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There's Something Old and Something New In Dubrovnik

(March 2001)

Croatia may be a newly-formed country, but it has an old soul and a strong sense of national pride. Although it’s been rebuilding itself after recent disasters and is rejuvenating its culture, it still retains its old world charm. The crown jewel and biggest tourist attraction of Croatia is Dubrovnik, a medieval-walled enclave on the shores of the Dalmatian Coast. Lord Byron called it the “Pearl of the Adriatic.”

Part of the reason this “pearl” is so appealing is because it has been able to maintain its aesthetic appeal despite hundreds of years of conflict. When I told people I was going to Dubrovnik, they assumed I was going to a bombed-out location not offering much beauty. I was truly impressed with this city’s character and how the wars have affected it and its people, who show strength in their eagerness to transform the remnants of past tragedy into an intriguing destination today.

Wars and Rising From the Ashes

Looking at this vibrant city today, it seems unimaginable that anyone would ever have wanted to bomb it. In 1991 and 1992, the old town was surrounded, blockaded, and heavily shelled by Yugoslavian, Serbian, and Montenegrin armies. More than 500 historic buildings were damaged—70 percent of all roofs were hit—and nine palaces were gutted by fire. A map on the wall inside the eastern Pile Gate, which serves as a testament to Croatian willpower, exhibits the “damage caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik” during 1991 and 1992. With dots, squares, and triangles, it traces the impact of over 2,000 shells that killed more than 300 people.

Despite the wars and even destruction by fire and earthquakes (the last in 1979), this city has been successful at rebuilding itself. When I visited, there were no gaping holes, piles of rubble, or burned-out buildings. One obvious improvement, though, were the new terracotta roofs standing out against the weathered color of the old.

What to See

Dubrovnik, viewed from the cliffs above, looks like a fairytale land characterized by a 500-year-old fortress that seems to rise from out of the sea. Within the fortress is the old town constructed of stone houses, whitewashed churches, monasteries, and palaces that are all nestled inside a weathered limestone wall. The walls were built between the 14th and 16th centuries, and along with its ramparts, extend some 6,364 feet in length and are 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick. It is considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval structures in the world and is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

There are spectacular views of the sea and surrounding mountains, which you can see as you wander up the stairs and around corners of the city. The one thing you must do is walk on the top of the wall and ramparts—it only takes a little over an hour and costs 20 Kuna ($1.00). Up there you can catch a glimpse of the way the 4,000 residents live. One note of caution: we started our walk around the wall late in the afternoon, which, unknown to us, was shortly before closing. My husband stayed later and then found himself locked in. Because there were no guards around to open the 12-foot gate, he was forced to climb up and over it!

The City Today

This is very much a lived-in city where children chase pigeons in the promenades as men work in the streets. Look all around, and you’ll see laundry neatly pinned to lines, and you can smell the wood fires burning in homes.

The city has a sense of timelessness. City streets are very narrow (cars and motorcycles are banned) and open onto great stone plazas six centuries old. Many buildings, including an elaborate 18th century cathedral, look like larger-than-life wedding cake decorations. This old charm provides a dramatic backdrop to the numerous shops and cafes that line the streets.

Although the old town remains unspoiled, it doesn’t shut out modernized culture entirely. Croatians, especially the young, are very much abreast of Western European fashion and culture. Hints of chic fashions, hip coffeehouses, and current music are evident everywhere.

The People

The general atmosphere in Dubrovnik is laid-back, and the locals are very courteous. Dubrovnikers are used to various nationalities coming to visit, and both English and German are widely spoken. One thing to remember: no matter what language you speak, do not mention the recent war too much. The Croatians have gracefully risen above their national trauma and wholeheartedly believe that the war is over. When I told a store clerk that I was writing about her city, she implored me to not talk about it. She said, “Tell people to come here. We are over the war. We have so much to offer.” Indeed, the rejuvenated city of Dubrovnik is alive again and awaiting your visit.

Explore Dubrovnik further:

City of Dubrovnik Tourist Board: Official website for the town.

Eastern Europe for Visitors at Guide Bill Biega has great links and articles on Croatia.

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