Escape To The Balkans

The beaches are back, hotter than ever. Ten years after the wars began, five years since the last shots were fired in ethnic anger, that most timid of Homo sapiens, the Western tourist, has ventured in earnest back to the Balkans and the sublime eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. From the Istrian Peninsula, bordering Italy, down the 400-mile-long Dalmatian coast to Kotor, along the ruggedly beautiful shores of Montenegro to the Albanian border, there is hardly a hotel room to be found this month. And if there is, you can be sure it won't be air-conditioned.

Marie Lafayette, a physical therapist from Venice Beach, California, can attest to that. She stepped off the ferry last Tuesday onto the island of Hvar to discover, to her sweaty horror, that there was no room at the inns. What to do except flash off an e-mail to friends from the nearest Internet cafe? "All of Italy is here. I don't know where I'm going to sleep!" Eventually a local family gave her a bed in a room shared with five others, for $12.50 per person. "Air conditioning? There wasn't even a fan."

Tell most people you're heading for a Balkan vacation, and they'll say, "You're nuts. They're murdering each other." But they aren't just now, except among criminals--which as every American knows isn't personal. And there are plenty of good reasons to go. The scenery is spectacular, with the Dinaric Alps plummeting into seas that are often exquisitely clear and pos-sibly even clean. The Adriatic Sea, becalmed in summer, makes for great swimming, even quite a way from shore. Greener by far than Greece, the offshore islands are lushly forested, with rows of pencil-thin cypresses parting grape vineyards from olive groves. Everywhere there is fresh seafood, artisanal cheeses--and the Dalmatian tradition of minimalist meals with only fresh ingredients and strange but eminently drinkable wines, some of which even have names with vowels. The Italians ruled the region for a long time, and it shows at table, where pasta is al dente and no visitor need eat unidentified protein matter wrapped in leaves.

Croatia is one of only 10 countries with more than a thousand islands. (So the boosters claim.) Sixty-six of them are inhabited, many with ancient and picturesque villages and towns that reek of culture from their days as Venetian colonies. Where else would you find a Tintoretto triptych in its original home above the altar of a village church, way out at sea? The summer is long, and the weather great. In years when there's a summer rain, it never lasts any longer than, well, a Balkan ceasefire.

But that's a cheap shot. Folks in the tourist industry say they've suffered far too long from Western European tourists' skittishness, exacerbated by a smart-alecky international press. In fact, they're fed up with all the cracks about the Balkans. And they want people to know that Croatia, at least, is no longer part of them. Scholars may agree that the Balkans span those countries from the old borders of Austro-Hungary to the bottom of Greece. But Croatia officially wants to resign from its geography, if not its destiny. "Balkans" is bad marketing, for sure. And another thing, says Robin Milner, a 24-year-old from Sydney, Australia, riding the Dubrovnik ferry, "You mention the war, they change the subject." A traveling buddy chips in, brandishing a Lonely Planet guide: "It says here it's not polite to ask people what they did in the war."

The war colors everything. A decade of strife affected the coast deeply, even if touching it only modestly. Half the roofs were blown off old houses in Dubrovnik. Places like Zadar were blasted. The largely Croatian Dalmatian coast was depopulated of its Serb minority. Many of the coast's prettiest resorts and hotels became temporary refugee camps for Croats fleeing Serb depredations farther inland. But that's the worst. To the south, Montenegro was far too busy smuggling drugs, cigarettes, cars, people and Pokemon cards--whatever--to worry much about the war, which never reached there. For most of the coast, the war was a distant rumble.

Yet tourists stayed away, with enduring effect. No guests, no money--translating into no upkeep, let alone new investment in tourist facilities. Everywhere it's the same. Just try calling for room service. The St. Marko Club Med, near Tivat, in Montenegro, once was a scenic little island resort, chirpy with fun and a young clientele from around Europe, like any Club Med. It closed its doors on the first day of the war in 1991. "I cried that day," says Zlatko Petkovic, who manages the decaying ruin that is left. "Club Med representatives have been here three times in the past year, but we are unable to meet their conditions for financial and accounting guarantees." And forget other investors who might want to rebuild. When it comes to money in Montenegro, he says, "it's only Russian, of suspicious origin."

Croatia is better off. It has the longest Adriatic coastline, draws the most tourists and actively courts Western investment. But its tourist industry is still decidedly down at heel. Corruption scandals have bedeviled Croatia's efforts to attract investors, as has the slowness of its privatization efforts. In the popular coastal resort of Makarska, for example, most of the hotels are still owned by the state, which has little money to maintain them. Few Western firms are willing to be a junior partner to a state-owned dinosaur. While Dubrovnik has a new airport, the much busier facility in Split still has its old wartime airs about it. A four-lane road, the coast's first, is planned from northern Croatia to Split. But that project won't be finished until 2005, and it'll be many more years before the road reaches farther down the coast, where most foreign tourists want to go.

A visitor to Dalmatia's crown jewel, Dubrovnik, can't help but be impressed. With its lively seafront and splendidly preserved old city, its massive walls wedged between mountains and sea, it remains the place to go in all of the former Yugoslavia. It, too, feels the war's aftermath. Many of the forests along its coastline were burned. The cable car up the 412-meter-high Mount Srdj to the east of the city is not yet repaired. And then there's that inexplicable something. At the tony Hotel Argentina, overlooking the old port, you can only wonder why the staff chose August to shut down one of two swimming pools for cleaning--especially since the other was already closed... for the summer season. Oddly, the Argentina (unlike most hotels) actually has air conditioning (although it doesn't work). And it could in fact be splendid--an old building atop a series of cypress- and oleander-planted terraces cantilevering down to the sea. Each room offers balconies and unimpeded views out to sea. But the rooms are shabbily furnished with lamps that look like they belong in a chem lab. The baths provide dollhouse-size bars of soap. The damage from direct fire during the war has been repaired, but the weird detritus of its time as a refugee hostel somehow lingers. Not for long, no doubt. The Argentina and other premier Dubrovnik hotels have been bought by foreign investors, among them the Hilton chain.

None of these problems has discouraged tourists from returning in droves. But they are different droves from before--not necessarily good news, since the recovery of a tourist industry cannot be confused with high summer occupancy. If that were so, the Balkan coasts would have been back years ago. Italians came in force last year for the first time, to all parts of the coast. (The Italians are famous for vacationing together in August, but before they stuck to nearby Istria, crowding into such beautiful watering holes as Rovinj and Opatija.) But an earlier crush was made up of Slovenes, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and a lot of other Eastern Europeans who either couldn't get visas or couldn't afford to go anywhere else.

Those Eastern Europeans are still piling in--and snapping up every hotel room that the Italians don't get first. For four or five years now, the Easterners' heavily loaded cars formed a 400-mile-long midsummer traffic jam heading down the Dalmatian coastal highway, a narrow two-lane road hewn out of cliffsides hundreds of feet above the sea. The road has precious few guardrails, especially where earlier motorists miscalculated tragically. Among the sadder sights of the coast are the wrecks of yesteryear, still hanging to a ledge or a stunted pine partway down.

One drawback of the East European invasion is its brevity. Come September, the Balkan coast will seem a bit like a Balkan ghost. In contrast to the East European newcomers, West European tourists used to travel over a much longer season--perfect for the Adriatic, boasting fine weather from April through October. They also spent more money--lots more. "St. Marko Club Med by itself had more foreign tourists per year than all of the coast does now," recalls Zlatko Petkovic in Tivat. "All the foreigners are now from the East. I haven't met a French person around here in 10 years." The Eastern Europeans don't spend much money. That's a whine that echoes off the rocky, arid Dinaric Alps all along the Adriatic. The rueful joke is that Poles and Hungarians come in crowds, triple up in rooms and bring their own food, down to potatoes. "Everyone who comes here has financial problems," says Tomo Jadric, manager of the Trogir-area Atlas travel agency. "It's not like before the war."

Such parsimony can perhaps be excused. The Balkans can be a tourist bargain--or a gouge. Many places on the Adriatic are overpriced, considering the neighborhood and services. What's more, prices are random. Dubrovnik's Hotel Argentina, for instance, is $90 a night. Next door the Excelsior, a hotel that looks more like an office building, runs $150 a night. A vastly more pleasant hotel on the scenic island of Korcula might, by contrast, cost no more than $40. And then there's the famous Sveti Stefan, a medieval fishing village on an islet off the Montenegrin coast. Decades ago Tito turned the whole place into a posh hotel. Even a year ago it was an off-season ghost town; now so many foreigners have booked that the hotel opened in May. "This year should be a turning point," says manager Pero Radenovic. Once a carefully kept secret of the rich and famous, Sveti Stefan is now economically available to anyone. The hotel's "rooms"--each a beautifully restored fisherman's house--go for as little as $65 a night, though air conditioning isn't available at any price.

There are other bargains. The ferry company that plies the islands, Jadrolinija, is far and away the least expensive in Europe. (English Channel ferries, for instance, charge up to 20 times as much for a crossing of similar distance.) And while restaurant meals can be pricey, entertainment--especially outdoor summer entertainment--is cheap. Imagine seeing "Riverdance" for 13 Deutsche marks (about $6), in the old walled city of Budva, Montenegro. A plate of grilled calamari or a bucket of steamed mussels for $3. A bottle of decent red wine for $1.50.

This summer may indeed mark a watershed for the old Adriatic, a return toward the pre-1991 days when the prototypical tourist belonged to a nationality that got up at dawn to be the first to lay down his towel and stake a beach spot. Dubrovnik now boasts more foreigners than Croats visiting outside the summer season--as well as double-digit increases in visiting Americans, Brits and other Westerners. All the major German tour companies have resumed operations this year, mainly in Dubrovnik but also elsewhere. On Korcula, Western Europeans now make up the bulk of off-season visitors. And the celebrities are back. Princess Caroline. Steven Spielberg. Wolfgang Petrisch? Who? Yes, well, he's the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As visitors try to give peace a chance, thousands of NATO peacekeepers still hold the fort on the far slopes of those coastal mountains.

Not everyone welcomes the Adriatic's comeback. A generation of doughty "adventure tourists" came to like its isolation. The hassles of ferries that depart according to a schedule kept in Stalinist secrecy, the unrealistic prices for the use of a shattered infrastructure, the interesting but shabby hotels--perhaps all these were blessings in disguise. In their stead will come hordes of package tourists, filling the rooms and driving the Czechs and Poles into the campgrounds, which in turn will drive all the youthful backpackers somewhere else altogether. With them will go much of the enthusiasm that keeps people up all night, having a good time. Or which inspires them to find new money-generating ways to risk their lives, such as scaling inflatable climbing walls floating out at sea. And then the nascent but ever so discreet summer-home market on the Dalmatian islands will morph into a Costa del Sol time-share industry. After that, everyone just starts looking for the next great place, assuming any is left.

Just possibly, for all the warts and oops of tangled Balkan encounters, this is truly the moment to be there. Parasail in tandem with your squeeze in front of the battlements of Dubrovnik, beneath the mountain where Serb artillerymen not long ago had their day. Get towed by speedboat on giant inflatable bananas past the fading Yugoslav Navy in Tivat harbor. Go to the open-air cinema inside the walls of Kamerlengo Castle (admission 75 cents, in Trogir) and catch good Hollywood movies while munching barbecued corn on the cob. Watch theater performed in Serbo-Croatian, on a stage in a real Roman coliseum; you may not understand a word, but you can ponder the fact that Croatian nationalists insist this language no longer exists. Party with thousands on the beach till dawn, or rave on a raft in the still waters of the Gulf of Kotor, a semitropical fjord surrounded by mountains of heart-stopping beauty. Last week some of Kotor's beaches failed tests of their bacterial counts and fecal loads. But who says paradise must be perfect? It would be nice, though, if it were air-conditioned in August.