The waiter literally jumped with happiness. And shouted. And kept on jumping and shouting with such unself-conscious joy that we, his customers at the pavement restaurant in Dubrovnik, turned away from the television screen to watch him and to smile.

On the screen the Croatian football team was all in a heap, a pile-on of delight, reserves and manager included, having just scored against Argentina. The Argentinian goalkeeper, whose blunder had led to the goal, looked ready to die. And in the stands, Diego Maradona, as chubby as Elton John, looked ready to weep.

The Croatian football team after scoring one of three goals against Argentina at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Getty Images
The Croatian football team after scoring one of three goals against Argentina at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Getty Images

Few of us diners were Croatian. Rather we were tourists, drawn to the Adriatic coast by its Mediterranean bakedness, and to Dubrovnik in particular for its startling medieval beauty, which has seen it used as a set for Game of Thrones.

You can take a guided tour of the Game of Thrones locations, and for a fee you can pose with shield and broadsword, or sit on an actual fake throne, or take a short cruise on a mock-medieval sailing boat and be welcomed aboard by a local dressed in chain mail and a crown of tin.

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But it's still a remarkable place. The old city is free of vehicles. The streets are alleyways paved with polished slabs of the local stone. Steep stone staircases are littered with tourists, beetroot from the heat and exertion, leaning against the leprous walls and gasping like goldfish.

The houses, all built of the same stone because that's all there was, are crammed together. From my fourth floor window I look out on a patternless sea of terracotta roof tiles and windows shuttered against the heat and washing strung between tiny balconies, and in and around the roofs fly a thousand wheeling swifts, the signature birds of the area, like slim black fighter planes, defter even than swallows.

The higgledy piggledy buildings and the cramped streets that our modern sensibilities find beguiling are the consequence of a single need - to be within the shelter of the city walls. Centuries old and metres thick the walls remain intact, defending the city from the hills on one side and the sea on the other.

They are a huge attraction. Thousands do the tour of them each day, walking their crenelated, battlemented length in the heat, taking a million photographs of the enclosed city and the wrinkled Adriatic, and stopping every few hundred yards for ice-cream or for beer.

The streets in the old town of Dubrovnik are alleyways paved with polished slabs of the local stone. Getty Images
The streets in the old town of Dubrovnik are alleyways paved with polished slabs of the local stone. Getty Images

The walls speak of a time before international law, a time when the simplest way to wealth was to ravage another city state. War in those days was no glamorous televisual fantasy, no bait to lure the tourists, but rather a constant and actual threat to life.

And in these parts it has never ceased to be so. For this is the Balkans, where ethnic divisions run deep and hatreds with them. It's a short drive from here to Serbia, Montenegro and the still disputed Kosovo, and you could throw a stone from here into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The map is littered with place names recognisable to anyone who paid attention to the news in the 1990s. Here, in Europe, only a quarter of a century ago there were concentration camps, and snipers above townships picking off civilians and heavy artillery shelling ancient towns.

In Soviet times the region was clumped together as Yugoslavia under Tito. But when communism collapsed it splintered along old fault lines. I don't pretend to understand the complexities off it all, but religion played a part, of course.

Yugoslav Army tanks on the move. In 1991 the Serbian remnants of the Yugoslavian army laid siege to Dubrovnik, lobbing shells into the narrow streets that are now thronged with tourists. Getty Images
Yugoslav Army tanks on the move. In 1991 the Serbian remnants of the Yugoslavian army laid siege to Dubrovnik, lobbing shells into the narrow streets that are now thronged with tourists. Getty Images

Serbia down the road is largely Eastern Orthodox Christian, whereas the churches here in what is now Croatia are predominantly Catholic. Meanwhile in Bosnia, sandwiched between them, the majority is Muslim. This region is Belfast and Myanmar rolled into one.

In 1991 the largely Serbian remnants of the Yugoslavian army laid siege to Dubrovnik, lobbing shells into the self-same narrow streets that are now thronged with lardy tourists.

But the city walls remained unbreached, just as they have for centuries, and the besiegers went on their way in the end, and Dubrovnik survived to become part of Croatia as most of its people wished. A Croatia that now plays in the World Cup as an independent nation.

And you can sense the tribal relish in the football, the joy of an ethnic identity recognised. In the waiter's jumping and shouting, his delirium of delight, was all the ancient human pleasure of belonging and of winning. And history suggests there might also be the seed of the next war.