CroatiaBy Daniel and Barbara Zwerdling-Rothschild
Cliff-Hanger: Would They Ever Leave?
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 16, 2002; Page E01
IT'S OUR FIRST NIGHT IN Croatia. We're sitting on the tiled terrace ofour rented house on a cliff near the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, gazing atislands that stretch like bumpy stepping stones across the Adriatic Sea. We'resipping margaritas made with limes from one of the fruit trees that dot theproperty, and nibbling clusters of purple and green grapes that we plucked fromthe trellis over our heads.
Our landlords insisted on cooking our first Croatian dinner, so Antun isgrilling whole fish smothered with parsley and garlic in the outdoor stonefireplace, while Marija unmolds a flan draped in caramel and perfumed likeroses. The sun is melting on a mountain ridge and the sea is turning from goldto red to pink, as cruise ships head across the bay like floating strands ofChristmas lights.
And as we recall how much our loved ones back home are worrying about oursafety ("Aren't they still fighting over there?"), we feel almostguilty.
We'd been dreaming for decades about visiting Dubrovnik, on Yugoslavia'sDalmatian Coast. Yugoslavia was the Friendly Communist Country, and Dubrovnikwas the Renaissance jewel of Eastern Europe.
But we kept putting off the trip -- and in 1991, the Balkans exploded intowar. Historians will probably argue eternally about precisely what triggered oneof the worst bursts of genocide since World War II, but perhaps they could agreeon some limited facts: The leaders of Croatia, one of the republics ofYugoslavia, declared that they were seceding from the nation and forming anindependent country. Slobodan Milosevic, then Yugoslavia's dictator, sent in hisarmy to try to prevent it. And Dubrovnik became one of the war's first victims.
Yugoslav troops fanned out on the mountain ridges that overlook Dubrovnik andwarships closed off the sea. For more than seven months, they hurled artilleryand mortar shells at the city as the international community watched in shock.The world would learn about the carnage in places like Sarajevo and Kosovolater, but back then, in the first months of 1992, it seemed incomprehensiblethat Milosevic would order his troops to bombard an ancient, cherished cityfilled with civilians, apparently out of spite. The United Nations reported thattwo-thirds of the churches, palaces and proud old houses had been hit. Some hadbeen gutted.
So we were astonished when we ran into an acquaintance a couple years ago whohad just returned from a work trip in the Balkans, and he said, "Want me totell you a secret? Go to Dubrovnik, and go soon. Go before every other touristin the world finds out that Dubrovnik has been repaired. In fact, it might bemore beautiful than ever."Cultural Survival
Sometimes we start our days by meeting Darija, our guide and interpreter, atour favorite cafe in Old Town. To get there from our house on Zaton Bay, wedrive for 20 minutes through layers of history, like sediment layers on a cliff:We pass hillsides of drab, communist-era apartments on the outskirts, then parkin the faded Victorian quarter of "new" Dubrovnik; we cross the oldmoat and stroll through one of the massive gates in the medieval walls -- andsuddenly, we enter a time warp. Dubrovnik is a magic pedestrian world wherealmost every cobblestone, statue and doorway was built between the 13th and 17thcenturies -- unless, of course, it's been restored since the Balkans War.
The place feels a bit disorienting: The facades look Italian but the peoplecrowding the alleys look and sound almost Russian. It's a Slavic Venice withoutcanals.
And the marble tables of the sprawling Gradska Kavana cafe make a great stagefor people-watching -- no wonder leaders of the old communist regime used tohang out here. When we sit on one side of the cafe, we gaze over Dubrovnik'slittle marina, where fishing boats and cabin cruisers rock at the base of thefortified walls. When we choose the other side, under the fuchsia awnings, welook up at the baroque dome and columns of St. Blaise church. On weekends, theorgan spills through the stained-glass windows, and we linger over espressos sowe can watch wedding parties pose and mug on the steps.
"Hello," a voice says in soft, accented English, and there's astriking young woman with a delicate hoop piercing her belly button. Darija.We've never hired a guide and interpreter before on vacation, but this youngartist could use the extra work, and we figure she's a friendly way to get toknow Croatia.
"You can't possibly imagine what this town was like during thewar," Darija says. "The morning it started, it was the first day ofschool. My brother and me, we were excited, we were going to see our friendsagain. My parents were dressing for work. And I went outside when I heardsomething" -- she pauses, searching for the right word -- "somethinglike thunder. But it was so strange, because the sky was completely bright. Thenwe heard that the Serb soldiers were coming down from the mountains to kill allof us with their knives."
The soldiers didn't invade with knives, but the bombardment had begun. Localresidents say the troops rained explosives down on the city from October untilMay, from sunrise until dark. Most people, like Darija's family, lived like ratsin basement shelters during the day. The moment they stopped hearing the"thunder," they'd surface and head for the marina and bathe in thewinter sea, using kerosene lanterns to guide them. They didn't have electricityor running water until the siege ended.
We stroll down the smooth limestone cobblestones of the Stradun, which islike a walkway of polished ivory tiles. This is the main promenade, lined withshops and cafes all shaded by blue awnings and crowded with young Croatians wholook gorgeous and trendy and thin. Darija turns down a narrow alley and wefollow her past art galleries and shops into the market square. Local farmerssell garlands of dried figs and bay leaves, and they pile tomatoes and peachesand baby arugula on rickety tables under striped umbrellas. By evening, thevendors will have disappeared and the square will be filled with tables, andwe'll be feasting on platters of briny oysters that a fisherman just lugged infrom his boat.
But now it's time for lunch, and Darija motions us to sit in the shadeoutside Buffet Skola, her favorite sandwich shop. She's right: Who could believethat much of this glorious town was rubble? The moment the siege ended, theCroatian government and United Nations began raising tens of millions of dollarsto repair the damage. They ordered a city's-worth of clay roof tiles fromEuropean factories; the new replacements are a bit too orange next to the mutedtiles that survived the war, but hardly anyone's complaining. They hiredstonemasons to replace every pulverized cobblestone and rebuild every collapsedwall. They imported sculptors from other nations to heal every statue that wasmissing a hand or nose.
Darija gives a gracious, fake little laugh and says she's tired of talkingabout the war. The waitress has just brought thick, crusty slabs of yeastysourdough bread, topped with local sheep's cheese and smoky ham. The bread isstill warm, and we ask if we can buy a few slices to take home for dinner. Thewaitress says no -- and then wraps two hot loaves as a gift.
"I'm sorry, I have to go soon," Darija says. "I'm workingtonight as an usher at the festival concert." The Dubrovnik festival wasone of Europe's great summer attractions before the war. Actors like DanielDay-Lewis would perform Hamlet in the ruins of a 16th-century fort andworld-class musicians would make a pilgrimage to perform here.
The festival is finally reviving after years of forced intermission, althoughit's still not back to its former glory -- which is the only reason we can gettickets on short notice to hear Bach and Mozart in the Rector's Palace. Themusic is magical, but the setting transcends it: The orchestra performs in anintimate courtyard, with balconies rising above us like tiers on a wedding cake.The overflow audience hangs over the balustrade and pigeons swoop among thearches.
As the ovation fades, we exchange smiles with the stranger sitting next tous. "What a beautiful concert," we murmur. "Do you know, by anychance, which countries the musicians in the orchestra come from?"
"But they all live here," she says, looking surprised. "Thisis the Dubrovnik Symphony."
Berta Dragicevic introduces herself. She says she just stepped down as deputymayor, and she cites an astonishing figure: The local government spends 20percent of its budget on culture. Think about it: Dubrovnik is still recoveringfrom the war. Some of the biggest (and ugliest) hotels are still abandoned. Theunemployment rate tops 20 percent. Yet the city spends a huge chunk of itsbudget to support a full-time symphony and professional theater, a folk ensembleand choir, plus a gallery and museum -- all for a community that has at most50,000 residents. "We have traditions," Dragicevic explains.A Mouthful of Mussels
When we were planning our trip, we planned to use Dubrovnik as a base to tourthe Balkans. We were going to venture over the mountains and visit Sarajevo. Wewere going to take ferries to islands like Korcula and Kvar, where hot youngEuropeans hang out. We would drive three hours south into Montenegro, which byall accounts is shabby and spectacularly beautiful.
We never made it. We'd start sipping coffee most mornings on our terrace,then watch, mesmerized, as the sun spilled onto the islands and mountains andour little bay woke up: first, a lone fishermen in a puttering skiff, then afreighter moving down the channel, then a sailboat or two. If one of us feltenergetic, he or she would cover their coffee with a saucer and run down thesteps past our swimming pool, returning five minutes later with, say, a handfulof figs.
"Okay," someone would finally say, "does anybody feel liketaking an expedition?" And we'd just sit there -- happy and inert.
But we weren't lazy. By mid-morning we'd embark on a daily adventure. We'ddescend the dizzying steps our landlord had built all the way down to the water,and go snorkeling at the base of our cliff. The water was so clear and pristinethat every day we were dazzled again. We would swim through clouds of plumpwhite fish as big as trout, and others striped like underwater tigers, andmasses of neon-purple fish that floated in place like Calder mobiles.
Sometimes we'd harvest our lunch before we got out of the water. The base ofour cliff was covered with thousands of small mussels, like bouquets of blackflowers clinging onto the rocks. We'd pry them off by the handful, then steamthem in garlic and wine -- plus an occasional rosemary sprig from our giantbush.
On other days, we'd clamber into our outboard motorboat, putter across thebay and tie up at one of the restaurants with tables set at the water's edge. AtMarko's, you don't even have to look at a menu; you just sit under thevine-covered trellis, sipping honey-colored wine as the owner and his son Darkoserve whatever traditional coastal dishes his wife feels like making. She mightstart with mountains of tiny clams tossed with capers, then faintly charredshrimps bursting with juice, and fried baby calamari with a wispy and fragilecrust, and whole fish with the skin grilled so crisp it crackles. By the timeDarko serves his mother's crepes dusted with ground local walnuts, we'rebegging, thank you, please, we have to stop.War-Torn Memories
When the Yugoslav army invaded the area around Dubrovnik, they seized ourrental house and turned it into a command post. "And we were lucky,"says Marija, our landlord. At the moment, we're sipping Antun's rose liqueur andnibbling olives with some of their family and friends, and watching anothersunset off our terrace.
"Yes, lucky," Marija repeats, with a bitter laugh. She's speakingCroatian, which her daughter-in-law translates, plus a smattering of Italianthat many Croatians speak. They tell us how Serb soldiers from the Yugoslav armyburned some of the nearby homes on this bay but saved this house because it wasa perfect lookout point on the shipping channel. The family took refuge inshelters in a nearby town.
They're here this evening because our month in Dubrovnik is almost over andthey want to send us off with a traditional Sunday dinner. So Antun is back atthe outdoor fireplace, shoveling glowing coals around an enamel casserole that'sheavy with potatoes and chunks of lamb. Marija is simmering seafood risottothat's black and musty with squid ink. As we work our way through a bottle oflocal wine, we figure that we've finally become friendly enough to broach theissue that local residents usually avoid:
Have they put the war behind them?
There's an edgy silence. The Croatians look at their drinks. Finally, ourlandlords' daughter-in-law, Marijana, speaks.
"Do you know what it's like to live for months below ground, while thereare bombs exploding outside?" she asks. "One day, some of the peoplewent outside just for a few minutes, to smoke cigarettes." Marijana flushesand starts to cry, and nuzzles her baby. "And just at that moment, anartillery shell hit. Seven people died. Friends."
"And do you know what we found when we came back to this house after thewar?" Marija says. "The soldiers destroyed or stole everything. Allour plates, all our furniture, everything." Now Marija is wiping awaytears, too. "And the Serb soldiers used our floors as a toilet. Can youpicture that?"
We murmur something that we hope seems supportive but objective, but ends upbeing inadequate. Both Serbs and Croatians committed atrocities, according toall the evidence, and both Serb and Croatian military officers have been chargedwith war crimes. It's the innocent civilians who are always caught in the vise.
Their friend Stefi cuts us off, her voice trembling. She works part time atthe Croatian tourist bureau. "Only last week, a man came into the touristoffice and wanted some information," she says, "and I knew he was Serbby his accent. The Serbs are coming back to visit our Dubrovnik for the firsttime since the war."
Stefi says the man wanted some details about traveling, but she politelyexplained that she didn't have them, and the man got belligerent and stormed outin a huff. "And as he was opening the door," Stefi says, "heturned and he looked at me. And he said, 'I wish we had killed all of you whenwe had the chance.' "
And now she's the third person crying at our dinner party. "The risottois ready," Marija says, in a voice that's too cheerful and loud. "Mangia.Let's eat."Hugs and Strudel
The morning we leave Croatia, we're in a fog. The Milky Way still sparkles aswe lock the house at 5 a.m. and lug our suitcases up the cliff. By the time weget to the airport we're waking up just enough to feel sorry for ourselves: Wehave to leave Dubrovnik and go back to reality.
But at exactly 6:15 a.m., Antun and Marija walk through the airport doors."I made strudel for your trip," Marija says, and we peek under thewrapper at little pillows bulging with apples and raisins. She and Antun give usbig hugs.
That's our last memory of Dubrovnik: Antun and Marija standing at the metaldetector, waving as we board the airplane, cradling packets of impossibly flakypastry in our arms.
Daniel Zwerdling-Rothschild is a senior correspondent with National PublicRadio. Barbara Zwerdling- Rothschild is a psychotherapist and freelance writer.Details: Croatia
GETTING THERE: Getting to Dubrovnik, Croatia, can take some juggling,especially if you're trying to save money. Under frequent-flier constraints, weflew a complicated route from Washington to Boston to Zurich to Zagreb toDubrovnik. No matter what, you'll have to connect at least twice to get there.Choices include flying Austrian Airlines from Dulles to Vienna, then takeTyrolean Airlines or Croatia Airlines to Dubrovnik via Zagreb. Or, fly United,British Airways or Virgin Atlantic to London, then hop on a Croatia Airlinesflight to Dubrovnik via Zagreb. Round-trip fare is about $1,775 for summertravel, $885 for fall. You can also fly to Rome, catch a train to the Italianport of Bari and take an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik.
WHERE TO STAY: The Villa Dubrovnik (Vlaha Bukovca 6, www.villa-dubrovnik.hr)is a cozy hotel with great views, about a half-mile outside of Old Town. Ratesstart at about $150, double. The nearby Villa Orsula (Frana Supila 14, www.hoteli-argentina.hr/index.html)is also recommended, at about the same rates.
Or you can rent a house. We found ours through a friend -- it had never beenlisted before. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic, with four bedrooms,three bathrooms, a main kitchen, two mini-kitchens with extra refrigerators, alarge outdoor terrace and swimming pool, it rented for $5,500 for one month, butcurrent rates may vary. For information, e-mail the owners' daughter-in-law,Marijana, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dubrovnik is just beginning to develop a rental house market, but manyapartments are available. The Croatian National Tourist Office (see below) listsmore than 25 firms who can help arrange private accommodations. Here are someoptions:
• Gulliver Travel and Tourism Agency, telephone 011-385-20-419-109, www.gulliver.hr.
• Atlas Travel and Tourism Agency, telephone 011-385-20-442-222, www.atlas-croatia.com.
• Refika Knezevic, telephone 011-385-20-412-521, e-mail email@example.com.
These agencies can also help arrange bookings at B&Bs, where rooms startat $20 per night. Or you can find rooms last minute by driving along the coastand looking for signs proclaiming "Zimmer-Chambres-Camere."
WHERE TO EAT: Most of the restaurants we recommend -- in fact, mostrestaurants on the Croatian coast -- specialize in the sort of simple,super-fresh Mediterranean dishes you'd expect to find in Italy: whole grilledfish and steaks, grilled or fried calamari, risotto, arugula salads. Expect topay $25 to $60 for two, including drinks, tax and tip. Note: Steak costs lessthan fish.
Orhan (Od Tabakarije 1), tucked in a cove at the base of the fortifiedwalls, might be the best restaurant near Old Town. It's lively, relaxed andnever pompous. Sesame (Dante Alighieri bb), just outside the fortifiedwalls, resembles a terrace at a country villa and prepares lovely fish andzucchini carpaccio. Buffet Skola (Vl Dinka Popovic), a few steps off theStradun, serves local cheese and ham on thick slabs of bread. Villa Dubrovnik(Vlaha Bukovca 6) offers a romantic setting for lunch.
Near Dubrovnik, Pansion Mali Raj (HR-20235 Zaton Veliki 99) serveshuge platters of great food on Zaton Bay, 20 minutes from Old Town . At Orsan(Zaton Mali), which offers deceptively simple meals under a thatched awning onthe shore of Zaton Bay, we were served the best fried calamari we've ever had. StaraMlinica, an hour by taxi boat from Dubrovnik on the nearby island of Sipan,has good food overlooking a tiny harbor that feels as if the tourist worldpassed it by.
INFORMATION: Croatian National Tourist Office, 800-829- 4416, www.htz.hr.© 2002 The Washington Post Company