Jan 292012

The southern Yugoslav republic of Montenegro had claimed for some time that the Dubrovnik area should be a part of its territory despite the fact that the population was more than 80% Croatian. They saw the secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav Federation as the excuse to invade. In this they were supported by Serbia who had several brigades of the JNA (the Serbian dominated Yugoslav National Army) in their country.

On 1st October 1991 JNA forces from Montenegro invaded the area south of Dubrovnik as far as Cavtat which is only about six miles from the Old City. In doing so they over-ran the international airport at Cilipi and looted the navigational equipment. A Serbian frigate was patrolling the Kolocep Channel to the north and so Dubrovnik was effectively cut off from the outside world and the rest of Croatia.

In addition to the resident population of the city (approximately 50,000) there were a further 55,000 refugees from other parts of the country crowded into the city with no means of escape. To these could be added a small number ot tourists who had failed to leave before the attack got under way. All these people soon suffered further privations with the cutting off of the fresh food, water and electricity supplies by the invaders who now completely surrounded the landward side of the city.

By 5th October the JNA had occupied the high land around Dubrovnik. Instead of invading the city and engaging in direct combat with the pitifully small defence forces which manned the ancient walls, the army chose to start shelling the Old City. On the first day they succeeded in killing the local poet Milan Milosic.

Despite an international outcry, the attacks continued. The heaviest shelling took place on the 6th December – known as the St Nicholas Day Bombardment – which killed 13 civilians and injured more than 60. By the time the shelling ceased in early 1992 more than 500 buildings in the Old City had been damaged (about two thirds of the total number) and a dozen or so had been totally destroyed. Under the circumstances it was remarkable, and a tribute to the solidity of the ancient buildings, that the human toll of lives wasn’t very much higher.

Some relief was received in November when about 2000 refugees were rescued by sea and a partial ceasefire occurred at the end of December which relieved the city from the worst of the shelling. Croatian forces were able to enter the area in April and the outbreak of the much more serious war in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina removed the pressure on Dubrovnik. In July the warring forces agreed to withdraw and allow a United Nations supervisory commission to take over the area. But despite generous donations from around the world it took ten years and cost more than ten million dollars to restore the damage of those few months.


Next week I will tell you about the beautiful nearby Island of Mljet which features in Dancing with Spies.


Jan 222012

Modern Dubrovnik is a substantial city and port. But a lot of the action in Dancing with Spies takes place in the Old Town which is the World Heritage Site and the main place of interest for tourists.

The main entrance to the old part of the city is from the north through the Pile Gate. Emerging from this little fortress which forms part of the city walls into the old town, Onofrio’s Fountain (ancient source of water for the city) is to the right. However the visitor finds their gaze drawn down the length of one of the most remarkable pedestrian streets in the world. The Placa (see photo) is a broad concourse, paved in white marble, which leads right across the city almost to the old harbour. Down either side are grand three-storey buildings with small shop-fronts let into the ground floor. This is the gathering area in the evenings for the local population who stroll up and down, involved in serious discussions or friendly greetings.

To the left of the Placa narrow little streets of steps climb the steep hillside towards the city walls. To the right the streets are a little less narrow and not so steep. At the bottom end of the street it opens out into a square with the church of St Blaise (Dubrovnik’s patron saint) on one side, the Sponza Palace (now a museum) on the other, and the City Hall which contains the theatre in front. Through small gateways the harbour appears, crowded with little boats and the occasional larger tourist excursion vessel.

St John’s fortress dominates the harbour on the sea side and steps can be taken from here onto the city walls. Dubrovnik is one of the few old cities completely surrounded by walls round which the visitors can walk, enjoying the views to the west across the sea to the islands, east inland to the mountains and, as they slowly work their way round the circle of the city, private views down into gardens where children are playing or wives are hanging out washing or old men are sitting, dozing in the sun with their drinks on a small table in front of them. From time to time there are views through windows into the interior of houses, just as Caroline saw her first violence in Dancing with Spies.

The Old Town contains many places worth exploring. The market place is not far from the cathedral. There are cloisters and squares planted with trees where the tired tourist can sit and drink in the shade. Not far away is the forested island of Lokrum which is easily reached by water taxi if a refreshing swim is required. Day tours by water to places up the coast and to other islands can be organised and I will tell you about a very special island called Mljet in a future blog.


Next week I will tell you how this sunny paradise was temporarily destroyed in the Yugoslav Civil War.


Jan 152012

Dubrovnik is now a part of the independent nation of Croatia which is an unusually shaped country. The majority of its land mass consists of productive plains situated in the northern part of the former Yugoslavia and is sandwiched between Hungary and Slovenia to the north and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the south. In the east there is a fairly short border with Serbia.

However Croatia also includes the coastal strip of Dalmatia which takes up most of the coastline of Yugoslavia and includes about eight hundred islands which are the projecting tips of ancient flooded mountain ranges.

Towards the southern end of Dalmatia the city of Dubrovnik stands on a projecting headland (formerly an island linked to the mainland). This part of Croatia is cut off by land from the rest of the country by the short Bosnian coastline. To the south of the city is the only really productive area of coastal plain on this side of the Adriatic and that is also the location of the Dubrovnik international airport.

Its isolation from the rest of the country by the bare, rocky coastal mountain range caused Dubrovnik to be an independent maritime state for much of its history. Indeed there was a period in the middle ages when it competed strongly with Venice. However the city was devastated in 1667 by a serious earthquake and, although it continued to enjoy a type of independence, it never recovered its former importance. Napoleon finally annexed it to his province of Illyria and, at the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, it became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1919 Croatia and Dalmatia were incorporated into the new nation which became Yugoslavia in 1929.

When Croatia declared independence and seceded from the Yugoslav federation early in 1991 nobody foresaw that any reprisals would be visited on the Dubrovnik area which was strategically unimportant and contained the beautiful ancient city which had been designated a World Heritage Site. The population was overwhelmingly Croatian with only about seven percent being Serbs. It had no effective defence, consisting of just over a thousand troops, police and volunteers armed with just two 3-inch guns supplied by Russia in 1942.

So, when a sudden unprovoked attack was launched on the city by 20,000 JNA forces from Montenegro in early October 1991, the population of Dubrovnik and any visitors left in the city found themselves in a desperate situation.

The photo shows the view from one of the mountain peaks above the city.

I will tell you more about what happened in Dubrovnik next week.


Jan 082012

My novel Dancing with Spies is set in and around the beautiful city of Dubrovnik (see photo) in 1991. At the start of the novel Dubrovnik is still nominally in Yugoslavia, but it is actually part of the breakaway state of Croatia

The country of Yugoslavia had only existed as an entity since 1919 when it was created by the victorious allies in the peace treaty of Versailles at the end of The Great War (or First World War).

It was cobbled together from the territories confiscated from the former Austro-Hungarian (or Holy Roman) Empire and Turkey and tagged on to Serbia which had been an independent nation since 1878. The new nation consisted of six different states with different ideologies, speaking three different languages, writing in two different alphabets and worshipping in three distinct religions. It didn’t really stand a chance.

It didn’t actually call itself Yugoslavia until 1929 and had hardly settled down to try to build its new identity when the Second World War burst upon it. The country was invaded by the Axis powers and the German Nazis particularly in the north set about exploiting the divisions and suspicions which existed between the different constituent states. They set up a puppet fascist regime in Croatia which was responsible for murdering large numbers of Serbs, Muslims and Jews and other ethnically different Yugoslavs. This greatly increased the tension between the rival groups in the country.

Marshal Josip Tito and his communist partisans, with Russian help, drove out the invaders by early 1945. Under his powerful leadership all opposition to his communist People’s Party was ruthlessly suppressed and for the next 25 years Yugoslavia had the outward appearance of a united federation of states.

However, when Tito died in 1980, no strong leader emerged to replace him. Yugoslavia entered a period of federal government where there was no uniting power. Gradually the constituent states began to take their own course towards independence. The northern states of Slovenia and Croatia developed stronger economies and resented propping up the remainder of the Yugoslav nation.

Meanwhile Slobodan Milosevic had emerged as leader of the Serbians who had the greatest population. His policy of repressing smaller dissident factions in the other states led to open rifts. In June 1991 Slovenia and Croatia declared their intention to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. The attempts of Milosevic to prevent this and to stop other states following their example led to a brutal civil war in which Dubrovnik was one of the first cities to suffer.


I will tell you about what happened to Dubrovnik next week.


Jan 012012

When Bérenger Saunière, parish priest of Rennes-le-Château discovered some ancient documents in a hollow pillar supporting the altar in the village church, one of the documents contained a mysterious reference to a famous artist – Nicolas Poussin.

Poussin lived mainly in France from 1594 to 1665 during the reign of Louis XIV, known as The Sun King. One of his most famous paintings which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris is called Les Bergers d’Arcadie (The Shepherds of Arcady). As you will see from the accompanying photograph it depicts four shepherds in classical dress surrounding a tomb.

Although Arcady is supposed to have been located in classical Greece, the actual setting for this painting is thought to have been close to Rennes-le-Château. In the centre background to the left of the trees behind the tomb is the chateau of Blanchefort, ancestral home of the Blanchefort family which counted prominent Cathars and Templars among its members. On the horizon just to the right of the trees is the village itself – Rennes-le-Château.

Until recently the actual tomb stood just to the north of D613 road leading from Couiza to the village of Arques and one could stand in front of this low stone structure and see the actual view which Poussin painted. Unfortunately the owner of the land has now destroyed the tomb because of the large number of people who invaded his domaine to photograph and even dig around the location. However it is still marked on the IGN map 2347OT as pierre dressée (shaped stone).

The other interesting thing about the painting is that two of the shepherds are indicating the enigmatic message Et in Arcadia Ego (Latin for “And in Arcady I…”) Nobody has been able to authoritatively decipher this incomplete message though there has been much correspondence about it.

However it is recorded that the painting was thought to have been sufficiently important at the time for the Sun King to have purchased it and kept it in his private apartments where nobody but a limited number of his personal staff and special visitors might have seen it.

Why was Poussin painting in the Rennes-le-Château area four hundred years ago? Did his painting have another purpose than to merely tell the story of four shepherds gathered round a tomb? Was he sending a secret message about something which had been found in the area? If so, what was it? So far nobody has unravelled that message.


I will continue to tell you about the mysteries of this area later in 2012 when my new novel The Templar Legacy is released. Next week I will start to tell you about Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia where Dancing with Spies is set.