Dubrovnik – Beguiled and Besieged

Larry, still traumatized from our last ferry ordeal, is relieved to hear it is just a 20 minute, open air, car ferry ride from the island of Korčula over to the Pelješac Peninsula, a long, slender mountainous finger of land stretching 90km to the mainland.  We navigate the narrow, winding roads up the sheer cliffs from the ferry dock, over several rocky mountain passes, plummeting, each time, into the huge valleys between.  The entire island is strewn with vineyards, low-lying and scrubby, compared to the meticulously staked rows strung across the hills of California.

We have almost adapted to the habit of local drivers taking their half of the road out of the middle.  We only let out a small gasp now, when a Fiat or Renault roars up within inches of our bumper, lurches out to pass, swerves in front of us, just narrowly missing the oncoming traffic.  Now, we anticipate the car straddling the middle line, on all the most arduous of blind curves.  But our hearts still leap into our throats when it’s an enormous tour bus, swinging wide on a cliff edge with no guard rail.

Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination.  After days lolling about on a quiet, rustic island, it is quite a shock to see hordes of tourists being hauled about in massive tour coaches, strings of giant cruise ships lined up in the harbor, so huge they tower above the city skyline, and dozens of tenders ferrying passengers to and fro.

Hotel Zagreb is located on a shady pedestrian walkway leading down to Lapad beach.  It is a quiet respite in a busy, tacky, touristy town.  We have a balcony room overlooking the front gardens, patio and walkway.  A string quartet plays soothing classical music in the evenings.  There is air conditioning and free high speed wi-fi.  Score!  It’s a 15-minute bus ride to the main gate of the old city.  We eat a delicious meal in the hotel restaurant – pork medallions for Larry and tuna steak for me – to the sounds of serenading strings, and go to bed early, weary from our grueling drive.

We rise at the crack of dawn in an effort to get a head start on the cruise ship crowds.  In the soft morning light, the city is a jewel, its marble streets shining underfoot.  We tackle the city walls first.  For 70 kuna each, we climb up onto the ramparts encircling the city, and walk all the way around, snapping photos at every new angle and perspective.  For all its touristy trade, it is still a working city, with apartments tucked into steep alleyways, laundry hanging on lines stretched between buildings, and residents going about their day, doing their best to ignore gawking tourists peering into their windows and doors.

The city sits on a protected bay, up against a sweep of hillsides, and every viewpoint is marvelous.  By the time we circumnavigate the city from our lofty perch, we see the cruise ship tenders zipping back and forth, disgorging passengers with every trip.  The main street, Placa-Stradun, is now clogged with people and tour groups.  With a sigh, we leave the relative safety of the tower walls, and forge into the crowds.  After shouldering our way to the central plaza, we venture off the major routes.  We are pleased to discover that beyond the main thoroughfare, the crowds thin dramatically, and we can wander around the labyrinth of streets without too much impendence.  It is Sunday, and several of the churches are holding services.  We duck in to listen for a few minutes, pleased to see these ancient churches still playing an active role in the community.  I am surprised to enter one church and hear the familiar liturgies, spoken in English, of the Anglican prayer book from my childhood.  I can still recite the words verbatim.  I blatantly ignore the “no photo” signs and stealthily snap a few shots without flash.  The digital camera picks up details in the dim light better than the human eye and the results are spectacular.  We wander up and down the narrow ulice for several hours, skirting around the clots of humanity, marveling at the architecture and the long, colorful history it represents.

We locate a restaurant, tucked away in a side street, and enjoy a lunch of local regional fare – pastry stuffed with veal, mushrooms and cheeses – before catching a bus back to the hotel for a an afternoon siesta.  Dubrovnik is a beguiling city, even besieged with tourists, and is the perfect capstone to our tour of this startling, captivating, dramatically beautiful country.