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CROTIA


For my History A Level paper, I wrote an essay on the origins of the First World War. In it, I incorporated all the well-known quotations of the major figures, including that of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who noted mournfully as country after country declared war, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The essay must have been a good’un because I got an A. I entitled it The Powder Keg of Europe, because it all started in the Balkans, a region of dozens of different ethnic groups, all driven by fierce nationalism, leading to increased tension and violence. The powder keg exploded when Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the major European powers were forced to take sides, and the rest was, well, history.


The powder keg exploded once again in more recent times. Following the downfall of communism and the disintegration of Yugoslavia (translated loosely as the ‘Union of Slavs) in 1989, ethnic tensions and a surge in nationalism escalated into bitter fighting and wholesale bloodletting that was only stemmed by the (belated) intervention of NATO forces. On our recent visit to Dubrovnik in Croatia, evidence of the war was unmistakeable; the city has been largely rebuilt,replicating the old traditional style of building, thank heavens, for it is a truly beautiful place. Croatia gained its independence and now the area is peaceful, but tensions remain. During the National Anthems of the match between England and Serbia in the Euros, the manager of the bar where we were watching the game turned off the sound when the Serbs started to sing. Clearly, old enmities die hard. Odd really, as they all speak the same language, Serbo-Croat. But possibly not. In the English Civil War, both sides spoke English. In the Spanish Civil War, both sides spoke Spanish. So, it should not really be a surprise that if a Serb shouted “Umri vraze!” (Die, you devil!), a Croat would catch his drift.


On the surface, all is calm, and the country is prosperous and thriving, having one of the strongest economies in the Balkans, much of it based around its tourist industry. It has a long coastline on the Adriatic Sea and its Mediterranean climate and culture provide a magnet for the rich and famous idling away their time on impossibly large and luxurious gin palaces. All these vessels – I hesitate to call them yachts, for though they had rigging, it seemed unlikely that any sail would be unfurled – accommodated gaggles of young women, skimpily dressed for an everlasting red carpet, with Botoxedlips and augmented breasts, loudly and ostentatiously wasting their empty lives in the bars and squares of the towns. The men were middle-aged and fat, carrying around their wealth and self-importance as badges of vanity. It was all very unattractive and vaguely indecent. The locals, as far as we were able to ascertain through the narrow prism of the service industry, are delightful - helpful, cheerful and often humorous. For a real slice of life in the country, you would, I guess, have to go inland, but we were happy to hug the coastline and enjoy the sun and the sea.

The castle walls of Dubrovnik are seriously thick and imposing. No wonder the Serbs, who laid siege to it in the recent war, were as unsuccessful in storming it as were the Crusaders, Napoleon’s Army and the Italians and Germans in the Second World War in earlier conflicts. Even a savage earthquake in 1667, which nearly destroyed the city, barely touched the fortifications.


From Dubrovnik, we island-hopped up the Dalmatian coast via the efficient ferry network to our eventual destination, Split, the second city in Croatia. When visiting a foreign country, one slightly off the usual beaten track of mass tourism, such as Croatia, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can discover some unexpected facts. I always believed that Marco Polo was an Italian. He was in fact born in Korcula, one of the islands on which we landed. As Croatia at the time was part of the Republic of Venice, he was actually as much Venetian as Colin Cowdrey was English, even though he was born in India, and Ted Dexter was English, even though he had been born in Milan. Marco Polo, an explorer and writer, travelled the Silk Road to China between 1271 and 1295, recording his journey in a famous travelogue. “I have not told half of what I saw,” he wrote, “for I knew I would not be believed.” I can believe it – that he would not be believed – for he was accused by contemporaries of inaccuracy and exaggeration. Yet the bare facts of his incredible odyssey are fantastical enough.

If we go further back in time, to the Roman Empire, we discover that Croatia, namely Split, was home to one of its more effective rulers, Diocletian, who was emperor between 284 and 305. He enacted many much-needed reforms, which stabilised the empire both economically and militarily, allowing it to remain more or less intact for a further 150 years. But in one respect, he failed. He was unsuccessful in his bloody persecution of Christianity; the religion proved to be peskily resistant to destruction. His successor, Constantine the Great, was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and was pivotal in establishing the new religion in Rome. Diocletian, however, was famously the only emperor to abdicate voluntarily, preferring to retire to his palace in Split “to plant cabbages with my own hands”. His palace, which served a dual purpose as a fortress, became the core of the modern-day city of Split, and is now undergoing slow but careful excavation. Even the ruins so far revealed are impressive. Diocletian’s retirement was not exactly spent tending his allotment, brewing mugs of tea in his shed and spreading protective nets over his vegetables.


Enough of ancient history. What of today and the world of the young of Croatia, and let’s face it, the world belongs to the young. Often, looking around the bar or the café or the restaurant or the ferry or the beach, I was confident I was the oldest there. The place was heaving with youngsters, Botox and tattoos were much in evidence, but they all seemed to be having a whale of a time, without a care in the world. On the other side of the Balkans, a savage war was taking place in Ukraine but that seemed further away than its actual 900 miles. I found myself ruminating on the recent war between Croatia and Serbia – only 30 years ago – and how many young men, much like the young men of today thronging the streets and squares with their girlfriends, would have fought and died in the defence of their country. The answer is stark. 20,000. Their sacrifice in blood permitted today the wholesale wearing of the distinctive Croatian football shirt with its red and white squares, all with Lukas Modric on the back.Modric’s grandfather was executed by Serbian forces and the family were forced to flee as their house was burned to the ground. They lived as refugees for seven years as Modric’s father joined the Croatian Army.


Playing football in local car parks was the young Lukas’s escape from the brutal realities of war. Sometimes we need reminding – by the experiences of people such as Modric – that the game of football is just that, a game. Emotions can run high, but at least the paper cups flung by England supporter at their manager are not bombs.

 

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