The island of Hvar
I remarked to someone the other day that after spending a few weeks in what used to be called Yugoslavia, there is one thing I can definitely say about it: in any group of what we used to call Yugoslavs, there will always be at least one, and probably many more, young women wearing the shortest possible shorts, below which are visible a pair of slim, beautiful legs, tanned to the nth degree. Where were such girls when I was a boy, I have asked myself.
The person to whom I made this remark protested that this was a somewhat superficial observation, but I am not so sure. It seems to indicate quite a lot about the changes that have overcome what was until recent decades a workers’ state, in which enterprises were owned by the workers, and the economy was run with the interests of the ordinary bloke uppermost in mind.
After a brutal internecine war that seemed to be designed to entrench capitalism in what once was a welfare state, what exists now, so far as I have seen (which admittedly isn’t a hell of a lot), seems to be a captive state completely given into the hands of tourism, both of the luxury, and of the mass varieties.
Of course, my judgment has been clouded, perhaps, by the fact that I have spent most of these weeks visiting a friend in Dubrovnik, which is today a very strange place of human habitation. It is an ancient town set at the tailend of a small state, Croatia, that, after having defended its independence staunchly through the ages, has finally surrendered to the god of tourism.
The town seems to have no function except to be looked at by gawking tourists, who emerge daily from one of those immense cruise ships that ply the Adriatic, calling from time to time at one or other of the ports they pass along the way. These people, who appear to come from all over the world, are ferried into the town by tenders, where they are attached to a local guide who stands there holding up a sign to identify her, and thereafter, they are obliged to follow this person around as she gabbles off her spiel, allocating to the maximum, half an hour for each medieval attraction. This is a holiday?
I have it on good authority (a trades union official in Dubrovnik), that Croatia, in this new dispensation, owns nothing. Foreign money has taken over, and the Croatians have been reduced, by and large, to being the waiters, cooks, and tourist guides to the new millenium. I have seen this before, in the West Indies, where an island like Antigua, once a prolific producer of sugar, closed all its sugar mills at a stroke, thereafter reducing the possibilities for its population to be waiters, taxi drivers, beach boys, or hookers.
So, as an economic engine in the modern state, Dubrovnik can be more or less discounted.
Okay, you might argue, Dubrovnik is an exception. It was bombed severely by the Serbs during what they call the Homeland war. This brings me perilously close to discussing the insanity of that war, a temptation I intend to resist.
I went this week to Hvar, a small town on a bleak, elongated Adriatic island. I had gathered the impression from what I had been told of Hvar that it was a rural kind of place: forget it, Hvar is a tourist trap, just like Dubrovnik, but with a few more signs of real life. Its beautiful harbour is crowded with boats, ostentatious boats of the super-rich, ugly boats of the nouveau-riche, bustling, companionable boats of the ferry service that takes people to and from the many islands that surround the city.
But Hvar, let there be no mistake, is a tourist city. It does have a splendid small market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, but otherwise it is, as someone once complained to me about Durbovnik, a town full of shops selling T-shirts made in China.
We had to catch a hydroplane at 6.30 am, and when we arrived at the dock at 6 am, we were confronted by boatloads of noisy young Europeans, some of them horribly drunk, others delirious with love, emerging after spending the entire night on one or other of the islands, where night clubs purvey their trade. A young Norwegian, intoxicated by all the heat and sun, told me one night club on one island has an Oslo Week, for which 300 young Norwegians have come south to participate. The very peak of modern-day tourism.
Where we were going on the hydroplane was to Split, and here I found something slightly different. Although this city of roughly half a million people is a centre for tourism, it does bear the marks of a real, functioning place. The immense harbour is crowded with huge ships, many of them designed for carrying cars back and forth around the islands, and others, more modest, for just simply taking people around.
The town itself is a wonder. The city centre exists inside what is known as Diocletian’s Palace, a place built by an Illyrian from these parts who became emperor of Rome around the third century AD, and decided to surrender his power voluntarily, apparently the only Roman emperor ever to do that. He came back home, built this huge palace, and today it is the centre of this amazing city, a veritable World Heritage Site within which ordinary people live and carry on their business from day to day, a place around whose every corner lurks a visual delight --- perhaps a broken down Roman wall, perhaps a building built in by later generations and very much still occupied, perhaps --- a delightful touch this --- a gallery of doorways built above the city square all of them giving on to a balcony, in which is situated a bar, run by a beautiful young woman who, unfortunately, appeared to be a chain smoker. (Never mind, although she left her butt smoking into our nostrils, after a few minutes she returned to stub it out completely.)
Split has a wonderful market that sells everything under the sun. I sat on a chair at a bar in this market, and was delighted by the arguments, yelling, laughing and crying of its inhabitants, who, so far as one could judge, were simply carrying out their functions of everyday life. They looked as though they spent every day in this same place.
Unfortunately Split had a major festival underway, so we weren’t able to get a room close enough in to make it worthwhile. So at about 3 pm we climbed aboard a bus, and embarked on the five hour drive south to Dubrovnik, along a landscape of the most forbidding character. Most of the houses along this highway appeared to be more or less new: one had the impression that many of them must have been holiday homes of the city bourgeoisie. The only touch of realism came from a place where, under Tito, they had filled in a swamp over an immense area, and turned it to productive fields. The houses there were mostly rather dreary apartment buildings built in the days when the government was serious about providing work and accommodation for its people.
I have never been a supporter of tourism, not even as an economic engine. I remember once being moved by the realization that all the people who, like me, were climbing around the Acropolis in Rome were diverse peoples from all over the world, and that in this activity they were paying some obeisance to the past, to the history and achievements of earlier civilizations.Today, even that reassurance seems to have disappeared from these trailing mobs of tourists, following along after their guide, hoping for their half hour inside the cathedral or the medieval palace. What are they getting out of it, these people, could somebody tell me?