There are bullet holes in one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
Driving toward the southeastern tip of Croatia, our bus hugs the rail of a narrow strip of international highway alongside the Adriatic Sea. Orange skies over pebbly beaches make the water look like ripples in desert sand – the Old City of Dubrovnik a harbor town’s faint light at the edge of the Mediterranean evening.
Despite Dubrovnik’s demilitarization in the early 1970s, Serbian and Montenegrin soldiers began shelling the marina city on October 1, 1991, killing 114 citizens over seven months after Croatia declared independence from the crumbling Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The Croatian Army liberated the city, and within a millennial’s lifetime the country has rebuilt itself as one of the most booming tourist destinations in the world – the sparse military graffiti and .50 caliber scars in neglected buildings fading in favor of rebuilt optimism and renovated national icons.
Our trip began a few weeks before that Dubrovnik-bound bus ride in the capital of Zagreb – a city of approximately 1 million people and nearly a quarter of the country’s population. We decided to stretch our legs on the heels of an international flight with a walk to Kaptol, the historic upper town where the Zagreb Cathedral and its 108-meter (355-foot) Gothic spires stand as the tallest building in Croatia. The city’s technical museum, named after Croatian-born inventor Nikola Tesla, kept us occupied for the better part of the day – wandering through the eclectic and massive collection of steam engines, computers, and electric mementos in tribute to one of the world’s most fascinating minds.
International visitors scatter throughout the capital, as tourism has come to dominate the country since Croatia joined the European Union in 2013. More than 11 million tourists travel to Croatia each year, more than four times the number of visitors since the war ended in 1995, adding a useful €10 billion injection into the country’s economy.
Although often marketed for its food and wine – which are both very good – the country has breathtaking natural beauty that we first began exploring via a southbound bus to the coast.
Through the eyes of a filmmaker with a penchant for horror, Alfred Hitchcock called nearby Zadar’s evening horizon the most beautiful sunset in the world. Haunting sounds flutter in the cool wind as water from the Adriatic Sea flows through pipes underneath these slabbed white marble steps of the Sea Organ of Zadar. The noise reverberates through holes in the sidewalk and it sounds like an orchestra tuning for a symphony. Waves without a conductor.
Zadar is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, predating the Stone Age in some parts. A city of writers and poets, it is a hub of Croatian cultural identity. We wind away days visiting the ancient Roman Forum ruins, fortifications once overrun by crusaders and pirates from the Middle Ages, and cathedrals tucked away from now peaceful waterfronts. Mammoth challenges have washed up on this curved coastline throughout history, each time beaten back with a whimpering sound like tides rushing out of the sea organ’s resilient wall.
Another bus into Split, one of the country’s major transportation hubs and tourist destinations. The waterfront city is dwarfed by nearby Marjan hill. Rising 178 meters (nearly 600 feet) above the city, we finally reach the top after a few hours meandering through the forested park and hillside residences. It’s one of the best views of the trip so far, mostly because we don’t know what lies ahead of us.
Snapped back to the present by an unsettling lurch toward that highway rail, we’re passengers along a highway’s cliff because a taxi driver told us to come here. So, we bought a $9 ticket on the next bus headed down the Adriatic Coast. Our bus takes up more than its share of a twisting two-lane road. Sheer cliff and another country – another story – on the left, steep ledge into the clear sea on the right. Each turn necessitating the possibility of dodging oncoming traffic as the narrowing road drinks up the remaining afternoon sun.
Even at night, the scene is unmistakable – this is King’s Landing of HBO’s Game of Thrones fame. Another key and obvious factor to increased tourism. Long before Dubrovnik’s natural beauty and city walls left their mark on film history, writer George Bertrand Shaw said, “If you want to see heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
We’re here because it’s the furthest we’ve ever been, so far. And maybe like the Croatians who are willing to tell us their stories, we’re here because we don’t know what lies ahead of us.