This post is devoted to one man… You may meet him one day if you happen to be passing into Montenegro from Croatia. His land lies on the coast road in a series of stepped terraces. He lives in two trailers at the bottom of the hill. His name is Marko Bradvica. He is like a no nonsense, angry and sometimes drunk version of the guy from the “Most Interesting man in the world” Dos Equis beer commercials.
He is in his seventies now but still a robust raconteur with a love for a bit of rakia and a fondness for Tito’s Yugoslavia. Though he’s Croatian born and bred, Marko never lived through Tito’s time having decided at the ripe old age of 16 to escape by boat to Italy with a couple of friends after World War Two. I’m jumping the gun, let’s go back to his childhood…
Marko was a born leader. An irrepressible scamp who grew up during the war, the second big one, poor and hungry. With a father who didn’t care much for him and a mother who was always doting on his sickly brother. Marko grew up with aa spirit of defiance. He led a group of kids into all sorts of mischief which mostly involved stealing food from wherever he could find it. He told me of being a hungry most of the time and of frequently running away from home either to escape punishment or just because he couldn’t stand it. Whenever he did find scraps and get something for himself his baby brother would always get to eat before him. He resented it because sometime he would go without after scrounging for a day. One story which I shall retell here also involves food…
At the end of WW2 American troops used to truck food and supplies to their bases inland coming up the hill from the port in Dubrovnik. Marko and his friends would go and stand at the top of the hill above the trucks and put on their best “poor me” faces on. When they got no response they would run to the trucks and beg for food disrupting the convoy. The American troops gave them nothing but insults, throwing things at them and telling them to bugger off.
Undeterred Marko and his young band of miscreants came back for the next convoy. This time instead of begging they pelted the convoy with with rocks halting it and forcing the soldiers to take cover. When the Americans ran up the hill Marko and his friends had disappeared, their knowledge of the hillside and their size making them perfect for guerilla warfare like this.
The next time the convoy came crawling up the road the boys were ready and waiting on the hill but this time, as soon as the Americans spotted them, sacks of food were being thrown from the trucks and the boys got what they wanted from that day on.
Marko swears a lot and he has no patience for idiots. He can be the perfect gentleman one minute and then revert to his irritable grumpy old man persona in a heartbeat for no reason. But he is one of the most welcoming hosts you’ll ever meet. Almost every traveller on this road has stopped at his little garden paradise and been regaled by his tales. Though older now and living off a meagre pension he still has a lust for life and a desire to keep learning and doing more things. One of his projects is to revive the Ciro railway that used to run from Croatia all the way to Albania, you can check the website.
He wants to revive the landscape of his local area by helping people to cultivate land now left fallow. 70% is viable for fruit such as figs and pomegranate. So many people have left the land now that it’s no longer cultivated with many orchards left to grow wild. James, an English cyclist who some how managed to get stuck here for two years, and is now applying for residency, has been helping Marko with his little projects. They have a hilarious odd couple father-son relationship that I couldn’t quite figure out. They both need each other but Marko’s temperament and James’ polako polako (slowly slowly) chilled out to the point of of being horizontal attitude can lead to some serious arguments between them. I accompanied them on a pomegranate harvesting trip and helped to trim back some wild growth in one of the many orchards they help to maintain.
Marko loves to tell tales and he loves to hear other people’s stories they seem to revitalise him much the same way that Baron von Munchausen grows younger when he’s on an adventure. When I was there a young French wanderer Felix was staying. His adventure was to walk to Moscow with a trailer, affectionately named Caracole, because cycle touring is apparently too fast for him! Another couple were building a cabin on the hill and they’ve been coming to Marko’s place for years staying at what he calls the Mikulici Nature Park. Its essentially his back garden which is a series of terraces on the hill with a beautiful view over the bay. This eclectic mix of people come stay and contribute to Markos garden project with some coming back to some stay for a while and some like me just passing through. All are affected by Markos unique personality and irrepressible spirit.
Marko didn’t always live in Croatia. He made himself a refugee and rowed to Italy across the Adriatic where he lived in camp for a year before finally getting asylum. His main reason for leaving… he wanted to see more of the world than his “bastard of a father” – his words not mine. One story from the days as a refugee is particularly entertaining.
He almost never got asylum status. His age might have meant he would be automatically sent back to Yugoslavia as a minor. It happened to a few of his friends and he was determined this would not happen to him so he absconded from the camp he was living in and decided to make a run for it.
He boarded a train going to Milan and having managed to get that far he scanned the departure boards and decided the train to Paris would be the one for him. He spent the whole trip under seats, in the toilet and hanging on to the outside of the train to avoid the conductor. He arrived in Paris elated that he had not been detected. He disembarked nonchalantly heading down the platform happy in the thought he might be free here. Suddenly gendarmes surrounded and arrested him and he could not figure out how they spotted him until he saw his reflection in a window. He was covered in soot from hanging out of the train… electrification of the rail network had not yet happened.
The gendarmes took him to the station and asked him what he was doing in Paris. Marko, being a quick witted chap, appealed to their sense of patriotism and from nowhere came out with the following reply, “I’m a refugee and I heard they were going to send me back to Yugoslavia. I’ve always wanted to see Paris and so I took the first train I could find.” Being French and typically proud they loved this answer and bought it hook line and sinker. They were so enchanted by this boy who would see Paris before being deported home that they decided to let him stay for the weekend.
They assigned a young lady, a Red Cross volunteer to chaperone him for the duration. She was charged with stopping him from absconding. Marko could believe his luck! Not only was he getting a free holiday but his chaperone was a beautiful young french girl whose first act upon taking him home was to give him a bath. He recalled, with a glint in his eye, that he could not hide his pleasure during that experience. It was not long before this he and this young lady ditched the idea of touring the the city of light and instead they spent their limited time together taking a tour of each others bodies. Alas it could not last and despite her pleas to the authorities to let him stay he was whisked away back to Italy and the camp where his adventure had began.
Eventually he was given asylum status and allowed to travel to Canada where he worked in a number of jobs before starting his own business and making a very good living as a building contractor. His trailer is littered with pictures of his life, the boat he once owned, the women he married, divorced and who drained his fortune. I was privy to only a few stories from this period and the details are hazy because way Marko tells his tales is a meandering anthology of experiences mixed with a lot of swearing. He kind of reminds of Rowley Birkin QC from the comedy The Fast Show but maybe a little more coherent.
One day soon I hope to drop in on him and James and listen to more of his tales while sipping rakia and enjoying the view from his garden. If you happen to be travelling in Croatia then you should stop by and say hello you won’t be disappointed.
Marko’s Warmshowers profile can be found here
His website can be found here