The Pearl of the Adriatic

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Friday, September 15, 2006

He Said:

Our host had a scar on her left shoulder. Fifteen years ago she was pregnant with her first child, and on the way out of the house, she was shot in the arm by a Serbian soldier perched up on the hill. The city was bombarded for month after month and eventually lost its water supply and contact with the rest of Croatia. Their 9/11 lasted for nearly a year.

I'm not going to chose between the Serbs and Croats, because it's well documented that both sides committed horrible atrocities (In fact, one of the main reasons Croatia hasn't been admitted into the EU is that they are reluctant to turn over their war criminals), but when the Serbs launched strikes on the morning of October 1, 1991, they were essentially trying to demoralize a nation by damaging its poster city, the Pearl of the Adriatic, and its most prized possession - Dubrovnik. It's hard to imagine that a place would be attacked based on its tourist value, and we heard the story first hand as we sat on the back porch drinking beers with our new Croatian mom, the rest of her family, and the neighbors.

It had been a long afternoon of climbing and then descending stairs in search of accommodations with a couple from Brazil we met on the ferry. They had been together for 15 years before finally getting married, and they, too, were on their honeymoon. Rosa spoke virtually no English, and Mike was an expat from St. Louis that hadn't been back to the States since a class reunion nearly ten years ago. They were nice people and decided they were feeling adventurous enough to get off the boat with us in Dubrovnik in search of a traditional Croatian "sobe." Sobe are essentially rooms that people rent out of their private homes.

Mike was adamant about not being the "typical American tourist" that tends to be loud and a bit na´ve, so during our search, I thought it odd when he yelled back to a local woman who had just given us directions. "Thank you!" he said, "Or whatever it is you say in your language." A Croatian man walking in the other direction heard him and said, "It's 'hvala'," followed by something I presumed to be "you jackass." We walked straight uphill for about 20 minutes, and Mike and Rosa had had enough. I sort of felt bad that we had led them halfway into the mountains, especially since the handle of Mike's suitcase snapped somewhere around stair number 137, but they knew what they were getting into. He eventually called a cab to take them to the room they had pre-booked. He was an expatriated, self-proclaimed, non-traditional American that only goes back to America for high school reunions, one of the most culturally traditional institutions America has. Sounds like an identity crisis to me.

After leaving Mike and Rosa, Alli and I vowed never to shoulder the responsibility for someone else's room ever again, and we headed back down the hill in search of a place to sleep. On the way, we wound up meeting a woman who showed us an extra room she had in her house. It was in a pink building overlooking the old town, and was by far one of the largest buildings on the side of the hill. We took an upstairs room with low, slanted ceilings. Her mother-in-law lived downstairs. And she had another apartment for rent on the bottom floor.

We sat in her kitchen drinking homemade sherry and eventually wound up on the porch drinking beers with her husband. I offered to help the grandmother in the garden, but I think something got lost in translation. We learned that The Crocodile Guy had died from a stingray, not from putting his head in a gator's mouth. We talked about Tito and the days of communism, and this time, received a much different response. Ron, a fellow blogger and traveler we met this summer who had also visited the Balkans, said that from his experiences, former Yugoslavians who were fairly well off tended to look back on the Tito-era with more disdain. Since our hosts in Dubrovnik had one of the largest homes on the hill, this seemed to make since. But what I also began to notice that week was the devout Catholics in Croatia, a country in which there are many, were also not fond of the communist days because of its lack of freedom in terms of worshipping.

It turned out that our hosts were the kindest people we met in our stay in Croatia, a nation that really seems to have a tough, outer shell. Maybe it's the fact that war is so recent here, and they find other things to be more important than explaining to a pushy English woman that there is no ferry tomorrow because there simply isn't one scheduled to leave, not because they are trying to ruin her vacation. Alli and I certainly gave them the benefit of the doubt, but I'd be lying if I said the majority of my experiences led me to say the Croatian people are "friendly." Even those more open to conversation seemed a bit hardened and standoffish.

We said goodnight to our hosts, and Alli and I went upstairs to shower. Being that our living quarters were in the attic and that the slanted roof was only a few feet off the ground in some places, I had to either be a contortionist or take a seat in the shower to clean myself. Alli went second, and when she expressed concern over the transparency of a skylight that I actually thought was a window, it dawned on me how short she really is. We went into the old town for pizza.

In 2005, Lonely Planet named Croatia as the world's top tourist destination. That, along with all the first-hand accounts, really made Dubrovnik one of the most anticipated stops on our journey. To say it didn't disappoint is an understatement. At night, the entire city shines. Everything is glossy - the marble stones, the music, the clinking glasses, the smells of espresso in tiny, medieval squares. We tried to walk as many of Dubrovnik's narrow lanes as we could.

On our last full day in town, we headed to the pebbly beach for what I called our official last day of summer. We've basically been skipping along the Mediterranean for the last three months, and after our week in the Dalmatian Coast, we're heading north to the heart of Eastern Europe. But on our last beach day, the weather was sky blue, and we enjoyed the harbor-views of Dubrovnik before heading to the aquarium followed by our last, major site of the city - its walls.

The walk took the better part of two hours, and as we traversed the square mile atop the town's protective walls, we saw vistas of the Adriatic, flower-covered courtyards from above, and we saw what they call the "fifth fašade" of Dubrovnik - its famous red rooftops. I took more than 200 photographs, but the camera's battery light started flashing just before we reached the highest and most rewarding section of the wall. Usually that means one, maybe two more pictures, but that battery was full of Hanukkah oil or something. It lasted the remainder of the walk and died just as we sat down for a great dinner of seafood risotto on the harbor.

For the first time the entire trip, I think we both felt like we were rushing through a country. Because we chose to spend an extra night in Dubrovnik, we didn't get the chance to see Korcula, which many say is their favorite place. We only had a week, though, and as we drank our coffee while staring at the bouncing boats, we finished up, not just dinner, but a week-long Croatian Vacation. Since that is all most people have for a holiday, we realized how lucky we were to have so many sites and sounds yet to experience.

She Said:

As we boarded the Marko Polo ferry, for the second time, we knew exactly where to go for electricity and comfortable benches. But, there was a man seated in our spot claiming both tables for him and his wife. After feelings of guilt crept in (I swear, I only stared at him for a few seconds), he gave one table up and invited us to share the bench. Mike and Rosa were also on their honeymoon. He was an ex-pat from the Midwest, she was Brazilian (Roger, sound familiar?). He said he didn't like formal guidebooks and that they tried to stay out of bigger cities (they were also on their way to Dubrovnik). However, for the next few hours, he was over-inquisitive about where we had been, and then proceeded to copy tons of information from our friend Rick.

Mike and Rosa had a place "reserved" in Dubrovnik, and when he told us the price, we gasped. It was more than we paid in Venice! He decided after some conversation with his wife, that they wanted to follow us off the boat and find a sobe; this sense of spontaneity really seemed to get him excited. We agreed, although, I felt an immediate sense of responsibility that I didn't want. It's hard enough finding a place of our own sometimes, but when you have to worry if it's acceptable to others, it becomes more stressful. Long story short, they followed us up to a place we didn't choose because of its poor location and distance from the old town (like 1,000 stairs away), and they hopped the first cab to their hotel. I was relieved, and ten minutes later, we found our Dubrovnik mom.

She told the truth when she claimed to have it all; she was five minutes walking distance to the old town, yet, high enough on the mountain to offer excellent views with peace and quiet at night. Although Chad really wanted to stay in the middle of the "action" in the old city, I was really pushing to stay there as it was clean, comfortable, and she was as nice and motherly as our Florentine grandma. And I was sick of walking! The only catch, low ceilings and tons of windows/skylights (lots of light in the morning and danger for Chad). And yes, they were skylights...After sharing some sherry, a beer, and intriguing conversation with the family on their porch, we headed down the old city for dinner.

Our first impression of Dubrovnik's old town was at night. We had no idea that this would be a city like Venice, enchanting and intimate at night, a tourist nightmare during the day. So, as we entered the gates in the midst of a changing of the guard, I immediately realized what all the hype was about. Unfortunately, we never actually figured out what local Croatian cuisine was. Many menus had an Italian influence with pizza and pasta choices- great. Some had seafood, which I thought would be the big seller since we were on the coast. However, much like Greece, it didn't seem to be a feature with only a few select choices on each menu we looked at (i.e. whole fish with heads, requiring de-boning and removal of the skeleton- no thanks!). We settled on a well-written up pizza place (shocker), and ended up meeting a New York couple who didn't live far from our old apartment. We all remarked that we couldn't believe we were eating pizza in Dubrovnik, and enjoyed some familiar conversation for the rest of our meal.

We began a full scale exploration day with, you guessed it, a guided walking tour of the city. Although I tease about these tours, they are really the best way to see a new city without missing the details that would most likely be overlooked by aimless wandering. Don't get me wrong, we do plenty of wandering un-guided, but the introductory tours give us a chance to get our bearings and get to know the city a bit more. Anyway, our initial tour took us to many churches and cathedrals, as the Croatians are very religious people. In one of the monasteries, there was an impressive medieval pharmacy behind the cloisters, which has miraculously survived earthquakes and the war (we took some pics for you gramps!). We walked through what is left of the Jewish quarter, only about 45 Jews still live in Dubrovnik and the quarter is basically one street. We went into the synagogue, the second oldest synagogue in Europe, and Chad became a Bar Mitzvah! Just kidding, but we did learn that the only rabbi this small Jewish community visits a mere five times a year from Zagreb.

The next few stops were chilling and graphic reminders of what happened here 15 years ago. We saw a memorial for the "Dubrovnik Defenders", the more than 200 citizens who bravely picked up a weapon and tried to defend their city. These were not men in uniform, but common citizens who felt they needed to do something. The next exhibit we saw was put together by a photographer during the war. There was live footage playing on a TV, showing the widespread devastation the city suffered after being attacked. Many sites, I realized, were restored and were amongst those we had seen just hours before. Photos hung on the walls showing these major sites, before and after restoration. It was quite amazing and a sobering look at what war does on a local level. I think that when we hear of war in another country, we usually hear of casualties and bombings of major establishments. We don't usually hear of the homes lost, the streets torn to shreds, and worst of all, the UNESCO sites destroyed. Those are things you cannot replace.

All that touring required some down-time contemplation, followed by a siesta of course. On our way back out to the old town, we spoke to our host's daughter about her current schooling. It seems she is currently taking four different languages in school (English is a requirement) and has decided that she wants to be a lawyer. We laughed with our Croatian mom about how many times we all changed majors throughout our schooling (Chad obviously won with seven years of changed majors), and we both felt like we were at home as we sat around the table and talked casually with the family. They wished us a good night, and we headed out for the night.

After a delicious dinner of calamari and mussels, we had a drink at an overpriced bar, presumably because it had Hemmingway's name on the door. We quickly switched venues and decided to check out the local jazz bar. There was a trio of men playing cover songs, some in English, and some in Croatian. There was a pianist, a bassist, and a saxophone player. They were fun-loving older gentleman who really enjoyed getting the crowd involved. Glenn, you would have loved their version of Satchmo's "It's a Wonderful World."

Believe it or not, that was all one day. We had plans to head to Korcula for the last night, but began to feel as if we were cutting Dubrovnik short. Frankly, switching towns and finding accommodations again just wasn't at all appealing, so we decided on one more day.

We woke up late and went to the highly recommended FRESH for lunch. This place was opened to offer mainly backpackers a break from restaurant prices, with tasty wraps and smoothies. After our fill, we went for what I knew would be our last "beach day" on this trip. For some reason, I had it in my head that Dubrovnik beaches were one of its main attractions. I was wrong. After extensive walking, we found some concrete slabs with sun bathers, followed by a less-than-clean rocky beach. Disappointed, but determined to enjoy it, I forced Chad to sit on the rocks for an ample amount of time, then I jumped into the Adriatic Sea for a final swim. We then went to the aquarium to see some of the local fish and finished the day with a "city walls" walk.

This is an extensive walk around the perimeter of the old town. Not only did we see Dubrovnik from every angle possible, but enjoyed the views from many different levels of elevation. Chad drained the life out of our camera battery, and we were eventually chased out by employees trying to lock the doors for the night. We had some seafood risotto and local wine for our final Croatian meal and headed home to prepare for what was to be two full travel days to Frankfurt.

Our visit of the Dalmatian Coast felt like the first place we really had to rush through. In retrospect, I would have liked to skip Split, spent one more day in Hvar, and definitely visit Korcula and Mostar (a town in Bosnia very close to Dubrovnik). Although, I realize we are lucky to have seen any of it, this is the first place I wish we would have done a bit differently. Unfortunately, this also happened to be the most unfriendly place we've been to so far. No matter how hard we tried, and we really made many attempts including speaking the language to the best of our ability, we were never fully welcomed by anyone other than our host. I also never really figured out what the local cuisine was, as servers seemed rushed and standoffish. As a result, we ended up eating foods from neighboring countries much of the time. But, forgetting all of that, I cannot deny Dubrovnik's beauty and charm. It is definitely a place to see and enjoy, especially at night when the tour buses clear out.

They Said:

Many of these are delinquent, some haven't happened yet, forgive us for grouping the rest of September together so we don't miss anyone...

1 - Happy Birthday Carolina G.- we know Gregg will make your day special!
2 - Happy Birthday Shifra- hope you have a great day!
3 - Happy Birthday Mom- We hope you have a wonderful day, can't wait to talk to you! We love you!
4 - Happy Birthday Andre, see you soon?
5 - Happy Birthday Kristin- we miss you and hope this special birthday finds you smiling! We love you!
6 - Happy Birthday Uncle Al- keep writing us, we love your responses!
7 - Happy Birthday Brad- good job on Telluride, hope my mom makes your day just as fun!
8 - Happy Birthday Ava Jurick! We love seeing the pictures your mommy sends; you are getting so big and incredibly beautiful! We love you!
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bhreich on

ah yes -
the intimidating 'Ali stare'
what wonders does it not work! :)
I hope you planning on publishing all of this...these blogs are great!

joey8055 on

Stare down 101
I can't beleive the guy didnt give you his wallet and jump overboard!

lambs on

Dubrovnik flashback
Glad you enjoyed Dubrovnik as much as we did (or perhaps more because of the relative lack of tourists, judging by your photos). The city walls at sunset devoured our camera batteries, too. And it sounds like you found a wonderful sobe. Hvala for the memories.

Korcula...well, next time.

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