By Daniel and Barbara Zwerdling-Rothschild
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 16, 2002

IT'S OUR FIRST NIGHT IN Croatia. We're sitting on the tiled terrace of our rented house on a cliff near the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, gazing at islands that stretch like bumpy stepping stones across the Adriatic Sea. We're sipping margaritas made with limes from one of the fruit trees that dot the property, and nibbling clusters of purple and green grapes that we plucked from the trellis over our heads.

Our landlords insisted on cooking our first Croatian dinner, so Antun is grilling whole fish smothered with parsley and garlic in the outdoor stone fireplace, while Marija unmolds a flan draped in caramel and perfumed like roses. The sun is melting on a mountain ridge and the sea is turning from gold to red to pink, as cruise ships head across the bay like floating strands of Christmas lights.

And as we recall how much our loved ones back home are worrying about our safety ("Aren't they still fighting over there?"), we feel almost guilty.

We'd been dreaming for decades about visiting Dubrovnik, on Yugoslavia's Dalmatian Coast. Yugoslavia was the Friendly Communist Country, and Dubrovnik was the Renaissance jewel of Eastern Europe.

But we kept putting off the trip -- and in 1991, the Balkans exploded into war. Historians will probably argue eternally about precisely what triggered one of the worst bursts of genocide since World War II, but perhaps they could agree on some limited facts: The leaders of Croatia, one of the republics of Yugoslavia, declared that they were seceding from the nation and forming an independent country. Slobodan Milosevic, then Yugoslavia's dictator, sent in his army to try to prevent it. And Dubrovnik became one of the war's first victims.

Yugoslav troops fanned out on the mountain ridges that overlook Dubrovnik and warships closed off the sea. For more than seven months, they hurled artillery and mortar shells at the city as the international community watched in shock. The world would learn about the carnage in places like Sarajevo and Kosovo later, but back then, in the first months of 1992, it seemed incomprehensible that Milosevic would order his troops to bombard an ancient, cherished city filled with civilians, apparently out of spite. The United Nations reported that two-thirds of the churches, palaces and proud old houses had been hit. Some had been gutted.

So we were astonished when we ran into an acquaintance a couple years ago who had just returned from a work trip in the Balkans, and he said, "Want me to tell you a secret? Go to Dubrovnik, and go soon. Go before every other tourist in the world finds out that Dubrovnik has been repaired. In fact, it might be more beautiful than ever."

Cultural Survival

Sometimes we start our days by meeting Darija, our guide and interpreter, at our favorite cafe in Old Town. To get there from our house on Zaton Bay, we drive for 20 minutes through layers of history, like sediment layers on a cliff: We pass hillsides of drab, communist-era apartments on the outskirts, then park in the faded Victorian quarter of "new" Dubrovnik; we cross the old moat and stroll through one of the massive gates in the medieval walls -- and suddenly, we enter a time warp. Dubrovnik is a magic pedestrian world where almost every cobblestone, statue and doorway was built between the 13th and 17th centuries -- unless, of course, it's been restored since the Balkans War.

The place feels a bit disorienting: The facades look Italian but the people crowding the alleys look and sound almost Russian. It's a Slavic Venice without canals.

And the marble tables of the sprawling Gradska Kavana cafe make a great stage for people-watching -- no wonder leaders of the old communist regime used to hang out here. When we sit on one side of the cafe, we gaze over Dubrovnik's little marina, where fishing boats and cabin cruisers rock at the base of the fortified walls. When we choose the other side, under the fuchsia awnings, we look up at the baroque dome and columns of St. Blaise church. On weekends, the organ spills through the stained-glass windows, and we linger over espressos so we can watch wedding parties pose and mug on the steps.

"Hello," a voice says in soft, accented English, and there's a striking young woman with a delicate hoop piercing her belly button. Darija. We've never hired a guide and interpreter before on vacation, but this young artist could use the extra work, and we figure she's a friendly way to get to know Croatia.

"You can't possibly imagine what this town was like during the war," Darija says. "The morning it started, it was the first day of school. My brother and me, we were excited, we were going to see our friends again. My parents were dressing for work. And I went outside when I heard something" -- she pauses, searching for the right word -- "something like thunder. But it was so strange, because the sky was completely bright. Then we heard that the Serb soldiers were coming down from the mountains to kill all of us with their knives."

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