One morning not long after sunrise, I went for a walk in Gruz. My route would take me along the road which wraps around the northern edge of the Lapad Peninsula, a landform that helps protect the Port of Dubrovnik. I was headed for the community of Babin Kuk, one of those places where many people stay, but few really get to know. The walk also offered me an opportunity to observe a side of Dubrovnik that most tourists who come to visit the historic Old Town are never likely to see. Babin Kuk has its fair share of large resorts and hotels, but it is also a residential area that some of the locals call home. It is a good place to witness a bit of the local scene without being jostled by crowds.
Babin Kuk offers a bit of shade to strollers since it is interspersed with shrubland and forests. While walking along the waterfront I was mesmerized by some of the semi-derelict stone buildings that faced the harbor. Their weathered facades gave them a certain mystique that spoke to their venerability. It was also quite a contrast from their prosperous surroundings. Plenty of yachts and large sailing boats floated on the water. If the Old Town of Dubrovnik was the playground of mass tourism, then Babin Kuk was the watering hole for the upscale and wealthy. The kind of place where life was forever on the sunny side up or at least it appeared that way.
The Final Months – Sunshine Before The Storm
One of the more regal and well kempt stone facades along the waterfront that I noticed was the Lapad Hotel. Over a century has gone by since the hotel was first conceived and constructed. The fact that it first opened during the spring of 1914 has an ominously poignant significance. During that fateful year Europe decided to commit suicide. The hotel opened a few months prior to the cataclysmic disruption of world war that started in the Balkans with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. There were other parts of the region, such as the Dalmatian Coast, that were not the stereotypical Balkan backwater with disparate ethnic groups seething with discontent and plotting malevolent actions. The Dalmatian Coast and Dubrovnik were well on their way to becoming a modern tourist haven. The Hotel Lapad was built with that in mind.
Little did the hotel’s first patrons know that they were experiencing the final peaceful months before the First World War changed the region and the world forever. Yet the hotel proved to have staying power. It managed to outlast both the First and Second World Wars. It outlived communism and the Cold War. The Tito’s and the Tudjman’s came and went on the political scene and still the Hotel Lapad stood. Its history could not have been more different from the promise it presented at the very beginning. The Hotel Lapad was born among blue skies into a world of prosperity. A counterpoint to the storm clouds gathering on the geopolitical horizon. I cannot help but wonder what those who stayed at the Lapad during that first, fleeting season later thought about the experience. Did they look back on it with nostalgia? Did they yearn for the innocence destroyed by the war? Did they realize that the hotel would have welcomed their return after the war?
Repeat Business – The Hotel Lapad
If some of those first visitors returned to Lapad after the war, the hotel had probably not changed much, but the political environment was certainly different. Austria-Hungary no longer existed, Yugoslavia now held sway over the area, but like everything else in the Balkans at that time this situation would not last. Change and upheaval were constants in Babin Kuk during the 20th century. In 1987, the Hotel Lapad underwent its first major renovation. Four years later it was under siege like Dubrovnik and the Lapad Peninsula as another storm broke over the Croatian Coast. The beauty and elegance of the Hotel Lapad was all but forgotten during the Yugoslav Wars. Babin Kuk and the many resorts in the district were not spared the wrath of the Yugoslav People’s Army. Destruction arrived on the doorstep of every hotel and resort. Along with it came large influxes of refugees who had nowhere else to go.
Former holiday hotels were turned into squalid hovels where survival became a way of life. While there has been a tendency to focus on the destruction unleashed upon the Old Town when talking about the Siege of Dubrovnik, outlying areas were hit just as hard. This is understandable since merciless attacks on UNESCO/World Heritage Sites, especially in Europe, are quite rare. The world was concerned with the heritage and culture which would be lost if Dubrovnik’s Old Town was shelled into oblivion. The fixation on the shelling of Dubrovnik’s Old Town overlooks the extensive damage suffered by the city’s outlying districts. Babin Kuk and other communities on the Lapad Peninsula saw their fair share of artillery shells lobbed at them during the fighting which began in the autumn of 1991. Hotels and resorts sustained hits.
Armored Artifact – On The Waterfront
On my walk along the waterfront in Babin Kuk, I wondered if some of the battered stone buildings may have been casualties of the conflict. While the Lapad Hotel had emerged more elegant than ever, the same could not be said for some of the buildings. Memories of the fighting were few here, but that could be just as startling. I had never really thought about the war outside of the Old Town until my walk that morning around Babin Kuk. While winding my way around the waterfront and back to Gruz I came across the “Maisan” an armored military vehicle on display in a grassy space. This artifact from the Croatian armed forces had been placed close to the waterfront. The sight of it made me forget for a moment the yachts, pleasure boats and holiday atmosphere of the area. The world around me, the one that filled me with enchantment ceased to exist for a few minutes. I was being confronted by the specter of the Yugoslav Wars which cast its long shadow over the area. The armored vehicle looked incongruous and mildly grotesque where it had been placed. That may have been precisely the point. War can happen anywhere, especially in the Balkans.
The armored vehicle was a reminder that in a place where the good life reigns supreme, there have been unforgettable intrusions that have left deep and often invisible scars. People did whatever they could to survive and sometimes that was still not enough. Refugees fled to places such as Babin Kuk where they stayed in hotels and resorts. While these facilities provided them with much needed shelter, they were also targets. It was a frighteningly traumatic experience at best, deadly at worst. The armored vehicle symbolized the fight against forces of destruction and oppression. It was part lifesaver, part instrument of war. Its placement at first made little sense to me. Then I realized it was a memory marker that symbolized the intrusive, incongruous nature of the Yugoslav Wars. There was no escaping the war, either then or now.
Click here for: A Negative Response – Dubrovnik: Getting Tested (Travels Along the Croatian Coast #63)