Like a phoenix Dubrovnik, the Athens of the Adriatic, has risen from virtual destruction after Slobodan Milosovic’s Serbian army devastated the town in 1991. Seventy per cent of the homes were damaged from the bombing. Even the ancient wall that surrounds the old city was pounded by the tank shelling. Yet today Dubrovnik is a tourist destination. The old city has been rebuilt. First-class hotels are a feature of the hillside. This gem of a city is a living memorial to human resilience.
In the heart of the town, just inside the marina, the Sponza Palace pays tribute to the dozens of local boys who paid the ultimate sacrifice defending their city. But 20 years ago seems like the distant past. Now pizza and ice cream stands abound. The orange roofs of yesteryear have been replaced. Tourists from Japan, Israel, Germany and China fill the main street. And the fumes of fried fish are pervasive.
Dubrovnik is Croatia’s hydra-headed metropolis. It has been destroyed by visiting armies and earthquakes and yet it survives, protected by the ancient myth of Saint Blaise, who vowed to defeat Ragusa’s (the original name of Dubrovnik) enemies. In the past, this city was a mecca for scholars, artists and teachers. It appeared to be an ecumenical community different from other settlements in the region. As a commercial center, it captured the interest of Venetian leaders who led attacks for centuries against their rivals in the south Adriatic.
The 1.6-mile wall surrounding the city is an imposing architectural wonder. For elderly tourists it is also a stress test. There are 335 steps going up and around this barrier. It isn’t the Great Wall of China, nor is it a walk in the park. Along the way are forts and historical monuments to a past that gives the present meaning. Looking down one finds roofs being repaired, a sea glistening with small vessels and enclosed basketball courts. The Croats are basketball crazy.
Several years ago Don Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense, made reference to the two Europes: the old Western Europe–stolid, socialistic and lacking entrepreneurial drive, and an Eastern Europe—filled with vitality, and recognizing the virtue of free markets and democratic governments. Croatia clearly falls into the latter camp.
Dubrovnik is youthful, searching for a future that resembles the U.S. Her glory days may be behind her, but it is interesting that Gloria Gaynor has been asked to perform in the seaside wonderland. America beckons. Rumor has it that the Russian oligarchs have invested heavily in and around this city. It is a far safer investment harbor than anywhere in Russia. Moreover, Russian oligarchs have a keen sense of smell for American capitalism, and that capitalistic fervor is active in Dubrovnik’s economy.
It is too soon to say whether the Dalmatian coast will be the new French Riviera. But it is certainly not a far-fetched agenda. Dubrovnik is the center of the utopian scenario, not yet San Tropez; not yet discovered by the flash and dash of the contemporary jet set, but not yet far from discovery either. Always in search of new destinations, the tourist peregrines have found Dubrovnik. My suspicion is the glitterati will be on their way.
What they will find is an attractive seaside resort with an extraordinary history that awakens a desire to dig into the chapters of this passion-laden destination.