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New Europe

Day Nineteen: Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik at dawn 
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Dubrovnik at dawn. Known for most of its life as Ragusa, the city rivalled Venice as one of the most powerful trading ports of the Mediterranean.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAs the crow flies, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik are less than 90 miles apart, but their outward and visible appearances could hardly be more different. In Sarajevo the scars of war are plain to see, whereas her southern neighbour gleams and glitters as if freshly polished. Yet one of the first things that confronts you as you walk through Ploce Gate into the immaculate Old Town is a large map showing that even 'the jewel of the Adriatic' was not spared the violence that convulsed the Balkans.

Beneath the heading 'City Map of Damages Caused by the Aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav Army - Serbs and Montenegrins - 1991-1992' is a pattern of coloured dots and triangles analysing the bombardment in minute detail. 'Roofs damaged by direct impact', 'Houses burned,' 'Roofs damaged by shrapnels' and even 'Direct impact on pavement'. You would probably need a map the size of a football pitch to record the damage sustained by Sarajevo, but the fact remains that, in the eyes of the West, the two great outrages of the war were the destruction of the bridge at Mostar and the shelling of Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was known until 1918, was always a magnet for visitors. The stout sixteenth-century walls were designed by Italian architects to protect merchants and traders and to rival the power and glory of Venice, their aggressive competitor to the north. So when the mortar shells, specifically targeting the historic old town, began falling in November 1991, it was not only an affront to her dignity, it was major threat to her livelihood.

Branka Franicevic, now a tour guide, was in her thirties when it all happened and we talk together outside a kavana (café) in the Stradun, the long, paved street that runs the length of the Old City.

She remembers the morning of the very first hit. 'I believed that nobody normal, at the end of the twentieth century, could shell a town like Dubrovnik', she recalls. 'Then I heard a very strange sound. I thought maybe I had turned in my dream, but my mother came and forced me to go to the cellar of the house, and the first thing that happened was my neighbour who came with a glass of cognac and a cigarette.'

From then on it was not the shells falling that was the worst thing, but the cutting of the water and electricity supplies. 'For five months we were permitted only five litres of water per family per day.' Six centuries after they were built the great stone fortresses guarding the city became sanctuaries once again.

'In the Revelin fortress at the east gate, 2,000 people moved in and spent nine months with only one toilet. And, interesting, no diseases, nothing like that.'

One thing of which there was no shortage was rakija, a potent herb brandy.

'It added to the spirits of the locals,' recalls Branka, with a trace of an apologetic smile. They had big meals, sang and danced a lot, enjoyed discussing what they might do if the Serbs tried to enter the city - boiling olive oil was considered - and generally had such a good time that when the war ended with the tourist business in terminal decline, Branka felt a perverse relief.

'I felt I had been given my city back.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Nineteen: Dubrovnik
  • Country/sea: Croatia
  • Place: Dubrovnik
  • Book page no: 47

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