In May 1997 Suzi and I returned to Dubrovnik after 25 years. This was the first of many trips we would make. When we were posted in Montenegro there was no US Embassy or USAID office to serve Yugoslavia so we would “have” to drive to Dubrovnik to meet with Aid officials and attend meetings. It was never a hardship to return to Dubrovnik. The pictures here are from 2001.
May 7, 1997
Entering the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik through the Polca Gate we’re confronted with a “Wall of sound” that would make Phil Spector envious. At five in the afternoon it’s the sound of children playing, roller blades on marble, skateboards slapping pavement, soccer balls hitting walls and dogs barking. At 7:30 it is the cafe babble of coffee and Campari drinkers and by 10:15 it is the heartbeat thump of disco and voices of girls doing a Balkan doo wop, the tune is familiar but oh the harmonies. The sound is reflected and amplified by the hard walls and pavements, unbroken by trees along the 500 year old Stradun (main street).
Every 15 minutes the clock tower adds to the sound with a chime. The tower has an odd feature, a digital clock, or rather alpha digital, with hours in Roman numerals, and minutes in Arabic numbers, changing at leisurely five minute intervals. So when we heard the doo wop we knew it was X 15. If you stand in the right place in the old city the reflective walls make the two bells of the Dominican Monastery sound like a carillon.
It was the quality of sound that most impressed me about Dubrovnik 25 years ago when we first came here. I ran around with a tape recorder, and for years listened to the sound, integrating it into my radio programs.
We came to Dubrovnik, this time, as part of our trip along the Dalmatian coast to visit radio stations. We took the ferry Slavija down from Split for the weekend.
It’s like riding on the Alaska Marine Highway, the mountains and sea are similar. We stop at little towns, not boardwalk towns like Tenakee Springs, but small walled Venetian cities like Korcula, where Marco Polo was born. People come off the boat with rolls of cable, wheelbarrows full of goods, and bags of groceries. It is not much different from any island community. We felt at home.
The ferryboat Slavija has a history. It symbolically broke the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991. The president of the crumbling Yugoslavia was a Croat. The mainly Serb Yugoslav army was besieging the city. The President, technically the commander-in-chief (although he admitted he had more control over Finland’s military), commandeered the Slavija. He had with him several celebrities and pop stars, and he ordered it south from Split. He opened a line to the Admiral besieging Dubrovnik, and as his commander, ordered him to let the boat pass. After thirty hours the navy inspected the boat and, seeing it had no arms, let it into the city. The real siege lasted another seven months.
Twenty five years ago we came then because we needed healing. Suzi’s mother had just died and I had left a terrible job. We needed a place with magic and after a lot of reading I picked this one. The city had such wonderful memories that we were reluctant to come back, hearing the stories of war and destruction. The tourist brochures gloss over the attacks saying the city is more beautiful than ever, just waiting for our return. It is beautiful, but the signs of the war are everywhere.
Twenty five years ago we could not have considered staying in the “Grand Imperial Hotel” just outside the city gates. Now it’s in our price range. It is no longer a top class hotel, but rather a comfortable “B” class establishment, probably owing to the fact that its roof was blown off by a Serb shell, and a wing is gutted. The hotel is now called “The Grand Hotel Imperial’s Little Hotel Imperial.” and its 28 remaining rooms are in one of the outbuildings on the hotel grounds.
From the Minceta tower, the highest point on the city walls, we can look over the tiled roofs. There is a distinctive “Dubrovnik Yellow” tile that used to be uniform across the city’s skyline. We didn’t need a map of shell hits to tell which houses had been struck. There was not enough yellow tile so most of the roofs were repaired in red. A local says it will weather fine, but curators are furious. Many home owners took advantage of the shelling to install modern, double glazed, tinted skylights.
On ground level some buildings are gutted, shutters closed, but black stains from fire still mark them. Some of the granite has been steam cleaned to remove the soot, those buildings stand out, as do the ones who have new stone fronts made with Korcula limestone quarried from the same pit the original came from, but lacking 500 years of rain and wind. Shrapnel pocks the buildings and pavements.
Suzi and I sat in a restaurant in the arcaded courtyard of the old Libertas Hotel, the hotel is closed but the restaurant still serves very good Croatian dishes. We looked at the tour brochure, which recounted the history of the town. Its first siege was in the ninth century. Dubrovnik maintained its independence as a city state republic through the Byzantine, Turk, Serb, and Venetian incursions only to be conquered by Napoleon and turned over to the Austrians at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. At the end of the First World War it became part of Yugoslavia and is now in Croatia.
In 50 years when our grandchildren visit Dubrovnik the siege of 1995 will become part of the legend recounted in the brochure. The scars will have weathered along with the bright red roof tiles, not to the uniform “Dubrovnik yellow”, but to a patchwork that will give the town “character”. The siege of 1991-1992 will become part of the town’s salable history. As we ate, Croatian radio played Dire Straits “Brother’s in Arms.”