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Restored jewel: Old Dubrovnik

Some relics of war remain to be buried

Email|Print| Text size + By David Farley
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2006

DUBROVNIK -- Maybe it was the skull and crossbones on the pockmarked metal sign that made me want to turn on my heel and head back down the stark, rocky hill. Or maybe it was the warning, written underneath, that hikers not stray from the trail lest they risk having a leg blown off by a land mine.

For three days I had been eyeing the fort perched atop Mount Srd , the tall, petrous pyramid that casts a morning shadow over Croatia's most beautiful city. I'm a sucker for views and I had envisioned that standing atop the Napoleonic era fort at the peak -- where Croat soldiers held off Serbs for months during the war that followed Croatia's declaration of independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia in 1991 -- would satisfy my desire for a fresh panorama.

But, like the cable car that once shuttled people to the top of Dubrovnik's tallest peak before the war, my desire to summit the mountain had suddenly been zapped.

There are few places in Europe where 80-foot-high medieval walls, red-tiled roofs, and marble streets meet the azure-colored sea. And now that the nations of southeast Europe have been settled in relatively peaceful coexistence for several years, this jewel of a beach town on the southern end of the Dalmatian Coast has been popping up on everyone's travel radar, supplanting Prague, Budapest, and Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, as the place to go in the region.

Unless you know where to look, signs of the '90s conflict are hard to spot . And after I had saturated myself with Dubrovnik's charms -- strolling the mile-and-a-quarter-long walls, sipping Croatian wine at an outdoor cafe, and lounging on the pebbly beach -- it was the war that intrigued me . Once I scratched the surface (in places where there were no land mine warning s), I gained a different, deeper view of Dubrovnik.

Located just outside Old Town's Ploce Gate , the Lazareti were the city's quarantine houses where Renaissance-era travelers had to spend 40 days in order to ensure they were free of the plague. Today, the low-level stone buildings are slowly being rented out to artists for galleries and work studios. I stepped into a gallery exhibiting huge paintings that resembled those posters you have to stare at to eventually see an image. About 30 seconds into my gaze, nothing was happening. Instead, a voice arose.

``It's nice, yes?" said Anka, who had been sitting on a lawn chair smoking a cigarette in front of the gallery. ``The artist is from Istria ."

Anka oozed optimism. In addition to offering recommendations for a few off-the-beaten-path restaurants, she took a positive approach to the deluge of tourists that flood the Old Town every day from cruise ships. ``It's OK. We make our money from tourists. It's better than having factories that pollute the environment."

I was slightly apprehensive about bringing up the war, but she did first, out of the blue, telling me that during the conflict she lived on the island of Sipan in the Adriatic Sea, just off the coast. It was shelled by the Serbs because it housed Croatian soldiers. ``Many people from Dubrovnik went to islands," Anka said, ``because the Serbs, you know, they are afraid of water. They can't swim."

I let out an uncomfortable chuckle, and Anka followed with a soft giggle. ``You laugh, but it is true," she said. ``Really."

The war, I was finding out, had produced and perpetuated a miasma of baggage and misinformation. War criminals are still on the lam. Inland villages are still in pieces. And both sides hold on to warped views of the other.

``Everything comes back to the war," said Marc van Bloemen , a longtime Dubrovnik resident and owner of the Karmen Apartments , the only affordable accommodation option in the Old Town (save for private rooms). As we chatted on Gunduliceva poljana , an intimate square in Old Town, our voices competed against those of outdoor vendors selling locally grown figs, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables. ``The conflict is still very much with the people here," said van Bloemen, a British native. ``I know people who won't do business with Serbs or Montenegrins because they had family and friends killed in the war."

Dubrovnik, founded in the 7th century and with a population of about 44,000, hasn't much strategic value (except that destroying it would be a serious emotional blow to the Croatian psyche) ; Zagreb, the capital, is inland far to the north and, with nearly 800,000 people, far bigger. But in late 1991, Serbs began a months-long shelling of the city, razing centuries-old burgher houses and tearing up Dubrovnik's famed marble pedestrian street, Stradun . When the siege was over, 100 residents had lost their lives and 70 percent of the 800 houses in Old Town had been hit.

Later that day, while walking the city walls, I looked for what is apparently one of the few explicit signs of the war: bright red shingles, which contrast with the surviving sun-faded ones. But gazing across the rickety red rooftops, where Baroque and Renaissance-era spires pierced the deep blue skyline, and the turquoise sea crashed against the thick walls, it was hard for me to do anything except feel wonderment at this city. And thankfulness that it was not razed in the war.

Because the city did such a fine restoration job, many tourists, I suspect, come here and forget the war even happened. One man who's trying to do something about that is Wade Goddard . The New Zealand-born former war photographer is the co-owner of War Photo Limited, a sleek gallery that's tucked away in one of the tiny alleyway-size streets off the heavily foot-trafficked Stradun. The two-floor space is the first museum in the world dedicated solely to war photography, exhibiting photos from flashpoints around the globe. The arresting permanent collection from the most recent regional wars is riveting and shocking in its sober depiction of war, tragedy, and loss for everyone involved.

Goddard, who makes his home in Zagreb with his Croatian wife and daughter, said his mission now is similar to his job when he was in the field (only safer). ``I want to spread the truth about war, get it to the breakfast table," he said, as we chatted over a drink at an outdoor cafe next to the gallery. ``The concept is that I don't edit anything. The photographer chooses his own photographs to exhibit, not me."

Not everyone is rushing to see horrific and saddening wartime photos, but if numbers are any indication, travelers are interested. ``We get about 200 people a day," said Goddard, ``and we expect it to double by the end of 2006." Interestingly, Goddard said, 80 percent of gallery-goers are under 40 .

On my last night in Dubrovnik, I settled in at sunset for a drink at a cafe-bar I thought I would never find. ``Walk along the old city wall and when you see a small wooden sign that says `cold drinks,' walk through the hole in the wall," said van Bloemen when he saw me heading out for the evening. In fact, the cafe-bar's name, Buza , means just that: hole in the wall. Forget the trendy Stradun, where tourists and locals alike take the nightly back-and-forth stroll. Buza is the spot to sip beer and wine and watch the sunset from tables scattered about on plateaus between the city walls and the ocean. Frank Sinatra crooned over the stereo as I sipped a local wine. I stared out at the choppy sea and the long horizon. Now this, I thought, is a view.

Contact David Farley at djfarley@hotmail.com.

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