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Dubrovnik Arises Out of the Ashes

Ancient city in Croatia charms tourists again

SEVEN years ago, nobody in Dubrovnik would have believed the city was about to endure another siege. After all, the last siege of any sort had ended 185 years earlier. The city's perfectly preserved 15th-century stone fortifications have since lured invasions of foreigners, but they've come not to plunder, but to explore its idyllic streets and shores.

So when the Yugoslav People's Army charged over the mountains, annexed the outlying villages, and began lobbing shells over into the city's historic center, it came as a total surprise to residents. Yes, there was a terrible war waging between Croatia and Serbia that tragic autumn in 1991, but Dubrovnik was a tourist town of negligible strategic value. Dubrovnik had neither military barracks nor a significant Serb minority.

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Residents huddled

The Serb-lead Army surrounded the city with armor and artillery, warships and infantry. Communications and electricity lines were cut, and residents soon found themselves huddled in candle-lit basements or within the archaic stone fortresses of the Old Town as mortars and artillery shells rained down upon them. This went on for six months, but the walls proved their strength against modern artillery.

Today the city has returned to life, with tourists finally returning in significant numbers. The narrow Venetian-style streets of the Old Town buzz with Italian and German voices. Austrian yachts raft together in the harbor, and cafe umbrellas spread across squares and alleys like mushrooms. United Nations and NATO vehicles sit in hotel parking lots as their occupants recuperate from the stresses of peacemaking in nearby Bosnia.

Before the war, Dubrovnik had become something of a seasonal tourist trap, so packed with sightseers that the walled Old Town sometimes resembled a prison for package tourists. This city of 35,000 was the most popular tourist destination in all of Yugoslavia, a country with no shortage of holiday destinations. It was hard to appreciate the city with all the hubbub and conspicuous consumption.

But for the time being, visitors can see Dubrovnik without the stifling crowds. You'll quickly appreciate what all the fuss is about, despite the recent war. Hundreds of buildings were damaged in 1991-92, but the city hides its damage well: With roofs repaired and shutters closed, it's difficult to tell a gutted structure from an intact one without careful inspection.

Lord Byron called it, "The Pearl of the Adriatic." It's easy to see why. The intact city walls cradle a medieval city of red-roofed buildings nestled between the stunning karst peaks of the Dinaric Alps and the warm, aquamarine waters of the Adriatic. A short walk out of the main gate, surf crashes into cliffs below pastoral meadows of maquis vegetation. Open wooden fishing boats bob in the surf offshore.

Napoleon took city

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It's possible to circumnavigate the city atop the 15th-century walls, a vantage that reveals a carefully organized street plan, which minimizes the effects of harsh weather or the harsh mid-day sun. Narrow stone streets become staircases as they climb the embankment, or open out into cozy squares where the sizable feline population goes to sun.

That so many 14th- and 15th-century palaces, churches, fountains, and fortifications have survived to this day is all the more impressive for those familiar with the tumultuous history of the Balkans.

While other cities were laid to waste by the ebb and flow of warring empires, Dubrovnik maintained a prosperous and largely independent city-state behind its mighty walls. Napoleon finally put an end to the city's independence and took the city by ruse, not cannon.

The Serbs' 1991-92 siege was neither clever nor successful. Their bombardment of an undefended and much-loved city helped turn world opinion against Belgrade, and the siege was ultimately abandoned during cease-fire negotiations with Croatia.

Nine palaces were completely gutted by the shelling and dozens of other buildings, including churches and monasteries, were seriously damaged.

Reminders of the conflict are all around - from the shell craters along the coastal highway from Split to the piles of rubble remaining in front of the Jesuit seminary. Tourists stroll over mortar scars on the marble pavements and gawk at the gutted hotels outside the Old Town walls.

Just repairing the physical damage to Old Town historic monuments will cost $9.7 million; the mayor's office estimates total war damage citywide at more than $2 billion.

The streets and alleyways (all of which are closed to vehicles) are again packed with outdoor cafes and seafood restaurants. Locals swim and dive from the base of the stone walls. Concerts and gallery openings draw evening crowds into historic churches.

"Its been a long, terrible time for us since the war," says an elderly resident who rents rooms to tourists. "But finally the city is coming back to life, and the war is becoming part of our history."

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