[Travel Diary] Urbex in the Kupari Complex

Abandoned places hold a strange power of attraction. Think of the village of Pripyat, frozen in time in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, or the Parisian catacombs, with their extensive network of damp galleries, secret rooms, ossuaries, sculpture and graffiti. People of all kinds are drawn to them, despite the evident dangers, from radiation overdose to claustrophobic panic. In allowing us to to run among the debris of civilisation, to hide in its hidden corners, such places transport us out of our day-to-day into other, often layered and interconnected times.

Thanks to Alex, a friend met on the road, I discovered a particularly exciting location. A mere ten kilometres from Dubrovnik, the fortified coastal town of Game of Thrones filming-location fame. This place, the Kupari hotel complex, is centred around the beautiful bay of Kupari, one of the most renowned swimming and sunning spots in the country. Its proximity to Dubrovnik, a busy and expensive tourist destination, only added to the pleasure of exploration. Although by no means alone, we had successfully escaped the crowds.

The first hotel to be built, during the interwar period, was the Grand Hotel, complete with ball room, wine cellar and multiple inner courtyards. The other 5 – the Pelegrin, Gostolica I and II, Mladost and Kupari hotels – were built in the 60s. All combined, they provided more than 1800 beds, to which was added an auto-camp large enough to accommodate 4500 people. In its heyday, Kupari served as the destination of choice for Yugoslavia’s military elite, although the auto-camp meant it was by no means exclusive to them. Tito himself spent his off-time in a villa some ways further along the coast. Of all this only desolate room after desolate room remain – with graffiti on the walls, broken windows and tattered curtains – a pool filled with isolation material floating on water from the last rain, an indoor football court, cavernous rooms, and incredible rooftop views.

This beautiful playground for the urban explorer – a whole day was barely enough to see the main sights – is also an interesting prism into the recent history of the area, so a little exposition is in order. Croatia declared its independence from the Republic of Yugoslavia at the end of June 1991, following a referendum held in May. This led to a rapid escalation in a conflict that had already been simmering since the fall of the Berlin wall, with roots in longer-standing tensions between the nations united within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav’s People’s Army (JNA) invaded Croatian territory, meeting resistance from the recently formed Croatian Territorial Defense Forces.

The city of Dubrovnik was targeted starting on October 1st, 1991, leading to a months-long siege that would last until the end of May of the following year. The objective of the offensive was to take control of the Dubrovnik region, attach it to a Serb-dominated state, and proceed to link up with other invading forces further north. Dubrovnik and nearby cities, including Kupari, were subjected to shelling from the sea. While I saw no trace of this in the touristy old town – which was rebuilt – the beach-front hotels are still peppered with bullet holes and artillery damage. The hotels were then looted by JNA soldiers, who shipped out all the furniture and valuables, before systematically burning the interiors with phosphorus bombs. It seems the wiring was also stripped for copper, then or later, and the marble pried off the floors and staircases. Although some of the hotel interiors were rebuilt to accommodate Croatian army units, the hotels stand mostly untouched since.

No wonder then that my conversation on the topic with our host produced a simple assessment: “Katastrofa!”. The English-speaking women who later picked me up hitch-hiking said it represented nothing to them, except perhaps the continuing failure of their government to identify an investor to have the place razed and rebuilt. Still, the beach was full on the day we visited, discarded drinks and graffiti suggested youthful use of the rooms and rooftops, and we came across the local paintball team having a Sunday morning urban battle, so it is clear that some locals have found a way to make the space theirs. In any case, it was the perfect spot to go through a whole package of Polaroid film, to eery results. 

First row: A couch on the roof of Hotel Goričina II, after rain, with a view of Hotel Pelegrin and Hotel Kupari (left). View of Hotel Goričina II and the bay from the roof of Hotel Pelegrin (right).

Second row: Afternoon sun on a Hotel Pelegrin balcony (left). Shafts of light in the Hotel Kupari pool (right).

Third row: Alex in shoddy corridor perspective (left). Ghostly remnants of childhood (right).