He was standing by the side of the road, leaning against the roof of a white Fiat, talking into his mobile phone. We had slowed to a walking pace, confident that we had out-run the polyester-clad gaggle of old ladies that had descended upon us as we climbed down from the bus. As we approached the man he switched off his phone and crossed the road towards us.
“Hi, do you need any help?”
Kevin looked at me, suspicious. I shrugged.
“We’re looking for this hotel,” I said, holding out a piece of paper. The man looked at it, whistled through his teeth and shook his head.
“No good. Let me show you somewhere better.”
“How did you guess?” The man smiled, a twinkle in his eye. I decided to trust him and looked at Kevin. His expression said why not. We climbed into the Fiat. Inside the car he turned to us and offered his hand.
“My name is Dado,” he said and we introduced ourselves. “Good, nice to meet you,” he continued, “first we take a tour of the town, then I show you my place. If you don’t like it I bring you back here. But you will like it, I promise.” With a crunch of gears we were off.
At the point where the hillside was too steep and too rocky to build on, there was a lookout point. Below us was Dubrovnik, the old town jutting out into the sea behind thick walls, the newer neighbourhoods sprawling along the coast towards the ferry port. On the horizon golden-fringed islands of green punctuated the deep blue of the Adriatic. It was a beautiful spot. Dado, however, was pointing in the other direction, towards the craggy, shrub-strewn hillside.
“See here?” he said, and we turned to follow his finger. “Serbian Army. From here they shelled down into the city, for six months. Crazy times. Look.” Now he was facing down towards the old city. “See where the slates are different colours? Brighter than the rest? They were the direct hits.”
We looked down at the red rooftops.
“Six months. But the walls held. They always do…come on, let’s go down.”
We parked by the city walls, two kilometres long and twenty-five metres thick, and walked through the gate. It was surprisingly quiet, amongst the limestone-surfaced squares, narrow alleyways, green-shuttered windows and the spires and domes of numerous churches. People sat outside cafes or strolled in the fading afternoon sunshine.
“You see it in the summer,” Dado said as we stood and the end of the main street. “Wall to wall people. Austrians, Italians, Germans…good for me of course, but better that you came now.”
In the shade it was surprisingly cool, and at one point I shivered.
“Let’s go back to my place,” Dado said, resting a hand on my shoulder. “We have a barbecue. You can explore some more tomorrow.”
Dado’s guesthouse consisted of six rooms facing out onto a terrace, which in turn looked out over a small inlet. Orange, lemon and kiwi fruit trees provided shade and snacks. Dado’s wife hung our laundry at one end of the terrace whilst Dado grilled our dinner at the other.
Looking out over the rooftops of the houses that seemed to be almost falling into the bay I was suddenly aware of Dado standing next to me. He pointed at a hole in the fence.
“This was made by a shell,” he said softly. “You can still see shrapnel holes in the drainpipes over there. I had to completely re-do the terrace.”
“Were you here at the time?” I said, and he nodded.
“Upstairs, in the house. I was deaf for a week afterwards. The house next door…” he paused for a second. “There were five of them eating their dinner when the bombardment started. All of them died.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed impossible that this beautiful place had housed such horrors in the not-to-distant past. But the signs were there, in the replaced roof tiles and a hole in the fence, in the stories Dado could tell.
“Come,” he said, hand resting on my shoulder once more, breaking me away from morbid thoughts. “Tomorrow my cousin will take you on a boat trip to the islands. He bought the boat with his army pension. Homemade grappa and sandwiches on the beach. What do you think?”
I nodded. It sounded good. But when I took my seat next to Kevin, who was excitedly discussing the boat trip with Dado and a Swedish woman, I couldn’t focus on the conversation. My gaze kept returning to the hole in the fence, as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon and I shivered once again.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton