When I visit a particularly enticing city, I often daydream about being the only foreigner in town, far away from other tourists, especially those pesky Americans. I'm writing this from Dubrovnik, Croatia, where my Walter Mitty travel fantasy has come true. But as with other realized dreams, the reality is disappointing.
Dubrovnik, known in brochure-speak as the "Pearl of the Adriatic," is a splendid walled city that, as an independent city-state called the Republic of Ragusa, for 500 years dominated the Mediterranean sea lanes. In a good year Dubrovnik will draw more than 800,000 foreign visitors to explore its medieval charms and attend its renowned summer arts festival. This is definitely not going to be one of those years. Except for a handful of Spanish SFOR (stabilization force) troops, some U.N. workers on R&R from Bosnia and a bus load of elderly Japanese visitors that has suddenly materialized, I'm one of a few foreigners in town. There are probably more foreign visitors in Sandusky, Ohio, than in Dubrovnik.
The reason for my solitude is the bombardment of Yugoslavia, part of which is now taking place a few miles down the coast in Serbia's reluctant junior partner, Montenegro. Although Croatia has been spared strategic bombings, ethnic murders, refugee expulsions and other features of daily life in Slobodan Milosevic's Serboslavia, the NATO attacks, like the Serb-Croat and Bosnian fighting that preceded it, have kept tourists away in droves. Cruise ship and hotel cancellations reached 9,000 per week immediately after the bombing started, with a devastating effect on the city's vital tourism industry. The manager of a nearby luxury hotel told me that only 70 of his 1,000 beds are occupied. It's as if NATO had dropped a touristic neutron bomb that vaporized the foreigners while leaving intact the massive walls and elegant palaces of this ancient city of stone.
Although the local residents appear to be ignoring the war next door, there's plenty of evidence that the war is nearby. My lunch in the nearby village of Cavtat was interrupted by alarmed villagers (including my waiter) rushing into the street after a colossal sonic boom. And from my hotel balcony, from out at sea almost every night I hear the distant roar of F-16s returning to their base at Aviano after their raids on Yugoslavia.
In Dubrovnik, politics begins at the airport. My last arrival had been in 1994, during an earlier war, when my plane taxied straight past a burned-out and looted terminal to off-load in the basement of a shattered and partially destroyed hangar. Today's arrivals arrive at a handsome new airport, once called an "Aerodrom" (as in Aerodrom Belgrade), which has now, presumably for linguistic and nationalistic reasons, been renamed a Zracna Luka, using logically enough the Croatian words for "air" and "port," but sure to confuse the foreign tourists the Croatian economy depends on.
Leaving the airport, the choices become more than semantic. From the parking area a left turn on the coastal highway follows a dark, little-traveled road to Croatia's tense and disputed border with Yugoslavia, where the traffic consists of U.N. military observers patrolling a disputed frontier zone sure to remain unsettled for many years. But a turn to the right leads to Dubrovnik along a Mediterranean corniche of spectacular beauty where carpets of tall, dark cypresses and sea pines extend to the sea, surrounding honey-colored stone houses as they descend--a visual feast that, in my 1994 visit, was blighted by the sight of shell-pocked houses and hotels devastated by Yugoslavia's military during their one-year occupation of Dubrovnik's hinterland. From high on the ramparts few signs of that bombardment are now visible, except for the roofs, where the tomato-red tiles of houses holed by Serb artillery have been replaced by those of light pink and rose, giving the rooftops an oddly speckled and disheveled look.
From the walls, strollers look down on the Placa, Dubrovnik's broad main promenade, whose ancient stones have been worn smooth by the tread of seven centuries and shine like glass after a rain. But in this aborted tourist season hundreds of people who usually throng the Placa have failed to turn up. Shorn of its usual tourist herds of umbrella-toting guides and lobster-red visitors from northern lands, the Placa reverts to its off-season intimacy and warmth in a pageant of local life where families gather to gossip and children play with other kids who, in this small town, they'll be seeing for the rest of their lives. But the vitality and cosmopolitan feel that international visitors bring to Dubrovnik's cafes and concerts is missing. Not only do I find myself missing the tourist hubbub that usually animates Dubrovnik, my daydream of being in a tourist-free city sours with the reality of Fellini-like evenings spent dining alone in empty restaurants or silent, darkened piazzas, with cats for company and a candle for illumination.
Dubrovnik's new high-season coziness also personalizes my stay, as I keep bumping into my hotel helpers in the midst of their personal lives--the bellboy out on a date and the newsstand lady with her family in one of the Placa's cafes. While their plight cannot be even remotely compared with the suffering that surrounds Kosovo, they are the economic victims of Dubrovnik's non-season of 1999--their livelihoods part of NATO's collateral damage. But Dubrovnik's small-town feel extends to a sense of optimism. As one Dubrovnik resident told me, "We've had it a lot worse than this. Back in '91 the Serbs shelled us every day, we were short of food and there were no jobs at all. Wait until next year."
CAPTION: The bombardment of Yugoslavia has left nearby Dubrovnik (pictured) a lonely place to visit.