Paisley and pin-ups in a Bulgarian military ruin.
Tuesday 7 March 2017
Behind us, the cypress thickets buzzed with the chatter of a thousand unseen minibeasts. The noise rose on a warm, herb-scented wind, swelling and falling back, shimmering like heat haze. Up ahead it was swallowed by the sea, where the clear Adriatic waters massaged hungrily at the shore.
Back in Dubrovnik – the so-called ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ – selfie sticks had rattled like sabres along the battlements of King’s Landing (that’s right, they filmed Game of Thrones here; as the tour touts will remind you every four minutes or so). In Dubrovnik, Western tourists stumbled out of Irish pubs and go-go bars to vomit on old stones, beneath a canopy of glowing signs (burger joints, coffee chains, Disney-licensed souvenir shops): a thousand years of history repackaged as a hedonistic retail village.
Just 10 minutes south along the Dalmatian Coast however, on Župa Bay, we had found ourselves in another world.
There were five of us sat on the rooftop, drinking warm beer and gazing out across the bay. This building, the Hotel Goričina II, had featured 352 rooms – its neighbour, Goričina I, had 162. Now they were nothing but shells.
Meanwhile, down below, past the shelf of burnt-orange tiles, the rooftop gave way to a panorama of decay. Of the six hotels that once populated this wooded corner of the Croatian coastline, nothing stood now but architectural skeletons; the ruins of the formerly-fabulous Kupari Resort of the former Yugoslavia.
We finished our drinks, and set ourselves a new target: the rooftop of the furthest ruin, what was once the Hotel Kupari.
From the high plateau of sun-warmed tiles, we descended back the way we’d come – climbing down a wall onto the main rooftop balcony of Hotel Goričina, and from there splitting up as we each picked our own path out and across the resort.
I took a meandering route back to ground level; walking from one hotel room to the next, an endless parade of concrete cubes stripped bare and facing out to sea. In the hotel bar, green shoots pushed up through rotten floorboards… and from there another room, another corridor, another floor. I stumbled quite suddenly into a gutted ballroom and then later found my way down to a large, tiled space that could only have been a kitchen.
There was precious little left in the way of decoration, the contents of the building all stripped bare; but by deduction, it was almost possible to imagine how this place might once have functioned. The Hotel Goričina must have been extraordinary, I thought, and we were still only on our first hotel.
This holiday village at Kupari first opened to tourists in 1919, when a Czech investor built the Grand Hotel. Much later, in the 1960s, this place was chosen for a dedicated holiday resort serving the JNA (the ‘Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija,’ or ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’), and over the following two decades five more hotels would open: the Pelegrin, the Kupari Hotel, the Mladost Hotel a little further inland; and the Goričina I and II beside the water. Nearby, just around the headland, they built three more: the Galeb Hotel and Borovka Villas I and II.
By today’s rates, the construction cost ran to the equivalent of half a billion euros – and it all came from JNA military funding.
Between them these hotels had beds enough for 1,600 guests, while a campsite on the bay could accommodate up to 4,500 more. There were private villas too, and even President Josip Broz Tito had a holiday home at Kupari. The place earned a reputation, in time, as an exclusive resort for the military elite; not that it was ever planned that way, but spaces were limited and as popularity grew, it would become increasingly difficult to book the prime beachfront spots unless one had connections.
Today, however, the hotels sit like broken teeth in the northern jaw of Župa Bay.
Kupari was a casualty of the Croatian War of Independence… and everywhere around, the evidence is plain to see. Heavy stone pillars don’t shatter without provocation, and even the most persistent of vandals would struggle to put a hole through a reinforced concrete wall. This place, once an exclusive holiday resort, had been turned into a war zone.
Our second hotel – Hotel Kupari – was perhaps the most impressive, set back from the footpath at the northern end of the bay. It was certainly the largest, with 554 rooms. The hotel towered above the overgrown bushes, floor after floor of cookie-cutter luxury suites spilling out over broken balconies; but finding a way in proved more difficult than expected.
In the end I made my own path: ploughing through the undergrowth, pushing through brambles so deep that I ended up forming a tunnel beneath them. The hotel ahead disappeared, the wild greenery closed in over me, and I burrowed until I hit concrete. It was a wall, the foundations of the open-plan ground floor lobby. I scrambled up, over, and then I was inside.
The damage to Hotel Kupari felt more desperate, more dramatic, than what I’d seen at Hotel Goričina… it felt more deliberate. The rusted ducts of an air-conditioning system hung from the ceiling like red, flaking fingers. Corridors lay blackened by soot and fire; subsequent visitors had carved their initials into the charcoal, white characters scratched on a blackboard. The effect was disorientating – like walking through a charred photo negative.
The Croatian War of Independence – the ‘Homeland War,’ as they called it – broke out in 1991. That summer, the increasingly Serb-nationalist leadership of Yugoslavia directed the Yugoslav People’s Army to seize Dubrovnik; they sent ships and ground troops along the Dalmatian Coast, and here at Kupari a small unit of Croatian fighters took shelter in the JNA’s former holiday camp.
The first shots were fired on 4th October. For 20 days the JNA shelled their own resort from the bay: by the time they recaptured Kupari, it was a ruin. After that the looting began. Fittings and furniture, marble, copper and steel were salvaged from the wreckage, stripped out and loaded onto Yugoslav warships. Once these valuable materials were removed, Yugoslav soldiers burned the buildings, floor by floor, with phosphorus bombs.
Dubrovnik itself was next. The old city was bombarded from the sea: more than 11,000 buildings were damaged, 16,000 refugees displaced and with hundreds of casualties.
Eventually the Yugoslav Navy blockade was broken, and the siege lifted on the last day of May 1992. In time, Dubrovnik would be rebuilt… but Kupari never recovered.
Over the quarter-century since, the hotels have slowly been reclaimed by nature. Weeds grow up between broken walls, while a new wave of scavengers – locals, this time – have further stripped the buildings of anything valuable. Save for occasional rusted pipes, the hotels are almost entirely devoid of metal; grooves and tracks along the walls show where even electrical cables have been stripped out to fetch some small price.
By the time I arrived up there, my friends were already on the rooftop. The main staircase of the Hotel Kupari was open to a road at the back, a sheer drop beyond the concrete steps that grew more unsettling the higher I climbed. Once or twice, cars passed below me – but the drivers never seemed to glance towards the broken buildings as they sped on by.
On top of the hotel a flat roof stretched the length of the building, an observation deck overlooking the destruction of the bay. In the middle, a single block rose higher and we climbed the ladder pinned to its side, getting up onto the hot orange tiles at the very highest apex of Hotel Kupari.
I looked back at where we’d come from: Hotel Goričina, at the southern end, a sprawling mass of broken squares and triangles that must once have seemed the very height of luxurious modern architecture. Beneath us, the oldest building – the Grand Hotel – was visible in cruciform amidst the trees.
It was the Pelegrin Hotel that we were heading to next, however: to the massive silhouette that sat against the breaking waves like an ugly, upside-down pyramid.
Along the waterfront, down on the sand, visitors behaved like postcard tourists in the shadow of the derelict hotels. One couple sunbathed, holding hands. A young family threw sticks for an energetic spaniel. The hotel planners had chosen this spot for a reason and that reason still stands: the beaches are terrific.
Around the corner of the Hotel Kupari, I pushed back through the undergrowth and onto the path to the Pelegrin. The 419-room pyramid looked out of place here, as though it had been dropped from space to land awkwardly, point-downwards in the sand.
As I approached the hotel an old man emerged from the footpath to the quay, and he passed me at the bottom of the Pelegrin’s front steps. “Zdravo,” he greeted me, cheerily. A foreigner with a camera, clambering over the ruins of Kupari, was apparently nothing out of the ordinary for him.
Back in the Hotel Kupari I had gotten distracted, lost my way amongst the half-dozen floors of blackened stairwells, peeling paint and broken balconies; I was the last one to make it to the Pelegrin. As I entered the ground floor reception I could hear voices echoing in the central courtyard, falling down from higher levels to get trapped in the building’s core.
This hotel felt even more bare than the others. There was nothing left inside but pillars and dust, a desolate place where only bad graffiti survived to prove that anyone still came here at all. I was most of the way to the roof before I heard the voices again. I turned a corner on the third, maybe fourth level, and a young Croatian girl walked past me. She smiled and nodded, then she was gone.
The final flight of steps to the rooftop had collapsed: but a rickety ladder had been built instead, a staircase formed from the lean-to of rotted wooden door frames stacked together. I followed the voices – louder now – and climbed up to the flat roof of the Pelegrin.
My friends had got chatting to some local girls on the roof, and they were comparing the relative appeal of Dubrovnik versus Kupari. The consensus, amongst us foreigners, was that Kupari was far more interesting – the history was raw and real, there were things to climb, and not a selfie-stick in sight – and the locals were flattered to hear it. Flattered, though not entirely surprised, it seemed. These Kupari girls were proud of their town, and as they were young enough to have missed the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, the ruins left over held no bad memories for them. The hotels were no more than a scenic climbing frame, a place to escape and explore.
The girls wished us a happy stay in Kupari, then left us alone for a rooftop sunset over the Adriatic.
Gradually the sun dipped below the hills and the colour faded out of Kupari. In place of vibrant greens, blood-red rust and yellow, sun-dazzled concrete, the resort settled into a muted palette of greys. The place felt sad by twilight. Down below, we saw those local girls walking off along the beach – their voices drifting faintly up on the breeze – and then we were alone, the only life left amongst the angular grey terrain of the former battlefield.
It may not stay like this forever, though. There is talk of restoring Kupari: of reclaiming this prime beachfront location and putting it back into use as a tourist resort. The Croatian Army had occupied the hotels for a time after the war, but ever since they left, in 2001, there have been ongoing efforts to privatise the ruins; and begin a regeneration project that’s anticipated to cost as much as €400 million.
Various investors have shown interest over the years, but now, it seems a buyer might finally have appeared. In September 2016 The Dubrovnik Times reported the plan to demolish the abandoned hotels, flatten the whole area and build a new, five-star Marriott resort.
Just one of the hotels will remain, thanks to its protection now as a building of historical significance: and it was to this building, the original Grand Hotel, that we made our way as night fell across the derelict resort.
The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel predates its neighbours by almost half a century – and it shows. Where the others experiment with modernism, with the bold, brutalist contours of a would-be seaside utopia, the design of the Grand Hotel is more rooted in Croatia’s former Austro-Hungarian relations. Stucco and fluted pillars, neoclassical swirls; the Grand more than any other hotel at Kupari paints a portrait of decadence in decay.
Built in 1919, by 1924 the hotel already offered a restaurant, electric lighting, a tennis court, football pitch and a local ambulance service. It had 139 guest rooms and an indoor swimming pool.
I had passed by the entrance already, several times, while visiting the neighbouring hotels; I had seen the crumbling outhouses, and spotted the shape of a tennis court somewhere beneath a sea of vegetation. By night, however, the Grand took on new and different qualities.
Wooden doors protested as we pushed our way inside. In the entrance hall an elegant staircase spiralled up to higher levels. A wide corridor fed back into the black depths of the building, and I followed it: past bedroom doors framed between pillars, along dirt floors long-since stripped of their marble.
Our group of five explored the hotel in chaotic, overlapping paths: we moved together, split up, circled around and found each other again. Flickering beams of light painted stairways and corridors, as voices – perhaps the first in a while – bounced up and down the halls of the Grand Hotel.
Towards the rear of the hotel a covered walkway fed into a courtyard. Beyond the cloister, across the long grass, a stone archway yawned up at the sky: the entrance to a subterranean level. We made our way carefully down into what appeared to have once been a wine cellar. Brick arches supported a vaulted ceiling, a long, dusty cave beneath the hotel.
That’s where I left the group – flashing torches about the cellars – and I made my way back up; out through the cave in the courtyard, into the halls and from there, alone to the higher levels.
Unlike its neighbours, built on their steel and rebar frames, the Grand Hotel was rapidly falling apart. The ceiling had come down in places… I’d peer through one doorway into a rotten hotel room, then look through the next to see nothing but broken beams framing a starry night sky. It was unfortunate, I concluded, that the only Kupari hotel selected for preservation was the one least likely to survive another winter.
Thinking, and walking, occasionally stopping to take pictures, it was a while before I realised I was lost. It hardly seemed possible – I hadn’t strayed all that far from the entrance, but the layout of the Grand Hotel was more complex than it appeared. One corridor would divide into two wings; staircases led up and down, to bedrooms or hidden staff quarters. Sometimes they’d lead to dead-ends.
After exploring for some time in a trance, I woke up to discover that I’d lost my bearings altogether. I no longer remembered which floor I was on, or which of these pitch black corridors would lead back outside. Around me, the old building murmured and groaned. The darkness had felt inviting, mysterious, when the five of us arrived – but now, disorientated and alone amongst the upper floors of the abandoned Grand Hotel, I began to find the creeping shadows unsettling.
Along the corridor I went, past the puddles of starlight that spilled out of gutted bedrooms, and round the corner: climbing through the hole in a broken plaster wall and down the wooden steps of a service stairway beyond. The next floor was lost in perfect darkness. My torch beam fell across locked doors, empty corridors, and more steps leading down. I followed the stairs again, to a ground floor corridor bathed in the soft light falling through a broken window. The grass outside looked blue-black under the moon.
My desire to leave the hotel had grown irrational: before I knew what I was doing I’d climbed through the window, and I was crossing the lawn to get well clear of the building.
I found the others near the front of the Grand Hotel. We made the call, and soon we were all in a taxi heading back to our hostel. To Dubrovnik: that simulacrum of a city where real stories lie buried beneath reconstructions; and where the authentic voices of history are drowned out by a legion of costumed tour guides recapping Game of Thrones plot lines.
For now at least, the ghosts of Kupari can still be heard… but it won’t always be that way. Some day soon they’ll build that Marriott, and visitors coming to Župa Bay will only see the sea and cypress thickets from their five-star accommodation. The hotels will be gone, Kupari reborn, and the memory of what happened here will belong only to those who lived it.
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