While some of my preconceived ideas about this most famous Croatian destination held true, there were others that were blown apart by our brief but illuminating visit. In short, Dubrovnik rocks! We loved it and would return in a heartbeat!
Leaving Korcula involved a short cruise across the strait to the Peljesac Peninsula, which was the dramatic mountainous backdrop for most of my Korcula photos. From there it was a two-hour ride in a mini-bus to Dubrovnik. Here we are, about to say goodbye to our island paradise.
The Peljesac Peninsula is a major wine-growing region of dramatic hills laced with a sprawling web of walled terraces enabling every inch of land to be cultivated. This year's grape-growing season was devastated by the wettest summer anyone can remember and the vines looked bedraggled and sad. The salt harvest suffered too, yes, salt has been a major player in the economy of Dalmatia for over 1300 years, long before tourism took over!
So valuable was the salt harvested from these salt ponds in Ston, that, starting in 1333, the town built a massive defensive wall, the second largest in the world! The Great Wall of Croatia scrambles up the hillside behind the town and stretches across to the eastern side of the peninsula to deter invaders of the Venetian and Ottoman variety from entering the Republic of Dubrovnik. We were sorry our bus only stopped here for about 15 minutes, it would have been fun to walk the wall and pretend we were in China!
And here's Dubrovnik! Oh my, what a sight!
The icing on the cake for us was our accommodation - a FOUR-STAR apartman! What prompted our promotion from zero-star to luxury, you might ask? Well, our anticipated host double-booked his humble apartman, and asked us if we would mind paying 75 kunas a night more and staying in his neighbour's house - how could we refuse? (a kuna is worth 19c Canadian!) We hit the jackpot! This place was by far the most well-appointed, classy, and wonderfully situated pad of our entire trip! Look at the view from our terrace and bedroom window....
And the spacious, super-posh interior, with a dishwasher and washing machine! Three nights definitely wasn't long enough!
That's the old town of Dubrovnik that you can see, and it is the biggest tourist magnet and cruise ship destination between Venice and Athens. We saw pictures of what it's like in high season, and believe me you don't want to be there! At this time of year it's bearable, and if you plan your time well, visiting the major sites in the morning, and hitting the beach in the afternoon, it's quite delightful. Here we are doing what all good visitors do first, walking the walls - all 1.25 miles, or 2km of them.
The walls were my first surprise - they are enormous, in height and breadth, truly MASSIVE.
And walking them is not for the faint-hearted or unfit! There are hundreds of steps, not just to get up on top to get started, but all the way around. Every few minutes you are either climbing up or down, pounding the ancient stones beneath your feet while being broiled by the sun - there is no shade up there! And don't even think about taking a break and coming down for a drink, or a pee, or a rest because even though they have electronic scanners for the tickets so they know exactly when you bought them they won't let you go back up! Croats can be quite annoying!
That brings me to my next surprise - I think all the memorable pictures I'd seen of Dubrovnik were from above, so I knew it was a fortified peninsula, roughly round in shape, and I imagined that it had a hill in the middle with a church on top, like Rovinj and Korcula's old town. Not so Dubrovnik! Instead there's a valley in the middle and it rises up on both sides! And I do mean UP! Here's the main street, the Stradun, which used to be the channel between the rugged island town of Ragusa and the mainland.
It was filled in in the 11th century, and Dubrovnik was born. Heading in either direction from the Stradun you have to climb.........a LOT of stairs! The entire old town is traffic free, even scooters are parked outside and we didn't see a single bicycle, which is a good thing because the "streets" that run perpendicular to the Stradun are actually stairs!
Those that run parallel are a little wider and tend to house the restaurants, like this one, where we had the best vegetarian meal (well actually the ONLY real vegetarian meal!) of the whole trip - Croats are dedicated carnivores and our requests for tofu in supermarkets have been greeted with either confusion or laughter!
And while I'm on streets, the word for street in Croatian is ulica, we had fun trying to pronounce many of them, until we found this one which really made us chuckle!
All over Dubrovnik are sparkling examples of newly rebuilt houses, shops and churches. You can tell which ones survived the war and which have been rebuilt by the colour of the exteriors and the brightness of the roof tiles. Here's a startling graphic showing that two-thirds of the buildings in the old town were shelled, damaged or burned down during the eight-month siege in 1991-92, and a good example of new, on the right, and old on the left.
And here's the Stradun during the siege, borrowed from Google images.
All reconstruction was done using the same materials and architecture as before.......since most of Dubrovnik was destroyed in the earthquake of 1667, it is not a truly medieval city, but one built in the 17th century inside the original, and expanded and raised, medieval walls. Those walls never had to defend the town until the 20th century.
The cable-car that whisks tourists to the top of Mt. Srd for the familiar aerial view was only re-built (after its destruction by the Yugoslav army of Serbs and Montenegrins) in 2010. At the top is the fort which was held by a group of only 20-30 Croats, supplied by "the Dubrovnik Defenders" who regularly scaled this mountain, and many of whom lost their lives.
While pondering the siege of Dubrovnik you might think the Serbs and Montenegrins were the "bad guys" in the Homeland War of the 1990's, until you remember what the Croats did to the Serbs in the area around Plitvice, and to the Bosniaks in Mostar and elsewhere, and let's not forget the Kosovars. There were no clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys" in that conflict, just devastation and heartbreak for everyone.
We took time out from sampling the Jesuit, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the synagogue in the Old Town, and went to see a chilling exhibition of war photography that left me with the same lump in my throat I had after visiting Anne Frank house in Amsterdam a few years ago. For us in Canada the Balkan War is a long-faded memory. Here, for anyone over 30, it is still an uncomfortable subject, and no wonder.
The final surprise in Dubrovnik.......the beaches! Let's just say that we had time to relax and swim at both these lovely beaches, just a short walk from our palatial digs!
Dubrovnik is hectic, gorgeous, exhausting, and an experience you don't want to miss!