Pirating History

Walking down Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, it’s easy to picture it as a pirate haven with rum-soaked marauders staggering from the many alleys supported by exotic wenches out to part the buccaneers from their doubloons and pieces of eight.  The image owes much to the climate and the pale stone of all the buildings which echoes the Spanish Colonial look of parts of the Caribbean.

Not content with milking their connection to Game of Thrones and Star Wars, the savvy traders of Dubrovnik are keen to maximise any profits that Johnny Depp may bring their way too.  One swarthy individual dressed very tenuously in a piratical style (loose-fitting white shirt open to the waist, medallion, leather trousers) has a small collection of parrots for tourists to photographed supporting, and there are at least two confectionary outlets that play on the theme by displaying their wares on top of replica barrels.

I wasn’t convinced.

There was another opportunity to partake of a bit of the freebooter experience.  Sea wolves with sea legs can board one of two galleons that sail the waters around the three main tourist islands of the area.

So is there any truth behind these commercial operations?

Well yes, some… but mostly no.

The Croatian coastline with its hundreds of islands provides the perfect context in which pirates could operate with innumerable hiding places in the bays and caves that the islands and cliffs provide.  The few miles of similar topography where I used to live supported a smuggling operation, so with a coastline that stretches for well over 2000 miles of course pirates operated here.  The fact is that at different times in history there were three different pirate groups operating here.

The first group to menace these waters were the Narentines, a Serbian tribal group whose name derives from the Neretva river, the largest on this side of the Adriatic and a natural thoroughfare for raiding parties, much like the fjords to the Norse.  They attacked Venetian traders in the 9th and 10th centuries until their eventual defeat by Doge Pietro II, a victory that has been celebrated ever since in the ceremony where Venice “marries” the sea each year.  (Can’t believe I didn’t include that festival amongst all of my Venetian posts.)

Enter the corsairs of Omis, albeit two centuries later.  As their name suggests they originated from Omis, 200km further up the coast from Dubrovnik.  Described by the local tourist board as “one of the most powerful and fearsome” pirate groups of the entire Mediterranean.  Well they would wouldn’t they?  They did have some chutzpah, not content with emulating the Narentines and helping themselves to Venetian cargoes they also harried the Pope’s crusaders en route to Palestine.  The Pope declared ware on them.  And lost.  Once again it took concerted Venetian naval might to end the Omis era in 1331.

Neither of these groups sailed in galleons – this was still the era of warships powered by rowers in the Mediterranean.  So what about the final group, the evocatively named Uskoks, a word meaning “those who ambushed”?  Also operating from rowed boats these were groups of soldiers who turned to piracy as a means of survival.  In contrast to their predecessors their targets were Ottoman rather than Venetian, so much so that their actions helped to trigger a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.  In fact they allied themselves with the Papal fleet that crushed the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto.  Seeing themselves more as holy warriors they were disbanded as part of a peace treaty between Venice and Austria in 17th Century.

So no galleons.  No rum.  No parrots.  But pirates aplenty.


Glorious Food?

In the last year I’ve delivered a lot of training on the subject of the forces that drive change and how organisations respond to those forces. One of the examples that seemed to emerge regularly from those discussions was the way in which the UK has become more of a “foodie” nation. We talked about what might have influenced that (TV chefs, foreign travel, availability of ingredients, immigration) and the way in which some businesses have thrived or changed as a result (Waitrose, Marks & Spencer).

Much of that has been as a result of Italian influence; the writing of Anna Del Conte, restaurateurs like Carluccio, Contaldo and Locatelli, and the passion for Italian food shown by TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.  So might the Dalmation coast of Croatia, as a former territory of the Venetians, have a great food culture?

There are enough influences to suggest that there might be.  Apart from the Italians, Turks and Hungarians have occupied these shores, though of course that doesn’t guarantee culinary success; our own Norman invasion and decades of links to Northern France didn’t seem to inspire a great tradition in England!

At this point I should caveat what is to follow; I’m in no position to genuinely critique the regional gastronomy.  I spent only 10 days in the area (and yes I know it only took me half that time to be certain of the quality found in Bologna), and aside from a couple of ventures into Dubrovnik was confined to the island of Lopud where I stayed in a large and modern hotel complex, eating  both there and in some of the small restaurants around the bay.

The hotel pizzeria was reliable and with a large group of us that included teenagers that was no bad thing, but it’s hardly revelatory.  The other food in the hotel was often disappointingly adequate, with one exception.  That served at the wedding banquet was tasty and showed some signs of an attempt at presentation, but it didn’t generate enough enthusiasm to rate a recommendation.

This daughter survived!
This daughter survived!

In Dubrovnik there are plenty of choices that aspire to style and flair, though I only ate at one, where I had a delicious lunch incorporating something akin to a tuna burger.  As did one of my two daughters.  We were both ill later, though to be fair that could be coincidence.

We also experienced some horrible pasta and salads back on Lopud.  I’d read that the island was once predominantly used for herding sheep yet there were no delicious lamb dishes here because they’ve all gone.   Why?

I suspect the answer to all of this disappointment goes back to the nation’s history of communist rule and war.  The former would have discouraged the development of quality food, the latter would have rendered it financially difficult.  I’ve experienced something similar before.

Fear not though.  Dalmatia has a secret weapon.  All that coastline guarantees one thing; the freshness of the fish and when simply grilled and served with local vegetables it can be truly delicious and generous in its servings.  There’s something to be said for sticking to the knitting.

There’s another thing to be said for a place serving fresh fish.  They often have a great sea view.




Slav trade (Venezia 9)

The Riva degli Schiavoni is the broad promenade that runs in front of the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square, and as a thoroughfare it is usually thronging with visitors so the camera is best pointed out to the water if you wish to minimise their impact as in the shot below taken looking towards Salute.

The place-name refers to the Slavs, probably Croatian, who played an important role in the Venetian Republic which included the Dalmatian coast in its territory.

Today the promenade is notable for the number of hotels that look out across the waters and the superyachts that berth alongside.  As you listen to the accents of the throng around you it doesn’t take long to find out who are an increasingly significant contributor to the tourist economy.  Yes there are still hordes of Americans and Brits, plenty of Asian visitors too, but the voices that weren’t heard so often in the past clearly belong to a new economic force in those hotels and statement vessels; Russians.