Sunday, November 2, 2014

Picturesque/pulchritudinous/paradisiac dubrovnik

Friday 5–Monday 8 September 2014

Describing dubrovnik

'Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it' – George Bernard Shaw.

Every tourism site, pamphlet and sign you see about Dubrovnik will cite some variation of this quote from old Bernie, and he's not far wrong. As soon as we caught the first tantalising glimpses of beautiful Croatia from the plane, I was seized by an overwhelming enthusiasm to start this new leg of our travels, on our own without guides or fellow travellers. And basically everything we saw over the next couple of days, and consequently everything mentioned in this post, would be beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. You'll be sick of the word beautiful by the end of this post unless I get inventive with some alternative adjectives (and probably stretch the bounds of appropriate usage in doing so), so keep an eye out for some serious synonymy.

Host with the most

We arrived at the airport in the late morning, greeted by a little old man with a sign – our host, Paolo. Hoping to keep the costs down, we’d booked accommodation as cheap and well-rated and close as possible to Dubrovnik’s old town while still outside the walls, which ended up being Paolo and his wife’s bed and breakfast, Stella Apartments, on the sloping hills overlooking the city. 

Our plane.

The effervescence I experienced on the plane still bubbling away, I hopped into the front seat of the car to have a chat with Paolo on the way to the apartments. At first he seemed a little reserved, with his soft-spoken, smiling demeanour, which I put down to the language barrier between us, but I was able to eke the conversation out of him over the course of the half-hour drive until it became free-flowing. As we drove along a winding cliff road overlooking the sea and eventually Dubrovnik itself, he taught us some Croatian words, which he assured us we wouldn't need to use, gave us some travel tips for our time in Dubrovnik, and told us about himself. He'd learned English only in recent years in just three months, he and his wife run the hostel over the high season and retire to their own holiday home for a month every year, and they have a son living in Sweden who they're very proud of.

Before long we’d arrived, hoisted our ridiculous backpacks on, and walked down the stairs to the apartments. Our room had a balcony with views of the sea and glimpses of the old town, which we would take full advantage of over the next few days. When Paolo handed us the bill, we had to do some quick maths in our minds to make sure it was right because it seemed ludicrously cheap, which was great because food and stuff in Dubrovnik isn’t all that cheap – probably about the same or a little more than at home.

Wandering the streets

The first thing we did, of course, was descend the hundred-thousand stairs from the apartment into the city (past a bunch of singing construction workers – check out the video at the end of this post to hear them) to wander around, and it really was stunning. It reminded me a lot of Venice without the canals, which makes sense because they’re actually quite geographically close, and apparently the Venetians tried to invade Dubrovnik hundreds of times over the years, even occupying the city for a century and a half in the Middle Ages. The rest of the time, though, it was a free city able to repel invaders due largely to its impressive defences – the chunky walls that make it so ideal as a setting for Game of Thrones’ King's Landing (our friend Kate actually got to see the comely Lena Headey in action as Cersei while she was there; but unfortunately we missed it).

The descent.

Looking over the city.

The view from just outside the city walls.

Inside the city.

The stairs where Kate saw Cersei. Keep an eye out for them in season five!

A woman doing some gardening.

Stray kitten.

Huge moon.

Also like Venice, Dubrovnik is a massive tourist attraction. Obviously I can’t complain, being a tourist myself, but so many times on this trip I've found myself in some magnificent, ancient destination wishing I could have the chance to see some of these sites as they might have been a few hundred years ago, with just a few other lonely souls ghosting around, not throngs of brightly dressed tourists, each taking the same photos endlessly of the same things, as though a million other people hadn’t taken the exact same picture a million times before them (and I’m really including myself in this!)

Hordes of tourists on Dubrovnik's main street.

Vegan feeds

I’m not sure how long we spent wandering the charming streets, but it was long enough to work up a decent hunger, and I already had my heart set on trying out a certain vegan restaurant I’d read about when I did my customary HappyCow search upon arrival – Nishta. It was a cutely decorated little place serving inventive, cruelty-free cuisine at decent prices. I tried out a sweet potato spaghetti, while Til opted for the old reliable falafel. Mine was delicious, and surprisingly, it was the closest thing to bacon I’ve tasted in three years, despite not containing a shred of pig flesh. I’ve heard that bacony taste is actually mostly smoke – along with a big dose of fat and salt, which of course is going to be appetising no matter how you get it – so vegan dishes often just use smoke essence to emulate that flavour, and I guess that's what was going on here. Delicious!

The wall at Nishta.

Inspecting the defences

After lunch we decided to take our tour of the city to the next level (literally) and do the walk around the city walls, which afforded us dazzling views in all directions. As we entered I heard the guy checking the tickets guffaw about the dude in front of us, who was wearing lenseless glasses. I shared a knowing look with him as we passed and muttered, 'silly', with which he concurred. Unfortunately lenseless glasses guy heard too, so that was awkward.

Refuge and rehydration

As resplendent as it was, the circuit left us a bit weary, dehydrated and overheated due to the gorgeous weather the city was getting. We went back down into the city and bought the first big, cold bottles of water we could find, and somehow managed to discover a little alleyway where you could sit in the shade and nobody was around!

After that we were pretty much beat, and we just retired to the apartments to nap and laze until dinnertime, when we ate on our balcony and watched the sunset.

The next morning we ate a breakfast of fruit on our balcony before heading into town to wander around again – we couldn’t get enough! And we also couldn’t get enough of Nishta, where we ate again. But we weren’t the only ones. The day before I’d overheard an American couple saying they were definitely coming back the next day, and when we saw them there we called out, ‘You did come back!’ and shared a little exchange about how good the food was.

Looking around lokrum

After lunch we decided to take the half-hourly ferry to Lokrum, an idyllic little island just a short ride away from the old city. In such close proximity to such an ancient city, it's unsurprising that the island is shrouded in myths and legends. According to some, Richard the Lionheart found refuge there when he was shipwrecked on the way back from the crusades. It was originally settled by Benedictine monks, who occupied it for over eight centuries until it caught the eye of the Austrian archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Hapsburg. It’s believed the monks put a curse on the island on their last night before they were cast out, and that anyone who spends a night on the island will come to some horrible end. This has held true at least for the duke, who was executed, as well as various others since.

On the ferry.

The ruins of the monastery are enchanting, as is the old manor house and the introduced population of peacocks that roams about freely. The weather was a bit cloudier than the previous day, but still hot and sunny, and nothing was stopping us getting in the water. We headed to what’s referred to as a ‘mini-Red Sea’, because it’s a small inlet in the island with a higher salt content than the already salty Adriatic, so you float with hilarious ease. You don’t even have to tread water to float in a standing position – the air in your lungs is enough!

The swimming hole.

From underwater.

Til enjoying the buoyancy.

After mucking around in the water for a while we headed over to the seashore for a bit of sunbathing and snoozing on the rocks. When we were leaving we ran into some Australian ladies who turned out to be from the Shire! I guess Shirefolk do occasionally venture across the bridge.

Disappointing dining and delaying on the docks

Back on the mainland we were hungry again, and I’d kind of been craving a big marinara pizza (like the ones we’d eaten in Venice) for a while, so we headed to the oldest pizza shop in Dubrovnik and I had a disappointing pizza clagged up with oily cheese (forgot to ask them to leave it off), while Til struggled through a bowl of overcooked spaghetti soaking in what looked to be no more than an upended tin of diced tomatoes. 

After that we were running short on things to do, but we weren’t quite ready for the trek back uphill, so we just lazed around as the sun set on the pretty docks where quite a few Game of Thrones scenes have been shot.

Swimming and sea-kayaking

The next day we walked into town again, heading guiltily to Nishta for the third day in a row (it was just that good!), but were thwarted when we found it was closed on Sundays! We spent the rest of the day swimming and sunbathing just outside the city walls, until the threat of a storm and some pestering raindrops drove us away. 

When it cleared up later in the afternoon we headed over to where we’d seen the sea kayaking tours leaving the day before to do a sunset tour, which was the perfect activity for our last night in the city. We were in a small group of about eight kayaks, each with two people in them, led by a really friendly guide. 

He took us out from the small harbour and around the city, stopping to tell us a bit about its history. Then we continued on to the coast on the other side of the city, where we could see a very well-situated building, the former Hotel Belvedere, pitted and scarred with bullet holes and shell marks. Here he explained the hotel was one of the best in Croatia, but was abandoned during the war and had yet to be reinstated, so you could actually go there and walk around because it was abandoned. He also told us his family’s shocking experiences of the war with the Serbs, and about how the city resisted the siege by sheltering inside the ancient walls, which was pretty cool.

From there we stopped for a snack and a snorkel, then continued on around Lokrum, stopping for stories along the way, and even passing a nudist beach where we were flashed by an old man.

For some reason the whole time we were kayaking Til and I were totally in the lead, right behind the tourguide, miles ahead of everyone else. Maybe it was because I actually love kayaking but never really get the chance to do it, or maybe it was just that Tilly’s strokes were really short and I was trying to do long ones while keeping up with her at the same time, which meant I was going quite fast (and it was also a rare opportunity for exercise while travelling). The guide actually complimented us at one point, asking if we did it often. But then he said Australians were usually better at it than everyone else (haha). And also that some of his colleagues hate having Australians because they can never bum cigarettes off them 'cause they don’t smoke. Either way, once we’d finished the tour we were talking to a Canadian couple, and the guy made a kind of subtle dig at us about it not being a race. But we honestly hadn’t even been really trying!

My only regret was the lack of a camera. When I was packing back in Australia, I remembered at the last moment the small waterproof camera we’d been using since our last DSLR stopped working, and thought that might come in handy as a more durable and portable alternative to our new camera, so I threw it in as well. This meant that I didn’t really think about charging it, and I’d used up all the battery on our previous day’s frolics on Lokrum, so I don’t have any photos from the sublime tour.

Eager to prolong our time in Dubrovnik and to avoid walking back up the stairs once again, we went into the old town for a refreshing mojito, which was served in one bug jug with two enormous straws. Dinner was at a mediocre establishment, but our server was so friendly we were glad we'd patronised her. She was very eager to accommodate our veg(etari)anism, and later even brought us out free dessert wine!

To bosnia and herzegovina

The next morning we got up super-early (again!) to get to the station and catch our bus to Mostar, after which we promised we wouldn't be booking ourselves on any more early-morning buses, no matter how cheap.

Here's the video of some footage we shot during our time in Dubrovnik:

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