I lost my virginity in... Croatia
Sunday 05 September 1999
Mooning around the house one afternoon during the summer holidays I found myself shoved unceremoniously on to the sofa with a cup of tea in front of a God Squad video. "Go to Croatia for some spiritual renewal," ordered my mother. The die was cast.
As the plane landed in Zagreb I looked around aghast at my tour group, all fresh-faced and gathered skirts, before we boarded an old bus and set off along the mountainous route to the village of Medjugorje.
Close to the town of Mostar, the Virgin Mary had been appearing to a group of local children in the village every day since 1981. The landscape was dry and barren; a mixture of scree and scrub undergrowth. Not exactly on a par with a week on the beach in Dubrovnik.
Arriving hot, sticky and fractious and not predisposed to a pre-dinner prayer meeting we were met outside our guest house by our guides for the week, Tomaso and Vesko. Things began to look up.
With a large beaked nose and mass of scraggy dark hair, Tomaso was a cross between Bob Geldof and Captain Hook, but Vesko was tall and slim with huge vulnerable eyes and a sensitive mouth - more Linus Roache.
Far from a quiet Croatian village filled with peace and tranquillity, Medjugorje turned out to be a bustling centre with stalls selling tacky souvenirs, statues and rosaries, and cement mixers on every street corner. Wherever I looked there were half-finished buildings as the locals struggled to accommodate the influx of pilgrims.
Alone with a family of devout Catholics I felt a complete fraud. During the day mass was held in the main church or celebrated by visiting priests under the trees. The visionaries delivered Our Lady's messages outside their homes to eager groups standing in the dusty lanes, while priests bent their heads as they listened to confessions in the shade.
The evening meal around a huge table consisted of basic, wholesome food and a large carafe of red wine. The devout family with the obligatory 10 children abstained and retired early. After they disappeared upstairs I wandered outside with the wine and sat on the pavement listening to the sounds of the cicadas.
Vesko and Tomaso would join me and we'd chat late into the night, as they smoked and shared the rough red wine. Taking me to one of the makeshift bars that were springing up in the village one night Vesko poured out his heart with soulful, if slightly unfocused, eyes.
The week developed into an unsettling pattern of daytime prayer and mass, and then when the sun went down I would walk through the building sites with 6ft of testosterone feeling anything but holy and far more concerned with whether I had red-wine teeth than eternal salvation.
Wine like vinegar, a velvety Croatian sky and a virile young atheist eventually culminated in a passionate scrabble in a brand new pensione to the lilting tones of churning cement - followed by a lengthy confession in the shade of the trees the next day.
As the plane took off at the end of the trip I looked briefly at his address before tearing it up and wondering how I was going to explain this one to my mother.
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