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Croatia renewed

Its turbulent years over, the land on the Adriatic is welcoming a new wave of admirers.

August 24, 2003|Beverly Beyette | tr-dubrovnik24

Dubrovnik, Croatia — Dubrovnik, Croatia

Over dinner I thumbed through "Dubrovnik in War," a paperback I had bought at a nearby bookstore. Its images were of the devastation from the bloody civil war of 1991-92 -- buildings ablaze in the medieval walled city, roofs blown off, rubble-filled streets.

One photograph was of a house in flames on one of the narrow streets off the Stradun, the wide pedestrian way through Dubrovnik's old city, or stari grad. With a start, I realized I was sitting in a restaurant on that street.

I showed my book to one of the staff, who pointed out the building, just across the street, but I saw no signs of damage. His restaurant, Proto, had also been hit, he said, closed for a decade and reopened 18 months ago.

Smiling, he added, "It's a new world."

Indeed. Dubrovnik, where tourism collapsed because of the war, has patched itself up with the help of international aid and is back in the tourist business. Strolling the Stradun, with its sidewalk cafes and awning-shaded shops, it's hard to summon up those TV images of months of shelling by the Serb-backed Yugoslav National Army.

But the tile roofs tell the story; 575 structures, almost 70% of the old city's buildings, were hit. Their new tiles are bright red, contrasting with the old ocher-colored tiles. Underfoot, some of the Stradun's limestone squares are telltale white. Holes in two walls of the Franciscan monastery are another reminder.

A few hotels still are down, including the 800-room Libertas, slated for demolition and rebuilding, and the Imperial, scheduled to reopen next year as the Imperial Hilton. The most popular of the 26 open hotels, especially those near the old town, are fully booked in July and August, so the Croatian National Tourist Office suggests reserving two months ahead -- or staying in inexpensive private accommodations, which abound. As I drove into Dubrovnik in mid-July, people held up signs that read, "Sobe. Zimmer. Camere. Rooms."

Croatia, a nation of 4.5 million people in southeastern Europe, is a horseshoe-shaped country that consists of a narrow strip along the 1,100-mile coastline on the Adriatic Sea and a larger inland arm that includes Zagreb, the capital. The land in the middle of the horseshoe belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia also borders Hungary, Slovenia, and Serbia and Montenegro.

Most of Croatia's visitors come from Germany and Britain, but more than 95,000 Americans made overnight visits from January through July, about 23,000 of them to Dubrovnik County. Tourism in Croatia is not yet back to the 1990 level, when 52.5 million visitors overnighted, 5.4 million in Dubrovnik County, but figures to date indicate that this year will easily surpass last.

The long trip from Prague

You can reach Croatia by air, by sea from Italy, by train or by car from neighboring countries. Flights from the United States connect through European gateways. I was first visiting Prague in the Czech Republic, so I chose an overnight train to Split, 95 miles north of Dubrovnik on the coast, where I picked up a rental car. I remembered the beauty of the Dalmatian coast from a trip to what was Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and I wanted to drive it again.

From Prague I changed trains in Vienna and in Zagreb, where I boarded a sleeper to Split. All told, it was a journey of 19 1/2 hours. Croatian Railways is no Orient Express. It was beastly hot, and the train wasn't air conditioned, so I threw open my window. I snoozed fitfully and awoke as we approached Split, an industrial city blighted by hideous high-rise apartments.

There are several reasons not to bypass Split. One is the 3rd century palace built by Emperor Diocletian as his retirement home. Among the best preserved of all Roman ruins, it's sort of a living museum, with shops and cafes within its gates. I trod its streets under a blazing sun, stopping for a cold beer in the shadow of Roman columns in the peristyle, the interior courtyard where Diocletian used to come to be adored. The Christian-bashing emperor was buried in the palace mausoleum, which, by a twist of fate, is now the Cathedral of St. Domnius and houses bones of martyred Christians. It's not known what became of Diocletian's sarcophagus.

A half-hour's drive from Split is Trogir, a jewel of a 12th century city on an island. In its center is the magnificent 13th century Romanesque door of the Cathedral of St. Lawrence, with a pair of stone lions supporting statues of Adam and Eve. Trogir, which has its own castle, is undeniably cute and distressingly hip. Tucked among the jewelry shops are an Internet cafe, a tattoo parlor and an aromatherapy place. But wandering side streets away from the gelato-eating masses, I found hidden courtyards and intriguing doorways.

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