Thinking back on my travels, it’s hard to think of a more exotic place that actually lived up to its mystic than Dubrovnik, Croatia. Nestled on the Dalmatian coast, this fortress of a town, built to withstand attacks from sea embodies everything that travel is all about.
I stepped off the plane from London and grabbed a taxi to town. It’s only about a half hour drive but along the way you begin to get a feel for the coastline to the west that you are here to enjoy. To the east are the rugged Bosnian mountains, the border just miles away, from where upon the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 the Bosnian Serbs laid siege to this UNESCO heritage site.
Dubrovnik, fortified to the seas as a center of maritime trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, was no match for modern warfare from land as the Bosnian Serbs just lobbed shells into the town from the nearby hills.
The Croatian Army was able to halt the siege in May of 1992 and reconstruction of the damaged town was undertaken between 1996 and 1999. So it wasn’t that far off when I visited in 2006 that this had occurred, and I would find that the people in Dubrovnik were keen to share stories, them talking about the siege, me sharing my experience being a New Yorker during 9/11.
But I didn’t expect to have those conversations when I pulled through the walls of the city, staring out the window of the taxi ancient-feeling architecture, a testament to when strength was brute, the thicker the walls, the stronger they were.
Pulling into the town, you could immediately see the reconstruction as the old, dilapidated yet still functioning red tiled roofs were pockmarked with new tiles, bright orange in their newness and factory made in their uniformity.
I hadn’t arranged any place to stay. You can do this when you’re traveling alone in the off season. My research had told me that an effective pre-AirBnB system for staying in peoples homes had long been established in the area. I found the central tourist booth in center of town and sat down to see how it all worked.
The woman behind the desk took my information and opened up a large binder on her desk, leafing through the pages which had been manually filled out with information on rooms and rates. Picking up the phone, she spoke quickly in Croatian, a language I couldn’t even pretend to be understanding and hung up the phone.
‘This woman has a room with a bed available. You can go see if you like. If you do not come back here. If you stay it will be 100 euros per night, about 15 dollars. She asks that you be quiet if entering at night.’
She then outlined on a map how to find the address in the labyrinth streets of the old town. The home was just outside the main walls of the city, but directly on the water. It looked promising, but I was still a bit nervous to see how this all went.
I found 20 strada and knocked on the door. It was answered by what I can only say was a person who perfectly embodied the energy of this old town – four and a half feet tall, at least 80 years old, a kind smile in weathered face that had seen wars old and new, the rise and fall of communism and was still here to watch it all. She didn’t speak a word of english, but welcomed me in and showed me to the available room.
The home itself was a museum to a design I hadn’t experience before simple yet ornate in a way – oil paintings and portraits on the walls over the well worn furniture. My room was in the back of the house, which meant towards the water, and when she opened the wooden shutters to show men the view, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere or haggling over the price. I never would have wanted to explain to this woman that her home wasn’t good enough for me.
I nodded and accepted, smiling and giving a thumbs up, all sorts of ridiculous western things that we do while Eastern Europeans stare and go on about their business. I heard her make a phone call, presumably back to the tourism office to let her know it all worked out, and gave her the money for a few nights lodging plus breakfast.
Settling into my room, I took my time soaking in the view despite really wanting to get out into the town. I unloaded most of the things from my backpack and just kept a swimsuit and towel, some water, and a notebook and camera – everything i would need to get around for the afternoon.
I fully intended to spend most of the afternoon at the beach and save some of the more purposeful wandering for later. However, since I was staying on the north side of the old town and the Plaza Banje (Public Beach) was to the south, just getting there would take me straight through town and give me a good idea of what to expect around here for the next few days.
Despite the tourist crowds and cruiseship energy, Dubrovnik doesn’t disappoint.
It is a spectacular walk back in time as soon as you enter the old town’s imposing walls. The stone walkways, polished smooth from the ages of shuffling feet and showing pockmarks from shrapnel of the recent shelling. Despite the attack, standing strong and solid as the walls and homes within it.
Crossed the Vrata od Pila and took the main Stradun through town – a wide, well polished walk lined with cafes and dripping with history. I resisted my mild temptation to get myself lost in the sidewalks and alleyways twisting around every corner, but I knew I had all night for that while my time soaking up sun at the beach was a bit more limited.
After being in London for the last few months, despite some trips to the ocean in different places, I missed getting in the water, so this was my main goal.