Ferrily She Rolled Along
Sunday, March 26, 2006
The dour old woman was straight out of central casting, Mediterranean division: short and stocky, wearing a shapeless black dress and shawl, her gray hair in a bun. As I followed her up the stairs of her narrow stone house outside Dubrovnik's Old Town, I wondered just what kind of room she was renting me. At $50 a night, I couldn't be too picky. Then she threw open the bedroom shutters. Outside the window was a Southern European trifecta: blue sea, red tile roofs, towering cliffs.
Gasp-worthy? Absolutely. But along Croatia's Adriatic coast, it's the standard-issue view.
Minutes later I joined the mix of locals and tourists at the massive Pile Gate, one of two entrances to Stari Grad, or Old Town. The marble-paved streets seemed to glow from within in the late-afternoon sun. That amazing light, the chamber music spilling out of church doorways, the cafes and ancient monuments sharing space beneath 800-year-old city walls . . . Cue another gasp.
Another day in Croatia, another sharp intake of breath. And this was just Dubrovnik. In addition to the legendary "pearl of the Adriatic," the Dalmatian coast -- the lower half of the coastline, a 225-mile stretch from the city of Zadar to Dubrovnik -- boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, more than 1,000 rustic islands with their own traditions and culture, and one of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.
But is it safe? Despite the fact that its war of independence from the former Yugoslavia ended more than a decade ago, many people still envision a ravaged land where, they imagine, visitors sleep in drab Soviet-style hotels and wander streets lined with bombed-out buildings. The truth is that this crescent-shaped, West Virginia-size country of 4 1/2 million people feels like Italy or Greece, only fresher and less trammeled. And since it's not on the euro, the dollar goes further here -- although that will change soon, as Croatia is expected to join the European Union in 2009.
This is usually the point in the story where you read, "Go soon, before it gets discovered." But Europeans are already returning to Croatia in droves, and many cruise ships have added Dubrovnik to their Mediterranean itineraries. It can feel claustrophobic, especially in summer. Better to go in September, when the weather's perfect, everything's still open, the streets are less mobbed . . . and the gasp quotient remains high.
The rooftops of Dubrovnik tell the tale. Walking around the impeccably preserved Old Town, you'd never know it had been heavily bombarded just over a decade ago, so thorough have restoration efforts been. But walk the ramparts of the mile-long city wall, gaze down at the city, and there's the evidence: the vivid orange roofs that dominate the skyline. The bright new tiles -- 70 percent of the town's roofs -- are jarring, in sharp contrast to the few faded prewar tiles that remain.
"The Serbians shelled from the top," said Stefica Curic, 25, a college student who moonlights giving tours of her home town. "They bombed from above because the walls of the houses would have been much harder to penetrate."
Only minutes into our walk through the Old Town, the conversation had turned to the war. The subject is never far from the surface in Dubrovnik, where more than 200 defenders died during the Serbian siege of the city in 1991-92. An annotated map posted near Pile Gate shows the damage to houses and landmarks all too graphically.
"No one believed they would bomb Dubrovnik," Curic said as we made our way past the shops and monuments of Stradun, the main pedestrian thoroughfare. A delicate-featured woman with cropped brown hair, she spoke of the prewar days when she and her classmates were force-fed the hated Cyrillic alphabet, and her parents hid books advocating Croatian nationalism behind the front rows of their shelves. "You couldn't say you were a Croat," she said.
When the war started, she said, many Croatians moved to Dubrovnik because they believed the city's UNESCO World Heritage Site status made it immune to attacks. Instead, the world watched in horror as the Yugoslav army systematically bombed the city's treasured monuments for a year after Croatia declared independence.
"My family's house was destroyed," she said matter-of-factly. "I was 11 or 12 years old. But we've restored my house, and now we live normal lives."