Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Reflections on Hvar by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The invitation to see Hvar, one of the stunning islands that hug Croatia's Dalmatian coast, had been on the cards for months. But, really, more than invited, I was importuned. Old friends working in Hvar Town urged me to see the place. They were providing works of art, mainly photographs, to a hotel chain that had bought up and was refurbishing a series of one-time Socialist hotels and resorts in and around the town.

I was intrigued but far from convinced. Intrigued because for the past few years I'd been shuttling to and fro along the western side of the Adriatic, the flat islandless Italian shore, and knew the eastern side to be dotted with worthy remnants of both ancient Rome and the Venetian Republic, to say nothing of a romantic coast carpeted with pines and fingered with inlets and bays that are a feast to the eye. Unconvinced, because I'd read too much hype about the place -'one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world', a magnet for minor European royalty and major Hollywood figures, a 'stopping off point for every yacht sailing out of Portofino', its adoption by the jet-set, and, horror of horrors, the word 'chic' cropping up everywhere.

Though little enamoured of yachts or royalty or Hollywood, I eventually accepted the invitation on condition that our visit be made out of season, when a place's bare bones - in this case, stones - are plain to the eye. Hvar lends itself to aimless roaming and unhurried scrutiny. The town is small, and no cars are allowed in the historic centre, whose heart is a long, sloping square - said to be one of the largest in Dalmatia - with the Cathedral of St Stjepan at its head. Underfoot, stone slabs, marble quarried on the neighbouring island of Brač, are honey-coloured with age and worn smooth.

This oblong space, relatively plain and unadorned, leads past the Arsenal, the Venetians' dry dock for fitting galleys, straight to the tideless harbour. Here an ample quay fringes the sea, and on one side the promenade is lined with carefully tended Canary Island date palms. To the north and south of the square, canyon streets and lanes end abruptly in stairways that scale the hillsides. Citrus and bougainvillea and pomegranates spill over the tops of walled gardens, and at every turn these thirteenth- and fifteenth-century precincts yield something of interest - a view, a glimpse of the limpid sea through a slit of narrow streets, an architectural detail, an inscription.

Such walks are a form of ruminating, a lazy man's way of reading the past, of trying to make connections, of piecing together history and landscapes. There was a quiet satisfaction to find in Hvar old shop fronts of a type I had first discovered across the sea in the Abruzzi. Owing to their shape, that of an unfurled flag, the Italians call them porte a bandiera. You can see them under porticoes in Innsbruck, on a bigger scale, with wrought-iron shutters.

There was also the surprise of finding in a Franciscan monastery's refectory an exquisite Mannerist painting of the Last Supper. The work of a Venetian master - both Matteo Ponzoni and Matteo Ingoli are cited as its author - it measures 8 x 2.5 metres and features a luxurious U-shaped table (or three tables set out in a U). At the time we barged in, the refectory was doubling as a rehearsal hall for a student production of some musical play or pageant, and the solo voice of one sturdy lad lent the scene an unexpected poignant dimension.

We stayed at a former Socialist hotel, the Adriana, magnificently located on the harbour front. Expensive even out of season, its bedrooms have been tastefully refurbished but its lobby and public spaces are still too wedded to Tito's days for my liking.

The original idea behind these postwar proletarian watering holes was laudable, but the execution - the ponderous, dark, dreary décor - seems something dreamed up by a grumpy, overworked committee. One can only salute the vision and courage of the property group that has recently acquired these places, many of which were little more than unsightly concrete boxes. I note that heading these new entrepreneurs are at least two Frenchmen.

But among the stones of Hvar, I was looking for touches of Venice. After all, Dalmatian craftsmen and Dalmatian building materials had helped fashion La Serenissima. Sure enough, framing the inner harbour is a series of elegant obelisks like those much in evidence on roof and bridge parapets in eighteenth-century views of the Grand Canal. And alongside a sixteenth-century loggia by the entrance of the Palace Hotel are two great plaques in widely differing styles depicting the winged lion of St Mark, one paw resting on an open book, its pages proclaiming 'Peace to you, Mark my evangelist.' The larger of the two lions bares pointed teeth in a comic fierce display. The pair were plainly shifted from previous sites, and it's a wonder they are still intact, for, as I found to my dismay, rather than extolling and revelling in the best of their richly-layered history, Croats today seem more bent on reconstructing the past to suit an aggressive and disturbing nationalist agenda.

Like every other land bordering the Mediterranean, Croatia - the Dalmatian coast - is steeped in 3,000 years of turbulent history. Illyrians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Byzantines, Visigoths, Huns, Lombards, Slavs, Avars, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, Hungarians, Austrians, French, Italians, native Fascists, Yugoslav communists, and, recently, Croatian ethnic-cleansers have all shaped the course of events here. That is, each in turn has raided, threatened, invaded, occupied, exploited, suppressed, or massacred. The Romans and later the Venetians between them dominated the area for some 1,200 years. What they created in terms of building and civic planning is mainly what we travel here to see.

In the mid-nineteenth century, in pursuit of a Croatian national identity, one group of romantic idealists sought to establish a pure Slavic lineage by evoking an Illyrian past. This glossed over a brace of inconvenient facts. First, that the Illyrians themselves had supplanted a previous palaeolithic people; and second, that the Slavs, arriving from elsewhere only in the seventh century, had in their turn displaced others. So what is the legacy today of this deluded quest for ethnic purity? A wallowing in the culture of victimization and a politics of hatred.

The extent of the propaganda at times spills over into the absurd. Even the delicious paprenjak cookie handed out by Croatian Airlines comes wrapped in a manifesto, wherein we are informed that 'Throughout history, until most recent times, foreign invaders and aggressors have reached for this land ....' One Hvar restaurant owner, a Croat from the capital, Zagreb, complained that after fifteen years he was still looked on by the locals as an outsider. Then there is the new take on the language. Until a few years ago, Croats and Serbs spoke the same tongue - Serbo-Croatian. Nowadays the one speaks Croatian and the other Serbian. Of this 'recent linguistic divorce', the witty Dubravka Ugresić, a writer who has found it expedient to live abroad, explains that

The Serbo-Croatian language spoken and written by Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, and Montenegrins is today officially divided into the Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian languages. Honorable linguists do indeed affirm that the Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian languages are just dialects with political significance, but, unfortunately, there are not many honorable linguists.

What is annoying is that guide books and tourist brochures collude in the lies, evasions, and suppressions. It was only by accident, for example - despite wide reading - that I found that the island of Hvar had been variously known as Lisina, Lesna, and Lesina. The name went back to the Byzantine era, but because the Venetians and Italians subsequently used the term it has now been consigned to oblivion. There is an inability here to assess the past rationally. It comes as no surprise, then, that Croats accused of genocide and wanted for trial at the Hague as war criminals are defended locally as heroes of a war to defend the homeland. One can only be grateful for such Croatian authors as Ugresić and Slavenka Drakulić, who swim against the tide and exercise their intelligence and literary skills in the pursuit of truth.

But I came to Dalmatia to praise and not to bury the place. I really wanted to winkle out its best features. These are everywhere in the awesome karst landscape and in the slew of islands that are the tops of partially submerged mountains. Inland, the great bare flanks of these Dinaric Alps look like the hide of an old elephant. Of man-made features, perhaps I found the best in Split, in Diocletian's palace, which must rank as one of the wonders of the world.

Here in the embrace of an immense walled palace is a warren, a souk - Roman remains quarried in part for a medieval town, in part for a Renaissance Venice; a vast tenement block cheek by jowl with an archaeological dig, much of the place a shambles, the whole utterly magnificent, and all of it teeming and throbbing with life. By local standards, Split - which the Italians called Spalato - is quite kosher. Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, to give his full name, is considered an Illyrian, and his waterfront palace was built with stone from the island of Brač.

For a finish, we had a lucky strike. Tucked away down a narrow back alley in the palace complex, just a stone's throw from the Peristyle, we came across the big one-room atelier of an exciting contemporary painter by the name of Srećko Žitnik. His vibrant, exuberant oil canvases - landscapes, interiors, furniture, boats, and bold excursions into oneiric fantasy - were hung and stacked everywhere. They lit the dark recesses like sunshine.

First published, in slightly different form, under the title 'Siege mentality', in the Financial Times Weekend, April 26/April 27 2008.

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