The coach from the airport took me up Croatia's spectacular coastal roads and the Adriatic down in the bays was as incandescent a blue as the brochures had promised. Red-roofed towns clustered close to the rocky coves and steep mountains rose up beside me with wild flowers growing defiantly out of the rocky limestone ground. I had finally arrived on a much-delayed trip. I had been all set to go to Yugoslavia when the Balkan War broke out. Almost two decades later, I was driving up the Dalmatian Coast in southern Croatia, one of the first countries to declare independence from what was then Yugoslavia. A new country, touting guided tours of the rich cultural history in the cities of Split and Dubrovnik, to tempt back the tourists that had been one of the mainstays of their economy.
At first there was no obvious evidence of the war as the houses I passed had been rebuilt, but on the drive up to Split, I did see some houses that had been shelled and villages that were totally abandoned. There was nothing poetic about these reminders of war, it was too close a history for that. It was uncomfortable but inescapable. So the whispered talk between the tourists on the bus was all about the war and how it was the dream of the charismatic communist leader Tito to unify Yugoslavia after WWII. He moved around the population in the hope that friendships or perhaps marriages would integrate the different regions and their peoples. This meant after he died, and after things fell apart, 'enemies' were neighbours — armed neighbours, because after completing their national service they took their guns home to serve as a standing army.
There were no heroes in this Homeland War, with atrocities committed by all sides. However, early next morning, setting off for a guided tour around Split, I decided to put away these thoughts. I wanted to concentrate on normal tourist attractions, particularly as Split, the unofficial capital of the south, had such an interesting beginning in 295 AD as a retirement home for the benevolent Roman tyrant Diocletian. Unfortunately, the local guide immediately plunged me into the dark, taking me down to the vaulted cellars of the palace. This was because its use as a rubbish dump for centuries had preserved underground a mirror image of the ruined palace above. Wandering the damp rooms, getting in the way of grumpy locals trying to set up a flower show, my imagination struggled to see Diocletian's palace. And I wanted to picture the home of the Emperor, born in southern Croatia, the son of a freed slave. A man who worked his way up until he ruled over the Roman Empire for twenty years — a miracle in those murderous days.
It was only when we came up into the light that the palace came alive for me. I loved the fact that in the 7th century the ruins had been patched up and made into homes by refugees from the nearby town of Salona, and the palace had been occupied ever since. What remained were not scattered remnants in a field, or an archaeological dig, as they normally are. Instead apartments with geranium-filled window boxes were squeezed into Roman arches, smart boutiques displayed their wares in the windows of medieval mansions and cafés spilt out into the labyrinth of narrow lanes.
It had only been since 1979, when Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site, that the people of Split had to stop making any further changes, without what my guide called “a great deal of paperwork”. There were no such rules for the Christians in the 7th century who cleansed Diocletian's mausoleum, “like an exorcism,” my guide said, smashing his sarcophagus and turning the tomb into a cathedral. It was, though, in this tangle of architecture that I could finally picture Diocletian wandering over to his temple to Jupiter (whom he pompously declared himself a son of), as I sat in the Peristyle and had a coffee on the white Roman marble steps, under Corinthian columns, with the cathedral's 16th-century tower rising behind.
Leaving the guide and wandering the narrow streets, I could also imagine the later invaders who left their mark. The Venetians who built piazzas and Renaissance mansions and then the Austrians who apparently wanted to restore the palace until they realised the additions were what were holding it up. It was a wonderfully easy relationship with history. A welcoming, buzzing city, burrowed and built into Roman remains. It surprised me, because Split is not nearly as famous as the walled city of Dubrovnik. I remembered during the war the international uproar as the shells began to rain down on the 'Pearl of the Adriatic,' as Byron called Dubrovnik, but I didn't recall the same reaction about Split.
Driving down the coast to Dubrovnik, I wondered if it would live up to its fame and also, unfortunately, found thoughts of war creeping back. When I entered through the formidable 13th- to 16th-century city walls, there seemed little evidence of damage. Impressive monasteries and large Baroque houses lined the main white marble street, harking back to Dubrovnik's past glories as a highly successful maritime power with three hundred ships to its name.
Unfortunately the beautiful, Gothic-Renaissance Sponza Palace — once the customs house — is all that remains from this time, as an earthquake devastated the city in the 16th century. By the time they rebuilt in a more sombre Baroque style, the thousand years Dubrovnik had remained an independent city-state were coming to an end. Inside the palace, I expected to find a flavour of the merchants that once traded their wares but instead there was a memorial room to the recent war. Photographs of the men, some as young as seventeen, who died fighting and protecting their city, hung in rows and a screen showed the damage from shelling and fires.
Outside again, standing by the cathedral, it was difficult to rid my mind of these images. So instead of admiring the 15th-century Rector's Palace, where the head of state once demonstrated the power and prized independence of the city, I wondered if they had bombed the sweeping Baroque staircase and its grand staterooms full of gilded furniture and second-rate oil paintings.
The much-restored city also left reminders, 'lest-we-forgets'. A map by the main Pile gate showed, not the historic sights, but the 70 per cent that was damaged by shells, shrapnel and fire. The Franciscan Monastery stands alongside one of the oldest working pharmacies and a gorgeous little Romanesque cloister, with carved pillars of dragons and griffins encircling a garden of palms, orange and grapefruit trees. There was a museum here that largely showed the monks' old vials and books on the different curative values of herbs and flowers, but even here there was a hole in the wall, glassed over like a porthole, with a note underneath informing me it was damage from a shell in the recent war. There seemed no way of getting away from it, and I felt uncomfortable. It was like being on a ghoulish tour of recent atrocities, rather than visiting the culture heritage of the Dalmatian Coast.
As if to reflect my mood, I awoke the next day to the drip, drip, drip of rain outside my window. The sky was a blanket of grey over my head as I climbed up to walk along the tops of the city's fortified walls. Then Dubrovnik silenced me. From above, the streets were so narrow I barely saw them, just the beautiful patchwork of roofs, with the occasional cupola or spire poking up between, undulating away down to the sea. Looking straight down at the houses closest to me, there were tiny gardens up on balconies, bursting with puffs of red geraniums.
I walked down to the walls beside the sea, where the sun managed to break through, turning the grey Adriatic to an inviting blue-green. White crashing waves fluffed up at the base of the high walls, seemingly as insignificant as candyfloss. The houses had their curtains drawn against the peering eyes of the tourists at their level and stray cats — black, ginger and mottled — walked the streets below or slept in the sunshine, warming themselves from the cold morning rain.
As I climbed down to the old port, where small fishing boats rocked in the waves, it began to rain again so I dived into a small but warm restaurant in one of the tiny side streets and ate delicious fish pâté. Browsing my guidebook for something to do indoors, I found a gallery called War Photo Ltd with an exhibition on the Balkan conflict. In hindsight, I think I went because I felt I had been skirting the issue of the war. It was too recent for that; ignoring it felt disrespectful, like a betrayal. It was part of the country, it was the waiter who served me coffee who had lost his father.
There was no gentle way in, though the first photograph seemed to be one, until I realised I was not looking at a sunset, not the last orange rays in creeping darkness, but the night sky lit by Yugoslav shells slamming into the Croatian city of Osijek. There were no heroes in the exhibit. Shattered bodies — Croatian. Screaming women — Bosnian. Blood in the snow — an elderly Serbian. I had to step back, breathe, and see nothing after every third or fourth image. Running, barbed wire, an Albanian woman churning butter in what remained of her home as life had to go on, a dead baby. A tiny baby, who had died of exposure and was being washed for its last rites.
Back out on the streets I no longer fought the thoughts of war, and accepted them as part of this new country. This fiercely proud country with mountains and sea as spectacular as any found in New Zealand. A culturally rich country that had absorbed the architecture of all those who invaded it over the years for its strategic natural harbours. The once-powerful maritime power and the birthplace of a Roman Emperor. The country was new and raw, and, like the tangle of architecture in Split, I needed to just throw myself in and accept the whole. So I did and loved it.
There are no direct flights to Croatia from India, so connections are made to Split via hubs in Europe such as Frankfurt or Zurich. Lowest fares at the moment come from Austrian Airlines: Rs 55,000 (return on economy class).
Croatia needs visa papers processed in advance. Apply to the Croatian Consulate at A-15, West End, New Delhi 110021 (011-41663101/2/3) or A/52, Darshan Apartments, Mt. Pleasant Road, Mumbai 400006 (022-23672800). A downloadable visa form is available online (www.mvpei.hr/custompages/static/hrv/files/Obrazac_zahtjev_vize.pdf). A travel visa is valid for one year and costs $52.
Much of the town centre is pedestrians-only and there are pleasant promenades. Outside the centre, buses are a good way to get around — the system is extensive and the service regular on the major bus lines.
Where to stay
Easily the most remarkable of Split's numerous hotels is Hotel Vestibul Palace (from €107; +385-21-329-329, www.vestibulpalace.com), set inside Diocletian's Palace. Another impressive establishment is Hotel Atrium (from €165; 21-200-000, www.hotel-atrium.hr), a plush marble and glass affair. Among mid-range options there's the Boutique Hotel Zephyrus (from €160; 21-396-162, www.zephyrus.hr), a small family-run establishment that comes highly recommended for combining comfort and style. For cheaper accommodation, the Hotel Bellevue (from €35; 21-345-644/347-499, www.hotel-bellevue-split.hr) is recommended.
What to see & do
The most important sight in Split is Diocletian's Palace. Flanking the palace are a cathedral and the Narodni Trg or People's Square with the 15th-century town hall. Of museums there is a considerable list: the Ethnographic Museum is worth visiting as also the City Museum.
- A good excursion is to the tiny walled town of Trogir.
- Travel north through the Krka Valley to Krka National Park (www.npkrka.hr).
- Alternatively head south to Omis, once a pirate stronghold or follow the Cetina river up past spectacular rock formations.
You can fly from Split, motor down, take a bus (€13-17) or even a ferry (www.jadrolinija.hr).
The walled Old Town (Stari Grad) is entirely pedestrian. Outside of the old centre, renting a car is easy; several rental agencies have offices at the airport and in the old town. You could also take taxis from the Pile and Ploce gates, as well as at Gruû, the bus station and in Lapad. There is also an excellent bus service run by Libertas (www.libertasdubrovnik.hr).
Where to stay
Acommodation comes in all ranges. Most luxurious is Hotel Excelsior and Spa (from €295; 20-353-353, www.hotel-excelsior.hr). There are also the Grand Villa Argentina (from €215; 20-440-555/440-524, www.gva.hr) and the boutique hotel Villa Wolff (from €125.00; www.villa-wolff.hr). The Valamar Group (www.valamar.com) has a clutch of hotels, among which are Hotel Dubrovnik President (from €224, 52-465-400) and Hotel Argosy (from €133, 52-465-400), all in the oasis of Babin Kuk peninsula. Among the inexpensive hotels is Hotel Ivka (from €93; 20-362-600, www.hotel-ivka.com).
Where to eat & drink
There are lots of cafés and the coffee is great too, with a strong Turkish slant. Coastal towns both, Split and Dubrovnik have great fish restaurants. Otherwise local delicacies are generally quite heavy and involve meat. A legacy of invading Venetians, there are also many restaurants with a Mediterranean flavour. These tend to be cheaper. The local beer is excellent and the local wines are good, if a little oakey, and considerably cheaper than the imported ones.
What to see & do
- Although I was at first disappointed with the shopping, in Dubrovnik, I found something different: Croatian designer clothes, and silver and coral jewellery. Even if only to experience the interior design, visit the Jewellery Gallery Dardin.
- The small synagogue on Zudioska Street is worth a visit for the museum and its history of the Jews in Dubrovnik as well as for the synagogue itself.