Croatian city struggles to rise above its war wounds

  • By Rick Steves Tribune Media Services
  • Friday, October 31, 2008 3:24pm
  • Life

It’s been called “the Pearl of the Adriatic,” but standing high above Dubrovnik’s formidable ramparts, I study what the recent war did to this jewel of a city on Croatia’s coast.

Within its stout walls, I see a patchwork of tiled roofs. There is a random arrangement of colors — some a bold orange and others a faded yellowish-gray.

But the pattern isn’t really random; it marks the damage when Serb mortars poured over the hill, as Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991. During the eight-month siege of Dubrovnik, about 100 civilians died and more than 30,000 fled their homes.

Shiny new tiles cover those roofs that had to be replaced. It’s clear that nearly two-thirds of the buildings in the city were bombed.

Yet today, those same Serbs are booking into B&Bs that their comrades bombed in 1991. It’s a reminder that if you’re exploring the former Yugoslavia, you’ll encounter a complexity of ethnic and religious divisions.

I’ve seen how deep-seated fear and mistrust combined with these cultural differences to cause incredible violence. I’ve also witnessed how war impoverishes a region and scars peoples’ lives. But today I’m watching how people can learn to live peacefully together in the aftermath of such a senseless slaughter.

With a background in the region’s history — so marinated in discord it gives us the word “balkanization” — you begin to understand how hard it must have been to heal after the war.

No war ends abruptly. By traveling here, you can see what happens after the TV cameras are gone and people are faced with the huge task of rebuilding. I’ve walked with the victims of that war through the rubble of their cities. Combatants who followed no rules are now raising children in the ruins of their mistakes.

There is hope. Today Croatian buses are again serving Serbian destinations, and teenagers from both camps (whose parents did the fighting just a few years ago) are mixing it up in nightclubs.

Poignant as a visit to Dubrovnik may be, rich rewards await those who push into the interior — beyond the comfort zone of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Nowhere else in Europe can you go from such easy tourism to regions where ethnic struggles are so vivid — and learning about them is so rewarding.

Within a few hours’ drive are several new incarnations of old nations, such as Montenegro and its Bay of Kotor, or Bosnia and its historic city of Mostar.

Back in Dubrovnik, my host shares some of his history with me. Pero Carevic (who runs my favorite B&B there) meets me at the Dubrovnik airport.

Flying in from France, I suffer a little culture shock. Life in Croatia has the same energetic metabolism, but cheaper jeans, smaller cars, more broken concrete, and almost no fat people.

I taste pale meat, pale pickles, and pale “juice drink” — all part of a fragile stability and nascent affluence that followed the devastating war.

Within a few minutes’ drive, we are parked at the towering base of Dubrovnik’s mammoth and floodlit walls. Pero walks me to his boutique guesthouse on a steep, tourist-free back lane in Europe’s finest fortified port city.

Offering me some orakojvica (the local grappa-like firewater), Pero explains that he was wounded in the war. Afterward he was bored — he didn’t want to just live on the tiny government pension — so he rebuilt his Old Town home as a B&B.

Hoping to keep a clear head so that I can write later that evening, I try to refuse the drink. But this is a Slavic land. Remembering times when I was force-fed vodka in Russia by new friends, I knew it was hopeless.

Pero had made the firewater himself, with green walnuts. Slugging down a shot he hands me a glass, wheezing, “Walnut grappa — it recovers your energy.”

Pero goes into the kitchen and comes back holding the mangled tail of a mortar shell he keeps under the counter. He describes how this gorgeous stone and knotty-wood building suffered a direct hit in the siege.

He puts the shell in my hands. I don’t enjoy holding guns, and I don’t enjoy touching the shell, but I’m his guest.

“The bedroom I grew up in was destroyed. My injury will be with me for the rest of my life,” he says. I take Pero’s photograph. He holds the shell and smiles. I don’t want him to hold the it and smile, but that’s what he does.

The roofs were impotent against an aerial bombardment, but now, life is once again very good. And, with time, all of the rooftop tiles will fade to the same color.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

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