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New Europe

Day Six: Split

The USS Enterprise 
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Keeping an eye. The USS Enterprise, with a crew of 3,000, stands off the Croatian coast.
Michael Palin - New EuropeTwo of our four engines have been switched off during the night, reducing a hammering thump to a low throb, as we thread our way through the chain of over a thousand islands that runs the length of Croatia's coastline.

Up on deck at five o'clock. A brisk wind blowing. Visibility clear. The sun still only a glow behind the low mountains of the mainland. What I'm looking out on now is Dalmatia, and I'm not the only one to be excited by it.

Matthew Arnold wrote a poem about it, Shakespeare set part of Twelfth Night here. Dalmatia, homeland of the Illyrians, was settled for 5,000 years even before the Greeks and Romans arrived. This is not new Europe, this is very old Europe. I feel positively Homeric.

Although Split is only 200 miles south-east of Rijeka, everything about it feels very different. The buildings along the waterfront are lower, less crowded, with white walls, red-tiled roofs and shuttered windows. The buildings reflect colour and light and an avenue of palm trees confirms that, in the course of a night's journey, we have exchanged Mitteleuropean gravitas for Mediterranean repose. The skyline has its quota of concrete housing blocks but it's the bell-tower of the old cathedral that still dominates the view.

I'm introduced to Split by Goran Golovko, a tall, youngish man with short-cut dark hair who works in children's theatre. I'm struck by how much Split resembles Nice, and a walk through the arcades of the long, stone-flagged Republic Square, known as the Prokurative, only increases this sense of neo-classical with a light touch. Goran puts this down to the city's pedigree. It became part of the Venetian empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and went through a period of French occupation at the time of Napoleon's conquest of Dalmatia.

Though the corrosive Balkan wars of the 1990s did not affect Split as much as the northern and eastern parts of the country, the fighting that led to the creation of an independent Croatia for the first time in 500 years was brutal, with Croats and Serbs inflicting appalling casualties on each other. Nor has the aftermath of war been easy. Organised criminal gangs have stepped into the vacuum left by the rapid change from benign socialism to a capitalist free market. A lot of girls from further east, from Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, are trafficked through here, says Goran. They're kept as virtual slaves, accompanied everywhere, never allowed time of their own. There's a growing problem of drug addiction.

I ask Goran how the children he works with feel about the war. They only remember it vaguely, he says.

'They're interested in MTV and what happens in Hollywood with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.'
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First light as we approach Split.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Six: Split
  • Country/sea: Croatia
  • Place: Split
  • Book page no: 21

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