Monday, May 2, 2016

AiR Lastovo 2016: 53h on Lastovo

By Ivor Igrec, art historian (Heritage Go Pro)

The story begins one characteristically cloudy and gray Zagreb day, during the final days of the last year. I have met with some of my colleagues in a crowded bar on Tkalčićeva street, where we have, after a long talk and couple of beers, agreed that it would be quite convenient to soon visit the island of Lastovo. The main goal was to adjust certain necessary business trip to the Lastovo, which consisted of information gathering and meetings with various islanders that could give us their support in the establishment and implementation of certain art colony on the island. The formation of the colony would mark a great opportunity for various talented artists, from the diverse parts of this third rock from the sun, to express their sentiments on the island and other topics that are in varying degrees connected to it, or even not at all. The final goal of the event is improvement of the artistic and cultural scene of the island that could generate numerous creative ideas.
But before anything else, we needed to inspire ourselves and get some clue how to start out project, and so my new friend and colleague Andrej has made a deal with us to go to the island just in time for the island’s most significant event – Lastovo carnival, in Croatia known as Lastovo Poklad. This carnival is one of the most special and authentic carnival tradition on the whole Adriatic region, and it was almost uninterruptedly held for half of millennia. The first year of this manifestation is still not determined, but the first mention goes back to the end of XVI. century.

The origins of the carnival are connected to the arrival of the Catalan or Saracen pirates in the vicinity of the island, shortly after their attack on the nearby island of Korčula. According to the tradition, the pirates have sent the Turkish messenger whose mission was to discourage the islanders and order them to stand their weapons and surrender or they would share the fate with their neighbors on Korčula. But the inhabitants were not scared so easily and they armed themselves and went to the offensive. Firstly, they have sheltered the children and women on nearby mainland, which immediately went barefooted to the neighboring region of Hum, praying to the St. George for help. As the story goes, their prayers were answered and some storm destroyed the pirate fleet. During the destruction and chaos, islanders caught the messenger. Firstly, to humiliate him, he was placed backwards on the back of the donkey which they rode through whole Lastovo, and afterwards he was burned at stake.
This act, as well as the following anniversaries of it, sent the clear message to the colleagues of the victimized pirates, to think twice before attacking again, since the islanders are ready to go to the extremes to defend their liberties and the way of life. The constant risk of pirate attacks was one of the main reasons why Lastovo is placed in relatively safe distance from coast where it is easier to prepare for the attack and evacuation.
Inhabitants lived far from the coast until the XVIII. century, when nearby pirates, especially those from the town of Ulcinj, started thinking that it is much more profitable not to challenge the islanders such as those from Lastovo, and turn to fishing, since the possibilities of ending up on the stake are much lower.
The symbolism of the carnival could be explained by evaluating the whole set of its traditions. The ceremony of culjanje, the hanging of the puppet called Poklad that represents the Turkish messenger and its sliding down the rope, backed by firecrackers, can be seen as a purification by fire and air, that is, the cleaning process from every evil that struck the islanders that year. Also, the egg gathering and strings that connect some of the participants can be seen as the ritual of initiation or rites of spring, since Lastovo, from its very beginnings, has always been the community of farmers and cattle herders. The ritual of culjanje, where the hanging of the carnival puppet is always followed in silence, since the eventual fall of puppet from the rope or during the transport, heralds the year of bad harvest and reaping. During the carnival days the whole island is waken from its usual slumber of the winter’s day. Many of the former inhabitants and their families return from the far reaches of the world, such as North and South America and Australia to participate in the manifestations.

Our trip to Lastovo was the schoolbook example of merging the pleasantries with useful, and we ultimately had a handful of both. In such degrees that myself, as your reporter, would preferably use this immediate period after return to go on a bit of a break, and even more preferably in my bed with the cup of hot cocoa, if not held by a strong impression and desire to share the experience with the others. In our little company it was established that I was the one that is at least busy during the carnival days, and the one that is able to go to Lastovo without carrying my laptop, scanner, printer and the whole mountain of documentation that is probably larger than the Chinese phonebook. With the arrival of our dear friend Andrej to Split and consequent boarding on the ferry, conveniently named Lastovo, our Odyssey thus finally started. The name Odyssey was soon justified since it started to appear that by something unfathomable we have angered the Neptune itself, considering the waves that attacked us relentlessly. The ferry would be very comfortable and pleasant, if not for a raging storm that was worthy of Cape Horn and I must admit that yours truly could for the first time fathom what the sea sickness really stands for. The most obvious consequence of the swinging was my face that changed colors in a frightening pace and variety. It changed almost every primary, as well as secondary and tertiary colors by the quick sequence.
After five-hours-long swinging all over the Adriatic Sea, and after brief respite in the town of Vela Luka, the ferry finally arrived to the port of Uble, the place that represents the doorstep in a microcosm of Lastovo. But more about Uble will come later, the only thing that was visible in the thin line of streetlights that were surrounded by near-absolute darkness was one building that consisted of the Port authority and bar as well as nearby gas station. Also, in the vicinity we have found the bus that went directly to the town of Lastovo and our hosts, the proprietors of the apartment that we have rented for the opportunity.
What we will found out the next morning, Lastovo is spread around on the hill slopes that surround the valley below, where the Lastovo carnival square was recently opened to public. The whole morphology of the terrain is reminiscent of Greek theatre by its shape, with the radial layout of the ancient residential buildings as the auditorium of Lastovo.
Nevertheless, the darkness we could see the shapes of the most characteristic architectural element of island – Lastovo chimneys. During the days of old, islanders built the chimneys in a mutual competition of making the most attractive, sophisticated and/or largest chimney, and every subsequent one was more original and even unusual, so some of them were put as a curse or taunt to the neighbor. The aforementioned competition reminded me of one much more famous, the one that resulted in the erection of multiple towers and turrets of San Gimignano. The chimneys are supported by characteristic red brick roof tiles, which was unusual in Dalmatia before second half of XX. century, since the stone roof tiles were more spread around during those times. The reason is the short-lived Italian administration which supplied the cheap and available brick tiles to every household.
Our hosts have presented the island in the best possible light, regardless of our fatigue and the last, stubborn traces of sea sickness, and I couldn’t resist their panegyrics about the local fruits and vegetables that seems to resist the modern tendencies of the artificial cultivation and chemical treatment. Meanwhile, I have convinced myself that the story rings true, as regards to the grapes and its products, and that their statement holds water most completely since the excellent Lastovo wine soon removed any traces of vertiginous arrival on this island. Although, since we needed to wake up early for our meeting with the municipal mayor we have successfully resisted the enchantments of Lastovo wine early enough not to look red-eyed and sunken faced.


The degree of restfulness aside, the morning meeting with the mayor went rather positively and our plans regarding the layout and area of activities got much clearer afterwards. Also, the mayor generously ceded a bit more of his time during the afternoon to lead us around one of the spots where the certain activities of the future colony could be implemented. Since we had a gap of five hours, exactly from 9:00 to 14:00, apart from couple of coffees and lunch we did one little location scouting, the small coastal hamlet Lučice, which is, with the gulf of St. Michael, the nearest connection that the settlement of Lastovo has with the sea, being just about 10 minutes away by foot. All the way between those settlements, someone have painted mouths and eyes on various animal-shaped rocks, furtherly expressing the animalistic reminiscence of them. We briefly checked Lučica hamlet that was very well preserved and/or restored by the efforts of the local populace, with quite colorful red-bricked roof tiles and olive green color of the wooden doors and window shutters. Soon we have returned to the center of Lastovo settlement, just in time to see the last construction phases of the carnival puppet. It was carried out in the restaurant halls of Bačvara, one of the most significant gathering places of islanders, during and outside of carnival days. The straw puppet was soon fully clothed in ceremonial clothes and one of the firecrackers that would shortly “torture” the puppet during his brief life. That was also the first time I have heard the characteristic and shrill sound of lyre that would follow all of mayor carnival events during those two days. The other characteristic sound I firstly heard was something called halekanje, one truly specific carnival shouting called Uvo that repeats itself three times before something important would occur. Otherwise, these halls are the main spots where the dance nights (called balo) occur for the whole duration of carnival. This was also the place where we had our lunch that day, that was dominated by local pasta and many decanters of red and white wine. After the meal, we went to meet with the municipal mayor near the indicated spot, the so called Rector’s palace, especially its annexes. The aforementioned title is not quite exact since the previous building on this spot was really the palace of governor send by the administration of Ragusa, and that the current building was built as a villa during the XIX. century.
The interior of the building was preserved in its original form, with the wall frescoes and the preserved antique wooden furniture and other everyday items. The main problem for the building is its dilapidation manifested in a form of cracked plaster and humidity that will lead to the further deterioration if something isn’t done, although the municipality is currently doing its best to fight with the problem. Even more disturbing was the fact, that the previous owner, in his unrelenting goal to “modernize” the building was elegant as a butcher cleaving trough meat, scarring and ruining much of wall frescoes with his cable installments inside of plaster. After this initial shock, the municipal mayor has lead us to the nearby church of John the Baptist, where he introduced us to the significant collection of everyday items from the island’s past, that would be perfect for the formalized ethnographical collection in a more adequate exhibition space.
After this second meeting with the mayor, we were free to enjoy ourselves in a more unformal part of our day. Firstly, we quickly went to the square near the parish church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, since were getting late for the meeting with Bruna, one of our friends with which we will spend most of the remaining day. She got two costumes with her, one for Andrej and one for me. He got a one for the convict, and mine was some strange mix of drag queen costume, reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking and Wilma Flintstone. Equipped like this, we have started the long night in which we were the participants of one really specific island tradition, the collection of eggs around the houses. Numerous groups of carnival masked participants go around the houses of after they are visited by the main group which is followed by lyre. But there weren’t just eggs there, also many delicacies and drinks, such as good wine and typical product of Lastovo, grappa from roses. The whole night was, in short, consisted of plenty of song, feasts and hanging out with other people in numerous houses that we changed. What will turn out important for the next day, we have met with one girl from Rijeka that comes to Lastovo every year. Her name was Tea and since she found out that we want to come to the settlement of Uble and to experience this space both professionally and personally, since we have seriously started to consider that the whole area would be the excellent place for the placement and work on future sculptures and installations that were created by art colony. As Tea had an apartment in Uble, she offered a tour of the place and the nearby military base Maršalka and we happily accepted.
We finished our evening on the part of the town called Pjevor, and this location had a key importance during the whole day, considering that this is the location with the town’s only bars, bank and shops, so we soon have become the regulars of coffee bar Mamilo, so much that the waitress soon knew what we would drink before the order. Anyway, we have visited again one of those two bars, which served as a night club during that evening. But we quickly retreated outside after getting drinks, thrown out by noise, stuffy air and unsuitable music. It quickly turned out that outside we had another problem, since the whole street was like a minefield of raw broken eggs, since someone, almost certainly completely drunk, thought that it is a better idea to shoot them around at one another, instead of cooking and eating them. 
Waking up, and drinking a quick coffee, we realized that if we want to go to Uble, we need to hitchhike to get there. We were very fortunate to find the driver quite quickly, although every car stopped to see where we are going, nobody went to Uble. The settlement of Uble almost instantly left a strong impression on me, especially the marks of time that are ever present in this location. Firstly, the remnants of the Roman settlement with the basilica of St. Peter and Roman country villa, as well as three sarcophagi from the Early Christian period that are seriously endangered by the erosion of the nearby wall and terrain that will cause yet another ruinous location in Uble if something is not done. As I have mentioned ruination, the time was not very gracious to the settlement, not at all. After the failed urbanistic project during the Italian administration of the island, Uble was exposed to gradual dilapidation. The failure of the project was caused by the unwillingness of people from the town of Lastovo to re-settle in Uble and find work in the newly opened sardine factory and subsequent exodus of Italians that moved to the settlement instead of them. The opening of the hotel Sirena and establishment of the military bases in the vicinity have temporary stopped this tendency, but the military placement would cause new problems for Lastovo. In a long run it has caused various other problems for islanders, not just Uble. The strategic location of Lastovo, as was also the case in the nearby island of Vis, also caused the near complete isolation of the island. Although the arrival of many soldiers and officers from various republics of Yugoslavia has brought diversity to the local life, as our hosts have mentioned, a number of girls from Lastovo that have married to the members of Yugoslav army are nowadays living in a far reaches of the former country. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and everything that it represented in the destructive war in the 90ies, meant another blow to the settlement of Uble, the second one after the previous collapse of Italian dreams of the new Roman Empire in Mediterranean. Although Uble and its surroundings still hold a certain charm, nowadays they are dominated by the atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic settlement in which the life is getting back on its feet after the atomic bombardment or any such cataclysm. 
By passing through the military base Maršalka, which served before as a veritable town for soldiers, my impression of a certain time warp got much more pronounced, especially after seeing the mottos and buzzwords from a dead country, which were full of optimism and unfulfilled desires for the eternal existence of Yugoslavia, which would resist all external and internal challenges. One of the goals of the visit was getting some souvenirs from this lost time, but it turned to be expectantly unrealistic, since the hordes of tourists and other visitors have wiped it clean completely, and we couldn’t find even some papers that Tea saw couple of days before. Coming back to Uble, we could experience the interior design of the Italian fascist architecture by entering the house of Tea, where she graciously offered us coffee and tea. Before our collective return to town of Lastovo, we have chatted a bit and during the conversation we have found out from Tea that Lastovo is completely devoid of venomous snakes, what is unusual occurrence in the Dalmatian coast. Afterwards I have read that, according to legend, during the escape attempt of the Illyrian queen Teuta on the island of Lastovo, she has protected the deity of snakes from Romans, and as a show of gratitude that deity and the snakes in gratitude have abandoned the whole island, saving the population from the risks of getting poisoned.
Returning to Lastovo, we came just in time to see the beginning of the most important events of the whole carnival. The carnival participants, called pokladari, are gathering on that day with their characteristic red and black costumes as well as the so-called pretty masks and the representative of secular and religious authority are giving them their responsibilities for a day. Hence, it marked the beginning of the parade, followed by the sword dance, which automatically has reminded me of another, more famous sword dance, Moreška, from the nearby island of Korčula. Until the dawn of the past century, the participants in a dance used the real swords, but probably after a whole lot of lost fingers and other injuries they chose to replace them with the wooden ones. During the whole parade and dance event, the men and women are separated in two groups that by tradition aren’t allowed to meet each other before the final event on the square where the puppet of Poklad would be burned. During the whole day, especially as the night came, I asked myself how the pretty masks participants, mostly made of women, are resisting the cold, since it was the beginning of February and they were quite bare-skinned. But the gradually more energetic and fierce dances as well as the availability of strong wine has certainly eliminated the influences of coldness. I have noticed also that many of the pretty masks are paired in their costumes and those pairs always go together tied by the strings.
Notwithstanding the celebratory atmosphere that took us over, our stomachs started to protest against us and we have decided to search for some convenient place where we can have some lunch, or just a small snack. Soon we have started to perceive the scopes of our fatal misjudgment that some of the taverns or shops should be opened for visitors and tourists that came to partake in these events and gleefully enjoy the fiery end of the poor Poklad puppet. Soon we wished that we are also made from straw such as he, so we also don’t have a sense of hunger that started to grow more and more by every moment we have spent without food.

After the grim realization that every tavern is closed or reserved for private dinners and/or parties, we went for grocery store on Pjevor, the only shop we were almost sure that should be open, but arriving there we frantically realized that it was also closed. We soon started to feel like a veritable Robinsons, shipwrecked and hungry on the island and for couple of hours we have survived on couple of apples, cranberries and hazelnuts that we have saved for rainy days.
After our failed attempt we have resignedly returned to the ceremony to keep our minds occupied with the day’s events. The participants were slowly reaching the Square of Lastovo Carnival playing the lyre and singing the traditional islander songs. Also, they would periodically stop by certain courtyards where they would partake in sword dance. Shortly after their arrival on the Square of Lastovo Carnval, they have initiated the culjanje ceremony, the pushing of the Poklad puppet from the cliff after which he slid over the rope, backed by firecrackers that exploded all around him. The ceremony repeated itself three times and after the dances that were conducted by the two groups of carnival participants, both of them climbed back to the municipal square. There, after more of those circular dances, they have burned the puppet on the stake, in hope it will bring forth a glorious year for the islanders they even backed it up with the impressive firework display. The whole space quickly emptied out since we weren’t the only ones that were hungry. In the end we have found some food in a nearby Fumari tavern, as the proprietors took pity on us so much that they temporary gave away some reserved tables.

The evening was finished by our now ceremonial departure to the Mamilo bar, where we said our farewells to Lastovo and thus we were missing out on the final carnival dance, balo.
It could be said that our infinite wisdom was credited for our earlier nap that evening, since we needed to wake up in 3 o’clock in the morning to get to the bus for a ferry, but it would be untrue. The taxing days and multitude of impressions have left their mark on us, so we needed a bit of rest. Our hopes that we will at least get some rest on the ferry soon dissipated, since the sea was hit by the mother of storms that made the previous one look like hummingbird’s flutter. This soon caused the flying chairs all over the hall, sometimes with the people still on it. Looking across the hall on the windows, I have uneasily realized that it is difficult to continuously see the nearby island of Hvar since the boat was swaying so much that we just saw the foaming sea or skies. We have returned to Split felling a bit nauseous and dizzy but still in one piece. After the last commitments during the morning and saying farewells to Andrej who still had a majority of trip in front of him. I came back home full of impressions, and now, even though this adventure lasted just over 48 hours, after all we have heard, saw, tasted, went thorough and experienced it seemed that some sort of time-and-space bubble has manifested itself, inside of which the different laws of physics were implemented and the time went slower. Now, as these days are behind me, I already know that these days will enter in the exclusive club of those days that will forever stay fresh and clear as they were when they were experienced, and will always be the time markers in the voyage we call life.