It's five years since the siege, but the tourists are still scared off. Go there before they come back, suggests Jo Kearney
The ship's siren boomed out to announce our arrival in Dubrovnik. From the city walls and rooftops people waved white flags and handkerchiefs to welcome the vessel into its home port; a brass band played on the quay and girls in national costume handed out pink carnations to passengers.

It was as if we'd arrived on the QE2, not a second-hand cross-Channel ferry. But for the people of Dubrovnik it was a day of celebration. The Croatian government's purchase of the former Duchess Anne from Brittany Ferries was a sign of optimism that after six years foreign tourists were on their way back.

I was sailing on the Dubrovnik's maiden voyage from Rijeka to Split, via Dubrovnik. The ferry is making the journey twice a week this summer, as well as making two crossings from Dubrovnik to Igoumenitsa in Greece, making DIY mini-cruises a possibility.

The one-year siege of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslavian army ended in 1992, but five years on, tourists have been slow to return. The war in neighbouring Bosnia, which ended in November 1995, still deters people from going to Croatia, even though it is a separate country. In 1990 660,000 Britons took holidays in what was Yugoslavia; last year there were 26,000. The absent thousands' anxieties seem misplaced.

Having seen television footage of the shelling of Dubrovnik, I was surprised to find the city more or less intact.

During the 1991 siege by the Yugoslavian army some 2,000 shells were said to have fallen on the city, damaging 70 per cent of the buildings and many of the monuments. But Dubrovnik is regarded as having the best- preserved medieval walls in Europe. These ramparts, measuring 18ft thick in places, prevented the town being more badly damaged.

If you look carefully, you notice the new stone slabs which have replaced those pockmarked with shrapnel. Clean sandstone is fitted like a jigsaw into the broken balustrades leading to St Blaise's Cathedral and the new orange roof tiles are brighter than the original weathered terracotta. According to Professor Dubravka Zvrko, from the Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik, only a third of all repair work has been carried out. The city is considered a world heritage site by Unesco and all rebuilding work has to be done in the original materials, including stone from the island of Korcula.

My guide, who spent three months sheltering in her basement during the siege, thought the repairs had gone too far. "There is a saying among the people of Dubrovnik that each stone hurts us a lot," she told me. "The stone paving slabs have been repaired so well that the Serbs will never see the damage they inflicted."

Before the war daily numbers of tourists in high season exceeded the population of Dubrovnik. When I visited this spring there was hardly a tourist to be seen. The best way to view Dubrovnik is to climb on to the walls. You can circle the entire town, gaining spectacular views of the uneven terracotta roofs, the Gothic towers and baroque cupolas and the Adriatic below.

The main street is known as the Placa, which traverses the town east to west. Centuries of walking have polished the stone slabs so they almost resemble a mirror - by day reflecting the sun, and at night the light from the tiny lamps adorning the arches of the stone buildings.

Come night time, the 10-metre-wide Placa becomes a meeting place and unofficial fashion show. Smartly-dressed young people stroll, chatting to friends, or sit and drink beers at the cafes.

We arrived in Dubrovnik on the second day of our trip. The previous day we had left Rijeka, in the north, with much fanfare, and were soon charting our way through clear green waters dotted with islands. Our first port of call was Zadar, where it seemed most of the town had turned out to watch the arrival of the Dubrovnik. With the country still counting the cost of the war, people are desperate for tourists to return.

Almost destroyed in the Second World War and badly damaged in the recent war, Zadar is a blend of communist, medieval and Roman architecture. Concrete modern blocks stand alongside narrow winding stone-slabbed streets and Gothic churches and towers. In the main square near St Mary's church, Roman pillars lie scattered on the ground close to the Franciscan church and monastery, said to have been founded by St Francis on his way to Syria in 1213.

We travelled overnight to Dubrovnik and spent a day and a night in port before sailing to the island of Korcula. The main settlement is a medieval fortified town on a smaller scale to Dubrovnik.

Much of Korcula is densely carpeted with cypress trees, providing a cool respite during the summer. Within a 3,000-year-old cypress grove is a flight of stone steps, known as the 101 Dalmatians, leading up to a tiny chapel named after St Anthony who is said to have been a hermit there. During summer nights operatic duets are performed inside.

Our next stop was the island of Hvar, reputed to be the sunniest place in the Adriatic. It is an island of olive groves and vineyards and is famous for its lavender and rosemary which grow wild. During summer old ladies sell lavender oil and dried herbs on the quayside.

Our final destination was Split, famous for its magnificently preserved third-century Diocletian palace built by the Roman emperor as a summer residence. Still intact, it is said to be the best-preserved Roman palace in the world.

The site of the palace is not cordoned off into a dead, museum-like enclosure, but is actually part of Split. As you walk around the town you just walk into it. There is even an outdoor cafe within it.

In any other part of Europe it would be heaving with tourists. But this place was full of young people chatting. It was midnight, and there wasn't a beer can to be seen.

FACT FILE

Flights

Croatia Airlines flies daily from Heathrow to Zagreb, with connections to Dubrovnik and Split. May-September it operates weekly flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to Split. All routes pounds 229 (plus tax) return. Tel: 0171 306 3138. Tour operator Transum flies weekly from Gatwick and Manchester to Dubrovnik: pounds 249 for 7 days in August, pounds 199 in September. Tel: 01865 7988888.

Boat

The Dubrovnik sails twice weekly, Tuesday and Saturday, from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, stopping at Hvar and Korcula. Deck seats from pounds 14; cabin berths (four sharing) pounds 29 each.

Accommodation

In private homes about pounds 10 a room. Hotels in Dubrovnik cost about pounds 30 per person per night.

Contacts

Croatian National Tourist Board: 0181 563 7979. Ferry, flight and accommodation info: Dalmatian and Istrian Travel, 0181 749 5255.

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