The phone rings. It’s a Croatian number.
“This is the hotel. Am I speaking to the people who hired the Jeep?” says the voice.
“Yes, thats us” I reply.
“We have had a call. Some people from the village have phoned us to say your boat is in danger.”
“What sort of danger?”
“They didn’t say. They just said you must return at once”
Bern put’s the pedal to the metal and we race down the highway towards Zadar. We’re half an hour from Novigrad at least. It’s stormy. Lot’s of rain. Not knowing what is going on back in the harbour is not helping our Karma. We had left the boat ‘stern-to’ at the quayside. We had deliberately pulled her about 3 metres out from the quay on the anchor to be safe.
“Maybe it’s just the fact it’s raining hard and we left all the windows open” I say.
“The wind doesn’t even look that strong as well”
We try to console ourselves.
We’re now 5 minutes away on the main road into Novigrad and a tight right turn comes up. The car loses it and skids sideways across the road. We’re now on the other side of the highway. In slow motion I watch Bern summon up some kind of instinctive pro driving skills and recover the skid.
“You legend! Well done.” I shout. Not quite believing what I’ve just witnessed.
Bern is shaking.
We return to the boat. All looks ok with Ios from a distance. However we notice she is lying about 6 meters away from the harbour wall and has an extra 3 lines on her. A number of people see us arrive and come over to talk to us and tell the story of what happened.
While we were away a storm had come in. There had been unexpected westerly winds, which although uncommon, pose a problem for boats moored at the quay in Novigrad. In a short space of time the waves had reached about 2 metres and the stern of our boat had been pushed back on to the quay with a serious danger of it crashing against the hard. A local girl Antonio, who we had met in the wine bar the night before, had rallied a couple of the local mariners to help sort it out.
According to our Brit friends, local fisherman just kept arriving on Ios to help sort out the problem. While a few of them fended the stern from crashing into the quay, one guy dived down to tie to a concrete block under the water so that he could secure a safe line. A fishing boat was deployed to lay a massive anchor out in the harbour. This allowed the guys to pull Ios further out into the bay.
Another guy who was on holiday here earlier had seen us leave the boat in the morning and depart in the Jeep. He’d recognised that the Jeep belonged to the hotel and phoned them as soon as he’d seen trouble was happening.
Bern and I can’t begin to explain how grateful we feel to the people of Novigrad. They saved the boat. We bought everyone involved a bottle of wine from the local vineyard. The people were insistent that we didn’t need to do it, but it felt necessary as a small token of thanks.
A Little Taste of a Community
Our life has been quite transitory over the last few months. We’ve missed other people. It’s been great when friends and family have come to visit, but when they leave it always feels a bit flat. I think I had a perception of cruising being a bit more sociable, but it rarely is. Occasionally you meet some people in a marina, have a drink with them and exchange a few stories, but most of the time your on your own. Many of our nights are spent at anchor to save costs and largely, the boat is an island. You’re surrounded by a bunch of other charter boats who are mostly doing their own thing and in the main don’t share a common language with you.
I guess we never planned to stay at Novigrad long, but we just got sucked in by the community, be it holiday-makers or locals. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. We met some great people. A couple from the UK arrived shortly after we did. Julian and Maz had bought their son Oliver on holiday. They were staying on the only yacht that is permanently moored in Novigrad’s harbour. It belongs to Charles Billich, one of Austalia’s most famous artists who is from Novigrad but moved to Sydney many years ago. Maz is friends with him from her days as a well known photographer in Sydney.
Julian is possibly one of the most gregarious people I’ve ever met and he quickly got to know the local community. This was handy for Bern and myself, we’re a little more shy and retiring, so we tagged along! Life quickly changed from living anonymously from ‘cove-to-cove’ to just staying put among familiar faces. Days were whiled away supping coffee and playing backgammon in the local cafe. Evenings spent sampling the wine or eating out.
It felt nice to be walking down the street and waving to the lady who served you drinks the night before or getting a smile from the local shop keeper, because they recognise you. The simple things hey!
It was through Julian and Maz we got to meet Plamenko. He looks after Charles Billich’s yacht for him and helped out Maz and Julian during their stay. Plemenco has lived in Novigrad all through his life and is a a prominent part of the community. We were invited along on a sight seeing tour to look around the region. The tour included antiquities that dated back to Roman times, but it also touched on the very recent history of Croatia.
Stories of a War
It’s seems strange to think that just over 20 years ago a bitter war was being fought in Europe, right on our door-step, just a two hour flight away. I’ve been interested in the conflict and had never asked the Croats directly about it. However, in chatting, people readily mention the war and volunteer stories. I’m writing here what I’ve picked up, I’m not claiming any authority on the subject.
Novigrad was right in the centre of this conflict and the Velebit Mountains formed a bitterly contested front-line. The scars are very evident. Walk through any town in this region and you will see empty properties in disrepair. Some are pock-marked with bullet holes. They tell a story of worlds turned upside down and changed forever.
“They are living museums” is how the lady in the Novigrad tourist office eloquently described them.
While some of the properties might belong to Croats who either died in the war years or who fled the country forever, many of the plots belonged to Serbs who didn’t want to come back to Croatia after the conflict. The Croatian government has honoured their ownership of the land and left the option for them to return. They don’t want to. They are worried what might happen to them and how could anything be the same again?
It’s a sad tale because of the context. Croatia used to be a land where Bosniaks, Serbians and Croatians lived together side by side. In Novigrad Serbians would be drinking with the Croatians in the bars. Although religiously different, the Croats of Novigrad allowed the Serbian minority to use their Catholic Churches for Orthodox Christian masses. It seems that the majority of ordinary people like you and me can just get along with each other. However, take a few powerful men with a dangerous ideology, a nationalistic press ready to whip a nation up into a frenzy of hatred and you ruin everyones life, regardless of whether you are on the winning side or not. It’s a lesson to all of us who live in countries that are ethnically diverse. A warning to be very wary of divisive forces who spread intolerance and hate, be it extremist groups, politicians or the media.
Plemenco takes us on a sightseeing tour of Novigrad. He talks us through the time when on the last day of 1991 the residents of Novigrad decided to flee the town. The Serbian Army had surrounded the town on all sides and cut off all the land routes to safety. The town got everyone they could boarded onto fishing boats and they headed across the Novigrad Sea into the Velebit Straight. These people escaped to safety. They would spend the rest of the war living elsewhere in Croatia. The government had been very organised in using the abundant supply of hotel rooms in safe zones to be able to accommodate displaced peoples. Plamenko went to Zadar and his son was born there. Zadar itself also suffered bombardment by the Serb forces. From what I’ve seen of parenthood, it’s hard enough. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been bringing up child into that chaos.
I get the sense that through it all there seemed to have been an underlying optimism and defiance.
“We always knew we would get our homes back” Plamenko says.
Plamenko was one of the lucky ones. Not everyone could be accommodated on the boats that escaped Novigrad that night. Around 26 people remained. They had to chance it by foot. The Serbian Army captured them in Posidarje, just before they could get to a safe zone. These civilian prisoners were taken to a camp at Benkovac. Some never made it out of the camp. Accroding to Plamenko many of the captives that were released after the war have mental health problems as a result of the torture inflicted at the hands of the Serb special forces.
This stuff isn’t as headline grabbing as the mass genocide in Shrebrenisca that is well documented. However, I think you’d agree that it is just as important to be able to investigate the allegation of war-crimes here that include torture, murder and rape.
The man who ran this camp is Dragan Vasiljkovic (aka Captain Dragan). There has been an ongoing battle to extradite him from Australia so he can be tried for the crimes perpetrated at Knin and Benkovac camps. He is now campaigning to be released from prison in Australia, because he’s been held so long and no decision has been made. This is from the man who had successfully been on the run for 43 days after the warrant was originally granted for his arrest. He was caught trying to leave the country on a yacht. An Orthodox Serbian Priest in Australia has campaigned for Dragan who he described as ‘An equitable man’. His other character witnesses include the Melbourne courts who convicted him for activities in running whore houses in the 1980s.
During the occupation the Serbs didn’t live in Novigrad. They just wrecked it. The Serbians weren’t content to simply ethnically cleanse the population and ruin it’s infrastructure, they wanted to eradicate all traces of the Croat culture and way of life. Churches, schools and public buildings were bombed, antiquities were vandalised, the vineyards, which were an important part of the local economy, were laced with land mines.
The residents of this area eventually did return to their homes, but Croatia was devastated by the war. Loss of life is the tip of the ice berg. Everything that was built was destroyed. If you were lucky you returned to a house that had been vandalised and looted. Others returned to rubble.
It’s the other stuff you rarely think of that struck me too. For many people it was a case of starting from scratch after the war. One waiter from Zadar we talked too told us of his family’s story. His father was an architect before the conflict started. He was about to retire and when Yugoslavia (Serbia) needed to buy weapons to use, they raided all the banks for funds. Pension gone. Your money used to bomb you. When the troubles ended the family were in poverty and were only saved by their German Shepheard dog who reared plentiful puppies that they could sell.
“When I think about that dog, it saved us” He says with a smile.
This guy was my age, bright and articulate. While I’d been having a carefree life in University in my teens he had spent two years fighting a bitter war. After that he had to emigrate to find work so he could send money home to the family. What different lives we led through an accident of geography.
When war ends the damage lasts for many years. Infrastructure gets rebuilt slowly or not at all. Pick up a map of the Velebits and you’ll notice some odd looking areas and markings. Looking to the key on the map you’ll see ‘Area suspected of land mines’ and ‘Path cleared of land mines, do not stray 5m either side of the track’. An invisible shadow hangs over areas of land that used to be the front-line. Please don’t let that stop you exploring the region, but get a map and stick to the safe zones if your hiking.
The new Croatia has still not fully recovered. The economy has been propped up by tourism, but there aren’t many other revenue generating sectors. The problem with tourism is that it is entirely at the whim of the global economy. That holiday is the first thing to go when times get hard. We think we’re in recovery, but don’t be so sure. The Italians used to account for about 50% of the tourist trade over here, but there’s recession in Italy.
I ask Plamenko about Novigrad’s economy. Apart from the fishing and tourism there isn’t much. Farm produce is produced in the fields around Novigrad, but it seems the farmers in this region suffer, as farmers do all over the world, by the super-markets pushing prices down.
“Some people cry for the old Yugoslavia” says Plamenko. “But I say it’s crazy. We lived in a country where there were books you were not allowed to read”
I was interested to hear the Croat perspective on the involvement of the international community during the conflict. While the Croats were being displaced from their homes and fighting back to reclaim them, the international community decided to put an arms embargo on the area. Serbia was in a distinctly better position. It had an extensive arms supply, including 50 MIG fighter planes from the ex-Yugoslav Army (which was 90% Serbian). It was also being supplied arms from Russia and Greece.
The UN had blockaded the Adriatic and no arms supplies could get through legitimately to Croatia. Croatia still got hold of arms, but they came through on the black market and through the mafia. Other arms came from the Yugoslav army when some of the army members with Croat origins decided to take their weapons home. Plamenko smiles as he tells us the story of three Croat pilots who stole their MIG jets and flew to the other side!
It’s evident that we did too little, too late. We let the Serbian regime perpetrate ethnic cleansing, organised rape and genocide on our doorstep. The cynics would say that this is because there were no economic interests in the region. There’s probably element of truth in that. Sorting the conflict out was down to NATO, an organisation in which the Americans have overall control. It took allot of pleading from Europeans, notably ex-Priminister Thatcher to get Bill Clinton involved.
Croatia is now part of the European Union. I’d like to think now that any problems, in Croatia or any part of Europe could be dealt with better than how the international community dealt the tensions here. I’d like to think we could deal with them before problems escalated into all out war. It’s made me value our place in Europe even more than I did already. It’s clear that NATO did not have any answers for this conflict and lacked the understanding and support an integrated European community might be able to give.
We hear so much crap spun by the idiots at UKIP and the right-wing Torries to vilify the European Union. They lambast the European Court of Human Rights blocking the extradition of a few extremists, even if it is to a country where they’re going to be tortured. They go on about petty rulings, even if some of those rulings might actually enhance the quality of products and food consumed in the UK (dont forget your 2 year EU gaurantee on products). They go on about the evils of migration, even when the building trade workers of this country needed that safety-net of the EU and the freedom to go to Germany to earn a crust in the recession of the 80s.
All of that aside, NONE of them mention the reason the EU was set up in the first place. To provide better integration and a forum for negotiation to stop countries that had been continually at war, right up to our parents generation, work out their differences, i.e. to STOP WAR IN EUROPE. Since it’s formation we have had the longest period of piece in Europe. Please think about this when the gutter press whips you up into a frenzy about something so inconsequential as EU regulations on the curvature of Bananas!
OK. I’m off my soap box! I want to end this piece on a positive note.
The Velebit Region – It Feels Like an Adventure!
As soon as I passed the gap and entered the Velebit Straight, Croatia changed for me. It was getting too busy before this point; it’s August and everyone is cruising! We’d been round the islands and the last Island we stayed at was Dugi Otok on a mooring buoy with at least 100 other charter boats around us. It took the edge off for me. I needed something different.
Since we entered the Velebit Straight we’ve seen less than 10 other yachts… IN THREE WEEKS! It’s unbelievable that such a place is so quiet for boating traffic, but I guess it’s not that safe an option for the charter trail. There are no true safe havens here, no marinas.
There is the perpetual worry that the Bora may hit. The Bora is a Katabatic wind that comes from the mountains. We had it the other night at anchor. We spent a sleepless night listening to a Force 8 wind hit us. This is truly the most fierce conditions we’ve ever anchored in, the boat was heeling over! We had a lot of faith in the anchor. We had motored back on her full throttle that night, then let extra chain out. We were ok in the morning, just a little tired. The boat hadn’t moved.
Taking a careful view of the weather has been worth it to experience the region. It’s the juxtaposition of land and sea that makes this area special. The beautiful Velebit Mountains provide a stunning and sizeable backdrop. Cruising down the Velebit straight is a feast for the eyes if you like mountain scenery. Add to this the fact that you have a number of different seas and canyons that interconnect them adds a uniqueness that you don’t find in many other places.
I think I’ll leave the photos to do the work now and hopefully I’ll be able to encourage others to visit the area.
Come and Have a Look for Yourself
I hope the photos have inspired you to come and check out this area. Here was just a taste of what’s on offer and if you travel on just a little bit further you can get to islands like Pag or interesting cities like Zadar.
If you’re coming by boat it’s worth noting a few things:
- Be careful with the weather, have a plan B
- Get the 777 Adriatic pilot book, it’s far better than the Imray one. I’d never seen the 777 guides before I came out here, Imray have alot to learn from this guide, which makes pilotage so slick and easy.
- I’d recommend electronic charts if you don’t have them already. If you have an iPad you’ll be able to pick up Navionics Charts or iSailor for a snip.
- If you’re staying in Novigrad, the visitor spaces on the quay are outside the Noshcick Bar. Currently it’s free to stay here (that includes power and water). Be wary of westerlies or isolated sudden storm that could cause a westerly. If there’s a risk of that go and anchor 15 minutes away in Posidarje. The Bora can sometimes cause problems in Novigrad, but we’ve had low-strength Bora while we’ve been here with no problems.