Croatia. Not a war zone. Paradise. I drank pure sweet tasting water from the tap, swam in the buoyant Adriatic at inviting temperatures, ate fresh fish, mussels, clams and lobsters caught daily from a crystalline blue sea, and hopped easily onto ferries visiting offshore islands with antique towns and sandy beaches.
Everyone tucks a bathing suit into a pocket or wears one under their clothes. I was in and out of the Adriatic Sea even while I was going for lunch, shopping or sightseeing. The Adriatic is salty but not itchy and the Croats have showers and hoses everywhere in anticipation of people taking quick dips in the sea.
But isn’t NATO bombing that place; isn’t Croatia located midst the strife- stricken Balkans? Well you might ask. I did. Before I signed up to attend a “Peacebuilding Conference for the 21st Century” in Cavtat, just south of Dubrovnik, I had pressed organizers, travel agents and knowledgeable friends with the question —— “Is it safe?” Even though I’d read Lonely Planet’s new guidebook on Croatia subtitled “Get in before the crowds return”, I didn’t believe it. Only once I arrived and had one contradictory experience after another, could I put aside the images of Croatia I’d formed from the news. Where was the Croatia I’d been reading about — the one with tinderbox elections, reeling from a century of combative Serbian demands?
War was invisible unless, of course, I turned on CNN. In truth I felt caught in the film, The Truman Show. I expected the sky to be pulled back, revealing the real world. As a single woman, I was enjoying a rare luxury offeeling safe. I felt safe traveling, exploring and walking everywhere alone. Even in the city of Zagreb, I walked miles along deserted beaches in the early morning hours and returned without fear to my hotel after dinner, often late in the evening.
The presence of the 1991 war does persist — in conversation. A simple question to a waiter or shopkeeper, as vague as “how are things for you now?” easily penetrated any thin formality. Everyone under thirty seems to speak and understand English. But even older Croatian vendors selling newspapers and postcards at portable kiosks found a way to answer my questions. And when I thanked a store clerk for his courteous service, he smiled an emphatic “Thank you” of his own, explaining “We are brothers making a business. Your business is welcome.” A florist who created a bouquet of flowers for me to take to the sister of a friend who lives in Zagreb spoke very little English but proudly introduced her eight year old son to me and explained (in Croatian), “She’s American. English, not German.”
Life was good while I was in Croatia. People were glad for peace and glad for tourism, but they’ve been hurt. I was told many personal stories of a war they never saw coming. Telling me seemed to ease the pain. In Dubrovnik, a taxi driver pointed to “the red tiles where they bombed the roofs”. A doctor next to me in line commented, “The emergency rooms took everyone, Serbs included.” A Croat, who drove me around outside Dubrovnik explained, “that house stands empty where a Serbian family lived and never returned”. A waiter in a small restaurant shrugged when I complimented him on the food, “Times have been difficult, but no one is hungry here.” And so on.
The local red wine was so good in one small Cavtat restaurant that I wanted to buy some and bring it home. The restaurant owner explained its source as his own small vineyard, adding a quiet, “the war is over now”, as if the quality of his wine was a telling sign. Such is the beauty of this land; even when tanks were coming across the fields, no one could believe it. One man heard the news on the radio and since he could see no evidence from his window, he drove around the countryside in his car to find it! The war continues now in Croat minds as a deeply felt injustice — wrong, like graffiti desecrating a sacred wall.
I found the healing power of this land worked with travel mishaps as well as on the vast distress from war. Several personal tourist problems were “somehow” transformed into unexpected gifts. Making my way from Los Angeles to Frankfurt and to my final destination, Dubrovnik, I had a scheduled two-hour layover in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. But an airline official met me at the gate with the bad news that my Croatian Air flight was delayed — four additional hours! — and, furthermore, the flight would stop over in the town of Zared before going on to Dubrovnik. Just as I was wondering how I was going to survive airport chairs after a full day and night of time zone travel, I realized the Zagreb airport was located across the street from a park! I spent the afternoon lazing around in shaded sunshine, dozing and people-watching. Whoever heard of such a delightful layover!?
Then, more problems. Due to high winds, my flight to Dubrovnik was grounded in Split, a seaside city still five driving hours from Dubrovnik — a little like getting grounded in San Francisco. Croatian Air dumped all passengers, rather unceremoniously and without much direction, onto a curb in a parking lot to wait for a bus at midnight! While waiting for the bus, I struck up a conversation with a man from Canada who had grown up in Croatia. He explained that the winds at the Dubrovnik airport were extremely dangerous and the airline was making a good choice not to take us there. After an hour waiting around for a bus, cab drivers approached and asked if anyone wanted to pay 2400 kuna (approximately $300) and share a taxi to Dubrovnik. The Croatian Canadian negotiated a reasonable deal for the two of us and I got a crash course in Croatian history.
The traveler from Canada was a natural storyteller. Even in the dark, he highlighted the Croatian coast and relieved the tension of single lane driving between Split and Dubrovnik. Three and a half hours later (instead of five), we arrived at Hotel Croatia at 4 a.m. He told me that, in 1991, when the Serbs had unsuccessfully attempted to make Croatia their own state, the Hotel Croatia had been stripped and vandalized. Now, proudly refurbished the splendid five-star hotel sports indoor and outdoor swimming pools as well as spa and recreational services, rooms with balconies overlooking village or sea, and nightly disco dancing with a live band. As I walked down the hotel’s spiral staircase to the dining room, he showed me how the architect left the dynamite blasted rock foundation exposed as a natural wall casing. Once again, I was struck with Croatia’s magical ability to merge tough realities with a lightness of being.
This was going to be a wonderful site for the “Peacebuilding in the 21st Century” conference I was attending in the seaside town of Cavtat, six kilometers south of Dubrovnik.
Since I had arrived before dawn’s early light, I woke up to an unexpected paradise, stretching out as far as I could see. First a swim and then dinner, enjoying the clear waters of Cavtat. You haven’t had calamari until it’s been grilled fresh from the Adriatic Sea. The next day, I traveled forty-five minutes by water ferry across the sea to Dubrovnik. Nothing prepares me for the perfection of what some people call the most beautiful city in the world. I felt like I’d stepped into a fairy tale, been refused ordinariness and given royalty in my sundress. I wished for a costume and a procession, some ritual event to match the surroundings and provide pomp and circumstance as I walked around the high walls of this glistening ancient city. I attended a magical evening concert by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in the open-roofed Rector’s Palace Atrium where the starry sky of Dubrovnik was momentarily defined by four stone walls, installed as a captive night sky ceiling over an evening of orchestral music and ancestral marble. I lay still on the second story balcony floor feeling the resonance of modern day music and long ago centuries in my body.
More magic. I can’t really talk about Dubrovnik without becoming a poet. Shops still feel incidental to the stone and marble. Kids using phone cards seem oddly out of place. And there just weren’t enough young people leaning up against the fountains, families eating ice cream on church steps, or tourists pouring through the narrow streets that have never known cars to bring me back to earth. Laundry, even laundry (which is strung out on lines everywhere) felt romantic! Croatia casts a spell like a Zen koan, calling out “be here now”.
Croats are exceedingly friendly. Restaurants treat tourists more like guests than paying patron. And, in fact, taking room and board in a private home is a great way to enjoy a lengthy stay in Croatia. A friend enjoyed spending a week on the island of Hvar with a family he’d never met, vowed he’d never stay in a hotel again.
So, like the Lonely Planet advises — go before the crowds arrive. They will surely be on their way.