Croatia's medieval gem emerges from the shadows after years of war

If you stand atop Mount Zarkovica in Croatia and peer downward you will see Dubrovnik, a city of golden stone jutting into the shocking blue of the Adriatic. From the sea, Dubrovnik reigns above you, invulnerable, a kingly place. But when you look down on it from Mount Zarkovica it seems open, like the palm of a hand. There are few trees on the steep slopes above Dubrovnik, so nothing blocks your view of the graceful Venetian bell tower that dominates the city's main square, or of the wide street, now lined with café tables, that forms the town's spine.

It is an easy target. This was the view that Serb and Montenegrin gunners had in late 1991, and into 1992, as they shelled Dubrovnik. The city's enemies took Mount Zarkovica early on and settled into what had been a popular barbecue restaurant on the hilltop. Month after month heavy guns fired away. The citizens of Dubrovnik scattered behind their city walls.

My wife and I scrambled about the rubble on Zarkovica's summit, calling out whenever we came across something: ammo boxes, a car battery, an electronics manual. Becky found a metal pot used for making coffee, ventilated by bullet holes; she kept it as a reminder. I saw an overturned and stripped vehicle, a cactus, a green-and-black butterfly, an old pine tree gesturing out to sea. It isn't exactly a tourist spot, but any taxi driver knows how to get there, because each citizen of Dubrovnik has a place for Mount Zarkovica in his or her mind.

The attack on Dubrovnik focused international attention on what would become Croatia's successful fight for independence from Serbia and its allies. Croatia's own culpability in the war was never small, but the cosmopolitan beauty and military uselessness of Dubrovnik made it an especially pure symbol. For Croats the embattled city indicated their sense of violated innocence. For Serbs, the assault on Dubrovnik showed that their cause would not be deflected by the outrage of foreigners. It was a rejection of global norms of warfare, such as they are. Some 200 people were killed and many more wounded in Dubrovnik during the war, most of them by shells launched from the restaurant on Zarkovica.

Early last fall, in precious peacetime, we sat in the rear of a Mercedes, holding the bullet-riddled coffeepot, and sped back down the hillside toward the city. This had been the front line, and we sailed across it. The aggressors never did; they never took the city of Dubrovnik.

Crossing a footbridge, we entered the city through the Ploce Gate, above which stands a statue of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik's patron. He lost a finger in the war, but is otherwise sound. Behind the first wall lies a second-- between them, residents hid from incoming shells. Framed by the walls, a cobbled street drifts downward, steadily narrowing. We cut right, entering a tight passageway, then emerged into the main square, beneath the bell tower at the head of the central street, the Stradun. The cafés were filled with locals and visitors trying to decide whether to have another coffee or switch to wine or beer. We heard the bells, then heard them again. They ring twice an hour-- on the hour, and three minutes later, in case you lost count the first time.

The cathedral across the square was a puzzling place. Baroque columns support the high ceiling; above the altar hangs Titian's subtle Assumption of Our Lady. But the altar itself is slabby, made of severe gray marble rectangles that would radiate cold, if that were possible. Our guide, Marija, explained that a church grandee had decided some years earlier to redo the altar in modern style. The result only proves the power of Titian to prevail over his surroundings.

Marija took us outside to amble on the Stradun, past cheery cafés and shopwindows, peering down side streets no more than eight feet wide. It was a hot day, just after the annual Dubrovnik arts festival, and so relatively quiet. We stopped at the Old City's open-air market, which overflowed with figs and grapes, melons, cabbages, and lettuces.

On several tables were glass bottles of brandy made with a distinct mix of local herbs; liter mineral-water bottles held homemade wine. After some polite prattle about the brandy's medicinal properties, we bought a bottle and returned to the main street. Marija showed us the Church of the Savior; though pockmarked by shrapnel, it will probably be left unrepaired as a memorial. On the Stradun, dozens of shell craters have been filled in. It is largely the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund that has restored the street-- and, indeed, many sites in Dubrovnik. Much of the money has come from American donors, which made me feel pleasantly proud. When we reached the end of the Stradun, near an ancient fountain, we looked back along the street to the bell tower and, high above, to the blasted summit of Mount Zarkovica.

I went to meet Berta Dragicevic, a vice-mayor of Dubrovnik. Her accent turned a hard th into a z; her cadences were a mix of Latin and Slavic, as is common among coastal Croatians. "The last bombs fell around 'ninety-five, in summer," she told me, "and there were several victims at that time. Ever since, it has been very quiet and very safe."

Dragicevic was hopeful that people will visit Croatia again. "Apart from all the tragedies and difficulties that war brings, the feeling of isolation was very, very hard." The openness of Dubrovnik-- a city-state spirit that persisted even under socialism-- was based for centuries on its extensive trading, and more recently on tourism. The Dubrovnik Summer Festival, now approaching its 50th year, brings the Old City alive with music and theater in July and August. The Stradun becomes an open-air concert hall for the Dubrovnik Symphony and visiting orchestras; smaller concerts take place at the Franciscan monastery or in the charming interior courtyard of the Rector's Palace, which also houses one of Dubrovnik's museums. In the summer of 1992, during heavy shelling, no festival was held, but residents still marked opening day by setting candles on the steps along the Stradun. One bombed, roofless building served as an art gallery, and several tales recount how Dubrovnik musicians played through the bombardment.

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.
The Facts

Americans may not know it, but Croatians are old hands at welcoming visitors. They seem to regard American travelers as a happy surprise. Asking about the war is not considered offensive. However, if you find yourself posing the obvious question-- "What really is the difference between a Serb and a Croat?"-- prepare to spend the rest of your day hearing the answer.

Visiting Croatia can be a bit complicated because so few people speak English. The easiest way to arrange a trip from the States is through a tour company. Try Atlas Travel (800/738-4537 or 202/483-8919; fax 202/462-7160), which has offices throughout Croatia, or Blue Heart Tours (800/882-0025).

Villa Dubrovnik 6 Vlaha Bukovca, Dubrovnik; 385-20/422-933, fax 385-20/423-465; doubles from $174, including breakfast. Bright, elegant, newly renovated. The restaurant is very good, though not as much fun as the one down the road at Villa Orsula.
Villa Orsula 14 Frana Supila, Dubrovnik; 385-20/440-555, fax 385-20/432-524; doubles from $210, including breakfast. An old family villa with 125 rooms. For magnificent views get the corner terrace suite, No. 914.
Hotel Odisej Pomena, Mljet; 385-20/744-022, fax 385-20/744-042; doubles from $110. Be sure to ask for a room overlooking the harbor.
Pension Plenkovic Sveta Nedjelja; 385-21/741-670, fax 385-21/741-422; doubles from $80, including breakfast, a Rabelaisian dinner, and unlimited wine.
Palace Hotel Hvar; 385-21/741-966, fax 385-21/742-420; doubles from $116, including breakfast. A grand old hotel with 73 smallish, adequate rooms; excellent location. The terrace is nice for drinks.

Atlas Club Nautika 3 Brsalje, Dubrovnik; 385-20/442-526; dinner for two $25. Fabulous seafood risotto at tables in a seaside garden.
Rozarij 4 Zladarska, Dubrovnik; 385-20/423-791; lunch for two $20. Up an alleyway off the Stradun, close to the main square.
Mali Raj Babine Kuce, Mljet; 385-20/744-067; lunch for two $15. The best restaurant on Mljet, located in a minuscule lakeside village.
Leporini Hvar; 385-21/741-382; dinner for two $27. Great olives.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.

Best Books
Croatia: A Nation Forged in War by Marcus Tanner (Yale University Press )-- This one-volume history tells the country's story up through the recent conflict.
Conversations with Stalin by Milovan Djilas (Harcourt Brace )-- A witty, haunting glimpse of the tragicomedy of Communist Yugoslavia.

On the Web
The Republic of Croatia's Dubrovnik site -- straight info site featuring a streaming video travelog with a soundtrack worthy of a softcore porn movie.