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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 February, 2005, 16:49 GMT
Adriatic pearl recovers its lustre
By Neil Arun
BBC News

For three months in 1991, rockets rained down on the red-tiled roofs of the ancient Adriatic port of Dubrovnik - a war crime from the dawn of the Balkan conflict that has just earned the former Serb General, Pavle Strugar, an eight-year jail term.

Shelling of Dubrovnik
Smoke on the water: The town was surrounded by Serb positions

The media images of smoke shrouding a UN world heritage site ignited outrage.

Even the Serbian public was told the fires in the town were not started by their cannons, but by Dubrovnik's Croat defenders.

Dozens died during the shelling and two-thirds of the town's old buildings, most dating back to the 17th Century, were damaged before the surrounding Serb and Montenegrin guns fell silent.

Now, more than a decade after the blockade, the town nicknamed the "Pearl of the Adriatic" is recovering its lustre.

Buoyed by a tide of tourists and a boom in property prices, Dubrovnik's old centre has erased most marks of the assault.

Holidaymakers once again crowd its polished marble streets, flocking to nearby beaches and an annual cultural festival, while the famous red-tiled roofs have been restored.

"Some scars are still here," local journalist Luko Brailo told the BBC News website. "But they are in people's souls. Not on the stones."

Traditional solution

Restoring Dubrovnik after the ravages of artillery was made easier because of the legacy of an earlier, natural disaster.

Dubrovnik has recovered its former glory

Vjekoslav Vierba, who has managed the city's restoration for the last 10 years, told the BBC News website he was able to use detailed plans of the town drawn up after it was struck by an earthquake in 1979.

Moreover, he says, "a network of suppliers and contractors had already been organised."

"We had experts from other parts of Croatia and Unesco [the UN's heritage body] on hand to help us."

Of course, the town that arose out of their efforts could never be a facsimile of the one destroyed.

The factory that first supplied Dubrovnik's roof tiles was no longer there. The new tiles, shipped in from further afield, did not match the warm colour of the old ones.

Established in 7th Century
Thriving maritime city-state rivalled Venice in Middle Ages
Abolished slavery in 1418
Claims it was first state to recognise US independence
Historic alliances with Byzantine, Venetian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires
Shelled by Serbs in 1991 after Croatian independence
Most of town rebuilt by 2003

However, Mr Vierba's team made many efforts to avoid compromise.

They pushed for traditional oak wood beams to be used once again in the rebuilding, conquering opposition from locals, who felt switching to metal and concrete would be safer.

Mr Vierba had to convince them that wooden beams helped preserve buildings.

"During the shelling, we noticed that metal beams melted in high temperatures, bringing the whole structure down," he says - rather like what collapsed New York's Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.

Wooden beams, on the other hand, burn slowly, he says, often leaving the exterior of a building intact.

Property boom

Mindful that Dubrovnik is as vulnerable to earthquakes as to armies, Mr Vierba's Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik now works to strengthen the foundations of the town's palaces and churches.

Roofs old and new in Dubrovnik (pic: Robin Forestier-Walker)
Older roof tiles, in the foreground, and newer ones around them

The city receives about a million visitors every year - still only three-quarters of the pre-war level, says Mr Vierba.

But the mark they leave on the town is more permanent.

Once restricted to the summer months, tourism is now a year-round business - thanks, Mr Vierba says, to the Westerners based in Bosnia and Kosovo, who keep coming to the town's hotels through the winter.

Moreover, a sizeable number of outsiders are investing in local property.

"This is the first time we have had a free market. People are more ready to sell their homes," says Mr Vierba.

"Perhaps, when you have already had to leave home once, because of war, it is easy to do so again."


But fears that the town's native fabric is being unravelled by tourism are offset by its obvious benefits for the economy.

The trade has largely alleviated the massive unemployment that still afflicts many parts of the Balkans that were, until recently, at war.

Organised crime and hard drug use exploded in the region during and immediately after the conflict - but appears now to be more contained.

With Croatia lining up to join the EU, many are optimistic about the future.

What is a war crime?
31 Jul 03 |  Europe
At a glance: Hague tribunal
05 Jul 04 |  Europe
Yugoslavia: Death of a country
16 Feb 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Croatia
19 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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