Friday, 1 June 2007

"Yugonostalgia" makes a comeback

When Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, the Balkans experienced the bloodiest wars since the end of World War Two. Yugoslavia broke up into six independent republics, each going its separate way. Today, relations are still strained. And yet from Ljubljana, to Sarajevo and Belgrade, "Yugonostalgia" has been making a comeback.

The Serbian Rail Company therefore thought it was great timing to dust off and wheel out the private train of former leader Marshall Josip Broz Tito -- also to attract tourists.

Tito's Blue Train by Aventures

Despite lying idle in a dusty shed for 25 years, the Blue Train hasn't lost any of its communist-style splendors from the Tito era. Its carriages, suites and sleeping cars have been preserved completely intact. Designed in 1947 for Tito's exclusive use, the Blue Train still has all its original fittings: dark inlaid wood panels, thick luxurious carpets and stylish 1950s design furniture.

Tour guide Slobodan Stettic says he particularly likes Tito's private carriage.

"That feeling of Yugoslavia's importance when Tito was in power is the most attractive for me," Stettic says. "Even some really important world leaders saw Tito as a man of great wisdom, who was able to judge the political reality well and give good advice."

Tito hosted many world leaders on the Blue Train

Tito loved his train and clocked up more that 400,000 miles on board. Some people even claim that Tito used to spend the night before his departure on the train while it was in its shed, Stettic says.


During his years in power from 1947 to 1980, Tito entertained many of the world's leaders on the Blue Train. Yasser Arafat, Leonid Brezhnev, Jawaharlal Nehru, Francois Mitterrand, Willy Brandt and Muammar al-Gaddafi were among Tito's high-level guests on board.

Some heads of state even had their own wagons, like Britain's Queen Elizabeth II or French president Charles de Gaulle, though he never bothered to visit Yugoslavia due to his political differences with Tito.

"Tito was a charismatic leader, and he knew the game," Stettic says. "He knew how to sit on two chairs at the same time and how to negotiate between East and West."

Tito was a well-liked dictator

Yugoslavs felt that Tito gave them a good life, Stettic says. They felt different from the other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Yugoslavs, for example, could travel to East and West without restriction or visas.

"People loved him in spite of the fact that he was a dictator," he says. "We were very proud of being Yugoslavs and once Tito died, there was no successor, and that was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia."

Marija Petrovic worked as Tito's cook on the train from 1975 to 1980. She very clearly remembers the day Tito died in May 1980.

"His remains were transported from Ljubljana to Belgrade on the Blue Train and I remember the places we drove through," Petrovic says. "All the people were crying and saluting his remains for the last time. That was a very emotional moment."

Petrovic says she really enjoyed working for Tito.

"After lunch he would never fail to go to the train's kitchen to thank the staff for the meal and praise the food," she recalls.

"The symbolic value of this train is enormous."


Great rail journeys on trains from a bygone era are becoming increasingly popular with tourists. Yugonostalgia on the Blue Train is no exception.


Of course, no one seriously wants a united Yugoslavia these days, tour guide Stettic says. But putting the Blue Train back on track is more than just dusting off and rolling out an old train.

"Our hope is to join the European Community," Stettic says. "But the symbolic value is to preserve those values of Yugoslavia which are still very strong: spiritual, cultural and everything we have done together."

According to Stettic, the train looks back on the past and brings the best of that into the future. "The symbolic value of this train is enormous".

Is hearing believing? Listen in to the wild tales of Iceland's resident gnomes, dwarves, elves and hidden people


Do you believe in elves? If you're like me you're probably a bit skeptical ... But believe it or not opinion polls consistently show that the majority of people in Iceland either believes in elves - or at least refuses to rule out their existence. So, meet the elves - I suggest the obvious place to start our tour is in Hafnarfjördur, a small town just South of Reykjavik - I'm told it's Iceland's capital of elves.

Iceland's Elves by Aventures

Sigubjörg Karlsdottir, or Sippa as she's called, is a small chubby woman with sparkling blue eyes, wearing a bright red hat and looking somewhat elf-like herself. Twice a week, she takes tourists on an elf tour of Hafnarfjördur. This small port town is believed to lie at the cross roads of several mystical energy lines and has therefore the highest density of elves and hidden people in Iceland.


"Different creatures have different appearances," Sippa says. "Hidden people, or hülte volk as we call them, are like humans: tall and handsome. Elves are a little stranger looking with big ears and long skinny legs."

Hidden creatures can put a spell on you

A big rock just up the hill from the town's old center is the first stop of Sippa's tour. The rock sits right in the middle of the front yard of a house. Sippa says a man once wanted to build a house on this very spot and he asked the builders to get rid of the rock. But they simply couldn't move it and an old man from the neighborhood told the builders: 'You have a problem because the elf that lives here does not want to move.' So the owner decided to build his house behind the rock.

Sippa says these hidden creatures are for the most part good-natured. But they can also get very upset and put a spell on you.

Elves and hidden people are a serious business in Iceland, says Terry Gunnell, the head of the folkloristic department at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Though he hasn't seen any himself, he sounds fairly convinced of their existence: "Hidden people look like us and they live like us, they are just more powerful."

Gunnell who's British, but has lived in Iceland since 1979 says that this historically rich mythology of elves contrasts sharply with the difficulties Icelanders have faced in the past: volcanoes erupted all over the island, the country was surrounded by pack ice, crops and animals died. Icelanders live in a world where invisible forces around them shape their lives. So, Icelanders needed something to dream of and look forward to.

Elves are a part of road construction planning

History and mythology is one thing. However, elves are very much part of everyday life in modern Iceland, too.

Building roads around the homes of elves is nothing unusual in Iceland, according to Victor Ingolfsson, the spokesperson for Iceland's Road Authority. He personally doesn't believe in elves -- but he says, elves are taken into serious consideration when it comes to road construction.


"We consider this talk about elves and hidden people as a kind of public relations issue," Ingolfsson says. The authority has repeatedly had to deal with people having trouble with certain road plans, thinking that elves or hidden people lived at the sites. "Because Iceland is such a small community, we have to listen to everyone, we can't just say you're crazy."

"Everyone can see elves"

Someone who has always listened to people's sighting of elves is Magnus Skarphedinsson, an historian and headmaster of the Icelandic elf school "Álfaskólinn" in Reykjavik. The school has been around for 14 years and attracts both foreign and Icelandic students.

Skarphedinsson's main job is to collect stories of elf sightings and other hidden creatures. He has descriptions of all sorts of different types of elves, trolls, gnomes, fairies and dwarfs.


"But nearly 70 percent of our stories are about hidden people, because they are most seen here," Skarphedinsson says. Though he's probably the only person on the planet who knows so much about this phenomenon, Skarphedinsson admits there is so much more to be discovered. Unfortunately for him, despite devoting his life to elves, he himself has never seen an elf or hidden person.

Someone who has is 40-year-old Icelander Jenny. In fact, she says she sees them quite often when she walks in the forest near her home. "Usually what I see are elf children playing, they may not be so careful," Jenny says. "When they realize that I see them, they say 'whoops, she can see us' and they disappear."

But is seeing elves just a question of luck -- or a power only given to a few? Apparently not, says Hermundur Rosenkranz, a numerologist and psychic: "Everyone can see elves, you just have to be neutral and listen, control your mind, don't think, just feel, be patient and try."

According to Rosenkranz, everyone in the world has his or her own house elf. So either there's a little bit of Iceland all over the world or we all have an elfish side to us.

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