Would anyone really want to go to war-torn Croatia? And just how safe is it? Although the strife continues in neighboring Bosnia, the new little nation of Croatia -- which was created in the breakup of Yugoslavia -- is hoping to again lure the tourist hordes that once flocked to its long, sun-swept Adriatic Coast. Just back from a week's trip, I found a grateful welcome, fine lodgings at a bargain price, inviting sidewalk cafes, the same gorgeous turquoise sea that has delighted visitors for centuries and, yes, sad evidence of the damage wrought by the Balkan conflict.
Seceding from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia subsequently was wracked by turmoil and destruction for many months. Its most famous tourist site, the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, came under a long siege by the Yugoslav army and was badly shelled. But the worst of the fighting ended almost two years ago, and the country's tourism industry, a major factor in Croatia's economy, has made a concerted effort to rebuild, repair and reopen. "This is a city made of stone, so it's not so easy to destroy," says Dubrovnik Mayor Nicola Obuljen. "We hope we're going to have a tourist season this year."
In considering a trip to Croatia, I was troubled by several political and moral questions. Would a visit to the country suggest that I was taking sides in a complex dispute in which each of the affected governments shares some blame for the horrors? Should I feel guilty recommending a beach holiday along the Adriatic Coast when many people in Dubrovnik are refugees from burned-out homes or may still be suffering from the loss of loved ones killed in the shelling? By one report, 193 Dubrovnik residents died. Would it be unseemly to hunt out and contemplate sites where the shells fell? Ultimately, I answered these questions to my own satisfaction -- and set out for Croatia, to find out if I was right.
My itinerary took me to the beautiful old capital city of Zagreb -- the most cosmopolitan city of the former Yugoslavia -- to Dubrovnik and to the port of Split, where the towering walls of the Roman palace of Diocletian have stood for centuries. Part of one day I spent driving the coastal highway between Dubrovnik and Split, surely one of the most continuously scenic seascapes in the world.
What I learned is that parts of Croatia are ready to receive tourists, although I suspect only the more intrepid will consider a trip until a lasting peace is attained in the region. The big allures, of course, are the country's rich array of historical attractions and the beautiful pristine beaches, coves and villages that dot the mainland and the many offshore islands. The islands and much of the coast were untouched by the fighting. But travelers with an intelligent curiosity also will be interested in the still-visible evidence of the war's fury and in the remarkable recovery the people of Croatia are making. Almost everyone I met had a story to tell -- some of them bitter, many of them inspiring. Protective coverings shielding some of Dubrovnik's architectural treasures are expected to be removed shortly, its museums are reopening and the traditional summer cultural festival is scheduled from July 10 to Aug. 25.
And then there are the bargains. The Dubrovnik tourist office, just inside the city's main gate, can arrange lodging in the old quarters or nearby for as little as $10 a night for one or two people. In Dubrovnik, I stayed in the charming Villa Orsula, a small deluxe hotel with a splendid view of the sea and the city walls for about $70 a night, which included a full breakfast and use of the indoor pool. A full dinner in a top restaurant came to about $25 per person with wine, tax and tip. If and when peace comes to the Balkans, those prices -- cheap compared with rates in Italy on the opposite Adriatic shore -- could skyrocket.
My feeling is that this is a special time to visit the country -- and particularly the resort communities and islands both on the northern Adriatic Coast along the Istrian Peninsula and on the southern Adriatic Coast along the Dalmatian Coast. Dalmatia, where Dubrovnik is located, is a province of Croatia. In decades past, most tourists who visited Yugoslavia headed straight for the area; it was the place to be for a good tan and great fun. When I first explored Dalmatia 22 years ago, it was awash in Italians, Germans, the English, Scandinavians and other Americans. I wondered then if anybody on the streets actually was a local resident.
This time, Dubrovnik's streets were filled almost entirely with local people -- the rare exception being a uniformed United Nations peace-keeper from Denmark or elsewhere. Each evening at 7, the citizenry celebrated the end of the day with a sort of community social hour, an appealing and long-established custom that gave Dubrovnik an air of peaceful normalcy. Pouring into the old city as the shops closed, they gathered at the sidewalk cafes along the Placa, a polished-stone pedestrian thoroughfare within the old walls. Groups of teenagers, just released from classes, swirled up the street and down, chattering as loudly and spiritedly as their counterparts in an American mall. As an avid people watcher, I sat nightly with a glass of wine taking in the animated scene.
In years past, the winding, two-lane road that traces the Adriatic often was clogged with traffic, particularly in the summer. On my drive, the route was nearly empty. At one time, the 145-mile trip between Dubrovnik and Split took more than six hours; now you can do it in about three. It is possible to drive the entire length of Croatia's Adriatic Coast from Rijeka and the Istrian Peninsula south to Dubrovnik, according to Croatian tourism officials. The U.S. Embassy cautions, however, that there is a potential danger spot just north of the city of Zadar and recommends against traveling this portion of the route. Travelers will have to decide how adventurous they want to be.
Of the three cities where I stopped, only Dubrovnik had been caught within the scattered zones of conflict in Croatia. I'm not sure what I expected to find -- a grim wasteland, perhaps, or an armed camp -- but the city seemed in surprisingly good shape despite the pummeling it took. Mayor Obuljen says 2,000 shells struck within the city's high walls. But as I stepped inside the Pila gate, Dubrovnik at first seemed (like Venice) worn only by the ages. Later I became aware of substantial shell damage, some of it still unrepaired. Overall, though, the city remains the astounding monument to the past that I remembered from years ago. Purists may contend, however, that replacing damaged pillars and other architectural features, as is being done, compromises the historical integrity of the city.
On the down side, several attractions offered to tourists before the war are not now available. The cable car to the mountaintop overlooking Dubrovnik was demolished and has not yet been rebuilt. In the pre-war years, one of Croatia's major tour companies, Atlas, scheduled as many as 36 daily sightseeing excursions out of Dubrovnik. This summer it hopes to organize only about eight. One reason is the lack of customers; another is that several of the former destinations, such as the Bosnian city of Mostar, suffered grievously in the civil war in that country. Only about 4,000 of Dubrovnik's roster of 25,000 hotel rooms are now open to tourists; several others temporarily house Croatians who lost their homes or refugees fleeing Bosnia. Many shops and restaurants have closed for lack of business.
What answers did I find to my political and moral questions? A Dubrovnik hotel keeper, who of course had an obvious self-interest in the matter, said Dubrovnik needs tourist dollars to rebuild, and the survivors want to go back to work they know, which is welcoming tourists. No, she said, I should not feel guilty about recommending Croatia as a tourist destination.
Might I appear to be taking sides in the historical dispute? I hope not. I would like to explore elsewhere in the region when tourism becomes as feasible as it is in Croatia now.
And what about seeking out the sites where the shells fell? Maybe it's unseemly -- but maybe also there are lessons to be learned. I served in the Army in the quiet years between the Korean and Vietnam wars and so had never before seen the results of a battle firsthand. In Dubrovnik, where the rubble has been cleared but which is still recovering, I could easily imagine the horror the city's residents must have experienced. I met a Dubrovnik man who evacuated his family when the shelling began and didn't learn for six months that they had made it to safety.
Finally, there is the question anyone considering a trip to Croatia will ponder: Is it safe? I think so, at least under current conditions. The State Department has not issued an advisory warning against travel there. Croatian government officials and Serb rebels who occupy about one-quarter of the country agreed March 30 on a cease-fire plan, which seems to be holding. But no one can predict with any certainty whether the peace will continue as long as there is conflict just across Croatia's borders. The U.S. Embassy in Zagreb considers travel unsafe in the four United Nations Protected Areas in Croatia, which dot the Bosnian and Serbian borders. Check with the State Department's Citizen Emergency Center or the embassy in Zagreb for an update on possible danger spots.
I'll admit to some apprehension as I flew into Zagreb on a Saturday afternoon, but it soon vanished when I saw the pervasive calm in the city's tree-lined streets. Sleek blue trolleys rumbled past my hotel bound for the imposing main square, called Trg Ban Josip Jelacic. The name is a Serbo-Croatian mouthful, which I never mastered in my short visit. No matter. Though I couldn't pronounce it, I sat comfortably beneath an umbrella in an outdoor cafe on the square sorting through the maps and tourist literature I had picked up at the nearby tourist office. In Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split I found good, recently published material and books in English in the city tourist offices.
Once I got my bearings, I set off on foot on a meandering tour. Set at the foot of lofty green hills, Zagreb, an ancient trading center, is a pretty city that has an old European look to it. Narrow streets slip between the walls of the former houses and palaces of 18th-century nobility, and elegant gardens ring the central core. Despite the recent war, the city seemed almost festive, perhaps because so many of its old streets are lined with outside cafes. On a mild, sunny Saturday afternoon they were filled with couples and families, enjoying a cup of coffee, a beer or ice cream.
I peered briefly into the city's Gothic cathedral, St. Stephen, which dates to the 11th century; its soaring twin towers are visible from miles around. And then I boarded the old blue funicular that hoisted me from the main square to Upper Town on the hillside above. At the Upper Town funicular station stands the Lotrscak Tower, a vestige of 13th-century fortifications. Rickety steps wind to the tower's summit, where the view of the city is well worth the precarious climb.
Behind the tower are Croatia's principal governmental offices and the Church of St. Mark, which sports a distinctive multicolored tiled roof. Crowds surrounded the church, and I soon caught on why. St. Mark was playing host to a series of weddings, one after the other, each attended by its own large group of well-wishers. As one bride and groom stepped from the interior and departed in a horn-honking motorcade, another couple hurried inside. Life goes on.
To learn more about Croatia's bid for tourism, I made an appointment for lunch the next day with Pave Zupan Ruskovic, president of Atlas, the big Croatian tour company. She suggested trying the Gracanska, one of several attractive garden-style restaurants on the city's outskirts. With her help, I ordered a typically hearty Croatian meal that began with a glass of pear brandy and continued with sauteed mushrooms for an appetizer, a green salad, roast veal and vegetables (far more than I could eat) and creme caramel. With bottled water, bread and a tip, the price came to about $16 per person. As I ate, I listened to Zupan Ruskovic's intriguing personal story.
She began working at Atlas as a 13-year-old schoolgirl leading bus tours out of Dubrovnik, which is her home. As an adult, she returned to the 70-year-old company as a university-trained economist. Over the years, she earned the respect of her fellow employees, who insisted she be named president in 1982 when Atlas was in financial trouble. Even the tour bus drivers wanted her, although on the first day she was their boss she sent many of them home to shave and put on better clothes before allowing them to drive. But her biggest challenge has been keeping the company alive through the recent war and the subsequent dropoff of tourism. Many of the firm's tour buses and excursion boats were destroyed when Dubrovnik was shelled.
Since the end of the fighting, she has rebuilt Atlas, replacing many of the lost buses and boats, and she has managed to keep almost 900 of its pre-war staff of 1,500 on the payroll. In recent months, some revenue has come from business travelers and United Nations officials. Now she believes the worst is over. This summer, Atlas has put together its most extensive package of tours since 1991 and is close to making a profit again. Zupan Ruskovic would like to draw more Americans as clients, both because they are culturally curious and because they spend more. Her employees, she says, "are more than happy to be working."
My next stop was Dubrovnik, where I flew aboard a Croatia Airlines 737. The airline, which has a good record, offers regularly scheduled flights to many of Europe's capitals and Croatia's larger cities. I flew on the airline three times and found the service prompt and professional. Indeed, the airline is so up-to-date that domestic flights are fully nonsmoking. Its security procedures seemed very strict.
Thrusting into the limpid Adriatic, the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik is one of the world's great architectural treasures -- which accounts for the international outrage that erupted when the shelling began. Its beauty is both in its rare mix of ornate and well-preserved Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine structures, reflecting its heritage as a meeting place for several civilizations, and in its superb setting between sea and high, craggy mountains. Just to view it, as you might a fine old painting, is reason enough to go.
Scars from the shelling are quite visible, but many of these blemishes will disappear in ongoing restoration work. A fact sheet distributed by the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, which has solicited contributions to aid in the reconstruction, says nine major buildings and many homes in the old city were destroyed and that 563 of 824 buildings were seriously damaged. At least 60 percent of the red terra-cotta roof tiles also were destroyed and many more were damaged. And yet, this report sounds worse than the city actually looks. I spent two days wandering Dubrovnik's pedestrian-only streets, and I found the place as lovely as I remembered from my first visit.
One morning I climbed a zigzagging series of steep steps to the top of the walls and circled the city from this vantage. It is an engaging hike, which takes about an hour. You ascend and descend numerous stairways, pass through ancient towers -- among them, the soaring Minceta -- and peer out over parapets to the sea and the hills. Up above the roofs, I could see several clusters of workmen replacing the red tiles in all parts of the city. The repair is progressing very well, it seemed. More often, though, I simply wandered the old city's maze of narrow streets -- visiting art galleries and shops and stopping for occasional snacks at sidewalk cafes.
Monday must be laundry day in Dubrovnik, because the clotheslines draped above almost every street were filled with the family wash. In one square near the Placa, I chanced upon the "green market," an open marketplace where fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers were displayed. Down one slender passage, I was serenaded by a pianist, whose classical tune floated from a third-floor window. It seemed all so ordinary, which I suppose in this troubled part of Europe is most welcome.
To get to Split, I hired a car and driver. The road along the Adriatic is spectacular, but sobering, too, these days. In the villages just north of Dubrovnik, the driver pointed out many homes that had been gutted by fire. As money and materials become available, they are being rebuilt. It was here that my conscience most bothered me. Could I, or anyone, really enjoy a visit to the area as witnesses to the misfortune of the residents? And then I remembered what Zupan Ruskovic and others had told me. Without tourist money, recovery will take much longer. Staying away isn't going to help anybody.
For the length of the drive, the sea is rarely out of sight. And the view of the mountains, which rise dramatically from the other side of the road, is similarly impressive. On a sunny day, the vistas inspire hope for the future. Terraced vineyards dotted the way, and around one curve we came upon a valley filled with orange and other citrus trees. Had the weather been just a little warmer, I would have been tempted into taking a swim at one of the many beaches we passed. Several times we were stopped at security checkpoints, but we passed through them quickly and with minimal fuss. At one point, the road crosses a slender, 10-mile-wide strip of Bosnia that touches the Adriatic, but this is not considered a danger area.
Because I had lingered so long in Dubrovnik, I had time only for an afternoon in Split, which I spent exploring the noisy, tangled streets in the old quarter. They are ringed by the high stone walls of the Palace of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who reigned from 284 to 305. The palace in Split was his home after he abdicated until his death in 313, and the remnants are considered among the best examples of Roman palatial architecture still standing. For most visitors, at least before the war, Split was the jumping-off place for vacations on the nearby Adriatic islands. They are linked by the ferries that scoot in and out of its harbor almost continuously.
If you distinguish between travelers and vacationers as I do -- that is, travelers go to learn and vacationers go to relax -- then Croatia today is a destination for travelers. Its ancient monuments have survived and are worthy of study, but the aftermath of war is another interesting topic to pursue. And there is nothing like a personal visit to a troubled area such as the Balkans to focus your mind on its problems. Only now am I coming to understand the complexities facing the peace-makers in the region. In time, if they succeed, Croatia will be ready again for the vacationers.