Montenegro award

I was mightily chuffed to find that my Montenegro feature in OE magazine won the Kenneth Westcott Jones Memorial Award for Best Transport & Specialist Feature, at the British Guild of Travel Writers Awards last night, sponsored by Virgin Trains

Magic of Montenegro (OE magazine, September 2010)

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Once were pirates. In search of the Uskoks of Senj

Once were pirates. In search of the Uskoks of Senj
My article on the Uskoks of Senj was published in issue 34 of hidden europe on Friday.

Senj, Croatia

Ever heard of the Uskoks? Rudolf Abraham, a regular contributor to hidden europe, takes us to the Zumberak hills west of Zagreb in search of displaced Adriatic pirates.

Mile Vranesic sits below a shelf laden with religious icons, framed certificates and wooden folk art, mouth slightly open as he pauses mid-sentence, and examines me from beneath brooding eyebrows through a plume of cigarette smoke. Old bottles filled with homemade rakija stand on the heavy wooden table before him, and the dark walls are cluttered with densely-hung pictures — plaques and certificates, local heraldry, and an old, faded photograph which shows an enormous cross being carried uphill by a procession of villagers.

I am sitting in the zupnik’s (parish priest’s) office in the Croatian village of Stojdraga, close by the border with Slovenia. And I listen as Mile Vranesic recounts the history of the Uskoks — uskoci in Croatian. The Adriatic pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were much celebrated in popular folklore as defenders of Christendom, and the scourge of Ottoman and Venetian shipping in the region. And there is a connection with the inland village of Stojdraga, for it was to these low, wooded hills in the Zumberak region that many Uskoks were outlawed, just a little under 400 years ago. And it is here that one is most likely to find something of their past.

Patrolling the Adriatic

The word Uskok derives from the verb uskociti, which literally translates as ‘to jump in’ (perhaps alluding to their propensity to dive into a fight). As typically recounted, the Uskoks’ story is that, displaced from their homelands further south and east by the Ottoman invasion of the Balkans, they entered the service of Austria as soldiers on the Croatian Military Frontier (Vojna krajina). They were based, among other places, at the strategic fortress of Klis, above Split, and in the port of Senj — the spot on the coast most closely associated with the Uskoks. And it was in Senj that the Uskoks, having repeatedly failed to receive any wages from their Habsburg masters, turned to piracy in order to support themselves.

The reality is of course slightly more complex, and the Uskoks themselves, among them Vlachs and Morlachs (and including Orthodox as well as Catholics in their numbers), had in many cases served as border troops for the Ottomans, and in response to a reduction in privileges were now enlisting for service under Austria. Senj was manned by a garrison of regular troops, who were increasingly joined by Uskoks and other irregulars as the latter were displaced from lands already under, or threatened by, the Ottomans. In particular, following the fall of Klis to the Ottomans in 1537, a large number of its defenders — many of whom were Uskoks — joined those already at Senj.

This is just an excerpt. The full text of this article can be found in hidden europe 34.

Cast of the tomb of Ivan Lenkovic (from Franciscan church in Novo Mesto, Slovenia), Captain of Senj, in the Nehaj fortress, stronghold of the Uskoks until 1617, Senj, Croatia

Text and images copyright Rudolf Abraham. No unauthorized use.

Lonjsko polje’s storks / Nehaj fortress, Senj

A few shots from Croatia last week.

I was back in the village of Cigoc in Lonjsko polje, again – minus the floods on this occasion – to photograph some of the storks which nest there at this time of year….

White stork (Ciconia ciconia) nesting on a roof in the village of Cigoc, Lonjsko polje nature park, Croatia

White stork (Ciconia ciconia) on a roof in the village of Cigoc, Lonjsko polje nature park, Croatia

…and also in Senj and Zumberak, while working on a feature on the Uskoks for hidden europe.

The 16th century Nehaj fortress, stronhold of the Uskoks until 1617, Senj, Croatia

Sculpture of an Uskok's head above a door, Senj, Croatia

All images copyright Rudolf Abraham. No unauthorized reuse.

Hidden Europe article on Croatia’s Lonjsko polje and Turopolje

Posavina. Croatia’s Lonjsko polje and Turopolje

Rudolf Abraham is the perfect guide to the wetlands of north-east Croatia, as we join him on a tour of the Lonjsko polje region with its distinctive wooden architecture and storks’ nests.

The villages of Lonjsko polje — Cigoc, Krapje, Lonja and others — stretch along the left bank of the Sava as it sweeps east towards its distant rendezvous with the Danube below the fortress of Kalemegdan in Belgrade. A narrow winding road separates the river from the neat rows of wooden houses, some of them over two hundred years old and representative of a style of architecture now lost in much of Croatia.

Occasionally an oxbow lake, long severed from the river’s course and now a place of motionless reed beds and chirping frogs, makes the road swing away from the river briefly, before inevitably drifting back to follow its course again. Livestock can be glimpsed in fields and among the wooden barns and other outbuildings, including the narrow, open-air feed stores, filled with multicoloured cobs of corn. Tall crops of corn stand yellowing in the alluvial rich soil of the surrounding fields, and sunflowers, blackened at the end of the season, hang their charred heads. Passing through Kratecko, a slash in the riverbank leads down to a traditional ferry, which drifts over to the opposite shore, providing the only crossing point along this stretch of the Sava between Sisak, to the northwest, and Jasenovac, far away to the south-east on Croatia’s border with Bosnia.

Lonjsko polje

Lonjsko polje constitutes the largest wetland area in Croatia, and is protected as a nature park (park prirode) as well as being inscribed on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance. Covering an area of more than fifty thousand hectares, this vast flood plain is home to numerous species of plants, birds and animals, and is the site of Croatia’s first ornithological reserve, created at Krapje Dol in 1963.

The wooden houses in the villages along this stretch of the Sava are built at right angles to the river, stretching back much further than their narrow facades would initially suggest. The corners clearly show the distinctive traditional joinery, the horizontal planks meeting in something which looks rather like a large dove-tail — or a vuglec, to give it its proper name. The earlier houses actually originally had square joints — and if the houses’ regular plank construction looks rather like they could all just be packed down and reassembled, that’s because they actually were. Families would simply disassemble their home and move it according to the whims of the river Sava, which like all rivers had a habit of flooding dramatically or gradually changing its course.

The houses were made by locals rather than trained builders or craftsmen (though they are nevertheless beautifully made), and the more simple joinery also reflects this. The roofs were originally thatched, but this was later replaced by tiles, and the more simple joins (Hrvatski vuglec) superseded by the more complex (and more permanent) dovetail variety (Njemški vuglec) — the latter through the influence of more highly skilled German craftsmen.

Excerpt from full text published in hidden europe 32. Click here to read the full article as a PDF.

Montenegro feature in OE mag

Montenegro article in current edition of OE magazine

Magic of Montenegro (OE magazine, September 2010)

Istria feature in CNN Traveller

Istria feature in November edition of CNN Traveller. Truffles, festivals and frescoes – a most enjoyable piece to research…. ;~)

The pic shows the central Istrian hill town of Draguc – used as a film set in numerous Croatian and several international films

http://www.cnntraveller.com/2010/11/03/croatia-a-taste-of-istria/

Lonjsko polje floods

Just before my most recent visit to Lonjsko polje, Croatia’s greatest wetland landscape, in early October 2010 (for a Hidden Europe article), the area around Zagreb and Sisak and along the river Sava had recently been subjected to some of the worst floods in more than a quarter of a century. The floodplains of Lonjsko polje – into which part of the Sava’s flow is diverted as a flood defense measure – were at this time a quite spectacular, drowned world. Under such circumstances any walking route/exploration beyond the flood bank which lies north of the villages of Cigoc etc is impossible (at least, unless you happen to have a boat). The flood waters also swept away the wooden bridges on the short walking route south of Cigoc – and the remaining ones, I almost found to my camera gear’s cost, are far from stable. Check at the Lonjsko polje park information offices http://www.pp-lonjsko-polje.hr/Lonjsko_polje_english/Posjete_Info_Centar_en.htm if you’re planning a walk in the area – worth visiting even for the view from the flood barrier alone.

Lonjsko polje nature park in early October, after the floods of September 2010