Prince Eyes a Home In Former War Zone

Charles scouts for an Adriatic hideaway near a shattered city

This summer, residents of Croatia's Adriatic coast are celebrating the return of foreign visitors, kept away for four long years by Yugoslavia's brutal wars. But this week they received a surprise visit from a most unlikely guest.

Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, arrived Wednesday morning in Dubrovnik, the historic 15th-century walled city that survived a devastating siege by Serb forces in 1991 and 1992. But the prince hadn't come all this way to survey the damage or the restoration work. Prince Charles was here to shop.

"It's a business trip, of course, for real estate," explained Reinhard Rade, the German businessman who claims to have arranged the private royal visit. "You don't think he's here for 'fun in the sun,' do you?" Mr. Rade, sales director for the Leipzig, Germany, firm Baubetreuung in Mitteldeutschland GMBH, said the visit involved "luxury hotels."

The prince, who promptly left Croatia Wednesday afternoon, was apparently searching for property on the island of Mljet, an unspoiled natural paradise 25 miles west of Dubrovnik. He and his entourage, which included his personal architect and British Ambassador to Croatia Gawin Hewitt, traveled directly from Dubrovnik airport to the port suburb of Gruz in a speeding motorcade. There he reconnoitered with Rade (who arrived by helicopter) and a handful of Dubrovnik dignitaries (who did not).

Boarding a yacht, the prince was whisked across the choppy Adriatic to Mljet. There he met local fishermen and was seen helping some of them pull a big net out of the water.

The prince is rumored to be interested in purchasing the Hotel Melita, a defunct establishment occupying a 12th-century Benedictine monastery on a tiny islet in the middle of a small lake surrounded by national parkland. The building has been in disuse for several years and is in need of "significant reconstruction and renovation," according to Nina Skuric, marketing manager for Atlas, Croatia's travel company. Charles toured the monastery on his visit.

The only other hotel on the island is a large, modern complex owned by Atlas and described in tourist literature as "a high B-class hotel" - a lovely place for tourists, but not exactly princely.

Whatever the royal visitor's aims, his entourage seemed strangely out of place in war-damaged Dubrovnik. At the port, the 20-person group made a half-hearted attempt to form a ceremonial receiving line. No crowds gathered for a peek (most Dubrovnik residents were unaware of the prince's arrival) - only a handful of local journalists and one foreign journalist who'd been tipped off. Charles arrived and boarded the yacht quickly, never looking back to see the abandoned boats and empty, bulldozed lots behind him - reminders of the city's recent siege.

In an earlier visit in February, the prince had viewed restoration work on Dubrovnik. His latest tour took place in the midst of the difficult implementation of the Dayton peace plan. Should the prince decide buy property, it would undoubtedly help boost other foreign investment in Croatia's scenic coastal region.

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