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June 2019
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11-05 Croatia

a column written by James for the Sligo Weekender

Following the dramatic demise of Osama bin Laden, while bearing in mind the momentous year we have witnessed with the populace rising and revolting in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Syria, is it naïve of me to think there may at last be a chink of light at the end of a very elongated twisted tunnel? Is there even a teeny glimmer of hope that our fellow global dwellers are at long last realising the counterproductive nature of violence, aggression and extremism, and learning of the futility of war? Of course certain troubled corners of the world have forever dominated the news  the Middle East, Kashmir, Iran/Iraq, and our own country, to name but a few.

Recently I visited another area cruelly branded by its conflicts, and I think it was its sheer beauty which got me thinking. I am talking of The Balkans. Ruled by the Romans, then the Ottoman Turks, later the Austro-Hungarians, and coveted by the Venetians, the Balkans Wars in the early 20th Century were thoroughly destructive. The assassination of Austrias Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo helped spark World War One. Most of the area was allied to Germany in World War Two, and almost two million Yugoslavians were killed during this time. This was followed by almost 50 years under the controversial authorative, yet strangely popular figure of Marshal Tito, the architect of the socialist Second Yugoslavia, until his death in 1991.
During our own lifetime, horrific conflicts between the former Yugoslav republics involved  abuse of power, corruption, starvation, mass resistance, ethnic cleansing, massacres and genocide, with familiar names such as Milosevi and Karad~i fronting the horrors, then reluctantly facing war-crimes trials. Is it any wonder the name Balkans tends to conjure up a certain negativity? Perhaps South-Eastern Europe, or the prettier name Dalmatia would be more agreeable?

I have not been to the Croatian capital of Zagreb, but I recently had the privilege to witness the splendour of Dubrovnik. In the 1990s, the city was destroyed in the Siege of Dubrovnik, but has been impressively rebuilt to its former glory. The incredibly moving Memorial Room, just inside the citys walls, displays photos of those who sacrificed their lives in the siege. Dubrovniks striking location, and awesome architecture, have made it, hardly surprisingly, a World Heritage Site. As I walked the full length of the citys walls, and was rewarded with many varied breath-taking views of those hallmark Dalmatian red rooves, Dubrovniks spires and domes, and the azure blue backdrop of the Adriatic, I fell in love with Dubrovnik there and then. I wondered to myself how anyone could drop bombs on such a setting.

The birthplace of Goran Ivaniaevi, Split boasts a splendid sea-front promenade. Split is a city with a fascinating history, and again awe-inspiring architecture, and alluring meandering streets.  Zadar seems like a hotch-potch of ancient and Eastern block, but its harbour-front award-winning organ (ingeniously operated by wind and water) is undeniably one-of-a-kind. Thousands of islands, endless golden beaches, bluer-than-blue seas, and captivating cities  Croatia was a revelation to me.

I have always been lured by, and longed to visit Montenegro, even before it was made famous by James Bond in Casino Royale. As our ship left its wake on the mill-pond of Europes southernmost fjiord, we glided past serene monastic islands, in the shadow of impressively lofty mountains to the picture-perfect town of Kotor, with its noble fortress looking down from on high, I was not let down by Montenegros undoubted beauty. Yet while indisputably pretty, I have to admit to feeling somewhat unwelcome in Montenegro. In my experience the Montenegrins made me feel like Id been there/done that, but I would not rush to return. My experience in Montenegro made me realise that we Irish must never lose our céad míle fáilte.

As I looked down on stunning Dubrovnik, I reflected on that devastating siege, and those who had cut short their lives to defend their country. In the words of the Eric Bogle song, did they believe when they answered the call that this war would end wars? Of course its downright naïve of me, but what a lovely thought that one day the world might realise how futile war is. How many times even within my lifetime has The Atlas been revised and updated? Wouldnt it be lovely if my favourite book never again needed updating?