A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)

Dubrovnik leaves me with a range of complex and contradictory feelings. It is a town sized spectacle sculpted in stone. The quaint grandeur and sophisticated monumentalism of its historic structures are beyond compare. As blinding rays of sunlight strike the Dalmatian stone, radiance in its purest form becomes apparent. Areas in the later afternoon that become consumed by shadow are the settings of refinement and repose. Nothing could be more pleasant than the Old Town’s magical splendor in these moments, but it can also be spectacularly unnerving. There is something a little too perfect about the walled Old Town for my taste. It has reached such a level of refinement that it does not feel quite real. Dubrovnik is one of the finest examples of the impulse for historic preservation and structural restoration. Nonetheless, something about it does not feel right. Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, also had misgivings about the Old Town.

Two faced – Detail in Dubrovnik

Positively Pedestrian – Staying In Gruz
In the first of two sections in her book devoted to Dubrovnik, West begins in Gruz. This outlying district was where she and her husband stayed. I could not help but feel a certain kinship with West since Gruz is where my wife and I have stayed on two different visits to Dubrovnik. Gruz offers a reminder of a much more normal world than the one found within the Old Town’s walls. Reading West’s description of Gruz brought the place back alive within me. It was fascinating to think I had unwittingly walked in West’s footsteps. We had crossed paths by traveling in the same spaces, separated by an interval of eighty years. She did not really care for Dubrovnik. West thought Gruz was much more tolerable. I would never call Gruz normal – I doubt West would either – but when compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town it is positively pedestrian.

Like Rebecca West, I found Gruz more pleasurable than Dubrovnik. For me, this had to do with the fact that prices were nowhere near as extortionate as those in the Old Town. For West and her husband, it was not a question of affordability. The couple stayed in Gruz because they were unable to find accommodation in the Old Town and so picked this bucolic district in which to stay. When West told her husband that she did not care for Dubrovnik, he wrongly thought that it might be because they had been unable to secure accommodation in the Old Town. On the contrary, it was the Old Town which left West in a state of semi-depression. This did not surprise me. What did was that West had the courage to say it. She mentions among other things, “the appalling lack of accumulation observable in its history.”

Looking up – Old Town Dubrovnik

Splendor On Steroids – A Seductive Intensity
Dubrovnik has been prone to collapse on occasion due to natural cataclysms. This has caused a discontinuity with its past. Dubrovnik would rebuild its way back to a look of prosperity after each catastrophe. This has continued right up into contemporary times with damage from the 1991-92 siege all but swept under the marble. The Old Town does not feel like an organic development. Instead, it appears as a showpiece, a baroque display case with Renaissance and Gothic elements thrown in for good measure. One gets an overwhelming sense of wealth. Likes anything based on wealth and vanity, its character is profoundly superficial. If one cares to only judge a book by its cover than Dubrovnik’s is a gilded, beguiling. leather bound rare edition, The Old Town plays to that overweening desire for artifice that man welcomes as a corrective to the harshness of life. Dubrovnik proves that man can only stand to suffer so much of reality. The Old Town eschews the real, for a type of splendor on steroids. Its charms are showy, flagrant, and intensely seductive.

I love and hate Dubrovnik in unequal measure for its beauty and the pervasive pathos that lurks in the design of every detail in the townscape. The Old Town comes as close to attaining perfection as any place I have ever been. I find that to be terribly disturbing because in my mind, nothing could be worse than perfection. It is the end, a point of no return. Where does a person or place go after perfection? Reading West’s sections on Dubrovnik I got the sense that this bothered her as well. She does not explicitly say so, but I could sense it in her words. West admires Dubrovnik, but does not like, let alone love it. For this I can commiserate with her. The Old Town is like walking into a fairy tale, except this one is real. At times, it can seem downright ahistorical. That seems like a strange thing to say about a place that lives off its legacy.

Picturing the perfect – A photographer in Dubrovnik

Core Values – Easy On The Eyes
One would be hard pressed to find another place – other than Venice – whose present existence almost totally relies on its adherence to the past. To this end, all the main sights in the Old Town look as though they have had the past refined right out of them. I was surprised – though I should not have been – to find that even the old “medieval” walls are quite modern in places. The ramparts that afford tourists the opportunity to walk along the walls did not exist in their present form until the 1980’s. Dubrovnik is deceptive like that. Relying as much upon a restored artifice to make one believe that this was always the way it has been. In truth, Dubrovnik is one of the youngest “medieval” towns in existence today.

Besides its main attractions, the Dubrovnik that exists today is a product of the post 1667 earthquake era. The idea that the Old Town is a perfect picture of preservation turns out to be a false one, but truth and historical verisimilitude have always had an uneasy relationship. Dubrovnik is history as we want it to be. The present state of the Old Town says as much about modern historical sensibilities as it does older ones. Rebecca West saw Dubrovnik for what it was, rather than what it wanted her to believe. It may have been easy on the eyes, but that was hard for her to tolerate. I can vouch for the fact that it still is.

Penetrating The Depths – Black Lamb & Grey Falcon In Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part One)

Go into any bookshop in Dubrovnik selling English language titles and it is almost impossible not to run across a copy of Rebecca West’s magisterial travel opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia.” One of the most recognizable aspects of the books is its girth. Size wise, the book is a doorstop, a free weight, a tome. My dog eared copy which always sits close at hand has 1,171 pages. The print on those pages is not very big either. An inveterate reader would need several weeks at the seaside in Dalmatia to get through the book. It would be well worth their effort. West traveled with her husband for six weeks Yugoslavia in 1937 at a time when the prospect of war loomed ever larger. It was a very important moment in Balkan history, one that West catalogs with erudition, wit, and scintillating descriptions. She records for posterity a world that was to vanish into darkness a few years later. West ominously alludes to this in her dedication: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are all now dead or enslaved.”

An encyclopedia work – Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Imagination & Interpretation – Black Lamb & Grey Falcon
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1941, the same year that the German Army invaded Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs that accompany West in the book would become collateral damage in a multisided war that spared no one. The fascist German, Italian and Hungarian regimes all had their bestial ways with the land and its people. And various ethnic groups had their way with each other. Ethnic nationalism caused internecine conflict which resulted in vile atrocities being committed by Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. Yet West’s book is so good that it can transport the reader to a place in time through her writing she makes seem eternal. Her powers of descriptive observation are magical. Reading the book is as close to a metaphysical travel experience a reader can have.,

The synthesis of imagination and interpretation, the depth of intellect, the incisive commentary, are hallmarks of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The breadth of coverage West offers of the country is unprecedented. There is no way to compare the work to other English language books on both well-known and obscure European countries at that time. Such was the density of West’s coverage that it is easier to point out the areas she does not cover – Slovenia and the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia – than the ones she does. It is interesting to note the amount of coverage given to each region. Croatia, including Dalmatia gets 210 pages, Bosnia and Herzegovina 175, Serbia (including what she terms Old Serbia which includes Kosovo) 348, Macedonia 201, Montenegro 73. Perhaps that is why some commentators have stated that she has a pro-Serbian bias. Those accusations did not come from contemporaries, they arose during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s.

Imagination & Interpretation – Rebecca West

An Encyclopedic Work – Comprehending & Comprehensive
West foresaw violence in the Balkans, but this was nothing new especially considering the context of those times. During the late 1930’s, the gathering storm of world war was getting ready to break across Europe. Yugoslavia was far from the only place where the population was seething with ethnic tensions. The fact that West did such an extensive job of describing the people and places, disparate customs and diverse cultures of Yugoslavia during the two months she spent traveling with her husband around the country, had a lot to do with her book becoming a resource of encyclopedic proportions in the English speaking world.

Diplomats, policymakers and area specialists were purportedly influenced by her observations and opinions to such an extent that some commentators blame West for the way Yugoslavia would be perceived during its dissolution in the early 1990’s. As if many of these wonks took the time to read a book which rivals War and Peace in length. They were doing nothing more than taking a contemporary conflict in the Balkans and trying to understand it through the retroactive prism of West’s book. While Rebecca West was certainly capable of foresight, she was hardly clairvoyant and could not see a half century into the future. Many of her insights have the ring of truth because she was one of the few outsiders to come with an open mind and try to understand the region.

Reviewers have commented that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is so powerful because of the sincerity with which West writes. I would add that it is her ability to empathize which comes though so strongly in the text. She seeks to understand, then describe and finally interpret. It is a potent combination that yields powerful results. Her prejudices are pro-Balkan, the opposite of stereotypical attitudes towards the region both then and now. Ironically, the book was not translated and published in Serbian until 2004, almost eighty years after it was published. Most of those who now live in the former Yugoslavia have no idea who was West was or what she wrote. That includes Serbians. West does have a great love for Serbia which shines through in her writing. It can also be ascertained by the number of pages she devotes to it. Of course, Serbia made up the largest territory in Yugoslavia, so there was a lot more ground to cover.

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Another world – Pristina, Kosovo in the 1930s (Credit: Markéta Čcheidzeová)

A Memory Of Misgivings – Tourist Haunts 
Several places that are famous tourist haunts along the Croatian coastline in modern times, get some coverage, but not nearly the amount one might expect. A couple of sections in the book are given over to shorter entries entitled, Journey and Expedition. Several sections of the book are broken down into cities or towns that West spent time exploring. Some of these have multiple sections (such as Zagreb 1, Zagreb 2 and so forth) which provide extensive coverage and by extension, insights. Dubrovnik gets two sections all to itself, even though West was less than keen on the Dalmatian crown jewel. I was especially interested after my most recent visit in rereading the sections on Dubrovnik. It had been at least five years since I perused those pages. I vaguely recalled West’s misgivings about the town. In this case, my memory served me right.

Click here for: A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)

The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)

Ada Kaleh was a survivor, until one day it was not. The island survived World Wars I and II, the collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and a quarter century of communist rule. What it could not survive was progress. Sooner or later the modern world was bound to intrude upon the island. It was a miracle that Ada Kaleh survived as an outpost of Ottomanism for as long as it did. The Danube. which created, sustained, and protected it, ended up engulfing it. The same force of nature that allowed Ada Kaleh’s community to survive and thrive would end up drowning it. Ada Kaleh greatest sin was getting in the way of progress. When Romania and Yugoslavia’s leaders decided that the Danube would be harnessed for hydropower, the island’s inhabitants could do nothing about it.

The idea of progress – Iron Gate 1 hydroelectric power plant

Dammed If They Do – From Rivers to Reservoirs
The sight of a reservoir fills me with sadness. In my career, I have been lucky enough to work along such majestic American waterways as the Missouri, Bighorn and North Platte Rivers. While they are all still considered rivers, each of them was dammed in multiple places during the decades following World War II. The craze for dam building in the United States was in response to floods, hydropower needs, and irrigation projects. While capitalist and communist systems of governments were opposites in almost every respect, dam building was something both east and west had in common. Several of the Soviet Union’s most famous projects, for instance the Dnipro dam in Ukraine, harnessed waterpower. These were part of the rapid industrialization of the country. Many other communist countries believed that they could benefit from damming rivers.

Dams could improve navigation, flood control, and generate massive amounts of hydropower. For these reasons, particularly the latter, Romania and Serbia agreed in 1964 to jointly construct what would become known as the Iron Gate Hydropower Project. It took six years before the construction on the project began. Iron Gate Hydropower project was aptly named since it would be located at the 117- kilometer-long Iron Gate Gorge. A more scenic spot could hardly have been selected. Tragically, construction of the largest dam on the Danube – which would take place between 1970 – 72 – meant that Ada Kaleh’s days were numbered. The mile long, quarter mile wide island, was no match for the 220 square kilometer reservoir to be created by the dam. There was nothing Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants could do about the project. Protests in authoritarian Romania offered a path to imprisonment. The one question looming in everyone’s mind was what would happen to those living on Ada Kaleh.

Lost in time – Women in Ada Kaleh (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Moving On – Lands of Opportunity
In 1967 the island was visited by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who offered its inhabitants the opportunity to resettle in Turkey. This was an offer many would accept since Turkey offered a more dynamic economy and greater personal freedoms than they could ever enjoy in Romania. On the other hand, Turkey was a foreign country to the inhabitants on Ada Kaleh. While they shared a common language, the Turkish spoken by those living on the island had developed into a distinct dialect. In a sense, they were always going to be outsiders. The cloistered world of Ada Kaleh could not have been much more different than the modern world. A couple of other options were also offered to the island’s inhabitants.

For those who wanted to stay in Romania, they were offered the opportunity to relocate in the Dobruja region in eastern Romania where there was a significant Muslim population. Another option seemed to offer greater promise. Downriver from Ada Kaleh and the proposed dam was Simian Island. It stood within sight of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the largest city in the Iron Gates area. The island was also located across from a town that bore the same name as the island. The idea was to construct a “New Ada Kaleh” on the island by first moving the most significant structures to Simian Island. The inhabitants were then to follow. One of the first structures to be moved was the fortress for which the island had been named. Unfortunately, it would also be one of the last. The resettlement project never happened.

The end of Ada Kaleh was both a slow and swift process. As the water rose, the island which had sheltered an improbable community for two hundred thirty years was slowly submerged. Soon there was nothing left of the island except for memories. Even the towering minaret from the turn of the 20th century mosque, which had been one of the island’s most notable landmarks, no longer existed. Instead of leaving it standing partially above the water line, it had been dynamited so as not obstruct navigation. Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants were scattered across Romania and Turkey. They had trouble integrating into larger societies. An insular, island world was the only life they had ever known. Those who chose to stay in Romania belatedly realized that the promises previously made to them would not be kept. Those who moved to Turkey had more freedom, but soon discovered they had little in common with a fast paced, urban society. The only world in which they truly fit was now buried thirty meters beneath the Danube.
Ada Kaleh was now history.

Floating away – Ada Kaleh in 1966 (Credit: Leo Wehrli)

Latent Ottomanism – The Slow Burn of Memory
There will never be another Ada Kaleh. That distant and mystical world of latent Ottomania which continued long after the empire’s expiration date, that culture of exoticism which organically grew on the edge of the Iron Gates is gone forever. An entire world had once existed in an area smaller than most villages. Customs that had long since faded into obscurity were still obeyed. Coffee and tea houses with the low hum of endless conversations, old men sitting in the streets while smoke rose from cigarettes that burned to the edges of their fingertips, bad teeth and black bread, the habitual haggling in the bazaar, the children hiding within the fortress walls, the unseen women who were the backbone of every family and that society all that would flicker and fade in the slow burn of memory. Ada Kaleh survived for centuries against incredible odds. The island had finally been beaten by the one thing it had passively resisted for so long, the idea of progress.

Click here for: Nothing About Us Without Us – Ukraine & A Macron Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #81)

Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

Click here for: The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)

The Ottoman Outlier – Ada Kaleh: An Island Apart In The Danube (Part One)

Hundreds of years from now there will come a moment when the dams which hold back the Danube River give way. As the deluge begins to drain downriver, natural wonders long since submerged by manmade reservoirs will reappear. Slowly rising to the surface, these wonders will remind anyone lucky enough to see them of the losses incurred by the dams. These wonders include an island waiting to be rediscovered near the Iron gates of the Danube, that narrow, rocky, river route through which the Danube passed prior to construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. Even today, the area has a commendable degree of natural beauty that recommends it to visitors. The awe-inspiring rock formations of the Iron Gates can still tower above the waterline. Unfortunately, the same is not true for an island that vanished into the depths after the construction of Iron Gate I.

An isolated existence – Ada Kaleh in a 1909 postcard

Creating A Community – A Contested Space
The evocatively named island of Ada Kaleh (island fortress) drowned beneath a rising reservoir in 1970. The island had been one of the most unique communities in Europe. It was the last European possession of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks first set foot on European soil. Up until the late 17th century they expanded their territory in Europe to include the Balkans, a sizable portion of Hungary and on occasion the Gates of Vienna. It was not until after World War I altered the geopolitical map of the Balkans irreparably, that the Turks finally relinquished their hold on Ada Kaleh. Turkey (the smaller successor of the Ottoman state) handed it over to Romania in 1923. The island stood close to the Romanian side of the Danube. Across the river was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

While Ada Kaleh became Romanian territory, it would always be a world apart, a fascinating outlier of ethnic Turks surrounded by the Danube. In a twist of historical irony, the creation of Ada Kule as a viable community occurred due to the same waters which would drown it. A mile long and a quarter mile wide, The Danube churned up enough gravel and sand over thousands of years to create an island just before the Iron Gates gorge. Both the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs coveted the island due to its strategic location. Ada Kule offered an opportunity to control access along the middle Danube. Because of this, the island became a contested space. One coveted by powers both great and small.

An island apart – Ada Kaleh Bazaar in the late 19th century

Ownership & Occupation – Plaything of the Great Powers
The location of Ada Kule from the 17th century forward straddled imperial borders. It became a point of contention between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Occupation and ownership of the island was tenuous. Ada Kule was the plaything of two great powers. In 1689, the Austrian Habsburgs gained control of the island. This did not last long. Only two years later, the Ottomans took it back. A year later they lost the island. Then in 1699, the Ottomans took it back again. Thus, in a ten-year period Ada Kule changed ownership on four occasions. This pattern continued into the 18th century as the island changed hands another three times. In attempting to secure their hold on the island, the Habsburgs imported labor to build a fortress on it. Expert stone masons from central Europe began work in 1717 to construct an impregnable defensive structure.

A large pool of laborers helped put the Habsburg plans into action. They suffered in the fetid summer heat, failing to fend off insects and disease. In the winter, they subjected to ferociously icy winds that came howling off the river. Despite these climatic extreme, the laborers were able to build the most permanent fixture in the island’s history. The fortress took twenty years to construct. It included bastions, barracks and defensive works built to ensure that the Habsburgs controlled access to the river. The stout defensive works were no match for a four-month siege by the Ottomans. The fortress fell to the Turks a year after its completion. It would stay under Ottoman control except for a brief two-year interlude of Habsburg rule from 1789 – 1791. A treaty handed the island back to the Ottomans, who would hold onto it until the early 20th century.

Stepping into the past – Postcard of Ada Kaleh fortress

Natural Defenses – An Isolated Existence
Despite the Ottoman Empire’s prolonged retreat from the Balkans, Ada Kule’s status remained strangely the same. This Ottoman outlier’s existence became more precarious during the 19th century. Habsburg and Serbian territory would surround it. Nevertheless, it still had the natural defenses of the Danube still protecting it on all sides. The island’s relative isolation allowed it to develop an exoticism that had vanished from the land adjacent to this stretch of the Danube. In 1867, Ottoman troops left Serbia, but the island stayed part of the Sultan’s lands. A decade later, the Ottomans vacated Romania. The Austrian Habsburgs had long since pushed the Ottomans out of the middle Danube and yet the Sultan still held onto the island. It was one of the most unique arrangements of the time. While the forces of nationalism surged across the Balkans, tearing Ottoman possessions from the empire’s grasp, and threatening the implosion of Austria-Hungary, the Turks on Ada Kule continued their quixotic existence.

The Treaty of Berlin, which had granted Romania its independence, failed to mention Ada Kaleh. The regional powers brokered a deal in another treaty allowing Austria-Hungary military control over the island, while those who lived on it continued to be subjects of the Sultan. The island remained immune from the geopolitical and ideological forces which convulsed the latter half of the 19th century. Hidden in plain sight, Ada Kaleh went mostly unnoticed. One person who did take notice was the Sultan in Istanbul. After the construction of a new mosque there in 1903, the Sultan donated a large carpet to cover its interior floorspace. He also continued to appoint civic and judicial officials to administer affairs for his subjects. Ada Kaleh was an island unto itself, an insular world that left to its own devices. In the coming century that would not continue. Ada Kaleh, both physically and politically, was about to experience drastic changes.

Click here for: Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

A Place Called Home – Dubrovnik: Comfort Food (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #65)

Familiarity and habit, these are the actions of self-enforced domesticity. Each of these actions have also become a vital aspect of my travels around Central and Eastern Europe. While travel is a form of escape from them, it is only a temporary one. I find myself out of habit coming back to some of the same places again and again. Seeking out the familiar to provide comfort and quell the anxiety which threatens to devolve into aimless wanderings on trips abroad. A habit is hard to break. Thus, I found myself in Dubrovnik eating at the exact same place as eight years earlier on that first visit to the Old Town.

In the span of time between past and present not much had changed at what amounted to a fast food restaurant. It served the same food for nearly the same price almost a decade later. While there I ordered the same dish that I always do on these journeys, Cevapi, a grilled dish of minced meat that makes me crave visits to the Balkans. I first ate Cevapi in Sarajevo during my visit to that city in 2011. Since then, I have found myself seeking it out again and again. This includes in cities that are not part of the Balkans. I recall at least three occasions when I sought out restaurants serving it in Budapest. On my last trip to Europe before this one, I spent an entire weeklong visit to Montenegro feasting on this delicacy each evening. Having Cevapi one last time in Dubrovnik made me feel like I was enjoying a well cooked meal at a home away from home.

Home cooked meal – Cevapi

Habit Forming – The Trigger Event
Home, if I have one in Eastern Europe, can be traced to the experiences I keep coming back to again and again. It is not just restaurants. it is also monuments and museums or places so powerful for me that I cannot resist the urge to revisit them. I find comfort in the familiar. Several years ago, I had a few hours in Vienna before departing for the Austrian countryside. Did I take this time to seek out something new? Not a chance. Instead, I made a return visit to the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum). Ostensibly, this was to see the artifacts from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, the trigger event for the starting gun that signaled the outbreak of World War I.

The artifacts included the Archduke’s bloodstained tunic. Upon reflection, I wonder if the artifacts really were the underlying reason for my return? This return visit took place near the end of a two week trip. I was feeling anxious and edgy, more worried about the logistics of heading home than seeing something new. As soon as I walked into the museum I felt at ease, as though my worries had vanished. It is rather disturbing that this museum – which felt like home for a few hours – captured my interest due to artifacts from a murder. Nonetheless, I still find comfort in thoughts of that visit to the museum.

Finding the way – Looking out from a church in Dubrovnik

Domestic Travels – A Circular Logic

In Dubrovnik I found myself caught within the travel equivalent of circular logic. I was not just returning to the Old Town many years after a first visit. I was also returning to several of the same places I had been before. Just as the medieval walls confine the Old Town, so my previous visits confined me. I retraced my footsteps by entering through the Pile Gate, stopped for a moment to ponder Onofrio’s Fountain and found another stroll down the jam packed promenade of the Stradun irresistible. I had seen it all before and was prepared to see it all again. I was caught up in my own personal history more than that of the Old Town’s history. Dubrovnik might be over a thousand years old, but that was no match for my memory of that first visit. Seeing the same places was like visiting with old friends, albeit friends that were frozen in time and inanimate in everything but my mind. At the Pile Gate I was comforted by the site of the city’s patron, Saint Blaise. I watched as those around me failed to notice his presence. They did not need Saint Blaise, but I did. The site of his statuesque form was intensely comforting.

The idea of seeing something different in Dubrovnik was an opportunity that I was not taking. Walking those endless, narrow alleyways that wait to be stirred out of their silence. was not nearly as interesting to me as it had been on my first visit. I recoiled at the thought of leaving my comfort zone. I knew from experience that the backstreets of the Old Town offered a multitude of unique experiences. Ones that are very different from the glories fed to the masses, but I found them painful to consider. They reminded me of my own loneliness, even when surrounded by fantasy, there was always a melancholic aspect to my life. It often seduced me with laziness. On this day in Dubrovnik, I was confronted by the fact that my travels were becoming more like my domestic life. An enervating repetition of habits that dulled the senses. For me, there is safety in regimentation. I had come so far to not go any farther. Or so I thought.

A different path – Backstreet in Dubrovnik

Collision Course – A Tantalizing Glimpse
While downing yet another meal of Cevapi, the idea of how to finally break free of the sensory numbing strictures with which I had mentally shackled myself came to mind. There was a church that I had spied from a distance while walking along the Stradun.  I could see hints of its Baroque elements peeking out through the shafts of streets. Such scenes offered brief, tantalizing glimpses of architectural greatness exposed for the eye. I had no idea whether I had been there before. The mystery of it had been slowly building inside of me. Now a day before departure came the last chance to make its acquaintance. This would be a respite from regimentation and allow me to kick the habit that had been holding me back. Going there would offer the opportunity to explore another side of the city. One where locals still lived not for the sake of tourism, but for themselves and their families. I was ready for one last journey into that other world, the one where history and reality collide.

A Day At the Beach – Dubrovnik: The Forbidding Coast (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #64)

Covid free and only twenty-four hours away from departure, it was now time to visit the beach. For many visitors, a day at the beach would be a needed respite from trekking around the Old Town. I saw it quite differently. It was something that I felt compelled to do in the interest of being beside the Adriatic. My idea of a good day at the beach is to spend time reading guidebooks in search of intriguing information. Sure enough, I made sure a guidebook was in my backpack before heading to the beach. I had very little time left in Croatia, but that would not stop me from dreaming of future adventures. What I failed to realize was that a day at the beach in Dubrovnik was also an adventure, one that I would not soon forget no matter how hard I tried.

Shingle by the sea – Bellevue Beach in Dubrovnik

Coming Ashore – Photogenic & Problematic
Anyone searching for a beach along the Croatian coastline will most likely have to settle for a strip of shingle rather than smooth sand. Croatia’s coast may have been blessed with spectacular beauty, but it has a paucity of sandy shoreline. Pebble strewn shingles are usually typical. Coastal areas are often jagged and rocky, inhospitable in some places and downright dangerous in others. Cliffs are as likely to be found as coves. And while the Adriatic Sea during the summertime is rather tame, the shoreline which touches it could not be much wilder. In some ways the Croatian coast reminds me of the coastal areas in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

While the climate along the Pacific Northwest coastline is much different than that of Croatia’s, both shorelines are spectacular and forbidding. One minute you are standing on a cliff, the next you are plunging down to the shoreline. The scenery is breathtaking, but a day at the beach is not easy to come by. In the Pacific Northwest the topography is both stunning and problematic. The same holds true for the Croatian coast. The area around Dubrovnik is typical. There are quiet nooks and coves, many of which are difficult to access because they are surrounded by cliffs. Finding a beach that offers sand can be difficult to find at the best of times. The Croatian coastline may be photogenic, but the spectacular nature does not lend itself to those who enjoy lounging by the seaside.

The forbidding coast – Miramare cove close to Bellevue Beach

A Deep Dive – Finding The Way
A search through the listings of nearby beaches in and around Dubrovnik to find the best one available yielded a number of options. There was only one drawback, all the reviews mentioned problems with overcrowding. The beaches closest to the Old Town were the worst for this chronic problem. Overcrowding and Dubrovnik have become synonymous in the 21st century as visitor numbers have soared. Discussion of this problem is usually confined to the Old Town. This overlooks the fact that the beaches are, if anything, even more crowded. The Old Town is much more spacious than any of the nearby beaches. It is one thing to rub shoulders with masses of tourists while walking along the Stradun. It is quite another to sit elbow to elbow with half naked strangers while attempting to sun themselves by the seaside.

A combination of proximity to the Old Town and excellent reviews led to Bellevue Beach as the best option for spending a final, few hours by the seaside. The beach is tucked away in Miramare Cove, only a 20 minute walk from the Old Town. On this day, walking to the beach was out of the question due to the ferocious heat. Any kind of physical exertion was an ordeal. Thus, taking the bus turned out to be the only sensible option. It took less than five minutes to get to the stop, but still no sign of the beach. As I would learn, you could be only a few minutes on foot away from it and still have no idea where it was located. Standing atop a hill, I knew the sea had to be somewhere down below. The search for Bellevue Beach was intriguing. I had never seen nor heard of it before. It did not take me long to realize why.

Though the beach is closest to the Bellevue Hotel (hence the name), getting there required walking toward the Hotel Rixos. The beach was hidden from view by a combination of development and rugged terrain. It would have been almost impossible to stumble upon Bellevue Beach unless you stayed at one of the nearby resorts. Getting to the beach required navigating a series of steep steps that plunged down to a shingle of pebbly shoreline. Without the aid of stairs even the fittest person would have had trouble accessing the beach on foot. Fortunately, the stairs helped prospective beachgoers make their way down the cliffside.

Going off the deep end – View of the Adriatic Sea from Bellevue Beach

Aesthetic Asymmetry – Bellevue Beach
The secluded nature of Bellevue Beach could not keep the crowds away. On the contrary, the beach was packed to the point of overflowing. Finding a place to spread out a towel and soak up the sun was not easy. The best spots had already been taken. Late comers were relegated to a tenuous hold on a small, pebbly portion of real estate. I ended up not far from a stone wall, behind which were clumps of unsightly bushes. Further up was a resort with rooms that looked out to the sea. Flanked by this combination of natural and manmade features, the beach had an odd, aesthetic asymmetry that added to its unsightliness. Despite the lack of aesthetics, Bellevue Beach was a magnet for sea lovers and swimmers because of the emerald water which fronted it. The Adriatic’s color was of a hue that only nature in its purest form could possibly conjure. It had a magical effect on the eye and a trance inducing effect upon the mind.

It was a good thing that staring at the water was so enchanting, because the rest of my time at the beach was miserable. It was witheringly hot, to the point that even the water could only provide a brief respite. I spent most of the time crouched in what little shade I could find. While others took to the waters, I took to counting the minutes before making the climb out of this infernal setting. Bellevue Beach would have been wonderful on a late spring or early autumn day when the sun was less intense and there were fewer visitors. Sadly, this day was the complete opposite. My lasting memory was not of this cliffside oasis or its sparkling seawater, instead it was of the lung bursting climb back up the stairs. This day at the beach in Dubrovnik had been memorable and that was why I wanted to forget it.

Click here for: A Place Called Home – Dubrovnik: Comfort Food (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #65)

A Negative Response – Dubrovnik: Getting Tested (Travels Along the Croatian Coast #63)

The day before the day of departure dawned with a wave of blistering heat. The temperature, even for the sunny climes of the Croatian coast, was abnormally warm. It had been this way throughout this trip. Only once had I so much as seen a few drops of rain. On this next to last day, there was no relief from the heat and humidity in Dubrovnik. Every surface in the Old Town radiated heat. The air was once again heavy with humidity which caused an outpouring of sweat the moment I stepped outside. My first stop was a bakery along the Stradun to get a bit of sustenance before a final day of activities began.

After procuring a handful of pastries, I made my way to Onofrio’s Fountain to begin the day by people watching, reading, and relaxing. Sitting down on the fountain I was soon joined by a monk replete in his robe. He had also brought breakfast, but this was not for himself. Within seconds he opened a large bag and began to break bread for a group of pigeons that descended from the sky. Alighting upon the square, they fluttered, pecked, and picked up the crusts of bread in their beaks. The early birds got their bread as the feeding went on for at least ten minutes. I managed to capture several shots of this endearingly unforgettable moment.

Ready for Breakfast – Feeding time in Dubrovnik

Catching Covid – The Usual Symptoms
One thing I did not want to do on the last full day in Dubrovnik was go to the hospital. On this trip, there was no choice in the matter. The only way to reenter the United States was with a negative Covid test. The thought of having to stay in Croatia had a definite appeal, but not while in quarantine. Anyone who had a positive test would be forced into a ten day period of isolation. Could there be any greater torture than to be stuck inside a room, unable to walk the historic streets of this medieval walled city? To make matters worse, anyone quarantined would likely be subjected to spending countless hours watching unintelligible Croatian sitcoms on television. Either that or suffering a severe case of internet burnout. I began to worry a couple of days before departure about the ramification of my mental sanity due to a positive Covid test. At the slightest sign of a sneeze or stuffiness my mind was possessed by fear. It was a temporary type of hypochondria that would only be alleviated once the test had been taken.

Getting to the Dubrovnik Hospital meant taking a ten minute bus ride from the Old Town out to the Lapad Peninsula. The ride was unmemorable except for the fact that I now was more cognizant of the people around me. I feared catching Covid just before taking the test. Of course, I should have shown the same type of precautionary attitude during the past two weeks. I had spent countless hours on packed buses while traveling all along the Croatian coast. Most likely I had encountered someone who had Covid and did not yet know it. It was a risk I thought worth taking, but now I was not quite so sure. Eastern Europe has had a notoriously high number of Covid cases as a proportion of the population. The same is true regarding deaths. Croatia ranked 19th in Covid deaths per capita with 2,234 per million people. This was right behind the United States which comes in at 18th. It could be worse. Eastern European countries held nine of the top thirteen spots in the ranking by the latter half of 2021. For a nation that ranks 130th worldwide in population, Croatia has suffered mightily during the crisis. Fortunately, during the summer there was a lull in Covid cases. A few months later the situation would worsen considerably.  

Health scare – Dubrovnik General Hospital (Credit: Panek)

Hospital Visit – Swabs & Sneezes
The bus ride from the Old Town only took a few minutes. Dropping passengers off at the hospital parking lot. For a town that is known throughout the world for history, culture and sophistication, Dubrovnik’s hospital did not live up to those standards. The building was a classic functionalist structure. A concrete conurbation that almost certainly hailed from the communist era. The area around the hospital did it no favors either. The grass looked like it had not been mowed all summer and weeds were noticeable on the dry, brittle ground. I knew the state of health care in former communist countries had been suffering for decades and at least superficially, the Dubrovnik hospital looked like it was badly in need of an update. The front entrance doors were locked. After pressing a button for help, an attendant soon opened the door. I mentioned a Covid test. She proceeded to point in the right direction which happened to be outside the facility.

A large white tent setup close to the parking lot was ground zero for Covid tests. This was where was done by a woman who spoke excellent English. I had already made the payment online of 150 kuna ($25) for a rapid antigen test. This cost seemed exorbitant until I considered the alternative. No test, no return flight to the United States. Thus, I dutifully allowed a swab to be inserted up my nose. The woman doing it stuck the swab so far up my nose that it stimulated a massive sneeze from me as soon as the swab was pulled out. This elicited a great deal of laughter from the woman. The entire process was completed in a couple of minutes. It was fast, efficient, and effective. The results would be emailed to me shortly. In the meantime there was nothing to do other than anxiously wait.

A testing experience – A man gets a nasal swab during a Covid test

The Way Home – Ready For Reentry
The personnel who administered the rapid antigen test for Covid were as good their word. After returning to Dubrovnik’s Old Town by bus, I received an email stating that the result had come back negative. For a moment I felt relieved. That was until I realized this Croatia trip would soon be coming to an end. The next day began to loom in my thoughts. There were no other cities to visit and no more relaxing siestas by the sea on islands. A sense of melancholy came over me. I was running out of time. That was nothing new. I had been running out of time since the day of arrival, it was only now that I noticed. Then again, I had been running out of time since the day I was born.

Click here for: A Day At the Beach – Dubrovnik: The Forbidding Coast (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #64)

War By The Shore – Babin Kuk: The Siege Beyond Dubrovnik (Traveling On The Croatian Coast #62)

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.

A fated history – Hotel Lapad in Babin Kuk

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?

Palm Sunday – On the morning walk in Gruz

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 – Military vehicle used by Croatian forces during the Yugoslav Wars

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)

Sinister Serendipity – Dubrovnik: Ivo Grbic & The Scars of War (Traveling The Croatian Coast #61)

It is easy to forget that only thirty years ago Dubrovnik suffered a horrific siege. So much money has went into restoring the Old Town to its former grandeur that only the discerning eye can tell the difference between pre-war and post-war architectural restorations. A couple of rightfully popular museums have been developed so visitors to Dubrovnik can learn more about the destruction inflicted upon the walled city by shelling from Yugoslav forces during the autumn of 1991. These include the Museum of the Homeland War atop Mount Srd which looms high above Dubrovnik. It was from this promontory that shells were lobbed indiscriminately onto the Old Town.

The other museum is War Photo Limited which displays a collection of images from the siege. It also showcases awarding winning photos taken in conflict zones around the world. A visitor to either of these museums can mentally prepare themselves before visiting. After all, any museum that has the term “war” in its name is offering a fair warning of what is to come. Both museums provide an invaluable service, showing the face of modern war to thousands of visitors who know very little about the suffering inflicted upon the idyllic setting where they are currently enjoying a vacation.

Before & after – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Without Warning – Acts of Destruction
There is another less well known exhibit dedicated to the Siege of Dubrovnik that is easily accessible every hour of the day, every day of the year. I discovered this one by a sort of sinister serendipity while walking along Ulica od Puca. This narrow street offers a respite from the heavily trafficked Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. During my final day in Dubrovnik I noticed a series of panels with pictures and text attached to the exterior of a building on the street. This was the Ivo Grbic Gallery, named for the artist who lived at the address for decades. The palace in which Grbic lived had been built following the cataclysmic 1667 earthquake, which had infamously reduced Dubrovnik to rubble in a matter of minutes. Grbic was the proverbial renaissance man when it came to artistic pursuits. He specialized in graphic design, but also worked in a variety of mediums that included painting, sculpture, and ceramics.

Grbic’s work focused on Croatian themes and folklore, especially related to his hometown. None of this saved his world from destruction on the morning of December 6th, 1991. That was when three shells struck the Grbic residence in a ten minute period It was all that Grbic and his family could do to get their 99 year old mother to safety. Extinguishing the incendiaries that struck the palace would prove to be nearly impossible. The upshot was that an incredible amount of Grbic’s artistic output was destroyed. It was a grievous blow to his life and legacy. In a darkly ironic twist, this was not the end, but instead signaled a new beginning for Grbic.

Lest we forget – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Creative Instincts – Rising From The Ruins
In the aftermath of the attack, Grbic pieced together ruins from the palace and what was left of his artwork to create an installation. It offered a profound commentary on both wartime destruction and the enduring power of the creative process in the face of modern war. Grbic also invited other artists to display their work as well. His installation was met with rave reviews. Grbic’s postwar exhibitions were cathartic, offering solace to an artist who was forced by the conflict to spend the next eleven years living outside the walled Old Town which had done so much to fuel the creative impulses that had characterized his career. Grbic continued to cultivate his creative instincts despite the sinister of Yugoslav forces to destroy it. Artistically, Grbic emerged triumphant. His life was like a flower that had grown in a bomb crater. He defied destruction during wartime both physically and artistically. In 2019 he died at the age of 88, but that was not the end of his story.

I would never have known who Ivo Grbic was or his story if not for the open air exhibition mounted to the walls of the restored palace that he once called home. I was one of countless passersby who encountered Grbic for the first and likely only time through the informative panels that tell of the attempt to destroy not only his legacy, but also Croatian identity. The exhibit panels on Ulica od puca were the only place within the Old Town of Dubrovnik where I encountered a story of the wanton destruction within the city walls at the exact place where it occurred. The photos showing the destruction with Grbic standing among the ruins evoked feelings of anger, loss, and sorrow.

The power of Ivo Grbic’s story lies in the fact that though he was an extraordinary artist, this could not save him from the random violence that occurs anytime bullets and bombs start flying. The fact that his 99 year old mother became a target was a detail that seared itself into my memory. He helped save her, he saved himself and saved his best work for the postwar world he had been forced to confront. Dubrovnik would never be quite the same, at least for its inhabitants who had managed to survive the siege. The swiftness of the attack and the needless destruction unleashed in such a short amount of time was a reminder of the capriciousness of life when confronted by forces beyond our control. Reading the story of that fateful morning, I wondered how I would have reacted, both at the time of attack and in its aftermath.

Witness to destruction – Panel outside the Ivo Grbic Gallery

Blind Spots – The Tyranny of Memory
It is important to remember that the long road back to a semblance of normalcy for Grbic and the residents of Dubrovnik was years in the making. There is no way the panels or photos at the open air exhibit can quite convey the mental and physical struggle to overcome loss. The battle against postwar trauma and the tyranny of memory has never ended. Beyond Grbic’s artistic works, there were other losses on that fateful morning thirty years ago. Gone forever was a way of life and in many cases life itself. Grbic was able to resurrect his work from the ruins, but he lost more than he would likely ever regain. While Grbic and Dubrovnik survived the searing experience of modern warfare, scars remain. They are on display at 16 Ulica od Puca lest anyone forgets. 

Click here for: War By The Shore – Babin Kuk: The Siege Beyond Dubrovnik (Traveling On The Croatian Coast #62)