We all hear the sound at the same time and blurt out the same words in unison: “What was that?”
That , it turns out, was the sound of an airplane taking off.
We are near the makeshift airport that serves this ancient walled city on the Dalmatian Coast, in one of the prettiest parts of what used to be Yugoslavia, and it is logical, of course, to hear airplanes taking off and landing from here. But we are understandably nervous: We’re in the nearby town of Cilipi, just four miles from the Bosnian border. Cilipi has been largely destroyed by Serbian forces, and we’re here to meet a group of young volunteers from England, Australia and New Zealand who are helping to rebuild it--using picks, shovels and sheer brawn to dig a trench for the town’s new water system.
One of them, Michael Phelan of Melbourne, has just told us that he was here in June, when the Serbians started shelling again and the work crew had to take cover in their own ditch. “It was pretty scary,” he says. That might have something to do with the fact that most of us probably considered dropping to the ground in the split second after that airplane noise. Or maybe it’s just because we’re still jet-lagged, or can still hear the disapproval of our friends and relatives when we told them we were coming here. They think we’re daring, if not demented, to visit Croatia. But what do they know? What do any of us know while we’re sitting half a world away?
It is our second day in Croatia, and we’ve already had several official briefings about the war--the “War of Serbian Aggression” in the Croatian lexicon. Although there has been a cease-fire in the Dubrovnik area since October, 1992, parts of Croatia are still under United Nations protection--everywhere were UN soldiers, in their distinctive blue berets, when we landed in Zagreb, the Croatian capital--and there are still a few “problem areas” in the country, to put it mildly.
Our tour group of 15 journalists from the U.S. and Canada--including a Croatian-born photographer from New York and a Florida magazine writer who is going to meet her Croatian husband’s mother, for the first time--has been put together by Croatian government and tourism officials and by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, established to raise charitable contributions for restoration of the city. (Though I traveled with the group three weeks ago, I paid my own way.)
This also is the first coordinated effort to bring travel writers to Croatia since the war began two years ago. Before the war, Croatia attracted some 10 million tourists annually, bringing $3.5 to $4 billion a year in revenues. The scenic Dalmatian Coast--parts of which you no longer can drive safely--was particularly popular with tourists from other European countries, but also attracted growing numbers of Americans (some 67,000 of them in 1990, before the war), who deemed it a travel bargain on the otherwise expensive Continent. Dubrovnik and nearby islands charmed even more tourists who arrived briefly on cruise ships between Athens and Venice.
Hardly surprisingly, Croatian tourism has been virtually nonexistent since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. The point of this trip was to hope to demonstrate to us, so that we can tell American readers, that not all the one-time tourist hot-spots along the Dalmatian Coast have been destroyed (which indeed they haven’t), and that no visitor to the region need fear being attacked. In fact, we feel improbably safe here--and so silly about the airplane incident that, for the rest of our six-day visit, nobody overreacts like that again.
“Croatia looks about a centimeter big on a map,” laments Sylva Tuskanac, a tour guide with Atlas Travel, Croatia’s official government-owned travel agency, “so everyone thinks we are so close to the fighting that they are afraid to come.”
What will it take to bring tourism back to Croatia? An end to the war in general? Or perhaps just a return of the cruise ships, and a few adventurous visitors to carry back word that this no longer is a war zone.
Next to Venice, cherished Dubrovnik is the best-known tourist spot on the Adriatic Coast. Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th Century by refugees from Greece, and, under its former name of Ragusa, became one of the great naval powers of the eastern Mediterranean, retaining its independence as a city-state until it was conquered by Napoleon in 1806. Its walls, dating from the 13th through 16th centuries, are remarkably well preserved, and its palaces, religious buildings and old stone streets remain largely intact--making Dubrovnik one of the most beautiful remnants of the medieval world in Europe.
When I last was here in 1989, the old part of town was elbow-to-elbow with tour groups, filing across the old wooden drawbridge and traipsing through the Gothic gates to the city to view its wealth of cultural and religious monuments. On a typical summer day, between 30,000 and 40,000 tourists filled the animated Placa (pronounced PLAT-sa) or main street.
Four years later, I encounter only one small tour group in this old town. Many of the monuments are boarded up and museums remain closed.
“Most of the exhibits are somewhere hidden,” says tour guide Branka Franicevic. “Everybody thinks the fighting is over, but just to be sure . . .”
Nikola Obuljen, mayor of Dubrovnik, explains that monuments throughout Croatia are boarded up for protection, by order of the cultural minister. “We are expecting the minister to remove the order soon, when the shelling is over in Bosnia, in Zadar and Sibenik,” Obuljen says.
Dubrovnik itself was heavily shelled, of course, to the outcry of the international community. The scars of mortar shells pockmark stone buildings and the timeworn paving stones of the Placa and other streets. Even the Serbian Orthodox church was damaged. Thousands of terra cotta tiles have been, or are going to be, replaced atop Dubrovnik’s distinctive roofs. This is particularly noticeable when I climb what seems like a hundred steps and walk atop the old imposing city walls built to protect the one-time city-state from invaders of all sorts. They served the city well in its most recent conflict, as well: Though Serbian forces never actually stormed the walls, defenders of the city used them for observation purposes, and great numbers of locals from surrounding areas sought refuge inside them in the face of Serbian attacks.
The very phrase “Serbian attacks” is still painful to the people of Dubrovnik. Everyone thought the Serbian combatants would spare the city, designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Dubrovnik had no army, no military or industrial importance. It existed strictly on tourism. No one dreamed that anyone, no matter how intense an enemy, would lob thousands of missiles at the town from atop a hill and from the sea.
“You heard the cannons and you’re thinking, Old Town, no, no, never,” says Aida Dirlic, president of the Forum of Women Dubrovnik, Croatia, a group she formed to encourage women and children to remain in Dubrovnik. “No Germans, no Italians, no one has destroyed Old Town.”
How safe is Dubrovnik today? “If you are safe in Florence and Rome,” insists Niko Bulic, minister of tourism for Croatia, “you can be safe in Dubrovnik.”
Mario Marusic, director of the Dubrovnik Tourist board, answers the same query with a question of his own: “How do you know there won’t be another attack on downtown Los Angeles?” Then he adds, “They (the Serbians) made a big mistake and we don’t expect they will do the same mistake twice. There is too much world opinion against them for what they did to Dubrovnik for no reason . . . We are now heavily armed and we have a big concentration of Croatian soldiers on our borders. But everyone is hoping for a political solution. In a peaceful atmosphere, you can negotiate lots of things.”
Locals say things are returning to normal in Dubrovnik. One sure sign: The town has started charging an entrance fee again (about 50 cents) to climb the old city walls.
“We are recovering, I can’t say we have a normal situation here, but we have a peaceful situation,” says Mayor Obuljen.
As for the museums, it’s a catch-22. “If the tourists come, we will open all the doors,” says Marusic. “It would be a shame if we open the museums and no one comes.”
Tourism minister Bulic predicts that people will start coming back to Dubrovnik in some number next summer. “In three years I predict Dubrovnik will be back on its feet again.”
Serbian shelling decimated Dubrovnik’s pigeon population. Locals miss the pesky birds that swoop over the Placa whenever clock tower bells strike on the hour, so the city is importing more from Venice.
Meanwhile, electricity has been restored to the tourist areas of Dubrovnik, though other sections of the city (and other parts of Croatia) still ration power during daylight hours. Four first-class hotels--the Argentina, Villa Orsula, Excelsior and Dubrovnik President--are open, although they appear to be without air-condi- tioning, and the elevators in some are not working. Many other hotels are housing refugees who have lost their homes.
Prices have dropped to an average high-season hotel rate of $45 per person per day, including breakfast and dinner. Three years ago, that would have cost an average of $120.
Dinner prices at restaurants along the steep, charming step streets in Old Town are amazingly low. At the highly recommended Sebastian’s, we dine for $20 for two, including a bottle of good white wine. The next night at Restaurant Roguzzo, the tab is only $20 for three, with a not-so-good carafe.
One night we watch residents of Old Town hang out of their green-shuttered windows listening to an outdoor concert by the superb Croatian Army Wind Orchestra. It is playing everything from “Rhapsody In Blue” to “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” for the closing night program of the 44th Dubrovnik Summer Festival, held each year from July 10 to Aug. 25.
“The festival means a lot to the people of Dubrovnik,” says Marusic. Last year, it was nearly canceled due to heavy bombardment from the Serbians. On what would have been opening night, though, residents of the city organized a vigil as a symbol of resistance, emerging from their houses with candles and walking up and down the Placa in silence. “We had to go out and do something,” Marusic explains.
Getting there: The best air connections between LAX and Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, are on Luftansa via Frankfurt or on Delta Airlines via Frankfurt, American Airlines via Zurich and British Airways or Virgin Airlines via London, the latter four connecting with Croatia Airlines. Croatia also flies to Zagreb from a number of other European capitals, including Geneva, Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich, Brussels, Paris and Rome. There are several flights a day between Zagreb and Dubrovnik on Croatia and Anic Air. Round-trip advance-purchase fares between LAX and Zagreb start from around $1,350. Round-trip fare between Zagreb and Dubrovnik is about $135.
Where to stay: Approximate rates for the first-class hotels mentioned above, for a double room for one night, including breakfast, are: the Argentina and the Excelsior, $64; Villa Orsula, $102; Dubrovnik President, $122. These and other hotels in lower categories, as well as accommodations in private apartments and guest houses in and near Dubrovnik (at $12 per person per night, including breakfast) may be booked through Atlas Ambassador Dubrovnik (see below).
For more information: Contact Nena Komairca at Atlas Ambassador Dubrovnik, the only official Croatian travel agency now operating in the United States; tel. (212) 697-6767. Arrangements may also be made through English-speaking agents at Atlas in Croatia itself, from U.S. phones 011-38-41-624-305.