Central & Eastern Europe / Croatia / Travel / History

Last Train to Kupari

Czechoslovakia's Shangri-la on the shores of the Adriatic.

For people who have only seen the stark ruins of today’s Kupari, it’s difficult to imagine what a paradise the place once was.

In September 1938 a series of advertisements appeared in the Czech daily newspaper Lidové Noviný offering autumn holidays in the resort of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik, with the chance to observe the annual Konavle grape harvest an added attraction. Train travel would be organized with departures from Prague, Brno and Bratislava.

Which route these trains might actually take the advertisement did not say. Travelling from Prague via Zagreb to Split, and thence by ferry to Dubrovnik, usually took the best part of two days. Travelling via Sarajevo, and using the narrow-gauge railway line that ran from Mostar to Gruž, would take even longer – although it was a famously scenic journey, tunneling its way through the highlands of Eastern Herzegovina before descending towards the Adriatic coast.

These advertisements disappeared after September 11, probably because there were so few bookings. Hitler’s Germany was making aggressive demands for Czechoslovak territory, and there were very real fears of a new European war. When Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the European powers with the Munich Agreement of September 30 1938, holidays ceased to be a priority for the country’s demoralized citizens. For Kupari, Czechoslovakia’s corner of paradise on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, it was the end of an era.

The Czechoslovak chapter of Kupari's history is frequently forgotten. Redeveloped as a Yugoslav army resort after World War II, and comprehensively smashed up as a result of the war of 1991-95, Kupari is nowadays remembered as a melancholy monument to Yugoslavia's disintegration, a ruin-destination for fans of derelict hotels. Its earlier incarnation as a Central European Shangri-La is buried amid the rubble.

Established by a Czech business consortium, Kupari’s official opening took place just over 101 years ago, on Sunday May 29, 1921. Dubrovnik society turned out in force, to be entertained by the local Dubrava Choir, a military band, and gymnastic displays by Sokol organizations. It was one of the first indications that tourism was coming to life again after seven years of war and economic dislocation. It was also a promising sign of the rebirth of Dubrovnik, a city that would come to dominate Adriatic tourism in the years that followed.

The resort was the brainchild of Brno-based entrepreneurs Jaroslav Fencl and Jan Máša, who together formed the Dubrovnická lázeňská a hotelová společnost (Dubrovnik Spa and Hotel Company) in 1912 in order to buy plots of land 10km south of Dubrovnik in Srebreno, the shallow bay at the northwestern end of a string of villages collectively known as the Župa Dubrovačka. Fencl was a journalist and publisher; Máša was a bank employee; together they had opened Brno’s first travel agency in 1910. Joined by factory owner Vojtěch Střiž, they planned to bring Czech tourists to Srebreno and accommodate them in local houses. Interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, they reactivated the partnership in 1916 with a plan to build a convalescent home for soldiers, but little progress was made before the Habsburg state collapsed in autumn 1918. 

Swaying palms

Kupari, immediately northwest of Srebreno, was the site of a brickworks owned by Dubrovnik’s noble Kaboga family. Neglected during the war, its clay pits had flooded and turned into a breeding ground for mosquitos. In 1919, Fencl and colleagues bought a controlling share in the brickworks with the intention of closing it down and building a hotel on the land.

Beginning with a modest pension, Kupari received its first guests in 1920; the larger, “Grand Hotel” took shape over the next few years. Brick production finally ceased in 1922, with most of the factory buildings being converted to provide the resort with service areas.  A humble 40-room resort at the time of its official opening in 1921, Kupari expanded to offer 166 rooms with 340 beds by August 1923. By 1925 it was receiving 1,175 guests a year, a figure which had grown to 2,443 by 1936.

Kupari in 1920-21

For people accustomed to the stark modernist ruins of today’s Kupari, it’s difficult to imagine what a paradise this once was. Visitors entered along an avenue lined with swaying palms to find hotel buildings overlooking a glorious crescent of south-facing beach. Advertisements emphasized the fact that you could go from your hotel room to the beach and back again without changing your bathing costume, play tennis or volleyball, and enjoy both French and Czech cuisine in its two restaurants.

Coverage of Kupari in the local press was initially very positive. Czech hard work and business sense was contributing to the local economy. The share company that ran the resort would be half-Yugoslav owned, reported Dubrovnik weekly newspaper Narodna Svijest; shares would be available to private citizens and there was no reason why local investors shouldn’t take them up.

The major investors were, however, predominantly Czech. Key shareholders included Banka pro průmysl pivovarsky ("The Beer Industry Bank”; what could be more Czech than a bank devoted to brewing?), and Banka československých legií  (Bank of the Czech Legions), an investment house with a portfolio of patriotic projects. Such was the scale of investment in buildings and infrastructure that Kupari took a long time to make a profit. Tourism grew gradually but modestly throughout the 1920s, and the effects of the Great Depression, with tourist numbers collapsing in 1931-2, meant that Kupari was not capable of paying out dividends to shareholders until 1936.

Kupari represented something rather novel in tourist terms because it was one of the Adriatic’s first self-contained resorts. Although it aimed its advertising at German-speakers as well as Czechs, the Bohemian and Moravian bourgeoisie was always its main market. A desire to create a self-contained Czech-speaking resort was deeply rooted in the Czech experience of travel in Central Europe, when places like Abbazia (today's Opatija), Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) and other fashionable society resorts were predominantly German-speaking. Czechs were increasingly keen to go to places that were not dominated by Germans. Czech frustrations with German-dominated tourism were frequently articulated in the years before World War I: when Prague travel writer Josef Uher wrote his Průvodce po Dalmacii (Guide to Dalmatia) in 1912 he complained that Dubrovnik’s Hotel Imperial was exclusively staffed by Viennese, and if you tried to speak Czech or Croatian they would pretend not to have heard you.

"Czech strength and Czech toil"

The popularity of Dubrovnik with the Czech middle classes was crucial to the rise of city’s tourist industry, especially in the early 1920s when the Czech crown was strong; and again in the 1930s, with currency controls (especially in Germany) discouraged foreign travel. The biggest years for Czechoslovak arrivals in Dubrovnik were 1933 (with a total of 7,829 tourists), 1934 (8768), 1935 (9207) and 1936 (8760); in all of these years, Czechoslovakia topped the league table in the number of annual arrivals.

However Czech writers tended to over-emphasize Czechoslovakia’s role in shaping the modern Adriatic. Writing for Československo-Jihoslovanská Revue (The Czech-Yugoslav Review) in 1931, frequent visitor Vlastimil Klíma called Dubrovnik a “Cinderella” that had been neglected by Vienna for decades and was only now able to rise; implying that it was due to Czech enterprise that the city’s fortunes had been revived.

Travel agent and writer Adolf Veselý, an early investor in Srebreno in 1912 who went on to edit the Prague-based review Slovanský Jadran (The Slav Adriatic), complained that Yugoslavs failed to recognize the hand of friendship that was being offered to them.. “Our capital is actually guided by brotherly love, we are not interested in the occupation or the taking away of the land or the sea of brotherly Yugoslavia… Czech strength, Czech toil and Czech enterprise must be desirable and welcome, supported and safeguarded.” Czech entrepreneurship would also act as a positive example to Yugoslav business, Veselý concluded, implying that the people of the Adriatic required outside guidance in order to improve and prosper – a common preconception that has never really gone away.

Elsewhere, Slovanský Jadran spoke of Kupari being a “jewel” that both the French and Italian Rivieras would be proud of. Dubrovnik was increasingly becoming a symbol of Mediterranean glamour, and Kupari represented a crucial part of this image. Dubrovnik was also the ideal setting for a string of romantic films made with Central-European audiences in mind. First of these was Právo na hřich (The Right to Sin; directed by Vladimir Slavínský in 1932), in which doctor’s wife Vera Machová (Truda Grosslichtová) flirts with naval officer Otto Král (Přemysl Pražský) while holidaying alone on the Adriatic coast. Machová’s husband Rudolf (K. V. Marek) gets his revenge back in Prague by taking on a mistress. Featuring scenes of Korčula and Dubrovnik as well as Kupari, the film was an effective advertising tool for the local tourist industry.

Roses are red, the Adriatic is blue

More famous, but with less of Kupari in the frame was Irčin Romanek (Irča's Adventure; dir. Karel Hasler, 1936), based on a popular cycle of novels by Josef Roden concerning the adventures of Irča, spirited daughter of a prosperous businessman. Played by Czech cinema diva Jiřina Steinmarová, Irča runs away from boarding school to the Adriatic to be with her beloved, a mechanic called Lexa (Austrian-Czech heart-throb Rolf Wanka), where they form a tourist transport company called Adria Bus. A parallel German-language version of the film (renamed Flucht an die Adria) was made at the same time, with Wanka paired with Hungarian operetta star Rózsi Csikós. Wanka was back in Dubrovnik the following year to shoot another film with both Czech- and German-language versions named Divoch ("Savage") and Rote Rosen – Blaue Adria ("Red Roses - Blue Adriatic") respectively, with Wanka playing a Prague industrialist who decides on a solo celibate holiday in Dubrovnik before meeting a woman he can’t resist.

Kupari's erstwhile Grand Hotel in 2022

What makes these films of added interest nowadays is that they were made not by Hollywood or HBO but by a Central European film industry that flourished in the inter-war years and has now all but vanished, a victim of war, revolutions, changing times, and the sidelining of Czechoslovakia and its successor states as major cultural forces. Like Kupari itself, they are suggestive of a lost world.

Kupari also featured in the stories of Franziska Reitz, whose trashy romances were serialized in Austrian inter-war newspapers. Heroine of her novella Granatblüte (Pomegranate) is Maria Matschek, neglected wife of a Viennese doctor who ends up holidaying in Kupari on her own. Her love interest, White-Russian exile Volodya Iwanitsch, is killed in a car crash before they can consummate their affair. Reitz’s novel Mondnacht (Moonlit Night) is rather more preposterous, with an Austrian couple scouring Dalmatia in search of their kidnapped son – it is in Kupari that they finally find him, playing violin on hotel terraces with a travelling band of Roma musicians. 

Life had a habit of imitating art. In August 1937 several Central-European newspapers reported the case of 15-year-old high-school student Šárka D, who had disappeared from her Prague home. Her whereabouts were revealed when she sent a letter to her parents from Kupari asking for 1000 Czech crowns in order to get home. By the time her mother arrived in Dubrovnik however Šárka had already moved on, and was last reported in Split staying in a hotel with an older male under an assumed name.

Whether or not teenage runaways appeared in the figures, 1937 was a record-breaking year for Dubrovnik. By far the most visited city on the Yugoslav coast, it had received 27,825 foreign guests in the first eight months of 1938 (not counting the day-trippers who came on cruise ships), a 20% increase on the same period the previous year. Czechs however were becoming a less important slice of the cake, now outnumbered by the Germans and with the British creeping up in third place. Kupari was a niche resort that depended on the stability and prosperity of a Czechoslovak state in order to stay viable. Even if a Europe-wide conflict had not broken out in 1939, Kupari would have found it difficult to survive. In the event, international tourism came to a halt in summer 1939 and would reemerge, 10 years later, in a much-changed world. Kupari would rise again, but its days as a Czech paradise were over.

© Jonathan Bousfield