Mary Novakovich by the Una river
Adam BatterbeeMary Novakovich by the Una river

Croatia’s Lika region inspires moving travelogue in line for Stanford award

In her new book, renowned travel writer and broadcaster Mary Novakovich explores Croatia's unsung hinterland while uncovering tragic family secrets

Written by
PJ Cresswell

Arguably the most unstudied and unsung region in Croatia, Lika lies in the hinterland between the Bosnian border and the Velebit mountains, remote and rural enough for famed inventor Nikola Tesla to hide in its dense forests disguised as a hunter to avoid conscription.

A century later, award-winning travel writer Mary Novakovich was plonked here as young girl, left to spend the summer holiday with relatives she barely knew, with no TV, no telephone and only a dog-eared copy of Anne of Green Gables for familiar company.

An 11 year old from urban Ontario, she then had little affiliation with the place her parents, Serbian emigrés who fled to England in the aftermath of World War II, had once called home. Yet this trip in 1976 would turn out to be the first of seven, each outlined in her recently published travelogue, My Family and Other Enemies, each drawing her closer to her roots and, ultimately, to understanding her family.

Suvaja and surroundings
Adam BatterbeeSuvaja and surroundings

One of eight finalists nominated for the prestigious Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year due to be announced in London on March 16, My Family… is also memoir, a journey of discovery in which this renowned BBC broadcaster explores a land steeped in natural beauty but drenched in the blood of ethnic conflict.

The title, a Balkan juxtaposition of Gerald Durrell’s paean to Corfu, is no coincidence. “It was the bad-tempered trip to Lika with my mother in 2009 that formed the basis of the book,” Novakovich tells Time Out Croatia. “I tried to turn that into a travelogue but it didn’t quite work. I didn’t realise that it would be another ten years before I had enough material. At least it gave me another reason to go back.”

By then, Novakovich needed little excuse. She had already formed strong ties with her uncle Gojko, his companion Dušanka and a cast of colourful characters who bond over food – spit-roasted lamb, peka dishes, trout – and exchange gentle humour in tiny, isolated communities driven by the need to survive amid poverty and depopulation.

Mary Novakovich
Adam BatterbeeMary Novakovich

“I was always trying to tag a Lika trip onto another commission,” says Novakovich, a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph in the UK. “But it’s a large region and so much is off the beaten track.”

A litany of little hire cars is cajoled into tackling Lika’s treacherous thoroughfares, the number plates a potential red rag or a neutral flag in hamlets first devastated by Serbs in 1991 and then by Croats in 1995. Lika formed the military frontier or krajina between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, a buffer zone policed both by Croats and Serbs, many of whom settled in the rural interior. When these Krajina Serbs declared independence in 1991, just as Croatia would then do from Belgrade, this helped spark the conflict that broke up Yugoslavia and destroyed the lives of so many in Lika.

The first shots of the war were fired in the Plitvice Lakes, Lika’s only major visitor attraction and one later blighted by tourism, as Novakovich also discovers, fully aware of the irony of her profession.

Mary Novakovich and her mother hiking in Velebit
Mary NovakovichHiking in Velebit with her mother

While her first memories of Lika involve the reluctant daily trek through bucolic countryside to the nearest farm for fresh cow’s milk, the author’s visits three decades later are pockmarked by burnt-out houses daubed with threatening or pleading messages. Novakovich then takes the reader deeper, further into the past and closer to the personal history that scarred her parents and forced them to flee their homeland. In 1941, her aunt Dara clambered out of a pit of dead and dying bodies where she had lain for nine days, the sole survivor of a massacre by Croatian forces. We revisit the very same spot, and one nearby where 12 schoolgirls were slaughtered around the same time.

Her mother, who had pulled her own mother, barely alive, from a pile of typhus-ridden corpses, made the long journey towards England by train. Her father walked to Slovenia, then Trieste, then to an internment camp near Naples. One deep regret threading through the narrative is that his death in 1989 robs the writer of sharing her modern-day experiences with him, although she seeks out the church he would have known as a boy.

Her parents get top billing in the book’s dedication though it’s painfully clear, most of all to the author herself, that travelling with her mother, Jelka, was no easy ride: “The relationship with my mother adds an extra dimension to the story,” says Novakovich, well over a decade after their tricky September sojourn. “It’s something I do feel terribly guilty about – but I couldn’t whitewash over it.”

Štrbački Buk
Adam BatterbeeŠtrbački Buk

Not realising at the time that her mother’s skittish behaviour may have been linked to the later dementia that now engulfs her, the writer was still determined to portray her leading figures warts and all. Bickering Interrailers have rarely had to deal with the kinds of ghosts that must haunt Jelka and her generation. The family photographs grouped in the middle of the book would have been among the few possessions that her parents were able to take with them.

It’s not all tragedy, loss and guilt. There’s a great-grandfather whose life between the hills of Lika and the coalmines of Pennsylvania is a rakish whirl of poker games and Harley Davidson motorbikes, and countless cousins whose lifestyles, even back in 1976, reflect a relatively open Yugoslavia when compared to its fellow Communist neighbours. And then there’s Lika itself, whose resilient people win the writer’s admiration and beckon her back as often as time and budget allow.

Later trips are enjoyed with the author’s photographer husband, Adam, and the sense of relief and relaxation is palpable. Ahead lies as pleasurable a commission as any travel writer might imagine, an entire book rather than straightjacketed editorial: “It was just so liberating,” says Novakovich, “I loved the freedom of being able to write 80,000 words rather than the usual 600 or 1,500”.

Mary Novakovich by the Una river
Adam BatterbeeMary Novakovich by the Una river

Revelling in the subject matter, Novakovich is able to end her travelogue on a positive note, citing examples of local initiatives ranging from rural hotels to cheeky craftsmanship, and noting the subtle infrastructure being framed around the turquoise waters of the Una river that froze a city girl’s feet back in 1976.

“Many from the coast are now buying second homes in Lika,” says Novakovich, “while the tourists who come here experience authentic Croatia”.

My Family and Other Enemies by Mary Novakovich, Bradt Guides, £9.99/$16.99.

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