BRELA, CROATIA — I had misgivings about going back to Dalmatia. The war in the former Yugoslavia, and its aftermath, had kept us away for seven years, and I thought we still might be rushing things. A country so recently ravaged by war was not my idea of the perfect vacation spot, and my doubts felt justified when I could not find a single tourist guide on Croatia or the Dalmatian Coast.
My husband, Barry, however, was not to be put off so easily. He called the Croatian National Tourist Office in Parsippany, N.J., for reservations and reported with satisfaction that many of the hotels were already full. Though Americans are not rushing there, it seems Europeans are.
During the war, tourism came to a virtual halt along the Dalmatian part of Croatia's coast on the Adriatic, but since independence, Croatia has been hard at work rebuilding its tourist industry, and savvy German, Austrian, and Italian tourists have been taking advantage of Croatia's uncrowded beaches and reasonably priced accommodations. While the number of foreign visitors has not yet matched prewar figures, the coast has benefited from this respite.
What we found was even better than our memories of earlier visits. Miles of pristine shoreline had recovered from decades of tourist invasions. The pollution and towel-to-towel sun worshippers were gone.
Instead, the resorts dotting the coast were spruced up in readiness for summer visitors, the beaches uncrowded, and the water crystal clear.
We rented a car in Split, a bustling port city on the Adriatic, and drove southeast along the Magistrala, a highway with spectacular views carved into the mountainsides along the coast.
Our destination was Brela, a small resort town on the Makarska Riviera about 50 miles south of Split. But first we made a detour to Klis - some five miles inland from Split - famous for its roasted lamb on the spit. The lamb from this area is prized because its meat is permeated by the flavor of the camomile that the animals graze on. Driving up the hill to the village with its old fortress above it, we rounded the bend and saw the spits.
We sat under the grape vines and soon a platter of hot lamb, tomato salad, and fresh bread were placed before us. We ate, thankful that this place had not changed in the 25 years since we began coming there.
As we rejoined the Magistrala, the sun was low on the horizon behind us and by the time we saw the lights of Brela far below our exit, it was dark. Brela has three good hotels on the water front, but we wanted to try independent living by renting a house.
From our terrace, we could pick ripe figs for breakfast. Each morning we followed the house's stone steps down to the footpath below. We walked to Brela's tiny harbor and out to the end of the dock in time to see the sun break from behind the mountains.
Once the sun came up, we went to buy provisions for breakfast and lunch, and on the way back we stopped at one of the many cafes along the waterfront. For dinners we sampled several of the local restaurants but always returned to Restaurant Arka, just a few steps from our garden gate. There, on a roof-top terrace next to the beach, we could sit and look out over the water. We learned to follow the waiter's advice on the day's catch of fish. One evening he offered a highly prized white fish delicacy called orada, another evening he served a similar fish called zubatac.
Exploring the ancient cities
After a few days of laziness, we were ready to explore Dalmatia's ancient cities. In Split we visited Diocletian's Palace, the remarkable 3rd-century Roman structure that contains Split's oldest dwellings within its walls. Then we drove on to Trogir and Sibenik both known for their beautiful old cathedrals.
Of course, any visit to the region is incomplete without a visit to Dubrovnik. The day we chose for the three-hour drive south from Brela was overcast, fitting weather to see the somber evidence of war: houses with roofs blown off, pock-marked by bullets, or gutted by fire. In places we would see lone houses with shrubs growing within the walls, but everywhere the work of repairing and rebuilding was going on.
We approached Dubrovnik in a violent thunderstorm and decided to have lunch in the resort town of Cavtat, 12 miles to the south. We had not been back in years but remembered its picturesque waterfront with villas, restaurants, and cafes. As we drove into Cavtat the sun was shining. A ferry going to Dubrovnik was pulling out of the harbor, and all the sidewalk cafes and restaurants were bustling with tourists. Flowers were everywhere and the ancient sun-bleached walls were covered with bougainvillea.
We chose Restoran Leut with its comfortable wicker chairs, and tables with white linen set out under the trees next to the water. A waiter greeted us in perfect English and, after a short discussion, asked permission to create a special meal for us. What followed was a great dining experience beginning with fresh oysters raised locally, followed by a delicate fish soup made from the broth of the kovac, a fish, served on an enormous oval plate garnished with a variety of vegetables.
As we ate, the waiter talked about the recovery of the town. It had been besieged and bombed for a while by the Serbs. The tourist-based economy had continued to suffer.
Shelling inflicted much damage on the town and its hotels, which were filled with refugees for months. Everyone in the town had worked hard to restore it, however, and tourists began to return. Last summer surpassed all expectations and this summer promises to be even better. The road back to Dubrovnik offers some of the most perfect views of the old walled city, and we tried to imagine what it must have been like when shells rained in from the sea on three sides, and from Mt. Srdj towering high above on the fourth.
Best views in Dubrovnik
One of the best ways to see old Dubrovnik is from the city ramparts. It takes about two hours to walk this perimeter stopping frequently to look at the views both outside and inside the walls. After our long walk we rested in one of the many sidewalk cafes and watched the people go by just as we had during our first visit many years ago. The daily ritual of walking the Stradun at sunset, stopping by the boutiques and souvenir shops, and people-watching from the cafes has changed little, but the crowds are thinner. One can see the far end of the Stradun now.
As we drove back toward Brela, we again passed through the damage wreaked by war. Given Dalmatia's lasting beauty, the tourists will be back in increasing numbers. But the previous seven years, with all the tragic consequences, have forced a respite to an overburdened coast, and the renewal has made an already beautiful area even more so.