Sunday, November 18, 2007

Osijek (Croatia) - Part 2


The next day we were up more or less early and ready for our long sightseeing day. We walked down to Zarko and Ozana’s because it was so close to the hotel. It was fun to meet their two little sons, 7-year-old Borna and 6-year-old Carlo, and also Ozana’s lovely mother Margita. Communication with all of them was mostly through smiles and hand gestures, or more effectively with Zarko or Ozana translating back and forth – it was required if we actually wanted any information conveyed or understood! Margita spoke a little English and that combined with my very fractured German ensured that we managed to understand one another a little. Margita was there to look after the two little guys – and very kind of her it was too, to offer to babysit them while we went off gallivanting.

The first stop was a local “market” – a long line of little stalls selling fruit, sweets, cakes, savoury rolls, wines, jams, handicrafts and so on, all locally made and very likely hand-made in individual homes. I don’t think there was any “small industry” type produce there. The market is a new local tradition, so to speak – started with the intention of attracting potential tourists. Speaking as a tourist, I thought it was a good idea – we got to see local handmade things, and traditions have to start SOMEwhere after all!

Of course the first stall we stopped at had to be one selling home-made wines and liqueurs, juices and fruit compotes. Why “of course”? Because Pete the wine connoisseur was there. Catch him not sampling the goodies, especially as the samples were free. We bought a few bottles of blackberry wine, some plum liqueur (I think) and a bottle of blackberry juice as well. All from the first stall we stopped at - but how could we resist, especially when the vendor was so smiley and friendly and eager to describe the things she was selling?

While the guys went off to put the bottles in the car, Ozana and I wandered down past the stalls, admiring the beautiful embroidered doilies and table runners and table napkins. There were bottles of all shapes and sizes, some with very long thin necks, some painted with little scenes of Osijek, as souvenirs. Some of the long-necked bottles wore little straw hats with ribbons – those were very cute! I bought a couple of those - the bottles survived the flight, but the straw hats were crushed. (As was I, when I saw them.)

There were also large, life-size straw animals dotting the place – a giraffe, a horse, and so on. Very creatively done!

Anyway, there was a little open air restaurant sort of thing with long benches and tables where people were sat having beers and generally socialising. (Yes, beers at 10am – so what? It was Sunday!). So we sat there as well and ordered beers and soft drinks… and watched fish being cooked on open fires. Well not quite on. The fish were on impaled on sticks and stood around the fires… they were smoked and cooked from the heat, but not directly over the flame. They looked interesting and smelt pretty good too. But Zarko said we should save our appetite for a fancy meal later, plus we’d had breakfast at the hotel (the only morning that we bothered with it), so we left those fish alone. (
You can read about our culinary adventures and experiences here.)

After about an hour or so, Zarko looked somewhat pointedly at his watch, from which we inferred that we were meant to be elsewhere, and that quickly. The elsewhere turned out to be the famous marshlands called Kopački Rit Nature Park. (No credit to me that I hadn’t even heard of it.) It is one of the largest wetlands in Europe and is formed by the confluence of the River Danube and the River Drava. The fast-flowing Drava forces the Danube to back up and flood the flatlands, so that there is no saying what shape the flatlands will be from year to year (depends on the strength of the floods). We went on an hour’s boat trip and saw hundreds of cormorants on the tree-tops, which I think were gathering prior to the autumn migration – and just so there are no misunderstandings, it was the cormorants migrating, not the tree-tops.

I did spot a couple of other bird types – one of them herons – but my knowledge of birds is close to zero, so I’ve no idea what the others were. Someone with more knowledge of birds would have made better use of the binoculars which were thoughtfully provided on the boat – they were pretty effective in looking at tree-tops, believe me!

There was a guide on the boat who talked pretty much non-stop through the trip… but as she spoke exclusively in Croatian, it whooshed right over our heads. Zarko and Ozana were kind enough to translate the more interesting bits, though. The marshlands were very peaceful and quiet – and the scenery was quite different, with lots of rushes and grasslands and trees which I couldn’t name to save my life. We were too late in the season for the flowers (water lilies and such like), which was a shame.

The lakes are also full of various types of fish – not that we saw any. And fishing isn’t allowed any more.

At one end (northern end, I think) of Kopački Rit is a villa which was used by Marshal Tito as his hunting lodge. It’s in pretty poor shape now, but it must have been pretty impressive when it was being used. Apparently there are plans to make it a restaurant, but nothing’s come of those plans yet. The park in which the lodge is situated is utterly beautiful, full of trees and green expanses of grass. It was heavily mined during the war. Most of the mines have been cleared and there are walking paths, but apparently it’s still not a good idea to go wandering off on unmarked land. Just in case you get very very unlucky.

Zarko remarked that mines were still being unearthed on farming land – usually by the farmer while ploughing his land, and usually to fatal effect. Quite scary to think about it – that the effects of war last for years and years and one can never be quite safe enough. Then again, unexploded bombs and mines from the first World War still turn up now and again, more than half a century later… so I guess on that scale, 10-11 years isn’t much..

Anyway… on the way from the park, we saw some paragliding going on in a field. There were lots of cars parked there and we joined them to watch the fun. It did indeed look like great fun. Each participant was attached to an expert in some arcane way that I cant begin to explain – basically the expert was behind the participant and controlled the parachute. And when they rose in the air, they looked like they were seated. Apologies for the sketchy description. Anyway, the road was long and absolutely straight – it went on until it merged into the horizon. No kidding. Osijek is situated in a very flat area of Croatia!

There wasn’t much of a wind to get the paragliders off the ground, try as they would. So what they did was attach the two paragliders at a time to a rope which was on a winch in the back of a car. Then the car took off down the road like a bat out of hell, and after a few awkward running steps, the paragliders rose into the air. The car continued down the road, letting out more and more rope until the parachutes had reached the optimum height. They then unhooked themselves from the car and flew around for a few minutes – some of the parachutes corkscrewed in the air, which looked like great fun to me but which made Pete feel a bit ill just to think about (wimp!). I don’t know if the spinning was deliberate or just bad control, but since all the parachutes landed perfectly, I assume it wasn’t deliberate. Whatever, it looked really exciting and one of these days I’d like to try it. Probably in Osijek, though… it’s bound to be cheaper there than in the UK!

Probably what I enjoyed most about the day was the visit to a traditional Croatian house. We all got out of the car at what we thought was the show house and trooped into the front yard, me exclaiming at the lovely little garden and colourful flowers, the picturesque well, the pretty rooms and what not, taking photographs of everything that caught my eye. Then a couple of people appeared, looking a bit surprised. After a brief conversation with them, Zarko and Ozana came back quickly, informing us, as they ushered us out, that we had entered a private residence, not the one that was open to tourists.

Oops. No wonder the house owners had looked bemused!

Eventually we got to the right place and piled out again at the entrance to a long, single storey building. This time we were greeted by a gentleman (the owner of the house, but this time one officially there to show visitors around!) wearing traditional Croatian clothes, loose and embroidered, with a jaunty little hat. He greeted us with a cheery “Welcome, how are you”, but then having apparently exhausted his stock of the English language, he explained everything in Croatian, with Zarko and Ozana once again becoming our interpreters.

The traditional Croatian house is single storeyed and long, with multiple doorways from the outside into the various rooms. That’s because the entire family – like the Indian joint family – lived in the same house, but had different entrances for convenience. The length of the house denoted the wealth of the family. Most of the families lived self-sufficiently as a unit – each member had a job to do, and that way the family didn’t have to rely on an outsider to do anything – and more importantly, didn’t have to pay any outsider. Whether it was shoeing a horse or making sausages or weaving clothes or making wines, every home had someone in the family who could and did do the job. And every home had a blacksmith’s smithy, carpenter's tools, smoking room, granary, wood store and everything else required for total self-reliance.

Every Croatian house traditionally has a
basement. In fact, the basement was always the first thing to be constructed – or rather, dug out, because the clay from the hole that was dug to make the basement was used to make bricks to make the ceiling/roof for the basement itself. Then a shed was built over it. This room above the cellar housed the horse tack, saddles, bridles and what not, plus the various tools required for the various tasks around the farm and the house (saws, hammers, chisels, etc), the blacksmith’s bellows and work area, and so on. There was just LOADS of stuff there – even a sled, to get around in the winter. You wouldn’t have mistaken it for Santa’s sled, though. Not enough cheery red paintwork on it – in fact, there wasn’t any cheery red paintwork on it at all. It was just your basic sled.

Self-sufficiency being the lifestyle for a traditional Croatian family, they also grew their own grapes for wine, fruit and vegetables for the house, kept pigs, cows, hens and other poultry, horses (for getting around on, I suppose – and possibly for ploughing the fields) and of course dogs and cats. Rats were very likely not part of the plan but they were there too.

The cellar, this one 17 metres long, was mainly used for storing wine and it was always at an even 12°C, no matter what the weather outside. At the far end was a sectioned-off place which was only meant for family and which was used to bury a bottle of wine for every son born in the family. When the son reached 21 years of age, the bottle was dug out and opened in his honour. In this house
the bottles were out in the open for display
, but our cheerful guide said that usually they were buried in the ground.

After examining all that, we went into the house itself. I was surprised to see bunches of dried red chillies – oops, paprika, I mean – hanging up outside the house, above the veranda, along with bunches of dried garlic… rather like you would see in India, to ward off evil. There were no dried lemons though. One other thing I noticed about most buildings - whether it was a hotel or a private residence - was that they had various kinds of pumpkins, gourds or squashes, bunches of corn and/or bowls of walnuts in their shells left around as decoration. I assumed they were real ones, but as their shells are as hard as rock, there was no real way of saying if they were models or the real thing.

Our host explained that the first room in the house, the one which passers-by on the street could see into, belonged to the head of the family – and was for these reasons always richly decorated and beautifully kept so as to make the most favourable impression on everyone. Further rooms which led from it belonged to the sons or daughters, according to age, I guess. And as I mentioned earlier, each room had its own access door to the outside.

Most of the things in the house – the clothes on display, cupboards, beds, chairs, utensils for washing, cooking and eating, the weaving loom, etc – were all authentic, all having been used by the past occupants. They were all left in place, pretty much exactly as it would have been in times past, so we got a very good idea of how they would have led their lives.

There was a large bread oven inside the house - naturally the family made their own bread - above which was a wooden platform. Our guide said that in the winter, the children would sleep there to take advantage of the warmth from the oven. Nothing wasted there, not even surplus heat. And once the children were toasted crisp, they were stored as winter rations for the family. I'm JOKING!

After we had satisfied ourselves peering into the smoking room to look at the dried sausages hanging there, examining the large jars of pickled vegetables and paprika, exclaiming over the bottled jams and preserves, our host led us to the section where the animals were housed. There were a couple of rather large horses and a little pony. He invited us all to have a ride on the horses, but we politely declined. My refusal was made the more firm when I saw one of the horses aim a kick with its back legs at the other horse – and he actually wanted us to ride the bad-tempered one, although he tried to reassure us of its gentleness. Um… no thanks.

Oddly enough, Pete took him up on his offer despite being terribly allergic to horses (and cats, although nobody’s offered him their cat to ride on). He walked sedately once around the little compound with our host holding the reins, and then on his own, even cantering a little. I was quite impressed, because by god that horse looked about 10 feet tall when we were close to it. I liked the little pony though. It was small enough to walk right under the other horses with a couple of feet to spare overhead!

After that it was time for mein host to display his circus talents, Riding his horse lightly and effortlessly around, then standing up on its back while in motion and so on. When he leaped off it at the end, we gave him a good round of applause. He deserved it.

Then it was time for some eats. A bottle of plum brandy (sljivovitz) was brought out, along with little traditional beakers to drink it out of, and a bottle of some lovely home-made elderflower cordial. Also a very large platter of various dried meats and hams and cheeses, and home-made bread. All of it had been made right on that farm (and in that house) – apparently if you classify your property as a farm, even if it’s only for display to visitors, it HAS to be run as one. Which means our host had to cure the meats, make the cheese, wine, cordials, etc, all on the premises. Basically, it was a fully working farm. Cool.

Much later on, after returning Ozana home, we went for a walk around Osijek city centre. The buildings looked absolutely lovely in the soft yellow lighting, with the dancing fountain in the middle throwing up its jets of water. Although it was fairly late in the evening, there were loads of young people hanging around there – but not once did I feel uneasy or worried. I don’t know the crime rates in Osijek and whether they’ve gone up or down or whatever, but it felt like a safe place. (And if it isn’t, all I can say is that ignorance was certainly bliss!).


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