Julia Molden reports on this year’s summer culture and language trip:
This year’s summer school has taken a turn inland and our welcome drink found all participants gathering at Maksimilian, our school for the week in the old Tvrđa area of Osijek, Croatia’s fourth largest city. Our hosts are Jasmina, the owner of Maksimilian, with her husband Vladimir, who will also be our guide on our forthcoming excursions. For our welcome party they had really gone to town and presented us with a wonderful spread of local cheeses and all types of hams and sausage accompanied by delicious salads and followed by a whole variety of fresh ripe fruits, including melon, peaches and cherries and a poppy-seed cake, all washed down with fine local wine and rakija. Jasmina and Vladimir explained a little about the food on offer and told us that the cheese was a soft cheese, typical of the area, that had been freshly made only yesterday.
We sat in their lovely flower-filled courtyard chatting animatedly and catching up on what has been happening to us all and in the world since we met last year. Some old faces were missing and we had been joined by a few new ones as well as by some whom we had got to know at summer schools from previous years. It is a real tribute to the success of the annual event that so many of us keep returning either regularly every year or sporadically when we can. This year we have been joined by students from all corners of the globe including Australia, the USA and the Caribbean. All in all it was a wonderful start to what we all hoped would be another informative and enjoyable summer school.
Sunday’s full day excursion took us along the valley of the Danube to Ilok, from whence we worked our way back to Osijek, via Vukovar, stopping off here and there to learn about the region and check out the local wineries. Our drive took us through a green and productive land, brimming with vineyards, maize fields, fruit orchards and all manner of agricultural activity. Our first stop at around 10.30 was at the winery in Ilok which over many years has produced wine for the British Court, most recently on the occasion of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle. Our guide told us how, during the time of the Homeland War, most of the huge oak barrels that were used to store the wine were destroyed and with it the wine they contained. Now the wine is stored in much smaller oak barrels, as the cooper no longer makes the large ones. However some of the old damaged barrels are in the process of being restored and, within a few months, visitors will be invited to enter them where they will be able to sit down and enjoy a drink of wine. We were too early to be able to enjoy this strange experience but, nevertheless, at about 11.00 we were ushered to tables outside to enjoy our alcoholic elevenses accompanied by cheese and doughnuts bearing the name ‘poderane gače’, which, roughly speaking, translates as torn knickers on account of their shape.
In Vukovar we visited the museum of the Vučedol culture, which was the oldest European civilisation dating back 5,000 years. We learned how the loess soil of the area provided not only a fertile medium for their crop growing but also a stone free material that could be used for building their dwellings. Given what an ancient culture it was, it was remarkably sophisticated with vertical weaving for making cloth for clothes, a calendar based upon the position of the constellations in the sky at different times of the year, all manner of bowls and tools, not to mention ceramic models for making shoes to fit both the left and right foot.
Later, walking around the centre of Vukovar, we were struck by how empty it was. Having suffered so badly in the Homeland War, it now appears to have been almost abandoned – although the fact that it was Sunday and extremely hot may well have added to that impression. Maybe we would have seen another side to the town on a working day at a cooler time of the year.
We stopped for a late lunch at the Brzica Winery in Erdut, where, after a quick look at their barrels and bottles, we admired its amazing location high about the wide and mighty Danube River, which, after all the rains of May, was looking even more wide and mighty than you would normally expect in June. We then settled down to a delicious lunch of meat, chicken, potatoes and vegetables all cooked together over a fire in traditional method ‘pod pekom’ followed by sour cherry strudel and accompanied by a whole procession of the winery’s own wines both white and red, all of which were delicious. When we went out onto the balcony again to take another look at the wonderful view, the weather had changed from boiling hot to windy and stormy and we watched a little boat bobbing down the river on the surging current.
Back at Maksimilian we met up with Zoran, our second teacher, who had arrived in the meantime and we went for a walk around the town and down to the river. Lovely as this had been during our recce last autumn, this time unfortunately it was besieged by mosquitoes, which dive-bombed us as we walked along. Zoran was doing a good impression of an out of control windmill thrashing his arms around trying to beat off the invaders. But in spite of these pesky creatures and the excessive heat earlier in the day, we had a most enjoyable and informative first day with plenty more to look forward to.
Lessons started on Monday morning in the museum just around the corner from Maksimilian but Zoran and his group quickly decided to repair to the café in the main square in front of the building, where we were in the fresh air and sitting amidst many of the local young students, who were sitting around drinking coffee and looking at us slightly quizzically as we worked away diligently. Clearly the sight of some much more mature foreign students sitting in their town square attempting to master their language was worthy of at least a passing glance.
When lessons were finished for the day, we set off to Đakovo to visit the Lipizzaner stud farm, which has in the past been visited by both Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prince Philip and Princess Anne, and more recently by the Prince of Wales with the Duchess of Cornwall, in other words most of the horsey contingent of our British royal family – and why wouldn’t they? The farm was established in 1506 and is home to one hundred and seventy beautiful horses, of which around forty to fifty selected stallions are housed at the stallion station. The rest of the animals live at Ivandvor, including the mares which are kept for breeding and the young horses. Meanwhile the stallions which are selected are trained in dressage and carriage riding and there is an arena on site, where audiences can come to see the animals perform. We were made most welcome and, at the end of the tour, as she said we were special guests, our guide presented each one of us with a decorative pin, depicting the stud farm, as a souvenir.
After trying out a few mulberries plucked from a tree growing in the farm grounds we took our leave and moved on to the other main highlight of the trip, Đakovo cathedral, which dominates the town and whose bishop gives it the standing of being the spiritual capital of the whole of this eastern part of Croatia. It was huge and impressive and, through constant maintenance, in very good condition but in many ways I found our next stop more spiritually uplifting. Vladimir had added a little surprise for us, which from outside appearances seemed to be just another church. As we were standing outside waiting to enter, a jolly man came up to me and told me that, from the top of it, I would be able to take a nice picture of the town. It turned out that he was Josip, the custodian of the little church at least for today. Once inside it was immediately apparent that, in a previous incarnation, this church had been a mosque and the mixing of the two styles and two religions, particularly in such a sensitive part of the world, was beautiful and touching. Josip made sure he showed me where to stand to take my photo, which turned out to be only halfway up the staircase to the upper floor. Meanwhile two of the more musically talented members of our group had found the organ on the first floor and Josip allowed them to play it, which filled the little church with beautiful music. We all left thanking him profusely for letting us have a peek at this special little place.
Once more back in Osijek, we were dropped off at our chosen restaurant for supper, which was a choice of local river fish stew or venison – or both – with pasta and gnocchi, followed by home-made cake after which we all wandered back to our accommodation along the cobbled streets of the old Tvrđa. A fine end to another fine day.
Tuesday was the day for us to get to know Osijek. The early risers managed to fit in a yoga session in the museum before we all set off around town. While we were all gathered in the garden awaiting departure, a young woman reporter called Jasenka and her photographer came to see us and then joined us for the beginning of our city tour. She talked to some of us and then we all posed for a group photograph, which later appeared in the local paper. A group of foreigners who have come all the way to their town for a Croatian language summer school was clearly newsworthy and perhaps not as crazy as we thought they might find it!
The first stop on our walking tour was the main square in Tvrđa, originally built as the baroque military, administrative and commercial centre and forming the largest and most advanced Habsburg fortress on the border with the Ottoman Empire. Its military importance decreased after the Berlin Congress of 1878 and the original fortifications were finally destroyed for the most part in the 1920s to allow Osijek to expand. The inner core remains intact and now houses many of the town’s civic buildings. All around the old town main square Vladimir pointed out the different important buildings, including the museum, with which we are all becoming acquainted already, as well as various educational and administrative buildings including a music school and other university properties as well as churches. In the middle of the square is a monument to victims of the Great Plague which swept through Europe.
After leaving Tvrđa we walked along Europska Avenue where we could look at the fine houses with their Austro-Hungarian facades. Some have been renovated while others are in a state of disrepair but all have the potential to be restored to their former glory, if only complications of split ownerships and ageing impecunious residents could be resolved. We moved on to the market, where stall after stall of fresh fruit and vegetables were displayed for sale, as well a local cheeses, a variety of raw and cooked meats and colourful flowers. We finally arrived at the main square in the new town, Trg Ante Starčevića, where stands the neo-Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul. Although not qualifying as a cathedral, if you ask me this church was more impressive than the cathedral we visited yesterday in Đakovo. The light flooded through the myriad stained glass windows and the two beautiful rose windows making it a more spiritually uplifting place, certainly to my eye.
A buffet lunch had been laid on for us on one of the river boat restaurants after which some of us had to sprint back to Trvđa for our afternoon lessons. Those on the late shift were able to amble back along the river Drava before assembling in the late afternoon in the basement of the boutique hotel Trvđa, which, after quite a bit of ducking and diving, appears to have become the location for our lessons at least for now – and very nice it was too, cool and well away from the one real pest of the week, the dive-bombing mozzies. Tomorrow demands that we go prepared with sprays and socks to try to keep the little blighters at bay as much as possible when we venture into the wetlands of Kopački Rit nature park. ‘Do sutra.’
And so on Wednesday morning off we set to visit the vast wetland area of Kopački Rit, which, since 2012, has formed an extremely important part of the UNESCO site on the Croatian-Hungarian border. Since as long ago as 1967 it has been protected as a valuable natural heritage site. Apart from the abundance of flora and fauna that thrives there, it also serves as a valuable flood plain regulating the flow of both the Drava and Danube rivers and we found on our visit that the water level was very high for this time of the year, once again due to the excessive amount of rain that had fallen on the area in May. We boarded a boat for a short tour along the channels, amongst the reed covered sandbars which harbour all manner of wildlife and change like a kaleidoscope with the rising and falling of the water level. It was blissfully peaceful and even more blissfully free of mosquitoes, which came as an unexpected and welcome surprise.
Then it was on to the Belje winery to continue our education in the different wines and producers of the area. We had the chance to see wine stored in huge barrels like the ones that were damaged or destroyed at the Ilok winery during the Homeland War. We were all presented with a natty little neck strap for holding our glass and proceeded to the tasting room. After tasting three very good wines, two white and one red, we moved on to lunch at the Three Wise Men resort in the village of Karanac. This only opens by arrangement and everything was ready and waiting for us. The food was all homemade and we enjoyed chicken noodle soup, duck cooked in honey and cherry strudel, all of which were delicious.
Our afternoon started with a visit to the Street of Forgotten Times, an open air museum also in Karanac which has been set out in the form of a small street. Side by side were little wooden houses, each one kitted out as a trader from times gone by. Amongst others were a clog maker, a potter, a weaver, a barber, a blacksmith as well as an inn. On the way back to Osijek we stopped at a war monument atop a hill, from which we had far reaching views over three countries: Croatia, Serbia and Hungary and then it was on to another street of little wooden houses, these ones used for storing………..yes you’ve guessed it……wine! Even the ones that had been converted into living accommodation would have basement storage for wine cellars that would extend backwards under the hill that the houses had been built into. After another swift tasting in one of the little houses which had been made into a bar it was time to head for home.
Tonight we found an ice cream parlour close to home in Tvrđa, which sold divine cakes and ice-cream sundaes. And so another fun and wine filled day drew to a close and our week is beginning to near its end. After all the months of planning it is sad to think that in a couple of days it will all be over for another year and we will have to start planning all over again for next time, when we will once again be returning to the coast visiting Rijeka – European City of Culture for the year 2020, the Kvarner region, Gorski kotar and the Island of Rab.
Tuesday it was the newspapers and Thursday it was a television reporter, Biljana, who had come to visit us with her photographer Jasmina. So breakfast came to an abrupt halt and we went down to meet them in the garden in a state of unpreparedness and without even having the chance to run a comb through our hair. Ah well, they must already consider we are mad so what do a few hairs out of place matter. Linda chatted to Biljana first telling her all about the school and our project and then John, Sara and I were wheeled out as shining examples of her students to say a few words! They stayed on for a while to film our lessons in progress and then off they went. Our interviews from Tuesday with Jasenka were quickly published and them we were plastered across the TV screens in Croatia. Ah well, in a few days’ time our moment in the spotlight will have passed but just for now we can dream of making CLS a household name and shining example of European integration.
After lessons for the day it was back on the bus for the last excursion of this year’s summer school and we were bound for Našice, where the Pejačević castle is located. Dating back to the early nineteenth century, it was enlarged some fifty years later in neo-baroque style and is surrounded by a beautiful park. It takes its name from the noble Pejačević family and Dora Pejačević, Croatia’s first female composer, who was born in Budapest in 1885, lived there for part of her life. The castle is now the Museum of Local History and one of the rooms houses her grand piano as well as displays of the original sheet music of some of her compositions and photos of her with her husband and playing the piano. She died at the very early age of 28 from complications following childbirth. In other rooms are displays of weaving utensils, pottery and paintings by Croatian artists as well as a room set out in the style of a typical rural home. On the staircase there are portraits of various members of the Pejačević family, a couple of whom were important political figures of their time. Walking through the park around the castle in the late afternoon sunshine, it was easy to appreciate what an impressive and beautiful building it is, even if it does need quite a lot of restoration.
On the way back to Osijek we stopped for dinner at a fish restaurant, where we donned bibs and delved into cauldrons of typical local fish stew cooked in a spicy sauce and then it was onwards and homewards with lots to mull over.
And then it’s Friday and once again we have come to the final day of another brilliant week which started with an hour of yoga in the museum under Donna’s gentle guidance. Then we put our heads down for our lesson with Zoran, who has inspired us with his ability to challenge us without overwhelming us. During the week, thanks to the fascinating translation texts he selected for us, we have learned about a whole range of topics from Queen Victoria to the largest megalopolis in the world today. Along the way we have accumulated an array of new vocabulary and consolidated what we already supposedly knew – although it is a constant work in progress to prevent words going in one ear and then flying out of the other. As ever the Croatian language confounds us with its grammar. Why, for instance, would a language decide to decline both the first and surnames of men whereas women’s first names only decline if they end in the letter ‘a’ and their surnames not at all. It sounds like a case of gender discrimination but against whom is another question. Maybe it should be reported to the E U, who could set up a quango to look into it. It might take their minds off other things!
In the late afternoon those of us who, by now, had not had their fill of museums, were conducted round the exhibits in our now familiar museum in Osijek’s old town square. Later, our farewell dinner saw us all gathering together at the Kod Ruže restaurant in Tvrđa, where we enjoyed good food, good wine, good company and rather dubious music but we all had great fun as we talked over our exploits during the week.
And what has been happening here during our stay? Firstly the mosquitoes have disappeared after Council vehicles were sent out around town to disseminate a noxious spray. Whether it has done us and others any harm as well is quite another question but it has certainly got rid of the mozzies. The weather has improved. After an overnight storm in the middle of the week, the oppressive heat of Sunday has given way to pleasant, warm sunny weather. Most of all, we have had another brilliant summer school with energising lessons, fascinating excursions and enjoyable socialising all thanks to Linda and CLS’s planning and hard work. Thank you so much Linda for another intriguing dip into the language and culture of your beautiful homeland.
We now have a date for next year’s course, which will run from 20th to 27th June 2020 and will centre on the Rijeka region. Keep an eye on the CLS website over the coming months for more information as plans turn into reality. We look forward to seeing you when the time comes around. Be there or be square!