Friday, 31 July. The granite mountains towered over Dubrovnik as the ferry entered the bay. I tried to pick out the hotel where I stayed when the USS Springfield called in 1972, the first American warship to visit Yugoslavia in many years. New highways snaked through the hills, and new suburbs spread north and south of the city, making it hard to figure out where things used to be.
I instantly recognized the old town. It looked much the same, because it had been badly destroyed and then rebuilt to the old plans while I was away. For the story of the siege and bombardment of Dubrovnik during the Balkan Wars in 1991-1992, you can check out Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubrovnik#History). The history of the Republic of Ragusa reads like a swashbuckling novel, even in Wikipedia’s steady prose.
Today the most visible clue of the destruction probably consists of rooftops. Unlike any other city, the clay tile roofs of Dubrovnik glow in the sun with a single hue. They are all about the same age, i.e., less than 13 years old.
From the map, I gathered that we had a short hop from the ferry port to the old city, where we would find our apartment. Instead, we found ourselves climbing above and behind the city. We finally figured out where we were (but not where we missed which sign), then dropped down the hill, entering the city from the south gate, away from the ferry port. At the south gate, we stopped at a news kiosk and bought SIM cards for our phones. The Deutsch Telecom subsidiary in Croatia offers an inexpensive tourist plan, good for two weeks. We could easily stay online and in touch.
The “roads” and “streets” inside old Dubrovnik are pedestrian alleys, so it took a while to find our apartment. It was worth the effort. The family insisted that we have dinner with them after we settled in. Grandpa was a fantastic cook.
We spent three days walking around Dubrovnik. It has a great deal for tourists: an economical ticket to walk the walls around the city and a half-dozen museums. We shopped at the local market, gawked back at the gawking tourists, went to a concert in the old town hall, and ate wonderful dinners when we were not cooking ourselves.
The second night, I mentioned to Grandpa that we were going to cook mussels. He insisted that we use his kitchen downstairs. I thought that his generosity seemed a bit odd, until Cheryl noticed that the cooktop in our flat was not vented at all. Most tourists don’t really cook in vacation rentals, so our landlords probably did not expect us to do so, either. When I brought the mussels down, he pronounced them good, and admitted his surprise that we had found them at a supermarket. He proceeded to show us how to wash and cook them – with no water. The heat made them open up, and there was more than enough seawater in them to create a tasty broth, with no salt added. Now I know why sometimes, dishes with mussels taste too salty.
We had arrived at the peak of tourist season, but even so, I could not help thinking that it seemed unnaturally packed. Dubrovnik made me think of Disneyland, so full of tourists as to seem unreal. I mentioned this to our hosts, and they confirmed that the city was hosting record numbers of vacationers. Normally, there would be a balanced mix of nationalities in the crowd, but this year, there were more Italians than usual, as if the whole country across the Adriatic had decided to spend Ferragosto in Croatia.
To my eye, we were seeing the news playing out in its effects. The terrorist attacks in Tunisia and the threat of a collapse in Greece this summer had forced travel agencies all over Europe to cancel plans for those two countries. Greece and Tunisia were very popular destinations for budget-conscious Italians, and the family summer holiday was not to be cancelled for anything. They packed up their cars and drove or boarded the ferry to Croatia.
On my birthday, we pushed our bicycles down the many steps to the main square and rode to the bus terminal, just past the ferry port. By now, we had taken the bus to the supermarket, and figured out how to get back and forth. We rode to the bus terminal at the north end of town, and negotiated with the driver to carry our bicycles to Split. It was a close call: the driver has absolute discretion to take the bicycles or not, and he will not if the cargo bay has too much luggage. It looked crowded, but, in spite of a lot of blustering, he did put the bikes in the cargo bay, and we climbed aboard.
The double border crossing through the piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina that touches the coast seemed a little weird. Only the Croatian police at either border boarded the bus to check passports; the Bosnians waved us through. All the way to Split, the mountains plummeting to the sea kept me staring out the window. With so little development and few roads, the coastal range of Dalmatia overpowered me with its beauty and naked power. It seems a hard land, destined to remain relatively unspoiled for a while.
Split is a modern, commercial city – except for Diocletian’s Palace, which is as big as the historic center of most European towns. Our B&B was only a few blocks from the main attraction of the city, so, after some wandering around to find the place, we settled in, then walked to the Palace. Diocletian’s Palace is not so much a palace as a classic Roman garrison town with some added luxuries. It is so big that the ground floor (basement to the palace) is a vibrant warren of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
Before I left Charlottesville, the owners of one of our favorite restaurants, FIG, suggested that I visit their hometown, the island of Šolta. Cheryl had ridden her bicycle on the main islands of Croatia before, but had not been to Šolta. The next day, we found a ferry to take us to the starting point of a most interesting adventure, an island-hopping campaign from Split back to Dubrovnik and beyond.
I hope that you are enjoying our trip so far. Please feel free to comment – especially if you have lessons learned or pointers about travel in the Balkans.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,