Sunday, November 18, 2007

Osijek (Croatia) - Part 3



A short drive from Osijek is the town of Vukovar, which was pretty much destroyed in every way possible during the war – economically, culturally, infrastructurally. Its town centre was reduced to actual rubble. It’s limping its way back to normality, at least on the surface – a lot of the buildings are new, but for every two buildings that are new, there are the broken, bullet-riddled, shell-damaged remnants of older buildings that give a horrible insight into how awful the damage was to this town. The water tower has been left with all its battle scars intact as a reminder of the horrors of war. An impressive idea – except that I found little, sometimes cheerfully colourful, mini replicas of the damaged water tower being sold as tourist souvenirs in the shopping malls of Osijek. To my mind it took away from the gravitas of the whole tower-as-reminder plan. On the other hand, I suppose anything that makes money for Osijek and Vukovar (and other affected towns) should be seen as a plus… I don’t know.

There is a memorial to the war victims in Vukovar – a large white cross on the banks of the Danube. It was sobering to see people bring lighted candles in little bottles and wreaths of flowers to lay at the foot of the cross. Despite the bright sunny day, it didn’t feel cheerful… said mood not helped by seeing the shell and bullet damage to nearby buildings. I felt uncomfortable taking photos of it – it felt like an intrusion into the lives and memories of the people who had lost loved ones, and for whom the scars of the war were not of long ago, but of the very recent past. I thought it might be disrespectful for us as tourists to be clicking away merrily, so I didn’t even raise my camera. But Ozana asked us to stand with the cross in the background while she took a couple of photos of us, so I guess the discomfort was more in my mind than anywhere else.

Apparently the repair work and normality are not reflective of the relationship between the Serbs and Croats – I guess it’s about the same as the uneasy truce between Hindus and Muslims in the troubled parts of India, with the Serbs and the Croats living in hostile segregation, and their kids going to segregated schools. It’s a pity, but understandable… when you’ve lost family and friends, it can’t be easy to forgive and forget.

With Pete being such a big wino – er, wine connoisseur, I mean – a winery simply had to be on Zarko’s itinerary. And so it turned out. We went to a winery in a little town (village?) called Iloc, where there is also an 18th century palace (of sorts) – large, pink and pretty. Much damaged, again, but at least restoration works were going on. There are plenty of damaged buildings that either haven’t been repaired because of lack of funds, or will never be repaired because nobody knows who owns it and the original ownership documents have gone forever. I asked Ozana if somebody with money could offer to completely re-build any severely damaged building (especially if it’s situated in a place with great views), but she said that unless they could prove ownership by providing the original paperwork/documentation, nobody would be allowed to just appropriate anything. Not even the government itself could take over a derelict place that had once been privately owned. Since the former owners of many properties might well have been killed – or fled the country – along with all family, and with all provenance to the properties lost as well, chances are that the buildings will never be repaired or rebuilt. I don’t know whether that should be seen as a shame or as justice rendered to the former owners.

Anyway, back to Iloc, the pink palace and the winery. Near the damaged pink castle was an (ongoing) archaeological dig with the remains of a 15th century buliding visible. The views from the top of the bank by the dig were beautiful – the serene Danube, the trees just beginning to turn colour, the clear blue skies and sunshine made for perfect photographs. It was also quiet and peaceful, with no noise from traffic or anything but a few birds. And us. But we did shut up for a bit. Really.

The winery was only a small one open to the public, and again, there was no information for non-Croatian tourists. The nice lady at the office took us to the massive cellar and told us to go down and have a look at the even more massive wine barrels. The biggest barrels held about 15,000 litres of wine each, and if Pete could have taken it home somehow, he would have. (Even if it meant stealing.) I have no idea whether the barrels were made out in the open and then taken down to the cellar and filled (likely), or whether they were made in the cellar itself (not very likely). Either way it seems unimaginable to me that they could have been moved, they would have been SO heavy… (even given the evidence of rails with the help of which they would have been moved!) Still, since great big barrels don’t grow on trees or anywhere else in Nature, I guess they WERE made by human hands and they WERE transported by human methods, one way or the other!

After we’d had our fill of the somewhat dark and chilly cellar and admired all the cobwebby and dusty bottles of wine stored in the racks to age (and after we had dissuaded Pete from hiding a few bottles in his coat), we went up into the fresh air again and back into the office, where our friendly office manager/clerk lady had set out wine glasses for a tasting session. We had taster glasses of a few different kinds of wine, which were very nice. So nice and so heady that now I don’t know if the wines came free, or whether they’d had to bepaid for! I know I didn’t pay anybody anything, so it’s likely it was Zarko.

That evening we had dinner by the Danube, at a posh restaurant. We sat outside so as to see the river view. Scary – and incredible – to think that the buildings we could see on the opposite bank of the river were in another country – Serbia. No wonder the Serbs had found it so easy to attack Croatia!

One of the other towns we went (this time taking the kids as well, which was fun) to was Ðakovo, a peaceful place with nothing much going for it but a beautiful cathedral with two very tall belfries. (To take a proper photo of the cathedral’s entire height I would have had to lie down flat on my back – but I’m not that crazy or that enthusiastic a photographer. Besides, I prefer not to be pointed out by passers-by as a weirdo.)

Of course, if you were into horses, you would be greatly enthusiastic about the Lipizzaner training stables, which also we visited. Apparently these horses are the world’s most favourite riding horses. Well, who woulda thunk it? Not me. I don’t know one breed of horse from another (although I can tell a large horse from a small one) and I wouldn’t ride one if somebody paid me to do it. I thought I’d take a few photos of the horses in the stables, but it was too dark in there plus the horses wouldn’t stay still long enough for a photo. All I got was a series of horse-head shaped blurs. Not much good for sharing with friends and family but – thinking about it – I could probably hold an exhibition of modern impressionist equine photography. Any sponsors out there?

There’s also, according to various tourist brochures, an Embroidery Exhibition that is held in Ðakovo, but that takes place in early July. One of these years, as an amateur but fairly enthusiastic embroiderer, I’d like to visit the exhibition at the right time and see what marvellous creations are shown there. (I thought I’d mention it, that’s all).

Since Pete’s very interested in live music, we (Zarko, Pete and me) went back to the music festival on the last night to watch one of Croatia’s most successful pop-rock bands, Daleka Obala. The lead singer wasn’t much to look at – pot bellied, mid-40s or thereabouts, not exactly smartly dressed – but his voice was glorious. His looks and voice reminded me of Andrew Strong who played Deco Cuffe in the movie “The Commitments” (incidentally one of my favourites), and Pete and I both enjoyed the music very much, even though we didn’t understand a WORD of it.

Luckily music is one of those things that transcends language and culture – all you have to do to enjoy any music is to like it. And we did. Zarko of course was in his own world, transported back to his youth, bopping away happily to the music since he grew up listening to that band. Ozana unfortunately missed the concert because she had to relieve her lovely mother of baby-sitting duties – else she would have had as much fun as Zarko at the concert. The continuing popularity of the original band and this guy (I don’t know his name) was attested to by the enthusiastic response of the mostly teenage and early 20s crowd – they would have been very young at the time Daleka Obala was at its peak - LOVED his songs and sang along to every one. The singer was a true performer in that he vibed with his audience and got them to join in and take part – it was a wonderful experience!

But the clouds of cigarette smoke within that enclosed hall became too much for me after a while, so I had to go outside for the last half-hour and listen to the music from there. (Not that I had any trouble hearing it – you could have heard the speakers blasting out the sound from 10 blocks away… the sign of a really good concert, in Pete’s opinion).

Pete and I wanted to see the old town and the town centre itself in daylight, so we walked to the town centre from the hotel (and back) a few times – there isn’t a convenient taxi service in Osijek in the sense that there aren’t any to hail off the street. You have to call for one in advance – not particularly useful. Once we took a tram halfway – did I mention that there is a tram service in Osijek? It dates back to the late 1800s. It’s useful if you’re in or around the town centre, or if you want to get to the railway station, but not if you’re off the beaten track, as it were. There is a church in Tvrdja that once used to be a Turkish mosque - hence the onion towers. It was peaceful inside, but not especially remarkable.

Zarko, Pete, Borna and I also took time off to visit the remains of the Turkish fortress, as well as take a look around the museum which has a lot of relics from the Roman occupation, dating back to the 1AD or thereabouts. The nice thing was that the museum was relaxed and not anal about its exhibits - the sarcophagi, statues, busts and other marble remnants were right there in the open, with little labels to mark their age. You could touch them (but I didnt) or even sit on them (but I didnt) or for all I know carve your initials on them (but I didnt)... I guess the fact that nobody's damaged or defaced them says a lot about the civic mindedness of the locals. (Pete used one of the marble seats - it was only about 1500 years old, heyho - as a coat rack while he checked out the loo, but that's neither here nor there, is it?)

Outside the museum (where we took the opportunity to get a photo with Borna) there was some sort of cultural festivities going on, with a horse-drawn carriage ready to take tourists around, and brightly-costumed people singing
. Zarko said that they were representatives of minorities in Osijek and they were singing their folk songs. The music was simple but lovely... but then I'm a sucker for folk music from anywhere. There were lots of people in traditional costume - which meant plenty of bright, pretty embroidery. Yeah, I'm a sucker for embroidery and bright colours too.

Oh, and if ever you read anywhere that Hotel Silver is just a few minutes walk away from Osijek town centre, you have my permission to give a cynical laugh. It’s at least a 40-minute walk one way – admittedly not a bad walk, with all the greenery and parks and gorgeous shady trees and everything, but a few minutes??? HA! What they wont say to ignorant tourists just to make you choose their hotel…

All in all, the week in Osijek went by far too quickly, what with walks on the lovely promenade by River Drava, coffee/drinks at the riverside bars, icecream in the town centre, photos of the
pedestrian bridge by night (and day) - this cute little boy with his cute little pup deserved a photo! - and all the sight seeing trips. Pete said it was easy to make oneself understood even though we didn’t speak the local lingo. Yes, easy enough with such thoughtful hosts as Zarko and Ozana translating and otherwise smoothing our way in most places! Strangely enough, what little German I remembered came in fairly handy on the few occasions that we had to negotiate our way in the restaurants or cafes when our lovely hosts were busy with their work. They were such fun to be with, so kind and generous with their time despite their busy workdays, their kids so enthusiastic and loving, that Pete has been trying to invite himself over there for Christmas for another special trip and a second taste of Croatian hospitality. And truth to say, I’m not about to dissuade him!



Anonymous said...

Loved the travelogue, Shyam. You've obviously taken a lot of trouble with the photo links and all... Makes me want to be there.

What next? :D

- Radha

Anonymous said...

What next? what NEXT??? A long rest, I think! :D

- Shyam

Anonymous said...

Ok, let me rephrase - WHERE next? :D :)

Kamini (Tales of South India) said...

Oooh, that was a lovely virtual holiday. Thanks, it was enchanting.


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjored reading it, Kamini :)

- Shyam

meerkat said...

that was a good and detailed travelogue. you must have a good memory to remember all the small details. it has tempted me to consider croatia for my next holiday