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The Pirates of Blato

Stark against the distant Dinaric Alps and the lush greens of the maquis and ocean, Ante was standing sentinel on a hilltop high above the village of Blato and waving a huge Croatian flag.

Stark against the distant Dinaric Alps and the lush greens of the maquis and ocean, Ante was standing sentinel on a hilltop high above the village of Blato and waving a huge Croatian flag. It flashed brilliant red, white and blue in the golden evening light. There was a clamour in the village below. Something was wrong. From the nearby forest a hunting horn sounded and a tiny child ran up the path, his face creased with worry.

“Pirates are attacking Blato”, he cried, “they’ve burnt the town and taken the girls from the school and the children from their homes. They’re coming this way”.

Ante called his men. The pirates would be climbing the hills – up the snaking rocky path that led from the town to the bay. They were perfectly positioned for an ambush. But they’d have to be quick. He grabbed the boy, handed him to his captain of guard and the soldiers hid in the dense bush.

Within moments the air was thick with a clamour of voices – the tearful cries of women and children, the shouts of men. A thick-set man appeared, cutlass in hand, a pantomime scarf on his head, a Captain Hook moustache. It could have been painted on. He was followed by his cohorts – a band of tawdry cutthroats – and a train of wailing captives from the village tied together by rope.

Igor and his men sprang from their hiding places, shouting at the top of their voices, swords bradished above their heads. There was a clash of steel, and after a short but bloody battle the pirates lay on the ground and the women and children of were freed.

To drink Coca Cola, eat cake and chat with the film crew.

“How did you like our legend?” they asked me.

“It was great!” I smiled, snapping a picture of an earnest soldier and a grease-paint pirate.

All the legends that day had been great – colourful vignettes of island life played out by local people – all of them so proud of their history and so warmly welcoming to the ungainly troupe of foreigners watching their performances.

We’d seen Nera the irresistibly innocent but alluring mermaid court the shy fishermen Antonio on shore of and aquamarine bay and the beautiful fairy girl Roxana making a poor villager rich after he shaded her fragile sleep from the noonday sun. We’d watched savage Neanderthals with brilliant blue eyes killing the daughter of the father god at Vela Spijla cave and the women of Vela Luka baking an aphrodisiac cake in honour of a fleeting romance between a Napoleonic soldier and a local girl.

So much work had gone into the shows – the dances and the fights, the face-paint and the costumes. And each legend opened a window on the depth and diversity of tradition on this tiny island – a little green jewel in a sapphire Adriatic.

The air was so clean here I could see for tens of kilometres – past Igor waving his flag, out across the lush green of the island to the shimmering blue Adriatic, bobbing with the tiny white specs of fishing boats, and far beyond that to the grey hulk of the Dinaric Alps on a distant horizon. For a moment I thought of London – the skyscrapers barely visible through the heavy diesel haze. For a moment.

Alex

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