Spaghetti Eastern

Callum Ruddock

The boat that rocked. Hell – I wished it would stop. I was Washington crossing the Delaware, the skipper, Captain Joseph Clark wishing he were somewhere else.

‘This is how I go’, I thought. ‘I’m going to tip over in the warm Adriatic swell.’

Having landed in Split with minimal fanfare, and only somewhat prepared for the meat-searing heat, I thought it would make for a good Spaghetti Western set. Through an odd circular window in my apartment I could just make out Croatia’s island-speckled coastline; helpfully contrasted by rich sapphire waters that lapped at shallow inlets. To shift your gaze upwards was to address Mount Mosor whose waterless karst slopes have remained uninhabited since the moment the Dinaric Alps sprung up from the Adriatic microplate. Brimming with historical wealth, it struck me that all of this offered a good alternative to Spain’s Tabernas Desert. Sergio Leone would have got much more bang for his buck and much less Spanish faff had he shot ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ in Yugoslavia.

As I looked across the constantly pitching horizon then, I was overcome by an air of optimistic resignation. I wondered if the Adriatic seaplane pilots of old had thought the same as they leered from their planes - flying daring sorties between the Italian Peninsula and the Dalmatian Coast. Their presence, symptomatic of a sort of golden age; depictions of the fresh Kingdom of Yugoslavia, not yet socialist, toying with its first dictatorship below bear little resemblance to the Croatia of today. And yet, people didn’t seem bothered by the weed plant growing on the municipal beach. Nor were they much surprised when I was asked by a large man in jeans to contribute towards the local tourist tax – payable in full to the Mafia.

Croatia has come a long way since the mid-nineties. Split was now the sort of place where a young person might lose themselves, and find their bed in the morning. The beer was almost questionably cheap. On a student budget you could look forward to those nights unimaginable back home; the sort of evening when one is comfortable to sit and buy round after round. The usual 21st century itinerary would do. A taxi up to the peak of the nearest hill for sundowners. Sure – why not? Over to Park Šuma Marjan whose botanic garden cautiously looms over Diocletian's Palace – the great cultural centrepiece at the heart of the city. In those hallowed halls Emperor Diocletian, in his role of executioner, presided over the last widespread persecution of the Christians. Whose wrathful reign is now gilded by irony concerning the fact his tomb has been replaced by the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It’s a half decent Cathedral at that, filled with tourists now though - not emperors.

Evening walks give way to fashionable dock-side drinking. The city was playing the sound of ‘Split at Night’, a local jazz festival. If dulled in a babble of languages, the music was made all the better by the return of the Romans. Re-enactors take to the streets throughout the summer months. There are few places in the world where you can watch a drunk centurion attempt a strip tease.

“Oh look it’s Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus riding a chariot”, I thought I muttered.

As Split wakes up, aged British built fire engines sit idle in nearby fire stations. Elderly couples pour warm water over ground coffee. School children rollerblade amongst themselves. My mood as I strolled from house to house was, let us say, restrained. I had not expected to like Croatia, but life in Split was agreeable; sophisticated even. The waiters were more polite than at home, the portions a little larger; and all very affordable.

From there, you can island hop to nearly anywhere along the Makarska Riviera for less than thirty pounds. My chosen transport little more than a converted fishing boat with a gazebo mounted on the back. Every time we broke the crest of a wave, water would shoot up, resulting in a kind of salty misery. I was unimpressed by the crew and half imagined I could a better job. At points in genuinely felt as if this might be their first outing. No matter. Onwards to the Blue Lagoon at Otok Krknjaš Veli (via Trogir). Time for lunch.

Those stunning islands rose steeply from the water. Surfacing, as they did, like a submarine breaching to catch a breath. Birds chirped and various species of tourist busied themselves with those things that tourists do. The sharp bushes gave off that peculiar Adriatic smell. I wandered, in the company of lizards, along a thin strip of beach covered with rocks and spiky sea urchins. Wasting time as the cooks at restaurant Mali Škoj prepared grilled stodge - the food left plenty to be desired for. No one should be made to eat that much grilled food. Nice once, plain twice.

A few locals sought solace in the fleeting shade. Perched on some foldable wooden benches, they sipped tiny glasses of wine, and when approached, offered a polite smile and an indication to move on. Feeling neglected I noticed the captain was looking continually upset with the changing winds as he struggled to light a candle that was to accompany him on his own special Captain’s table. I approached and offered him my light.

“I am a potato farmer by trade. I come down to the coast for the tourist season”, he politely recounted. “Life is tough, but I am hopeful.”

I could tell he was poor. He smoked cheap cigarettes. Our conversation didn’t seem to bother him much and he let me sit in the wheelhouse on our way back to Split. He was right, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful. With EU membership comes funding and the Commission was busy financing new infrastructure projects and tightening up regulations. The empty factories which had once mired in communism had started to hum again; this time as Lidls and Conzums.

On a good day out, indifference made a lagoon feel like the centre of the existence, the Mediterranean Sea its boundaries. In those beryl green hills, the promise of tourism meant more than just income. It meant that people were interested in the Croat way of doing things. That Croatia was worthy of attention. That Croatia was somewhere people should be proud to be from. Many come to Croatia looking for the last of unspoilt Europe. Instead they are confronted with a thriving, conflicted country. For all this contradiction, for what Croatia is worth – it is a country brimming with hope.

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020