Dubrovnik: Beauty Under Siege


November 05, 1991|By GWINN OWENS

If asked to name the most beautiful cities I have known, mostof my choices would be the obvious ones: Paris, Venice, Rome, Florence, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Lisbon, San Francisco. But I would also include Dubrovnik.

Yes, Dubrovnik, the ageless gem on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, which has survived intact from assaults for more than 1,000 years, only to be pounded in 1991 by the artillery of its neighbor, Serbia. The legend is that earlier would-be conquerors were so enchanted by Dubrovnik's beauty that they were loath to disturb it. There is no such sensitivity on the part of the Serbs, whose shells are landing in the city as I write.

My wife and I discovered Dubrovnik as a mere stop-off on a cruise; the visit proved to be unforgettable. This tiny city -- its population is only about 40,000 -- has the dramatic setting of San Francisco, the artistic liveliness of Paris, the Renaissance nobility of Florence and the serenity of Venice.

Its pristine survival for so many centuries may indeed be due to reverence for its beauty, as was the documented case with Napoleon's army, but there are hard-headed reasons as well. The oldest part of the city rests behind massive walls that proved beyond penetration by such predators as Venetians and Ottomans.

Politically it exploited its location between East and West; its port was the center of trade between the Ottomans and Europe. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it spread its own suzerainty up the Dalmation Coast. Today it is at the extreme southern end of the long western tail of Croatia that meanders down the Adriatic shore.

When we were there two years ago, before Yugoslavia's civil war, the town was crowded with visitors. The principal tourist attraction was to take a walk along the top of its enormously high walls; just climbing the steps to get there is not for the faint-hearted. The main street, called the Stradun, is lined with Renaissance houses, reminiscent of Florence. The old city allows no motor vehicles within its walls, thus avoiding the despoiling curse of Florence and enjoying the tranquillity of another motorless city, Venice.

Several convents and palaces of magnificent late Renaissance architecture grace the rocky slopes of the city. During our visit there were numerous posters advertising concerts, museum exhibits and theater products, including Shakespeare. A band was playing on the Stradun.

On that same street today, the people know the terror of random artillery explosions that have already wrecked some of their ageless monuments. They are without food or water and scramble over meager rations brought in by the Red Cross. The walls that held off earlier invaders are useless against air bombardment and long-range naval artillery.

The war between Croatia and Serbia shatters many Western delusions about the advanced state of European culture. Two years ago, in the midst of its joyful and lovely presence, I would never have dreamed that intra-Slav hatred would become so fierce that, like a raging forest fire, it would sweep away the compassion for this exquisite city that every previous century has granted it.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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