In Splitska on Brač Island, Our Lady is the patron saint of the village, so the feast of Vela Gospa on August 15th is a very special day. As with most Catholic feast days, the celebrations start with the religious part, homage to the patron saint through a Mass and Procession. As this is the height of the summer, the Mass is always scheduled for the early evening.
As usual, the Mass is preceded by the church bell being rung every fifteen minutes as from an hour and a quarter before it starts, with the difference that all three bells are rung in a full peal, struck manually by experienced bell-ringers up in the lofty heights of the belfry.By long tradition, the manual striking of the bells in the belfry is done by 76-year-old Vladimir Čeprnić and his cousin Pero Barbarić. The task requires excellent physical fitness. Climbing up to the belfry is not easy, and getting the heavy bells to move and chime, especially the big one, is a matter of strength and stamina. In the lead-up to the Mass, the bells sound for several minutes. During the Procession which follows the Mass, they are rung continuously for the whole duration of the walk round the village, which takes over half an hour.
The little church is always full to overflowing for the Mass, with many participating outside the main door. Many more join the Procession following the service. During the Mass, the church bell is rung at the key solemn moments by Vladimir Čeprnić's son, Jure, Splitska's regular bell-ringer. The Procession sets off up the hill in the evening sunlight, with the statue of Our Lady and Child carried by four young men of the village, with parish priest don Marko Plančić following in the entourage.
The side altar which nirmally contains the effigy of the Virgin and Child is festively decorated in expectation of the statue's return.
The Procession turns left out the church door, instead of going down the main steps to the water-front, and heads up the hill to skirt round the main part of the village. It is led by two standard bearers, with the flag honouring Our Lady in first place.
Behind the standard bearers there is a group of men, followed by young girls dressed as little angels carrying flower petals. Older children in festive garb walk behind the statue-bearers, followed by parish priest don Marko walking in isolation.
Having circled round the northern upper side of the village, the Procession comes down to the waterfront and turns right towards the church. It passes by the main entrance to the church, going straight along the waterfront to pass the entrance of the Cerineo/Cerinić villa, where it turns to head for the church. As there are always cars parked along the road, there can be quite a bottleneck as the Procession turns back on itself, but to date this minor inconvenience has always been negotiated without mishap.
By the time the Procession comes to an end, it is already dusk. There is then a lull, while people have supper or mill around the waterfront stands buying balloons and novelty toys for the children. At 21:00, the merriment starts. In 2016, the well-known group Klapa Rišpet opened the proceedings with their wonderfully varied repertoire of songs, some a cappella, most accompanied by instruments. The crowd sang along enthusiastically, and the group responded promptly to requests for favourite songs. Uninhibited children danced tirelessly, parents took pictures, adults grouped themselves for conversation, some ate the sausages or pancakes sold on the fast-food stands, soft drinks and beer were consumed in quantity. At intervals, children made incursions on to the stage, to be drawn back by adults concerned about the electric wires which might harm them. A shapely young lady in hotpants jumped up in front of the group, and it looked as though what little she was wearing might be removed in a sequence of sexy moves, to the delight of a raucous section of the crowd. No conclusion was reached, however, as a fearsomely burly minder dressed menacingly in black leathers moved forward and yanked her expertly back down to earth.
Somewhere towards midnight, Klapa Rišpet left the stage, to be replaced by a popular singing duo who perform regularly on Splitska's feast day. But there was impatience in the air: the annual highlight of the stage performances is the appearance of bell-ringer Jure Čeprnić.
Primed by a group of friends, Jure takes to the stage every year to perform several songs, which always go down a treat with his devoted fan club of loyal locals.
In 2016, the young lady whose striptease act had been cut short by the burly bouncer re-appeared on stage alongside Jure, to enthusiastic applause from the audience. She kept her clothes on this time, but did perform some very raunchy moves, not at all suitable for the many young children still present. Fortunately most of the youngest were asleep in their parents' arms by then, and I suppose many of the slightly older children will have seen it all before on TV and the internet anyway.
Spurred on by the example of 'Miss Hotpants', two more, - younger and more decorous - dancers sprang up on stage to join Jure, so the atmosphere of gaiety was multiplied both among the performers and the public. To complete her image of relaxed sophistication, 'Miss Hotpants' lit a cigarette, and gyrated carelessly among her little plumes of smoke.
Jure took the incursions in his stride, smiling happily and continuing with his set of songs. Towards the end, he was rewarded with a peck on the cheek, after which 'Miss Hotpants' sprang off the stage - using my head and the person next to me as springboards.
After his performance, Jure was feted by the audience and congratulated from all sides as he made his way grandly along the waterfront.. Jure's moment of glory was over for another year, another great success was notched up. The singing duo, fired by Jure's example, sang with gusto until 2am, when the village relapsed into its normal level of relative silence, apart from a few noisy isolated groups of vociferous drinkers.
All credit to the local waste collection service and all the organizers: the stage and almost every last bit of rubbish and litter were removed by the following morning.
Vela Gospa: a major feast for Catholic Croatia, and in Splitska (probably elsewhere too) a fine mixture of piety and hedonism, perhaps accurately reflecting the contrasts inherent in the Dalmatian way of life.
© Vivian Grisogono 2016