Dubrovnik, Croatia sits in an archipelago of pointed rocky islands – some occupied by a few solitary homes, and others empty of human habitation – dotted with stubby evergreens and semi-tropical vegetation. It is ruggedly exotic, resembling Thailand without the jungle lushness or nasty pirates.
This was yet another vertical world like the Amalfi Coast of Italy where houses stair-stepped along the sides of sheer rock walls above a rocky, beach less, wave-crashed shore. The houses were uniformly the same: buff stone or brick with large green or white shuttered windows, and crowned with the standard orange-tiled roofs that apparently are required if you live anywhere along the Mediterranean. I don’t know how or why, but it was an endless string of orange tile roofs from France all the way to Croatia. Maybe it’s an EU requirement.
A winding, narrow coastal road snaked precariously along the edge of the cliffs above the blue green sea while the busy A1 motorway ran mid-mountain. Both roads converged at the shiny white Franjo Tuđman "string" suspension bridge that towered over the cruise ship terminal like something out of a futuristic movie.
The occasional palm tree and ornamental cactus could be seen in the front yards of the larger homes adjacent to the dock and the place had the feel of a wealthy vacation paradise somewhere in the tropics.
Croatia sits at the crossroads of the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Its history is fraught with violent upheaval involving the usual suspects: the Greeks, Romans, Turks, assorted barbarian hordes, Austrians, French, Hungarians, Venetians, Germans, and Russians. And when they weren’t battling invaders, they were usually killing each other. Yugoslavia was “liberated” by the Soviets in 1945, and quickly adopted one party Communist rule under the cruel Yugoslavian tyrant Tito, who was, coincidentally, a Croat. Tito ran the show with an iron fist from World War II to 1980, and when Tito was finally overthrown, the nation splintered into warring factions – Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, and Kosovars. Ironically, murderous despots are often the only thing holding ethnically volatile nations together. Libya, Syria, and Iraq are prime examples of this troublesome truth.
In the early 1990s, NATO forces prodded by President Bill Clinton and the U.S., helped bring peace to the region, and where once there was one country, there now are five. Croatia is a member of the European Union, though like Britain, they have retained their own currency, and are thriving under their evolving hybrid democracy. The state, through the national parliament, still concentrates power firmly with the central government, but people are pretty much free to do as they please and the folks we met seemed like happy campers.
Dubrovnik, a city of 50,000 people, is spread out along the meandering Dalmatian coast line on the Adriatic Sea, squeezed tightly between the water and the towering mountains just to the north like a Croat sandwich. It is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The climate is pretty sweet, with average temps usually in the 70’s and it rarely gets below freezing. A fifty degree day is considered cold. But it does rain a lot, including the day we were there.
In Dubrovnik, as throughout most of Europe, the cars were still small because of the high cost of gas, but a little bigger than back in Italy where Smart cars dominated the streets. And while scooters were still quite popular, they were much less prevalent than in the cities of Italy where scooters always outnumbered cars. Given the rugged terrain, bikes were few and far between, but we did see lots of people walking up and down the steep hills.
Dubrovnik is really a tale of two cities. There’s the new Dubrovnik which looks like any other modern European city, and then there’s the old city. When people talk about Dubrovnik, they mean the latter.
It turned out that the Serenade of the Seas was actually docked about fifteen minutes from the old city. Two of our dinner mates on the ship had previously visited Dubrovnik and informed us that we could easily spend a day exploring the old town. So we decided that on this, our last stop on the Mediterranean cruise, we were not going to do another tour and we would buy a shuttle bus ticket for 10€ from the ship to old town and just wing it.
Our bus ride from the dock took us up rocky hills and through the Montovjerna section of town, comprised of glass office buildings and shops selling familiar items like cell phones and Coke. It was all fairly cosmopolitan, mostly steel and glass, like a thriving Third World country trying it’s best to look hip and groovy.
The street names were insanely long tongue twisters, like Obalapapeivanapavla II, and with all sorts of goofy pronunciation symbols over many of the letters. The language sounds like someone gargling with marbles and would give the Icelanders, who are world renowned for having the nuttiest language, a run for their money – the Croats just use a few more vowels.
Our bus crested a big hill and then wound down a narrow cobbled street filled with tour buses and we went from the year 2013 to 670 AD in about a quarter mile. We came to an open bus transfer station surrounded by attractive hotels and trendy tourist shops and exited with a thousand other tourists from all over the globe. A huge fort overlooking the sea stood to our left and blocked our view of anything beyond.
We walked into a bright and shiny tourist office filled with maps and souvenirs and asked a smiling young woman who spoke fluent English if we needed a ticket to get into the giant fortress looming right outside the door.
“That’s not a fort,” she replied with a perky smile. “That’s the old city.”
We had no idea.
Dubrovnik – the one that everybody raves about – is a 7th Century Medieval fortress city inside gargantuan towering walls that look like the Great Wall of China. During the Yugoslavian Civil War, in 1991, the city was besieged by the Serbs and Montenegrin forces, causing significant damage, but even modern weaponry couldn’t force its surrender.
It was almost impossible to comprehend the fact that a little over twenty years ago, the Serbian war criminal General Slobodan Milošević had lobbed artillery shells into the heart of the city, killing 114 people, including the city’s beloved poet Milan Milisić. All traces of the war were now gone, other than a photo on the front of Milisić’s small home, showing the shelling damage.
Dubrovnik has endured many tribulations, including a fire in 1296 that burned the whole city to the ground, and an earthquake in 1667 that knocked most of the Renaissance buildings down. Between natural disasters and generals like Napoleon, lobbing cannon balls into the city, the people of Dubrovnik have had to pick up the pieces and rebuild more times than they would like to remember.
On each of the corners of the city there are tower forts within the main fort: St. John’s Fort, Fort Bokar, and Fort Mincceta. And forts Revelin and Lovrijenac tower over the outside of the southeastern and northwestern walls, providing enfilading cover. Dubrovnik was definitely built for the long haul and meant business when it came to defense.
Old Dubrovnik was like nothing we had seen before. In America, we have forts, and we have cities, but not the two combined. And Dubrovnik is big, really big – about the size of downtown Annapolis – with over 25,000 inhabitants. The walls were about 16-feet-thick and ran for over a mile around the entire city. And everything was jammed tightly together with very little green space or unused land. It was slightly claustrophobic and disorienting.
Thank goodness, the maps were in English, otherwise we would have been left to decipher: Isocniulaznagradskezidine (City Wall entrance). You can walk – no cars allowed or ID required – into the crowded city for free via the main gate. Musicians panhandled for the steady stream of visiting tourons. One very animated guy in particular was doing an excellent imitation of Jimi Hendrix on a bright red Stratocaster while a young lady in dreads sang Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” A Capella.
Once through the entrance gate, we found ourselves on the main drag, a wide promenade of polished limestone that looked like the floor of a grand cathedral. To our left stood St. Savior Church, a Renaissance masterpiece of tan stone, and to our right Chinese tourists posed for pictures around the ornate Big Onofrio’s Fountain. Being late morning prime time, the crowds were almost overwhelming, like leaving a NFL football game, and we immediately decided to get away from the central part of town.
A grid of narrow alleys rose steeply to our left and right, climbing up to the fortress walls via lovely limestone block steps with etched grooves designed for traction. When it started raining the steps became as slippery as an ice rink.
We passed small churches nestled between tidy homes and BandB’s – St. Claire’s Convent, Domino Church, and St. Catherine’s Convent – looking more like residences than places of worship. They each had stood the test of war and time with an almost glowing grace.
Everything within the walls was entrancing, like walking through a Disney set – only real – but it looked pretty much the same. It had the feel of an ancient rat maze in a place where time stood still. Every building was made with the same 1' by 1', white limestone blocks with plants and flowers hanging from the walls and louvered shutters hinged in the middle to let in the steady sea breeze. It was sort of like a steeper version of Pompeii before the volcano blew its top, but with trendy, modern shops selling the latest must-have and over-priced tourist trinkets.
After a while, we put away the map and just wandered aimlessly. And while not the most efficient way to cover the town, constantly opening and closing maps, especially in the rain, can quickly become tedious. In a walled city, it’s pretty hard to get lost.
For 13€ you can walk atop the exterior walls that encircle the ancient city with expansive views of the Adriatic. Tourists strolled the wall above us as if on patrol, while wild cats lounged from their rocky perches in bored contentment like kings and queens. We planned to do the wall walk, but ended up taking all day exploring the labyrinth of alleys. From down below, inside the walls, it felt like we were walking inside one ginormous building without a roof. It was very weird. Most of the time when it was raining, we never even felt it.
There is a very strong Greek influence in the native dress and customs. But no matter how you slice it, Christianity rules the roost, with magnificent churches around every blind turn and bells chiming like music in the air. They all look similar from the outside – nothing outstanding, but really quite nice. But on the inside, each was a complete work of art unto itself, with incredibly ornate chapels along the walls and crucifixion alters that were beyond stunning. And they just kept coming, one right after the other until our eye balls popped out and our brains turned to jelly.
Many different architectural styles can be found throughout the ancient city: the Renaissance-era Sponza Palace, and Franciscan Monastery; and the Gothic Rector’s Palace took our breath away. But Dubrovnik’s Baroque St. Blaise’s Cathedral was probably the most breathtaking structure in town – and easily the most crowded. St. Blaise is to Dubrovnik what St. Mark is to Venice, and his statues can be found all over town.
The larger historic structures, like St. Ignatius Church, the Natural History Museum, and the Cathedral-Treasury, were framed with plazas filled with outdoor cafes, artist stalls, and farmers markets. But we didn’t see a big tree anywhere during our walk. Other than ornamental flowers and shrubs, everything was man made.
That’s not to say that the citizens of Dubrovnik are not interested in the natural world. There is a very nice aquarium on the western edge of the city next to the Old Port. Every home was decorated with flower pots. And they like to feed the pigeons who pretty much have the run of the place – along with the wild cats.
As we were walking along the southern perimeter wall, facing the sea, we found by pure accident, a hole in the wall bar hanging off the outside of the wall. We had been walking the base of the stone rampart, checking out the amazing views, when we came to a keyhole-shaped opening leading to what we figured was an overlook or observation deck. People were coming in and out of the hole very slowly, so we stood there patiently waiting for our turn. When we scrunched through the portal there were slick stone steps winding down to a patio bar perched above the Adriatic where the waves hit the rock walls like thunder in towering white explosions of sea foam. The whole place literally shook every time a line of breakers hit the shore. Some enterprising young Croats had established their bare bones, bird nest bar by simply putting out some plastic chairs, a couple of tables with umbrellas, and they served beer and wine from several large refrigerators. Their bathroom was a port-a-potty lashed with cables to the side of the rock wall. The atmosphere and views were out of this world. And the beer was quite tasty. A pint of the local beer, Ozujsko, founded in 1892, cost about $9.
The Croatian currency is called the Kunar and the exchange rate was 5 to 1 US. We had been warned repeatedly to convert our EU money into Kunar. We ignored the warning and you should do the same because every place we went took EU cash without hesitation. And everyone accepted credit cards.
Dealing with the trash and septic in the old city rivals Venice in disposal complexity because there are no vehicles and everything must be delivered via handcarts. It would not be an easy place to live. Add to this the incredible throngs of nosey tourons constantly checking out every nook and cranny of the place, and you have a fish bowl kind of existence.
But the people of Dubrovnik live off the tourist trade. Other than the houses, everything else was about snagging the tourist dollar. There were a zillion outdoor cafes with people of all nations eating pizzas with knives and forks.
And if there is one basic truth, it’s that everyone the world over, no matter ones age, loves to eat ice cream when on vacation. In Dubrovnik, it was like compulsory consumption with everyone merrily licking away.
There were Internet cafes wherever food was served – much more so than in Italy which seemed a bit technologically backward realtive to its neighbors. Many of these Wi-Fi cafes were staffed by skulking young Russian men who acted like they were selling drugs or something illicit.
Many of the smaller shops consisted of nothing more than an arched alcove painted white and illuminated with bare bones electricity. But no matter where you shop in Dubrovnik, EVERYTHING is even more expensive than in Italy and of noticeably cheaper quality.
After stumbling and climbing alley way steps for hours on end, we returned full circle to our original starting point on the Placa Stradum (Main Street) at the Bistro Dubrava for some beer, people watching, rain dodging, and to check our e-mail for the first time in many days, using their free Wi-Fi. The busy square surrounding Orlando’s Column, was a beehive of activity as workers assembled chairs in front of a handsome church for some upcoming cultural event while the locals chatted amiably about the news of the day, their grocery bags in hand and often with a dog in tow. It was a scene of ageless beauty, like watching an old movie about happy villagers sailing through life with a peaceful grace.
Dubrovnik was our last stop on the cruise. The next two days would be spent re-crossing the Mediterranean back to lovely Barcelona. And as we sat there drinking our beers, the rain-washed cobbled streets shining like glass, it seemed a fitting end. Like so many other American travelers who have been lucky enough to visit Dubrovnik, Inna and I both agreed that it would be nice to come back one day to this storybook town by the Adriatic Sea.
The famous writer George Bernard Shaw visited Dubrovnik in 1929. When he returned home and was asked by a friend what it was like, he said, “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”