incurred contributed to the economic problems that the country faced after his death. “The break up was due to the fact that Slovenian and Croatians who were more productive refused to continue subsidizing the less productive republics of the Yugoslav federation. Nationalism and religious conflicts also flamed the fire.” He spoke warmly of the late President Franjo Tudjman, “the youngest general in Tito’s army, but forced out because of his espousal of Croatian nationalism. Tudjman then engaged in solid research on Croatian history before the time he was able to lead Croatia to independence.”

            My interlocutor, however, was highly critical of independent Croatia. “Politicians of all parties are corrupt. They are selling the country for private gains. Many islands have been sold to the Germans and Italians, against the law. They ignore the law. The pensioners have not been paid for seven months despite the Supreme Court ruling. I cannot predict the future, but in the past people were better off economically although they did not enjoy much political freedom, now it is the reverse.”

Night at the Opera

            That evening I went to an entertainment venue for those who were better off. The Zagreb Filharmonija was playing Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, in a concert performance of the opera. In business suits and evening dresses most in the audience were “respected citizens.”  There were, however, also a large number of teenagers. The tickets were discounted for “children and old people,” the cashier told me. The house was full. The stage was also full with a large chorus and a complete orchestra of musicians. They tuned their instruments just a few minutes before the conductor joined them.

            The performance was serious. The stage was bare except for two platforms and two windows carved into the walls. The playbill matched the performers with the voices -not the roles. They wore plain black.  There was no break in the 2 hours and 20 minutes it took them to finish the job. The teenagers did not fidget. The woman next to me followed the libretto which you could buy in the lobby.

            The closest eating facility to the Vatrolav Lisinski Concert Hall was a McDonald’s. Twenty-somethings were its customers. I ordered a milk shake which tasted almost the same as at home and at almost the same price.

            Farms are not far beyond Zagreb’s city limit. Zagria to the northwest is a rural landscape of exceptional beauty.  There the village of Kumrovec is maintained as an “open door museum” to illustrate how life was around the turn of the 20th Century when Tito was born.  Next to his house is the only statue of him I saw in all of Croatia. “How many of these are there in all of former Yugoslavia?” I asked my guide. He conferred with a woman who was standing outside the house. She pondered and they discussed. “There are four,” they said. The woman was in charge of a collection of Tito memorabilia in the neighboring cottage. These are mostly pictures from the Tito era. The biggest one was familiar; it showed Tito standing between two other leaders of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War, Nehru and Nasser -all three beaming broadly.

            I bought a T shirt from the souvenir shop. On it was emblazoned, “Tito: The Man of Peace.” My guide said “When Tito died his blue train went slowly the length of Yugoslavia. Everywhere people poured out to pay emotional respect to him.” The woman from the museum joined in. “Tito’s funeral was the last time all people in Yugoslavia showed unity,” she said wistfully, “we miss him.” The guide said: “Tito is best remembered for leading the fight against the Nazis in the Second World War and for standing up to Stalin during the Cold War.” The woman said “Now in Croatia we are searching for an alternative sense of purpose. The politicians want to join the European Union. Not everybody is in favor of it. But we don’t have any choice. We are too small to survive on our own.”


This article was published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc. in 2008, with the related pictures.