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Modern Day Croatia

Mrs. Dragicevic had a light cough and a searching, poignant smile, and these sometimes worked together to open up a sort of vast haunted corridor behind certain phrases, as when she mentioned those who fought to preserve "a peaceful and normal life." I asked who they were, and she said, "A group of young people organized themselves, and during the night they would bring in arms and equipment by speedboat." Kids with smuggled guns holding off an army?It didn't make sense. Why couldn't the Serbs and Montenegrins take Dubrovnik?"Well, it was not that simple. The town, first, is protected by the medieval walls. Which is absurd, but even so, they proved to be of great help." Also, the attackers had thought that Dubrovnik's residents would give up, but they didn't. "War is a very special experience," Dragicevic said slowly. "And it's maybe an enrichment of some kind, a knowledge about people around you." She smiled, I smiled back, listening to the sound of children playing, which reached us through an open window from the cobblestone street below.

Near dusk, Becky and I walked along the top of Dubrovnik's city walls. You cannot help but feel joy there; it is too beautiful. Vertigo at the edge, looking down at the mounting sea; turning for a defiant glance at the mountains; slipping around a corner to see a rear terrace backed against the interior wall, a couple sitting under a grape arbor, on their rickety table a plastic liter of wine. Wave, and they wave back. The sun sets slowly as the sea runs through its riffs of color.

The greatest attraction of Dubrovnik is simply the city itself--the alternation between dizzying walks on the city walls and the shelter of a café along the Stradun. The museums are modest, the restaurants reliably good and never pretentious. Several people recommended Rozarij, where we had lunch--a simple, well-prepared risotto, spaghetti, a plate of cheeses, young local wine. The menu was typical, and basically Italian. I noticed that people in Dubrovnik use a form of the verb gustare to indicate their likes and dislikes, and there are many other borrowings from Italian in the Dalmatian dialect. The pace of life is wonderfully Mediterranean; the height of exertion, an easy day trip north to Ston (for oysters and mussels) or to the beautiful Elaphite Islands between Dubrovnik and Ston (particularly Kolocep, Lopud, and Sipan).

The best hotels-- Villa Orsula and Villa Dubrovnik-- are a stroll down the coast from the Old Town, past orange, lemon, and olive trees, hibiscus and oleander. These hotels share a stepped seaside garden. Their restaurants float in the treetops. We returned late to our suite at the Villa Dubrovnik, which, like nearly all the hotels along the Adriatic coast, sheltered refugees during the war, sometimes for years.

I went out onto our broad terrace with the herbed brandy we had bought at the market. I sat down to gaze at the city walls illuminated by white lights. I don't know what it is about Dubrovnik, but when you see the place reaching tentatively into the sea, you want to protect it.

from dubrovnik you can reach the island of Mljet slowly by boat, as we did, or quickly by hydrofoil, to make a day trip. The northwestern third of

Mljet is a national park with the largest pine forest in the Adriatic islands and two astonishing saltwater lakes. The park area has just a few pensions and one large, modern hotel, the Odisej, where reception doubles as a travel agency. The rooms are basic, the sunsets splendid. The guests, mainly Croats, emerge onto their balconies in freshly pressed shirts and summer dresses to watch the colors change.

We spent a day at the nearby lakes, walking the path that goes most of the way around them. We had the path nearly to ourselves, and idled along enjoying the smell of pines. Here and there groups of swimmers paddled about. After an hour we learned one reason for the paucity of pedestrians: the path ends at a strait, perhaps 25 feet wide. We immediately wondered, Why no bridge?But there was no answer to our question, just a fast sluice of seawater and a moment of irresolution. We stripped to swimsuits and contemplated our fate.

Becky wanted to go back, but I couldn't, because I knew I would end my days feeling I had been defeated. I drifted from shame at cowardice to shame at feeling shame over such a silly business and so-- into the water. I made it across without quite being pulled into the lake. Then I swam back and, heaving, ventilated some such light remark as, "It's not too bad. Bit fast, though." We packed our things into bundles and ferried them over, swimming sidestroke, holding our gear above the water, or nearly so, with one hand. Once all the bundles were with us on the far shore we collapsed beneath the pines, laughing.


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