That was then –
We were in a hotel restaurant terrace overlooking the Croatian city of Split, and beyond it, the Adriatic. It was the mid 1990’s.
The evening was calm, warm, the city lights just beginning to twinkle, and the last rays of the sun still sparkling on the sea. The fish was fresh and freshly grilled, the wine chilled, the company excellent. The service was also good, but that was no surprise as we among just a handful of guests, indeed Split was a shadow of it usual self. It was quiet.
The calm was broken by the sound of a helicopter coming in from the southeast, from the war in Bosnia.
I paused; glass in hand, as the chopper came straight past us, almost at eye level. On each side, strapped to its foot rails, was a wounded Croat soldier on a stretcher heading for a nearby hospital. Then a second came past, then a third.
‘MASH’ said my dining colleague, the late, great, Doug Hamilton of Reuters. I understood his reference to the US TV series set during the Korean War, but I never thought I’d see a real life version.
It was surreal, and it was sad.
The next day we drove down the Dalmatian coast, through the Markaska Riviera, and past the coastal towns which should have been gearing up for the summer season, but which were now shuttered and deserted apart from a few locals.
At Podgara we took a hard left, up through the hills, into Bosnia and approached Mostar. From several miles out we began to see the burnt out villages ahead of the ruins of the city and the destroyed ‘Old Bridge’.
Doug, who had a cigar almost permanently jammed between his lips gestured to the mountains on one side which were controlled by the Bosnian Croats – ‘Apache’ he grunted through a cloud of smoke. Then waving at the mountains on the other side, controlled by the Bosnian Muslims, he said – ‘Comanche’.
Doug had a way with words.
This is now –
The Old City of Split is thronging. The Marina, with its cocktail bars, and seafood restaurants are doing good business. Near the Roman ruins, right in the centre of town, such is the demand that people have to queue to have their photos taken next to the young local men dressed as centurions.
Every available inch of spare space in the narrow alleyways is taken by restaurant tables for businesses serving traditional Croatian food to a clientele from round the world.
An hour down the road, Podgara is sunning itself, its promenade busy with visitors from all over the continent of Europe. From here you can have lunch in Mostar by the new bridge, and still be back for drinks by the beach at 6.
Business is booming. 20 years on, memories of the war receding each season further into the past. There is a now a generation of backpackers born after the Croatian and Bosnian wars ended. Those tumultuous and tragic years are as distant to them as the Korean War was to my generation at the same age.
But for many older Europeans, and certainly the older locals, the memories of war in Europe, in our time, in our space, are still sharp.
Croats don’t talk about it much these days. There are hints of bitterness, hints of regret, a fondness for the dream that was Yugoslavia. This week is the 98th anniversary of the Pact of Corfu, which, effectively, brought Yugoslavia – the Union of Southern Slavs – into being.
Now they have gone their separate ways but after a violent divorce have reconciled themselves to living in the same neighbourhood. Two of the states have joined the EU – Slovenia and Croatia. The rest aspire to join. If they do, they will be back trading and travelling among themselves, almost, almost, like the old days.
The Croatian tourism industry would have bounced back even without EU membership although that has helped. It only took about 5 years from 1995 before the numbers of visitors began to climb.
The pristine beaches, clear seas and almost guaranteed sunshine of the summer months drew the tourists back.
Now the country faces the challenge of how to further develop without ruining the coastline. There is an ongoing debate here about halting construction to avoid becoming a Costa Del Dalmatia and instead concentrate on infrastructure.
Tourism is the country’s largest industry accounting for more than 12 per cent of GDP. It is expected grow by half a percentage point every year for the next decade
This is helping to boost a sluggish economy, albeit one which may now be emerging from 6 years of decline.
Croatia became the 28th member of the EU in July 2013 but it remains among the poorer members of the Union. Without tourism it would be in dire straits. EU membership has boosted the economy, as has Croatia’s decision to keep the Kuna and not take up the Euro. A cocktail in Split or Podgara will cost you the equivalent of about 8 Euros, a steak and chips about 15 euros.
This partially explains why the numbers of visitors from the UK, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Germany are all up between 5 and 10%. There’s also been a huge increase of about 40% of visitors from China albeit from a low base.
Does that mean it’s crowded? Yes. Is it better now, than it was then? Yes.
Now you can raise a glass of chilled rose to your lips safe in the knowledge that an army helicopter will not be flying past with medics reaching down to the foot rails trying to save the lives of wounded soldiers. It is so much better now and though the sadness of what the wars brought will never leave those who saw it, the sight of the sun playing on the Adriatic, and the thronging streets, and beaches of Dalmatia, brings joy to all.