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Out Of The Ashes

Dubrovnik, Croatia

You wouldn’t have thought there was much fun to be had visiting a recent war zone. Well, in most instances, you’d be right: Baghdad wouldn’t be many people’s idea of a great holiday right now.

Dubrovnik Watch Tower Dubrovnik, on the Mediterranean coast of Croatia, is a rather different case. The city suffered heavily during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and was besieged for seven months by Serbian forces in 1991-92. Over two thousand high explosive shells hit the city. The damage done to the historic old town was thought to be irreparable.

Thankfully, it wasn’t. With help from UNESCO the city was repaired very quickly. Today it is once more a glorious holiday resort and architectural jewel sitting on a craggy coastline by a deep, azure sea. If the locals are awoken at night now it’s not by the whistle of shells flying overhead but by noisy revelers leaving clubs and bars, or possibly a powerboat over revving in the city’s marina.

The Old Town – the area within the walls - can only really be considered a city because of its former status as an independent republic, for it’s no bigger than many medium-sized European towns. If you walk around Dubrovnik’s fantastic thirteenth century walls and climb the Minceta Tower at their highest point, you can take in more or less the whole place. The first thing that strikes you is the wonderfully regular color-scheme of the buildings. The beige-gray bricks are topped off by distinctive roofs of red and yellow pantiles.

To get to the heart of old Dubrovnik you should take a walk down the Stradun. The city’s main street that leads from the walls to the center of the Old Town. There are many small shops here, their facades topped by awnings to keep the heat of the midday sun out – summer in Croatia can get pretty warm. There are also some delightful cafes serving the eclectic mix of Italian-Austrian-Turkish-Balkan food that represents the City’s checkered past. Pop into the Café Orlando for an espresso with pasta or strudel or – well, anything you can imagine originating from the surrounding countries.

Because Dubrovnik, being a seaport, and for years an independent city state with a democracy of sorts, has always been influenced by outsiders. In medieval times it came under the sway of the then-almighty Venetian empire. Venice never occupied Dubrovnik, but it made the city sufficiently their own in cultural and economic terms to secure its power on the Illyrian coast. This Venetian influence is strongly apparent in Dubrovnik’s architecture.

Houses But Dubrovnik is about the present as much as the past – particularly because the recent past has so many painful memories. The locals today are upbeat and looking to the future. They’re working very hard to bring in tourists to boost the city’s economy. In many ways Dubrovnik Old Town is at the center of one long, narrow resort that stretches up and down the coast either side of it. Hotels old and new dot the seaboard, often with their own glorious shingle beaches. Water sports are easily accessible in the area, and many Dubrovnik hotels offer them as part of their package. It is, in particular, getting a reputation as a great place to learn how to dive.

Shopping is also central to contemporary Dubrovnik’s appeal. It’s a great city to visit if you like finely-wrought craftsmanship. The city – influenced in this regard, as in so many others, by Venice – has for many years been a recognized center for painting and sculpture. These days the city is home to many jewelers and workers in precious metals. Good quality jewelry can be picked up at competitive prices if you’re prepared to hunt around the Old Town – and that’s a rewarding experience in itself.

Dubrovnik The city’s emphasis on the value of individual artisanship carries over into its clothes trade, too. You might be interested in visiting the Ronchi family’s hat shop. The Ronchi factory has been making hats in Dubrovnik – through the ups and downs of wars, occupations and sieges – since 1858, and is still family-owned. These days it has a modest reputation among European couturiers, and you can buy its products outside Croatia and even online. However, if you use visiting the shop as an excuse to pay a visit to the wonderful city of Dubrovnik, do so!

An interesting way to get a measure of how well the city has recovered since 1992 is to go back to the Minceta tower and look down on the city’s rooftops once more. The tiles of the Old Town are all made of the same material. The yellow ones are old, and have faded in the sun of centuries; the red ones are new. Just how many red tiles there are shows you what damage the bombardment did. The busy, happy streets below you tell a story of a fast, successful recovery.

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