The Walls of Dubrovnik

The arch-organiser, Sarah, surpassed herself in booking us a cosy studio apartment within the walls of Dubrovnik. I was particularly impressed by this coup as we joined the crush at the spot-lit splendour of the main gate.

Perhaps the overnight visitors were outnumbered by the surfeit of cruise passengers who paced the old city-state like troops of geriatric legionaries. During our first breakfast, tour parties of limping ancients observed me with glassy-eyes in the narrow confines of the city alleyways as I vainly dabbed the egg yolk from my mouth between bites, their shirt-tails close enough to mop up the leftovers.

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The mighty walls gave Dubrovnik protection from both real and fictional invaders – neither broached by the Turks or Yugoslavian army, nor the enemies of King’s Landing – depending on what happens in the next series of Game of Thrones. The night before we had sampled fine wines served by one of the nation’s three smiling people, before watching Anthony Joshua defend his heavyweight title on the steep steps of bar while sipping Rakia. It was meant to be an Irish bar, but wasn’t really.

After circumventing the walls of the tightly packed city the next day, we delved into its medieval main streets and warrens of alleyways. For us, a photography museum was the pick of the tourist spots, while the Franciscan monastery and Rector’s Palace were worth the stroll. The photography museum soberly chronicled the War of Independence leading to the blood-letting that broke Yugoslavia up into half a dozen nations. Croatia got the beautiful coastline, but otherwise there was little to smile about. Another small museum had photos showing Dubrovnik under siege. The damage, which to some extent can still be seen around the city walls was not as powerful as the image of its splendid atmospheric streets being eerily deserted. Afterwards, we swam in the turquoise waters beneath the city walls where the ships had burned less than three decades earlier. Summer was making a brave last stand against the growing rains and storms of autumn.  

Our room was positioned high on the slope of the city facing down to the sea. Our landlord was a gentle affable 30-something who ran the business for his unseen ageing parents upstairs. It was a convenient location for eating at Madame Pi-Pi – a humorously named restaurant that needs no translation. It was his one recommendation, and not it transpired just because they were neighbours. Elsewhere, cartels of tourist restaurants charged the same prices for much the same food. The market for repeat custom was limited as most eaters will have set sail before their meals are digested.

Madam Pi-Pi’s mascot was a stone statue squatting outside who gushed water from her lady fountain with lewd abandon. After queuing an hour for a table, we were seated underneath the vines and feasted on a large platter of barbecued meats. Towards the end, we earwigged the progress of a date between a young American woman and a male companion of vaguer international status. While the tone was friendly rather than intimate, it spiralled when he suggested that Donald Trump was a breath of fresh air to the world stage. Two hours of tightly bounded conversation were wasted in a moment of careless honesty. We tried to catch her eye to empathise, but she was already heading for the exit.   

  

The Road to Split

The bus followed the coastal road for 150km. The villages of the mainland looked neglected but still largely inhabited. The nearby islands perhaps represented a more idyllic setting for tourists and those seeking greater separation from the state. This left hundreds of deserted coves for locals to appreciate the low-rent paradise on their doorstep. Here the incoming dollars missed the mark along with the national business of renting out apartments to foreigners. Briefly, we passed through a slither of seaside Bosnia and Herzegovina. The brutalist Soviet-era hotels that remained perhaps channelled a large proportion of natives seeking summer sun now that Croatia owned what they had once shared.  

Split resembled a Cote d’Azur town fallen out of fashion. The tourists flocked to the sturdy open museum of Diocletian’s Palace in a pleasant fusion of old and new. The Roman ruins represented another previous owner of a nation that took a long time to establish its independence on the Dalmatian coast. Sarah posed with two Roman legionaries – one of whom expected to go further as an IT consultant. We climbed a precipitous tower in which she gamely impersonated a gargoyle, while other good snapshots were neglected due to my acrophobia being brought on by the yawning open spaces between us and the hard cobblestones below.

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We hiked past the gin palaces of the harbour towards the cape for sunset from where we could look down on the mountain-framed city. The boats shrunk in size and luxury the further we went, but their vast numbers and a glance at a map clarified how living just off the coast was more natural than living inland out of its sight.

At some stage, we agreed that it was unnatural for us to spend every minute together, and Sarah visited the market while I clambered onto some rocks several miles from the centre to sketch the boats. Secluded behind a wall, I was surprised by a middle-aged man with a snorkel and a bucket who set off past me to check his fishing nets or lobster pots. I looked at him for a full minute to catch his eye, but he was more interested in crustaceans, and waded off to do his thing.

In the evening, we found an after-dinner bar that we recognised as our local in a parallel universe. Strangers were laughing and chatting each other up. It was packed and lively and our second smiling Croatian served us up a selection of Rakia for what she guessed suited our respective tastes. Such suggestions were usually made on gender lines. Several times, Sarah’s greater knowledge of wine led to her being elected as chief taster. The break from the traditional stereotype was greeted inscrutably.

On our second night, I made a connection with a waiter after pointing out that Unchained Melody had just played for the seventh consecutive time. After changing the CD, he returned and stated bluntly: ‘I like you!’ without breaking his stony, matter-of-fact persona. He returned with two glasses and poured us a complimentary drink. Tipping is not expected in Croatia unless something extraordinary happens. We tipped both the smiling waitress and our waiter for the evening, but didn’t get to see their response.     

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Island Life

‘No Mosquitos! No Criminals!’

Such were the selling points of Viz according to our landlady Mala along with the home-made wine she was fermenting downstairs. She was keen to share a glass whenever our paths crossed – a habit first introduced with the bottle of schnapps she presented to us along with the key to our compact and bijou studio. Sarah was more attuned to random drinking from her time in the French countryside and generally stepped up when it might appear rude not to. Mala had first propositioned us on the quayside of the little harbour of Viz Town. She tidied our apartment when we were out by climbing through a portal from the house next door that exited next to our toilet. The unusual lyrics of the song ‘She came in through the bathroom window’ would sound quite sensible to her.

While our incongruously large ferry was docking, we knew we had found our Adriatic island paradise beyond the coastal nation’s major towns. Eating well, and bathing and reading on a quiet stone beach would satisfy our sparse demands for our precious few days before the return home.

Our possession of this space was enhanced by the lack of tourists in the dwindling days of the on-season, but also due to its long seclusion from the rump of Yugoslavia when largely used as a military base. The most outlying of the islands, Viz was still relatively deserted compared to most closer to the mainland, though a rather harmless looking yacht moored up on the periphery of the harbour threatened to change all this. I thought Mama Mia 2 was an odd choice of name for a boat until we were told the latest film in the Abba sing-along franchise was recently shot here. Much as the original film caused its Greek island setting to be swamped with tourists, the serenity of Viz may soon end in the wake of those seeking to make a reality of the make-believe.

Of less interest to modern-day tourists is the island’s historical role in various major wars. During the Napoleonic wars, the British navy waged a successful battle against the French within sight of the island. We visited the old British fort on a summit close to the harbour, which now caters for weddings and parties. From here too, a famous naval battle lasting several days between the Austrian and Italian navies could be observed at a safe distance . The latter eventually triumphed in a foggy confusion. Its iron-clad vessels – symbols of a new era of warship – outmatched the ship-of-the-lines of its adversaries. The local citizens were not entirely neutral – these two countries were fighting over the territory of a nation yet to emerge in the pecking order of European powers.

In World War II, Viz was the only Yugoslavian island not to be taken by the Nazis, and was the base for the later leader of the nation – Marshall Tito. We later elected not to take a hike to his empty cave on a cycle ride to the other side of the island – deciding its 500 steps were an unnecessary addition to our undulating 60km journey. In this we were supported by the young woman at the hire shop who clearly saw it as a pointless footslog. Her colleague begged to differ. ‘It is a historical monument!’ Although the puppet government of Croatia supported the Nazis, Tito’s guerrillas did a better job at fighting them than Serbia, which had officially sided with the allies. Churchill and Tito, the aristocrat politician and the communist dictator, forged an unlikely friendship that lasted beyond the war. Tito’s distance from the communism of Stalin perhaps made Yugoslavia an acceptable chink in what Churchill first described as the countries of the Iron Curtain.

On a long afternoon walk, I stumbled across a British naval cemetery on the outermost flank of the harbour. The dates on the lonely tombstones were grouped in two eras – the early 1800s and the mid 1900s. While there, I sketched a deserted bay from the rocks – the only signs of habitation being the deserted stone buildings that lined the quiet coastal pathway. Its pleasant isolation was protected by a steep boulder-strewn slope, down which I later fell backwards onto my head. My middle-aged body held up fine bar a few bruises.

We also took the ‘top secret’ military tour – the closest thing to a tourist activity on the island. We visited the fort, some Roman ruins, an old network of bunkers, and a concealed submarine base – the unpolluted blue waters of the latter was now a swimming pool for squadrons of sprats. Its image now serves as a screen saver on Sarah’s computer.

Our unusually affable guide, Nicolau, detailed the island’s history and its many conquerors over the last two millennia. He was most sombre when discussing the recent civil war during which he was a student in Split. He joked darkly about the importance of choosing digs not facing the mortars of the besieging Serbs. His friends still ribbed him for not actively participating in the bloody conflict. Nicolau said that while history is usually written by the victors, in this war ‘there were no winners.’ It didn’t seem like an event in which many made a positive contribution.    

A Time for Feasts

We continued to wine and dine well – it seems almost impossible to do otherwise in Croatia.

Sarah was inevitably drawn to the produce of the local vineyards but was unable to persuade me to officially tour about the fruit on the vine. Nonetheless, the cheap and cheerful tactic of simply ordering the house wine needed no revising. One night, we booked dinner in a restaurant far enough up in the hills for the owners to employ a driver to deliver its customers. Our large, bearded and genial host resembled a caveman dilettante and was meticulous in explaining a 6-hour cooking process that used clay pots over hot coals.

The dozen or so diners were spread about the terrace outside, but the tranquil mood was upset somewhat when a young American turned up without a confirmed reservation. Only a few days earlier, our own late cancellation by phone was almost refused minutes before our clay pots were lowered onto the embers. We empathised with this reverse horror and were tempted to offer him some of the greasy hunks of succulent lamb and potatoes we were unable to finish. Others did the same, but he politely refused and made do with an ad hoc plate of vegetables. I considered asking the management to place a sheet over his head to assuage our guilt over our own public gluttony. 

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On another night, we ordered a seafood platter that included 300 grams of langoustines and half a kilo of calamari. It later infiltrated my dreams. Employed at some freelance editing job I didn’t understand – a common theme based loosely on past experiences – I was also trying to create a fish stew despite my fear that the ingredients had been festering malevolently in the fridge for three weeks. Thankfully, this dark twist on my daily life did not spill back to pollute my real-life stomach. While I tossed and turned over this testing hybrid of editorial and culinary issues, a massive thunderstorm raged outside. Sarah, like the madwoman in the attic, presided over it from the window of our temporary home.

Our last day involved an untypical and sustained blast of exercise. We wanted to visit Koniza – the other town on the far side of the island – a rival that our guidebook claimed had a more bohemian slant. I’m not sure if they had to ship them in or whether this rather underpopulated corner produced a surfeit of such folk. To arrive, we propelled our hire bikes some 14km over first steep coastal hills to a less undulating plateau that climbed slowly up for too long before cruising sharply down into the idyllic harbour town at its foot.

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The seafront was packed with restaurants and ice-cream parlours and a more semi-permanent breed of tourist. I perceived an understated smugness in our fellow travellers. Perhaps they were sworn to silence to better preserve this quiet Adriatic jewel. Its close atmospheric lanes felt like ideal places to disappear to for criminals, novelists and romantics seeking to shut out the external world. One bar was slowly working its way through the entire works of Pink Floyd. On several levels, on can only hope that Mama Mia 3 does not make it past the pitch stage. The waiter who brought us octopus salad and fish stew was radiant with joy and good humour. He was the third, and last, smiling Croat. Relatively speaking, his demeanour might one day land him in a lunatic asylum.

But for us, lunch was the prelude to the mammoth effort of climbing the mountain that enclosed it. For our return, we took the direct route. It took us 90 minutes to ascend 4km from sea-level to an altitude of 500m. At times, I dismounted in despair at our too slow progress towards its summit, while Sarah gamely inched ahead on two slow wheels. After reaching it, we took 20 minutes to cover the remaining six kilometres’ home.   

 

Last Boat Home

Our pleasant idleness on Viz was doomed by the unwelcome call of flights and jobs. It was exacerbated by our growing concern for how to facilitate our return. It didn’t help that the seasonal ferry timetable changed when we were due to leave.

The off-season schedule had not yet been announced. Its last-minute appearance could be summarised by saying that almost all last week’s ferries no longer existed. This induced something of last-minute panic beyond even Sarah’s administrative superpowers.

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Eventually, we booked an early morning speedboat for £120. It took us from Viz to Hvar. From here, we bought two of the last few tickets on a crammed catamaran that brought us to Dubrovnik via Korcula.

The ports of both towns were busier and clearly more suited to the island party scene that Croatian often now hosts, but lacked the quiet intimacy of Viz. A palpable tremor of panic could be felt on this last boat out of places usually existing at a slower more relaxed pace. A somewhat gentler version of the Retreat from Kabul or last chopper out of Saigon. Awkward phone calls to work would be the consequence rather than death and humiliation.

We chatted with a lean thoughtful American who was traversing the country energetically with his relatives. We discussed politics in a vague code that alluded to Brexit and Donald Trump without saying the cursed words out loud. Back home, he had taken his sons to a cabin in the woods for weeks at a time to save them from the growing poison swirling around his society. We gave him some tips for Dubrovnik and he accepted them with grave gratitude. The conversation had a sense of kindred spirits meeting in a world where suspicion permeates its old safe spaces.   

Back in Dubrovnik, room shortages in the old city gave us a chance to explore the town outside. From the new harbour, we walked to a nearby peninsula where we found a rocky cove around some pleasure boats to spend our last day. The resort-like atmosphere diluted the local culture to the more anodyne tastes of a younger set than those patrolling the old city. Later, we dined like royalty in a restaurant on the harbour. I countered Sarah’s seabream with a tender beefsteak served with a creamy truffle sauce. Before the brandy and schnapps, I asked for what I wanted rather than what I saw on the menu. They duly brought me crepes with chocolate and whipped cream.

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Another storm raged that night, a broader hint of winter’s impending arrival. Sarah once again took her place at the window, while I again slept incongruously through it.  I dreamed of her ex-boyfriend driving me very fast through the ancient concrete palaces of Scotland. He seemed to have a point to make.

The last of the landladies was intense and sincere in a very Croatian manner. She took great care in choosing the right words to wish us a good journey home as if thoughtless wrong ones might invite disaster. I imagine hyperbole and bullshit are not terms much employed in this country. We last saw her sitting in the street alongside a statue of Pope John Paul II. She was smoking a cigarette with furious intensity. We stood within her field of vision for 30 seconds, while waving, before we broke her reverie. The thoughts we interrupted were clearly not idle ones.

Afterwards, we passed an old wiry gent by the side of the road with the full flowing beard of an old seadog. He was crossing and re-crossing a slip road while muttering to himself, occasionally attracting friendly hoots from passing cars. Six hours later, he was still passing back and forth across his little domain with the same worried expression. We offered him indulgent smiles, but his eyes passed right through us. He looked fully immersed in the dark Croatian collective unconscious. It was a place to which we casual visitors to its emerald shores had no access.    

The Island Odyssey

I took the 1730 ferry from Rafina. Only one terminal at the end of little quay – not the confusing port I expected. It was a full-size boat – not the smaller nippier craft I had envisaged. Finding the bus-stop was trickier and involved asking lots of questions. Luckily, I did this before visiting the archaeological museum as most of these out of town buses are spread about vague areas of the city without useful signage to make the process predictable.