As work continues apace organising our 2018 summer school, we have been very fortunate to make the acquaintance of Alberto Frka. Following our highly successful and enjoyable trip to Istria earlier this year, during which we were so ably and informatively guided by Ljerka Mikić, we asked her whether she had any colleagues operating in the Dubrovnik area, whom she could recommend. Immediately she proposed Alberto, whom she knew due to the fact that they both regularly work for the same agency, Abercrombie & Kent.
No sooner said than done, Linda contacted Alberto and she, John and I met him recently in Dubrovnik to talk through our plans for next summer. He has very kindly agreed to help us with the planning of an interesting and unusual programme of excursions and, provided his other commitments allow, he will also be our guide next June. Failing that he will select the most suitable guide from amongst his colleagues in Dubrovnik to put his plans into action.
Recently we had a conversation on Skype and he told me a little about himself and what it was like growing up in Dubrovnik. He and his brother are both Dubrovnik born and bred and their family has lived there for generations. For him, Dubrovnik was the perfect small town in which to grow up and go to school. Everyone knew each other, which enabled the children to have a great deal of freedom to go out and about unaccompanied by their parents. The schools and teachers were very good and the lovely climate enabled them to be outside much of the time throughout the year. Alberto clearly remembers his childhood in Dubrovnik with great affection. He started to learn to play the piano when he was eight years old and in Dubrovnik that was a very normal thing for children to do. Given the size of the town, it has a very large school of the arts, where thousands of students have benefitted from the opportunity to study classical music, ballet and painting, amongst other artistic pursuits.
As can so often prove the case, at around the age of eighteen the town suddenly started to feel too small and boring and this feeling was exacerbated by a sense of isolation at being geographically so far from everything and everywhere else. So Alberto moved to Zagreb, where he lived for six years and studied medicine, graduating in 1990. This was followed by seventeen years in Paris where he pursued his piano studies further. In 1995 he graduated at Scola Cantorum and then at Ecole Normale Superieure de Musique de Paris and subsequently gained the post of pianist accompanist at both of these Conservatories. He returned to live in Dubrovnik in 2007. It proved quite a shock to his system to return from a big city to live once again in a small town but he got used to it and adjusted and started to love living in Dubrovnik all over again. However, he is very glad to have had the experience of living in a big city.
Being back in Dubrovnik, he found he had much more time for everything. Thanks to his childhood introduction to music and further studies in Paris he has become an accomplished pianist, who performs regularly as well as working as an accompanist to students in performances and competitions. Since returning to his home town, his rhythm of life has evolved so that he spends much of the winter months working in the music school while his summers are for the most part very busy with guiding, with the busiest times being from April to June and September to October. His two careers overlap and interweave and this August he found himself playing the piano quite intensively. For him it has proved to be a wonderful circle of things coming together and he has discovered that guiding can also be very exciting and rewarding.
I asked him a little about what becoming a guide entailed and he explained that, once he had returned to Dubrovnik, he studied for an exam, which was all very serious and embraced ten different subjects. But far more important than the academic study, much of which rarely gets put into practice, is the requirement to have a sense of curiosity and desire to discover things for oneself. He found that he really loved learning how to impart his knowledge in the best possible way to other people who are eager to learn about the history of his beloved Dubrovnik. He has been a guide now for ten years and is constantly gaining more and more experience and bringing his own specific emotional dimension to his work. After all, the age-old history of Dubrovnik is very complex and very beautiful. Sometimes he also takes tours further afield for instance to Slovenia and Montenegro. For the most part he guides groups of Americans and finds them very nice, experienced travellers, who are open-minded and eager to learn.
We then moved on to talk about what plans he had in store for us. Knowing that many of our group are already familiar with Dubrovnik and this part of Southern Dalmatia, he is preparing a programme to offer us a glimpse of hidden corners of Dubrovnik and other places in the area that are not usually open to groups. Given that his brother effectively lives on Lopud, the island from which their father’s family hails, Alberto is uniquely equipped to be able to introduce us to parts of the Elaphite Islands that otherwise we would be unlikely to find. Koločep, the smallest of the three inhabited Elaphite Islands, is, he told me, a very interesting place to walk amidst the wilds of nature.
Likewise, there are places on the mainland and inland where we would most likely not go by ourselves. He has in mind the cave at Vjetrenica as well as the valley of Popovo Polje, both of which lie within the territory of Bosnia Hercegovina, as does the town of Trebinje with its marked Turkish influence. A full-day excursion to these destinations could make for a very rich and rewarding experience. Within Dubrovnik itself, he is proposing a visit to the sixteenth century house of Ivan Gundulić in Gruž as well as the atelier of painter Josip Trostmann, neither of which are readily accessible to visitors.
We talked a little about the changes that are occurring in the area and the fact that, as a good guide, he cannot be blind to or uncritical of faults he sees developing in the town of his birth. He is aware that changes are going on behind the scenes and not always in the way that he would like. The mentality has changed a lot and life is lived at a very different pace, which means that in the summer all is hectic and taken at full speed with an almost bipolar effect in winter, when everything goes completely dead, even though there can still be lovely sunny days at times. It is as if at the end of the summer the residents of Dubrovnik, exhausted by the summer tourists, turn in on themselves and do not want to socialise any more. Alberto knows so many people in the town, in fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that he knows someone from just about every family, and he sees how the society is changing. Although the period of the Homeland War was a very dangerous, horrible time, it brought out the best in the people. Now they are becoming much more selfish and self-absorbed and it is not a very attractive development. While the town is receiving so many visitors from all over the world, in itself it is becoming a more closed, less open-minded society. It used to be a typical Mediterranean town and now it is more like a walled city.
Likewise on Lopud, which is becoming popular, the atmosphere is changing and becoming more money-orientated. The façade of old 16th and 17th century houses along the water front still looks the same but behind the scenes and not immediately obvious to the untrained eye, development is going on.
We finished our conversation by touching on Alberto’s own love of travelling. At the end of a busy summer season of guiding visitors around his own cherished home town, he loves to travel as a reward for working hard. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a trip to Myanmar, where he will be taking a five day cruise along the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay and visiting an inland lake and Buddhist temples among other sights, before moving on to Bangkok in Thailand. When we see him next summer, we will have to ask him how well it all compared with the beauty of Southern Dalmatia.