December 12, 2022
At the end of last summer, I visited Split, which never ceases to enchant me with its Mediterranean charm, even when the city is so overwhelmed with tourists that it gets lost in confusion. At the very end of August, when I was travelling south in an air-conditioned catamaran, I could not raise my head and gaze out at sea since a book with the title A sensible guide to Split and its islands drew my attention. My trip to Split and my enthusiasm for the book guide was even stronger because, among other things, I arranged an interview with the author, Jasmina Knezović.
I open the book: "Turquoise blue waters, Ivory limestone. The pine-green hilltop gleaned through a tangle of white-glinting masts. A sea-breeze ruffling laundry suspended between arches of centuries-old smoothed stone. Renaissance villas and high-rises are both covered in graffiti. The smell of sulphur, of coffee, of the sea. Split is, first and foremost, a sensory experience". We appear to be experts on Split. However, after "swallowing" the book in a few hours of travel, I felt as though I had formed a new perception of the city because of the author and her compelling debut. According to Jasmina, her guide was made to fit everyone's pocket and serve as a practical travel companion for intrepid travellers. Although we may think we know much about Split, Jasmina gives us a close-up look at the largest Dalmatian city. After flipping through the pages of this book – small in format but large in content – one wants to go to the places the author talks about and get to know her more closely.
That endeavour, though, might not seem so unusual if Jasmina were a Dalmatian girl who chose to dedicate the novel to "her" hometown. She was born and raised in America, leaving at 18 to study in Scotland before completing her doctoral dissertation at Oxford on Tin Ujević in the context of Croatian history of the 20th century. However, her ties to Croatia are numerous, including the fact that her last name is Croatian (her mother and father are from Hercegovina, Split’s “hinterland”, in Bosnia and Herzegovina). She also spent her childhood summers in Dalmatia with her three sisters and brother, where since 1995 she has been visiting the entire southern coast. We meet on a humid Saturday afternoon in a cafe in Split, and she tells me about her connection to Croatia. I spoke with Jasmina via Instagram (how, after all, many acquaintances of our time began). I have been following her two sisters, twins Kata and Eva, who visit our coast every summer and post pictures of their trips with an evident appreciation for the areas they visit for many years now. They travelled to Korčula in July of last year at the suggestion of their older sister's travel guide. Upon seeing that, I quickly ordered the book and prepared to hold off until my upcoming trip to the south.
Jasmina (fourth from the left) with her family during a summer vacation in Dalmatia
A few days later, I begin a conversation with Jasmina, fluent in Croatian (though she modestly admits that she is still learning it), and I question her on how the book's idea came to be. It should be noted that Jasmina brought a copy of her second book, a handbook about Dubrovnik and surrounding islands, to our meeting. – I know you ordered the first book, but you don't have the second, so I gave you the second as a gift, she says with a smile. Jasmina, her husband Matern, and their daughter Aurelija, whom she lives with in Berlin, arrived in Split that day (they spent the summer in a small town on the Makarska Riviera). Jasmina travelled to Split to deliver copies of the guidebook to the Split Art Gallery and a few other smaller stores. I still haven't gone through the questions I've prepared, but I'm curious about how the young author got the idea to write such unique guides. – I spent my days in Vienna, Budapest, and Zagreb while researching Tin Ujević for my dissertation and discovering amazing facts about his life from 9 to 19. I uncovered some fascinating Split-related stories, among other things. And in fact, it is how the first book's idea began. After finishing my PhD, I had always planned to publish a book.
Jasmina finished her dissertation in 2019; in the summer of 2020, she got married on her favourite island, Vis, the same year she started working on her first book. She tells me that she has always been interested in travelling, history, diversity of cultures... This idea was suggested to her by her friends who would visit Croatia and ask her where to go, what to eat, how to have fun, and how to pass for a local, at least temporarily. Jasmina has much knowledge about this because in 2018, after spending another summer in the southern Adriatic, she chose to remain in Split after the season ended to get to know the local culture. Jasmina began to work on the first book during the pandemic year 2020, but only after gathering data, conducting extensive research, and considering the format and distribution of content. – My goal was to make a guide that would be manageable; I wanted it to contain only a few things and text in which readers will get drowned and then they will not be able to find the essentials. Jasmina also adds that since many people do not spend much time on the coast and islands, you should provide them with a short list of recommended locations and educate them on the background of the places they go. And when asked what she likes most when she sees books today, she answers – I finished the first book a week before the birth of my daughter Aurelija!
Jasmina's wedding on Vis, summer 2020
Jasmina worked on the guides alone but with the help of her husband, Matern, a successful journalist. In the end, she published them herself, and her friend Leda and local artist and illustrator, Luka Duplančić, helped her with the design and illustrations. Both books feature a visually simple layout that, at first glance, does not resemble the standard travel guides with a sparse number of location images. Why a sensible guide? She responds that she used the book "Pride and Prejudice" as a source, and it was there that she first came across the word sensible (having good sense, aware, feeling, discerning, clever, and worldly), which instantly encompassed everything she wished to accomplish in her work. She divided the guides into several chapters in which she begins the story with inevitable things, activities, historical points of interest, and architecture... Jasmina goes a step further and not just list her favourites but brings stories from each place along with an explanation of why she thinks these places are worth visiting. She also mentions Dalmatian words that we must learn to use during our stays there, such as šoldi, škuribanda, spiza, redikul, and pomalo... She says the plants that green the landscapes, famous visitors of the Split and Dubrovnik archipelago, interesting historical places she writes about... For example, in 1980, during the match between Hajduk and Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) at Poljud stadium, it was announced that Tito had died, after which all the players and the entire stadium burst into tears. But only ten years later, at the same place and in the exact match, it was shown how much things had changed: Yugoslav flags were lit, and fans of opposing teams clashed fiercely.
The reader is captivated by Jasmina's ability to summarise a large amount of information in just a few sentences: for example, in the second edition, about Dubrovnik, her succinct and informative overview of the history of Dubrovnik from the 7th century to 2011. She also teaches us about the great earthquake that destroyed the city in 1667, up to the statistics of how much large tourist cruise ships pollute Dubrovnik every summer. Jasmina doesn't shy away from the negative effects of turism; on the contrary, she places all the locations she writes about in a realistic context, with benefits and drawbacks, demonstrating that she has first-hand knowledge of the sites and the difficulties they experience due to mass tourism. In her guides, she also gave space to residents. Through the books, interviews with notable people from those regions and stories written by well-known Dalmatians extend. For example, there is a humorous story by the painter Tisja Kljaković Braić in which she describes her family anecdotes about the family car Yugo 45. A story like this gives Jasmina's guides a more intimate insight into Dalmatian life, then and now alike.
From the first pages of the two important publications about Dalmatia, one recognises that the author is deeply familiar with the area she invites the readership to visit. Jasmina’s guides offer a new dimension of Split, Dubrovnik and the surrounding islands, the dimension in which the author successfully summarises the past and present of Dalmatia. Jasmina's plans do not stop here. She admits that she would like to compile guides to other places close to her, but there is no need to rush. Slowly our "official" conversation ends; we are joined by Matern and Aurelija, a playful and curious girl who, I believe, will spend all the summers of her childhood on the endless coast and islands of the Adriatic.