Saturday, 8 September 2012

Drama on the Stari Most
At the highest point on the bridge a small figure on the skyline climbed over the rail. 20 metres below him the freezing Neretva River swirled beneath sheer-sided rocks.
On the shoreline, a crowd had gathered to watch. High above them, the man stood there frozen on the narrow ledge.  For a moment, it felt as if time has been suspended.
Then someone was shouting. “Go on. Do it!”
As if broken from his trance, he raised one arm to the sky, took a deep breath and propelled himself outwards, his arms stretched out like an eagle. For a moment he seemed to fly, but then he began to drop like a stone to the river below. The wind lifted and his body curved dangerously close to the rocks. He hit the surface and the water exploded. He was gone.
The crowd scanned the river but there was no sign of the man, until moments later he reappeared bobbing like a cork further downstream.  Everyone broke into applause.
All afternoon we’d watched the young boys of Mostar jump from the 10 metre board on the riverside just below the bridge, practising for the day they too would qualify for the Stari Most Annual Diving. In Monsar it’s a rite of passage.
The Stari Most (Old Bridge) was commissioned by the Suleiman the Magnificant in 1557. On completion it was the widest single-arched bridge in the world. No one knows how the scaffolding was erected or how the stone had been transported from one side to the other. It seemed a miracle.
For over 400 years, the locals dived from the bridge. No one imagined it would ever end – that is until the 9th November 1993, when the bridge was obliterated in the war.  Mostar was in shock. The Stari Most was more than just a bridge – it had been a symbol of unity across a multi-ethnic city. Mostar had to wait until 2004 for the reconstructed bridge to unite the old town again and the diving could recommence.
The local youths gazed up at the divers, their eyes bright with admiration, anticipating their own initiation. Diving from the Stari Most, they knew, wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The water, at 12 degree Celsius, can send the heart into cardiac arrest. Before the jump, the divers submerge themselves in the river to acclimatise and are sprayed again with icy water just before they make the leap.  The jump itself is perilous too - one mistake can mean the difference between life and death.
The initial jump had been completed and the Bosnian anthem rang through the ravine. Flowers thrown from the bridge, floated across the air before drifting down the river: a remembrance to those who died in the war. High above the banks of the river, the remaining burnt out shells of buildings are a sobering reminder of a very recent war. But again the town is reunified in its annual dive on the Old Bridge.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A taste of Croatian waters

My husband had disappeared from our village apartment. He’d only gone to check the washing. Minutes turned into hours and I went in search of him.
I peeped into the courtyard out the back. The square was empty in the fierce afternoon heat. The tiny pekara, the bakery was deserted too, as was the café next to it. I wandered downstairs to the basement corridor where the washing machine was. Not there either. I descended the last steps to the seafront. In front of me, the Mali Ston Bay stretched out to the Pelješac Peninsula, where grey-green olive trees and pines covered the hillside. I scanned the seafront promenade and the shore: He was nowhere to be seen.
Back inside, I returned to the washing machine. Iva the landlord’s daughter appeared.
“Looking for your husband? He is here.”
I frowned, puzzled. The corridor was empty.
She pushed back a door I hadn’t noticed before. “Come in, come in,” a voice sang out from behind the door. It was Mile, our landlord.
I peered through the gloom and there was Tom in the corner of a storeroom grinning sheepishly, a glass of rakija in his hand.
I took in the arched brick wall lined with dusty bottles and a long bench covered in food amongst an array of strange, unidentifiable Croatian objects.
 “Welcome to my place,” Mile said. “My wife, she own the kitchen. Here … all this belong to me. We men must have our place.”
I laughed. “In Britain, men have their garden sheds to escape to.”
“And here,” Mile said, “we men have our basement.”
“Come, come, have a glass of rakija.” He poured a generous glass of his homemade spirit from a large demijohn.
“You must eat some Pršut.” Only then did I notice the pork leg, trotter protruding in the air, jammed in a polished, wooden drying rack.
“I prepare this two years,” Mile told me.
Pršut, (jambon to the Spanish) is cured with Adriatic saltwater; then squeezed on a rack until all the brine is removed. The ham is smoked and left outside to dry in the fierce Bora winds over winter. It is then hung up in dark attics, outbuildings or basements all over Dalmatia to mature.
I took a bite and tasted the winds and seas of the Adriatic Sea, the fustiness of the basement, and the years of loving attention.  Mile handed me some crusty bread and cut a slice of cheese.
Paski Sir, the best cheese in the world,” he said. “It is from the island of Pag. Eat some.”
The Pag Bora wind dries the millions of tiny seawater droplets that blow in off the sea and scatters the salt dust across the sage-covered island; a flavoursome diet for the island sheep.
 I tasted the salty aromatic sheep’s cheese and knocked back another slug of belly-burning Rakiya. British men could keep their garden sheds, I wanted a Croatian basement.

Delighted to have won the Just Back Telegraph competition with this piece.
Komarna is a small modern village, mainly catering for the tourist industry. It is a good centre for visiting some of Croatia's beautiful islands: Hvar, Mljet, and Korcula, for example, and the Peljesac Peninsula. Dubrovnik can also be visited on a day trip, as can Mostar in Bosnia. The apartment we stayed in was right by the sea. It was wonderful to sit on the balcany and watch the world go by - or watch the sun set. Check it out here:
The Brljevic family, who own the apartment where we were staying, were incredibly hospitable. Apart from the wonderful basement experience, Jasminka made me a delicious orange and nut cake for my birthday (and gave me a box of chocolate). On arrival the fridge was filled with food: milk, beer, orange juice, rolls and a platter of food (cured ham and cheese) as well as fruit.
This is a family who love good food. Vera, their daughter, and partner Frank live in Istria and write a great blog about Istria and food. The blog includes mouth-watering recipes. Check it out here: