There are towns in Italy stiff with the masterpieces of the Renaissance, cities in central Europe stuffed with cakes and romance. There is Paris and Barcelona and all that. Go there for the weekend and come back and tell the tale. But to walk through the gates of the old town of Dubrovnik is to enter a milieu of deeply moving perfection. The guide books will mention certain artefacts and buildings which are more important than others, and they will tell the history of the centuries-old capital of a maritime empire, its triumphs and its troubles. But this is not a place that depends on the thunder of portentous old facts or bruited masterworks to beguile you.
It is a small walled city on the Adriatic with marble streets and four- storey, flat-fronted, light grey buildings. It is old, and it feels old and almost unmolested by modern life. And yet, of course, few places have been so molested. The bombardment came from the sea and, much more painfully, from the hills that loom behind the town; it is only six years since the mortars rained down, wreaking damage that began to sound irreparable.
"I've just been to Dubrovnik," you say to people in England.
"Oh really," they say, "isn't it horribly destroyed?"
The answer to that question is no, not now. The restoration has been so fast and so meticulous that you have to take a hardish look to know this was recently a war zone. The locals are proud of what has been done, but there is a certain ambivalence. They are happy that you are there. They are pleased that the place is alive and restored and working but, understandably, they would not like you to forget their ordeal.
You can stay in the old town and there are plenty of hotels within walking distance. Or you might stay, as we did, a few miles down the coast on a beach. You ride the Formica-seated local buses to the bus station outside the old town, you get off, pass through the ranks of motorcycles and through the gates into another world.
Ahead of you, running the length of the town, is a wide, white marble street. On either side, those big stone buildings, very Italian-looking to my untutored eye. The side streets to the left are unforgettable, and well-nigh unclimbable on a hot day. Very steep themselves, they transmute into steep steps leading up to the city wall. They are punctuated a third and two-thirds of the way up with narrow cross-streets thick with restaurants.
You could walk the walls, mosey round the harbour, explore every alley, and dutifully examine the places of special interest easily in one day. But that is not what I did. Dubrovnik is not a place to "do". It is a place to be. There are no cars, no bikes, no rip-offs, no pretension. Just serenity, beauty and elegance.
If Dubrovnik was not battered into the ground, the tourist industry certainly was. To my surprise, the flight I took last year was the first British charter since the war. We were greeted by television crews, plied with liqueurs and serenaded by a local band. And that is another part of the secret. The vast majority of the people taking an evening saunter down that wide white marble street are pleasant looking, pleasantly behaved local youth.
But once upon a time everyone went to Dubrovnik and they will again. I suggest you beat them to it.
How to get there
Reach Dubrovnik on Croatian Airlines (0181-563 0022) from Heathrow via Zagreb, for pounds 287 in April. Croatia National Tourism Office, 2 The Lanchesters, 162-164 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 9ER (0181-563 7979).