Stormy Night? Okay, Let’s Think About History!

When you travel to a new, often old, place, if you don’t leave knowing and understanding some of its history…were you really there?

I’ve always liked history. That is, knowing about and trying to understand history, as certainly not all history is likable. If I went somewhere to live, as we are doing now, it is impossible for me to think that I would not try to understand at least some of the history that frames that location. And, that is a far better way to approach travel. Otherwise, you might as well be drifting around powerless in the Gulf of Mexico on a crowded cruise ship.

If you just “look at the sights”, you haven’t really seen anything.

A couple of things stand out in my current location, Croatia. In Split, the city grew from the walls of the ancient palace of Diocletian. The palace is still there, being constantly restored. The city lives within those walls as well. And, it is here that you can get chills standing in remains of the 4th century Roman construction. Diocletian, a sketchy kind of guy, is the only Roman Emperor who actually retired. To the palace he built by the sea. He had declared himself too old for the rigors of running the Roman Empire. 1700 years later, the palace still stands, and a civilization of mostly Christians surrounds it, trying to survive just as they had centuries ago, trading produce next door and eating small fish from the sea. But, no more lions trying to eat the Christians.

In Dubrovnik, there are, of course, many centuries of history. Also, some very recent decades. I personally feel most of us slept through the conflicts that marked the breakup of the former country of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo is not far from here, and I clearly recall scenes of devastation there which just seemed so out of context with our memories of the Winter Olympics years earlier. I didn’t know much more than that.

So, I am working on trying to understand all that has gone into the final emergence of these countries that used to be a part of Yugoslavia. And, I have several more weeks to do that. But, Dubrovnik was on center stage for much of the troubles. And, when you see the beauty of this city and its obvious spirit, it’s just hard to imagine. Just over 20 years ago, it was being bombed and shelled…for months. Now, except for many rooftops being newer looking, many stones being slightly different colors, and clearly lots of new windows, most people won’t notice.

Many tourists, I’m sure, don’t have a clue. Most of the guidebooks don’t even mention it. It all just seems so negative. Bombs, shells, devastation, death? Here? When?

Here’s a comparison. When I first visited Munich, Germany, it was actually still in “West Germany”, and beautiful. I could not believe how well this city had rebuilt itself after nearly total destruction nearly fifty years earlier. Munich, to me, always has represented a city that took an opportunity to put itself together as one of the best looking, best organized and most efficiently transit-oriented cities in the world. They did it right.

Well, in a lot less time, so has Dubrovnik. But, the tourist won’t notice…unless they look. And, try to understand. Why are all those pock marks in the pavement and on the walls?

A good way to do that is a visit to the small Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders. It’s just to the left of the stage you see below. It’s a small space, quiet, displaying photographs of the over 200 soldiers, policemen and sailors who lost their lives defending their city…barely 20 years ago. These people seem so familiar and contemporary. There are some descriptions of the times and some memorabilia. And, there is a video showing photos of destruction to the streets and buildings just outside the room. And, the video (it was 1991 after all) shows plenty of footage of actual shelling and bombing. The room will show you the history. You’ll have to work on your own to fully understand it.

This room is not hidden, but it’s not easy to find. I’ll applaud any tourist who takes the time to go there and learn about, or think about, how this fine city still stands and what it had to go through to be the place they so enjoy visiting now.