A year-long diary set in LONDON
Touring Croatia with author Annabelle Thorpe
23rd February 2017
#TalkingLocationWith….. Annabelle Thorpe, author of The People We Were Before. She is also heading up a tour to Croatia, visiting some of the locations described in the novel and knows the country really well (for more info on the tour, head to the end of this post). Over to Annabelle…
Thirty-five years is a long time to know a country that’s not your own. Croatia and I have grown up together; the first foreign place I remember visiting, an impressionable ten-year old, mesmerised by the sparkling sea and Dubrovnik’s historic streets. It was Yugoslavia then, an unhappy part of an uncomfortable country, although it wasn’t until a holiday to Cavtat, in 1989, that we could almost hear the distant rumble of conflict, far away in the mountains.
Southern Dalmatia – home to Dubrovnik and Cavtat, and the surrounding region of Konavle – is the part of Croatia I have visited most over the years, and so when it came to choosing a location for The People We Were Before it seemed the obvious place. Ljeta is closely based on Cavtat, a picturesque waterfront village that dates back to Roman times, while Konavle is exactly as I’ve described it. Dubrovnik – Croatia’s most visited city – needs little introduction.
What is extraordinary about this region is how identical it looks now to when I first visited, in 1981. Yet inbetween there has been terrible damage; the hotel I stayed in in Cavtat was used as a refugee centre, the village under siege for months. I remember watching the images on TV in the early 1990s; Dubrovnik hidden beneath plumes of smoke, the historic walls gashed and crumbling by mortar fire from the JLA forces on top of Mount Srd.
I first went back to Croatia in the late 90’s, when Dubrovnik was still licking its wounds. The main tourist areas had been restored, but in the back streets, walls were pockmarked with shell damage, many houses still empty, windows and doors missing. But each time I went back after that, the city had mended itself a little more; today, apart from the excellent War Photo Museum, and the stories locals will tell you, there is no sign the conflict ever happened.
It’s through talking to people that the conflict becomes real. Earlier this year, I met a woman called Maya, who has lived in Dubrovnik her whole life – including the eight months that the city was under siege. “When my son was in his twenties, if he was going out with his friends, or to play football, he would say ‘Mum, I’m going out to play’”, she told me. “Not ‘I’m going for some drinks with my mates.’ And why? Because for five years as a child he couldn’t go out to play. There was no freedom, during the war years. That stays with you.”
Not everywhere in Croatia suffered as Dubrovnik and Konavle did. Many of the islands were relatively unaffected, apart from an influx of refugees. Trst – where Miro and Josip come together towards to end of the book – is closely based on Hvar, but it could just as well have been Korcula or Brac. Cities such as Zadar and the capital of Zagreb have their own stories to tell.
This year I’ll be leading a tour to Croatia, based on the locations on the book; a fabulous opportunity to give something back to a country that has given me so much. It’s increasingly hard, when I’m in Dubrovnik, or Cavtat, to differentiate the fact from the fiction, to stop myself from wondering which restaurant would have belonged to Miro’s parents, which would be Josip’s bar on the square in Hvar’s beautiful Stari Grad (old town).
Joseph Stalin once said ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.’ For me, this was one of the motivations behind writing The People We Were Before; to bring the story down to a personal level, to focus in on just one family, one boy, one village in Yugoslavia. Only then, I think, can we truly understand what a country, and it’s people went through – and what an immense achievement it is that Croatia has emerged as one of the most beautiful, tranquil spots in the Med.
Thank you so much to Annabelle for sharing such a interesting insight to a country with a deeply troubled past. Her tour is 4-11 October 2017 and can be booked through Completely Croatia – there are amazing things to see, and with her leading the tour, you will be in great informative hands! If you need more convincing to book on the tour, just read her recent article in the Guardian!
Follow Annabelle on Twitter.