Dubrovnik's own Chinese wall

Yesterday I wrote about Asian restaurants. As you know many Chinese eateries are called Great Wall of China. That reminded me of the Great Wall of Dubrovnik. I don't mean the city walls here, although they are great, but the walls on the Pelješac peninsula, some 55 kilometers north of Dubrovnik. The Republic of Dubrovnik bought Pelješac in 1334 from Serbia. It's hard to believe, but in those days the Kingdom of Serbia possessed great parts of Southern Dalmatia and Montenegro. Three years earlier, in 1331, Dušan was crowned king of Serbia and he enormously extended the medieval Serbian empire. At its zenith it even covered large parts of Greece, though not for long as the Turks started to conquer the Balkans.
Despite its small size, the Republic of Dubrovnik fared a lot better. The old town was well protected by massive walls and Dubrovnik used Peljesac to build another line of defense. At Pelješac's narrowest point, just before it joins the mainland, a wall was build from Ston to Mali Ston. The wall that links these two small communities was 5,5 kilometer long. It was fortified with some forty towers and five fortresses, meant to protect the precious salt pans that contributed to Dubrovnik's wealth.
It is unclear how the walls of Ston rank in terms of length. I have read claims that it is the second longest wall in the world, or in Europe, or in this part of Europe. Whatever the correct answer, the tourists that visit Ston don't get the impression that it is very long. Several earthquakes and centuries of neglect inflicted so much damage on the walls that you can visit only a very small part. There is no way that you can walk from Ston to Mali Ston like you can walk on the Great Wall of China.
In fact, you can't walk on the wall at all, but you can visit the fortifications at Ston and Mali Ston. And you can eat the oysters of Ston, of course, which are considered a delicacy.

Sushi in Zagreb's skyscraper

One of communism's legacies is its distinct architecture. Whichever ex-communist country you visit, you'll always find buildings that are evidently built for the New Man, as no living non-reeducated human being would want to live in an apartment block that is a pain to the eye.
Zagreb has its fair share of ugliness too, even in the historic center. The city government allowed in the 1950s the construction of a skyscraper on Jelačić Square (Trg bana Jelačića), which was already a jumble of architectural styles before they decided to make it even worse. With 16 floors it is a modest building, but it nevertheless dominates the center. When you are in the Upper Town, having a view over the Lower Town, you think: "How could they!".
In 2007 they started to tear down the building. That's what I thought at first, but to my dismay it was renovated. Today the building is still ugly and out of tune with its surroundings, but now it shines. I guess Zagreb people are attached to their "neboder", as a skyscraper is called here. It was popular with suicidal people too, by the way.
The good news is that the husband of former tennis star Iva Majoli will open a Japanese restaurant on the top floor. There was once a visitors' platform on the top floor, but it did not survive the renovation. Now you need to order sushi, sashimi or tempura to see a panoramic view over Zagreb. Restaurant Sora, meaning "sky" in Japanese, will be a luxurious Japanese restaurant and it took the owner a year to find a original Japanese cook. That's such a relief. I was afraid that yet another affordable Asian restaurant would join the scores of exotic eating places in Zagreb.
Apart from Chinese restaurants, Zagreb now has two Japanese restaurants, one Thai, one Indian and two fusion Asian. How much variety can a city bear?

Boycott of Slovenian products

I read in the newspapers that Croats on the internet call for a boycott of Slovenian products to revenge for the Slovenian blockade of Croatia's negotiations with the European Union. I didn't know at first where on "the internet" the boycott is being promoted. Papers here are not very strong in listing their sources.
After a bit of searching I found the Facebook community "BOJKOT Slovenskih proizvoda", which has almost 19.000 members. There is a website too.
No need to say that I did not join the Facebook community. Boycotts are not only stupid and ineffective, but also show that some Croats can't make a distinction between Slovenian politicians on the one hand and Slovenian manufacturers that make better products than Croats on the other hand. I bet almost all 19.000 "BOJKOT Slovenskih proizvoda" members wash their dirty laundry with a Gorenje washing machine and fix a meal on a Gorenje cookers.
Croatian prime minister Sanader said that a boycott is unacceptable and added generously that Croatia will not behave towards Serbia as Slovenia does towards Croatia. Political analist Davor Gjenero observed wittily that Milošević was the first to boycott Slovenian products and "we know how that ended".

From ally to enemy: Slovenia

Once upon a time Slovenes and Croats said they lived in a country that stretched "od Triglava do Vardara", from the Triglav mountain in the extreme north-west of Slovenia to the Vardar river in south-eastern Macedonia. Close to the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, or Đevđelija, the Vardar crosses the Greek border to empty into the Aegean Sea, not far from Thessaloniki. Therefore, also the variant "od Triglava do Đevđelije" was popular among the partisans who created Yugoslavia on the ruins of World War II.
It's easy to forget how large a county the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was. With its area of 255,804 square kilometers it was bigger than the United Kingdom or Romania. Austria fitted almost three times into it and only eight American states are bigger. Today, Serbia without Kosovo is smaller than Austria, and Ireland outsizes Croatia.
Slovenia and Croatia were the two leading republics in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Both felt exploited and dominated by Belgrade and declared independence on the same day, 25 June 1991. What followed is history and so is their close cooperation from those days. Now safely in the EU, Slovenia seems to have turned into Croatia's main external obstacle to a quick entry into the Union. As you can read everywhere Slovenia blocked the opening and closing of some chapters of Croatia's accession negations.
It's not the first time that the Slovenes anger Croats. Last year Slovenia introduced a vignette for its highways and motorways. As the vignette is available for either six or twelve months, many Croats feel injured for several reasons. First, going to Ljubljana for shopping or just refueling (Slovenia has lower fuel prices than Croatia) became more expensive. Second, many Croats suspect that Slovenia intentionally delays building highways in order to isolate Croatia from the rest of Europe. Looking at the map of Slovenian roads, that suspicion is maybe not without justification. As an impartial observer I can safely say that the speed of highway construction in Slovenia is staggeringly slow. Third, most tourists come to Croatia by car, passing through Slovenia. They need to pay a relative large sum to use a little stretch of highway.
And now Slovenia blocked Croatia's progress towards EU membership. It accuses Croatia of using certain documents in the negotiations that claim an unfair share of the Adriatic Sea close to the Slovenian town of Piran. One look at the map below and it is clear why the Bay of Piran is crucial to Slovenia. Without it, Slovenia doesn't have access to international waters.
Croats used to make fun of Slovenia's coast and sea (read more here) which they find hugely inferior to their majestic coast. I don't think they laugh any more. Of course, the Slovenian veto against Croatia is petty-minded, but so is, if you ask me, Croatia's reluctance to grant Slovenia the Bay of Piran. Croatian coastal beauty is in another league anyway, with of without that bay.

Tito's friends and foes

Former mayor of Karlovac, Josip Boljkovac, has taken the initiative to establish the Josip Broz Tito Society of Karlovac. "If there had not been unity of the Serbian and Croatian peoples and the Communist Party, Croatia as we have it today would not exist", he explained.
Most people agree with that, although many would add that Croatia today could have been a better country had it not been ruled by a brutal communist dictator. Around 2000 people who hold that opinion gathered last Saturday on Zagreb's Trg maršala Tita (Marshall Tito Square). Their protest was aimed at the very name of the square, as it honours the man they call a "war criminal". Instead, they want to change the name of the square around the Croatian National Theatre into Kazališni trg (Theatre Square). Theatre Square sounds logical, but it was only during the fascist Independent State of Croatia that the square went by that name. Before World War Two it honoured Petar Karađorđević and, before 1918, Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor.
A counter-demonstration of antifascists drew a few hundred people. Their message was that Tito had defeated fascism in Croatia and given Yugoslavia a respectable position in world politics. The Alliance of Antifascist Fighters and Antifascists (communists love lengthy names) said that it is time to "stop expressing hatred and spreading lies about the antifascist struggle and Marshall Tito".
There is, of course, nothing wrong with antifascism. That is why Croatian communists present themselves as antifascists, because everything else that has to do with communism has been discredited. I don't have much faith in Croatian anticommunists either. There is, again, nothing wrong with anticommunism. But the anticommunist community here is too often made up of an unholy alliance of the catholic church and people with an excess of love for the homeland.
That is, in short, the trouble with Croatian history and society. This country has no history of civil liberalism that said "no" to any kind of totalitarianism.
The Alliance of Antifascist Fighters and Antifascists boasted that seventeen cities around the world named a square or street after Tito, among them London, New Delhi and Washington. If you have a picture of a Tito Square or Street, wherever you live, please send it me so I can make a Tito gallery on this blog.

Smoking on the train

Croatia is gradually imposing a ban on smoking in public places. Smoking was recently outlawed in educational and health institutions and Croatian Railways announced yesterday that you are no longer allowed to lit up a cigarette in waiting rooms and trains. Smokers are even banned from dining cars, although I have never seen a dining car on a Croatian train. Even worse, there are no trolleys to serve coffee or sweets. Believe me, spending half a day in an old, painfully slow train to Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Munich or Venice is so much harder if you can't get your dose of caffeine. And now smokers are also denied their nicotine dose.
If you break the rule and smoke, you will be fined 100 kuna. A 1000 kuna fine is in preparation, which means that we won't hear about it for a long time to come. If the enforcement of the ban on using a mobile phone in cars learns us anything at all, it is: do as you like.

The naked truth: Celzijus and Kiklop

No, the title of this post does not refer to a Greek drama. It is related to a pure Croatian drama, or better scandal, in the small literary world of Croatia. The main character is a woman with the intriguing name Nives Celzijus. I tried to find out what her profession is but as she has no entry in Wikipedia (the Croatian Wikipedia is in its entirety a stub) I don't know much more than that she acted in a soap, sang some songs and did something on television. In short, Nives is a kind of celebrity and these people too often have the bad habit to write a book. So did Nives Celzijus (photo: Slobodna Dalmacija).
The book sold extremely well by Croatian standards. Her publisher said she sold about 45.000 copies, which is a lot in a country where most authors are happy with 2.000 copies. Celzijus's Gola istina (The naked truth) is the number one bestseller and that is the one and only criterion to qualify for the Kiklop prize. Apparently, the Kiklop jury never imagined that the cultivated Croatian people would massively buy a book about sex and violence. Well, it did and therefore the Kiklop committee decided to cancel the prize-giving. A scandal was born. Celzijus, meanwhile, has announced she will go to court.

Rembrandt in Zagreb

Until 15 February 103 etches made by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn can been admired in Zagreb's Museum for Arts and Crafts. Rembrandt's paintings are often too expensive to be moved around, but his etches are easier to transport. Most of them are quite small - you could cover one with your hand - and they come from nearby: the Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz.
After this exhibition the etches will be put in a dark storage for the next two years. If you miss this exhibition the only places to see a Rembrandt in Zagreb are the Mimara Museum and the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. You will have ample opportunity to study the paintings, as the museums are usually deserted.

Croatia at the helm

Croatia is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame as it presides this month over the UN Security Council. The honour of leading the most powerful (officially) and most divided (obviously) council in the world has sparked a lively debate here about the topics that Croatia should put on the Council's agenda. I suspect the same debate kept Costa Rica busy when it took the presidency last November.
Croatia's president Stipe Mesić addressed the Council today. He said that the world in the 1990s had failed to understand how dangerous Milošević's politics were and warned the world now ignores the danger that comes from Milorad Dodik. Dodik is Prime Minister of the Republika Sprska, one of the two entities that make up Bosnia. Mesić accused Dodik, not for the first time, of destroying Bosnia.
It must be said that Mesić has always defended the unity of Bosnia, not only against Dodik but also against former Croatian president Tuđman, who would have been most happy to cut out a part of Bosnia and add it to Croatia. I don't know, on the other hand, whether keeping people in one state against their will is a smart strategy for the long term.
Even if Bosnia will get back on the UN Security Council's agenda, I doubt that will do much to easy tensions. After all, Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence left the Council as devided as Bosnia is already.

Dubrovnik under fire

The siege of Dubrovnik ranks high on the list of senseless acts of war. The people of Dubrovnik commemorated yesterday that the Yugoslav National Army shelled the old town on 6 December 1991, St. Nicholas Day. Dubrovnik had been under fire for months already, but that day saw the worst shelling.
Some 2000 projectiles were fired at the "pearl of the Adriatic" of which 500 hit the old town that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 19 people were killed.
A material victim of the shelling was the cable car to the top of the Srđ mountain, from where you have a fantastic view over Dubrovnik. Whereas nearly all material damage in the old town has been repaired, the cable car is still out of order. I visited Srđ a few months ago and was wondering why the cable car was not put back in operation. I was sure the many tourists in Dubrovnik would turn it into a profitable investment.
I did not know then that a real estate company had decided to rebuild the cable car to the top of Srđ mountain. If everything goes smoothly, the first tourists might be transported in 2010.
Zagreb's cable car to Sljeme, the top of the Medvednica mountain, is still out of order. We were promised a state-of-the-art cable car, but for years nothing concrete has happened. Zagreb boasts that it is becoming a hot tourist destination, but it hardly does anyting to attracts more visitors.

Balkan countries

President Bush said in spring 2008 that he was happy to invite three Balkan nations to join NATO: Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. When Bush spoke these words, I realised how angered Croats would be by this formulation because more than sixty percent of the Croats don't consider Croatia as a Balkan country. You can read this and many other findings in the Gallup Balkan Monitor.
The fact that Croatia is included in the Balkan Monitor already shows the problem: whatever Croats think about themselves and their country, most of the world considers Croatia a Balkan country.
Is that fair? I have heard many reasons why Croatia should not be called a Balkan country and some of them make sense. But looking at the whole picture, I think it is fair to say that Croatia is part of the Balkans. History, food, music, language, geography - you name it. There is more that Croatia has in common with other Balkan nations than with non-Balkan nations.
The aversion against the label Balkan comes, of course, from the many negative associations: war, bloodshed, ethic hatred, violence and so on. Instead of denying that Croatia belongs to the Balkan it would make more sense to demystify and decriminalise the concept of the Balkans. Once you have eaten burek in Sarajevo, wandered through the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria or Diocletian's palace in Split, seen the confluence of the Danube and Sava from Belgrade's Kalemegdan fortress or marvelled at the city walls of Dubrovnik, you will think: this is a nice part of Europe.

Goodbye, Europe

Dinamo Zagreb has been kicked out of the UEFA-cup. The team lost 2-1 to Udinese and did not qualify for the next round. "Goodbye, Europe" say the headlines here.
Europe might respond: "Goodbye, Croatia. Hope not to see you for a while". Over the last years the hard core Dinamo fans, better known as the Bad Blue Boys, wreaked havoc in Graz, Udine, Prague, Bergamo and other cities. During the match against Udinese, some Bad Blue Boys threw flares on the field. Dinamo player Tomislav Šokota to calm the Bad Blue Boys, but got objects thrown at him. The match was suspended for ten minutes and then resumed.
Throwing flares is quite normal when Dinamo plays at home in the Maksimir Stadium. I took the picture below when Dinamo lost to Ajax Amsterdam, last year.
Dinamo might be suspended for a little longer than ten minutes. On 11 December UEFA will decide how Dinamo will be punished and exclusion from European football is one of the possibilities. In that case 2009 will offer the Croatian public little more than the deadly dull national competition.

Books for a buck

Yesterday was a historic day for lovers of books. The very first book outlet in Croatia has opened its doors. Books, new and used, are still expensive in Croatia, so a bargain book shop is no luxury. Until now, Croats could only buy a small selection of discounted books during the Zagreb book fair, Interliber, which is held once per year. Other events, like book sales of discarded library stock, don't exist as far as I know.
Profil, a publishing house and book shop chain, has opened an outlet branch in the new Outlet Center in Sveti Ivan Zeline. The Outlet Center is a little north-east of Zagreb, next to the highway in the direction of Budapest.

World War Two - episode 101

In World War Two Croatia was torn apart by warring factions, of which partisans, fascists (ustaše) and četniks were the most prominent. After the war, the četniks disappeared from the scene, only to reappear in the 1990s in Vukovar, Knin and other places that Serbian rebells considered theirs. The partisans and ustaše, however, never left the stage of Croatia's post war history. In a way the Second World War never ended here. Of course, in Tito's Yugoslavia ustaše were obviously the bad guys. Not without a reason: even the German Nazi's and Italian fascists who de facto ruled Croatia during WWII abhorred the cruelty of the ustaše terror against Serbs, Jews and anti-fascist Croats.
With Croatia's independence, the partisan movement was knocked off its pedestal. So far so good, one could say. However, the downfall of socialism went hand in hand with the rehabilitation of the fascist ustaše movement. Ustaše symbols can be seen on the streets and the Croatian equivalent of "Sieg heil" (Za dom spremni - Ready for the homeland) reverberates through the stadium when Croatia's national football team plays.
In the latest episode of the ongoing war between partisans and ustaše the main role is played by an new organisation with the lengthy name Croatian Ceremonial Association of World War Two and Croatian War of Independence Warriors of the Zadar District, conveniently abbreviated to HODB. So far the HODB seems to do little more than arguing over the question whether portraits of Ante Pavelić (the Croatian Hitler) should be classified as fascist or not. A strange question, considering the fact that on 28 December the HOBD will hold a Mass in Zadar to commemorate the day of Pavelić's death. Partisans, by the way, are excluded from HODB-membership.

Death of a language

At Interliber, the annual international (Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro are present too) book fair in Zagreb, the book Language and Identity in the Balkans by Robert David Greenberg attracted my attention. I did not buy it, but decided to borrow it from the Zagreb public library. It doesn't have the original English (or should I say: American?) version, but it did have a Croatian translation. At least today we call it a Croatian translation. Earlier translations would enter libraries with the language code "serbocroatian", but that is history.
Pointing out that the differences, in spelling or pronunciation, between Serbian and Croatian are next to nothing compared to the variety you can find in German, Dutch, French or English makes no sense. Also, the three Croatian dialects (štokavian, kajkavian and čakavian) differ much more from each other than standard Croatian differs from standard Serbian. But who cares about science? It's all a matter of identity. Some people believe in extraterrestrial life, others in a language - fine with me. Serbo-Croatian is dead (except on Wikipedia) or simply never existed. The pencil strokes and question marks in Greenberg's book suggest that the previous reader was of that opinion.
Maybe that person is right. When I visited Montenegro, I spoke Croatian with the lady that sold me an ice cream. She said: "You speak nice Serbian". I felt very proud, but at the same time I wondered: Who is crazy here? If the lady listens to her government, next time she should tell me: "You speak nice Montenegrin". My CV is getting longer and longer.

Economic nationalism

In times of crisis, economic nationalism lies in wait. Governments around the world abuse taxpayers' money to support industries that were already in decline before the financial crisis arose. In order to save a countable number of jobs in established industries, governments waste uncountable amounts of money and destroy in that way the jobs of tomorrow.
The Croatian government is already heavily involved in Croatia's economy. It spends, for example, billions of kunas on shipbuilding, which the European Union wants Croatia to privatise. Somebody calculated that since the year 2000 every Croatian taxpayer has paid 3800 kuna to the shipbuilding industry. That's almost an average net month salary! These facts are unfortunately wasted on the Croatian labour unions, that traditionally defend the privileges of a few workers at the expense of an entire nation.
In addition to that, the nation is being bombarded with a "Buy Croatian" campaign, backed by some labour unions and the Ministry of Economic Affairs. We are being told that when buying Croatian we do not only buy quality goods but we also contribute to Croatian employment. A Christmas gift to Croatian workers. Good wine needs no bush, you would say, but some people are prepared to do things they would not have done of their free will, just because the government tells them.
If you want to have a beer, you can visit a visually unattractive website where you can check which beers are truly Croatian and which are not. Karlovačko, one of Croatia's most popular beers, is not on the list as it is part of Heineken.
Unlike other ex-communist countries Croatia misses an enthusiastic generation that embraced the free market. It's rare to hear somebody defend the market economy on television. A revealing fact: the entry "Liberalism" in the Croatian Wikipedia is not longer than four lines. The Adriatic Institute for Public Policy seems to be the right institution to take a stand against the rise of economic nationalism, but we hear preciously little from it. The Adriatic Institute "emphasizes the importance of free market principles based on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, protection of property rights, economic freedom and limited government" but it's unclear what it does to get these topics higher on the agenda.