Feature Travel Archives

Croatia: Red Roofs of Dubrovnik Radiant Again

By Dominique Wellington

In the sunlight, you can't tell the old roofs from the new, but it's evident that the charm of Dubrovnik has returned again.

As one of the oldest and most beautiful Adriatic towns, Dubrovnik was a commercial and naval power with a medieval structure dating back to the 13th century. For seven centuries the people of Dubrovnik labored to create and maintain a rich cultural tradition, symbolized by the city's treasure trove of architectural monuments, paintings and sculpture. During the recent war, the historic core of Dubrovnik, the old city, was subjected to heavy bombardment. All public buildings, churches, monasteries, palaces, walls and fortresses suffered grave structural damage.

The news of the damage reverberated around the world. It was particularly devastating to those who had walked the walls above the terra-cotta rooftops during serene times, and those with a sensitivity to the cultural treasures of our world.

Almost immediately after the shelling stopped, the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, alongside other preservation groups, and with the help of the travel industry, came to the rescue. Fund raising efforts have now restored most historical sights to their original splendor.

The history of this beautiful city remains an integral part of its spell. There is a feeling of splendor and valiance associated with the Old City which, like a noble character from a Puccini Opera, survives all attempts at destruction because the forces for good-arts and culture-are on his side.

Some sources date the first civilization around Dubrovnik as far back as 6000 B.C., but the city itself was founded in the 7th-century by refugees of nearby Epidaurum, a large Roman city destroyed by earthquake and war. Most of ancient Epidaurum sank into the sea during a 4th-century earthquake and still lies buried under layers of sand. Dubrovnik's first settlers picked a strategic, well protected island, but the experience of Epidaurum led to construction of fortifications around the city. By the 9th-century, sea trade and ship-building were well developed, and the continuing fortifications were strong enough to withstand a 15-month enemy siege. Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Dubrovnik was born, and foreign troops never set foot on those streets again until Napoleon marched in unopposed in 1808.

Besides sea commerce and world famous shipbuilding, Dubrovnik was known for its diplomacy. Despite numerous threats, the Republic knew how to make the best use of political and economic advantages to turn enemies into allies. For many centuries the Venetians vied with Dubrovnik for control of the Adriatic, even proclaiming sovereignty over the Republic for 150 years. Some of the greatest diplomacy emerged after a disastrous 1667 earthquake when much of the city was in ruins and temporarily defenseless. While most of Yugoslavia fell to the Turks during the Ottoman Empire, Dubrovnik, alone, remained free, independent and Christian for four centuries. Although the yearly tribute of gold and silver paid to the Turks was a heavy burden, they wrote, 'Freedom was worth more than gold.' One of the great charms of Croatia is the consistency of its architecture. Those irregular, red, terra-cotta tiled rooftops, such a familiar part of the unfolding scene, stand out in sharp contrast to the spectacular blue of the Mediterranean or a background of green hills. They are as much a part of Dubrovnik as a smile lighting up a face.

The Dubrovnik Republic was characterized by the fact that almost everyone sang or wrote poetry, always competing for ways to express their creativity. This tradition of attracting writers and performing artists has remained intact through the centuries but, sadly, came to an abrupt halt during the recent conflict. Restoration of the performing arts, the life blood of the city, has been one of the primary goals of the fundraisers. The initial goal was achieved on July 10 this past summer, when the 47th Dubrovnik Summer Festival, founded in 1950, resounded again. What had been a n annual tradition until 1991 was awakened after a long pause. Its return was heralded with a great fanfare of color, pageantry and joy. The opening celebration of fireworks and performances, facing the sea and stars along the blue Adriatic, was attended by President Tudjman and other government officials. The Festival, which concluded August 25, featured the acclaimed Zagreb Soloists, the Croatian National Theater of Zagreb and Split, the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden , the Moscow Chamber Choir and the Festival Strings of Lucerne. On July 11, the Lord Mayor of Dubrovnik, Nikola Obuljen, recognized major benefactors of the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund. Engraved brass plaques were presented with the inscription, 'A city of poets...a poet city,' based on the words of Croatian poet Jure Kastelan. Those honored for their 'dedication and effectiveness' were Alan and Harriett Lewis of the Grand Circle Foundation, for their contribution towards the restoration of the Stradun, (the main street), Jeanne and Otto Ruesch for the Jesuit Stairs and Dordic Mayneri Chapel, and Earlene Causey, president of the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, and her husband, Bruce Causey, for restoration of the St. Blaise Statue at Revlin Fortress. Strolling through the Stradun (Placa) in the evening has always been a favorite pastime for both residents and visitors in this medieval city. Resembling huge slabs of marble, the pavement reflects the shadows of people walking in sunlight or lamplight.

With most of the restoration projects now completed, visitors are returning again to this city of inspiration by the blue Adriatic. Among the hotels back in full swing are the Excelsior and the Argentina, which is renovated but undergoing further upgrading this winter. The Villa Orsula is a charming, deluxe, 17-room hotel within walking distance of the old city. Just outside the city walls, the beautiful Imperial Hotel is still under renovation. People who have fallen in love with its old world charm and gracious ambience will be happy to hear its friendly front doors will soon reopen.


Swissair, Lufthansa and Austrian airlines all fly to Zagreb. Atlas Travel Agency, a full service destination management company, offers motorcoach tours and adventure tours. Atlas and Blue Heart Travel have incentive travel programs and can arrange trips to Medjugorje.