The Grand Eastern European Adventure: Dubrovnik, Croatia, Part 1

5 June – 7 June, 2015

Croatia may be a small country, but it is long, boasting over 1,000 miles of coastline.  For me to get from Hvar Island to Dubrovnik meant a full day of travel, as I had to not only make it back to the mainland, but halfway across the country. I got up early, checked out of the Hvar Out Hostel, and took a bus to the busy port on the other side of the island.  I caught a giant Jadrolinja car ferry back to Split, which was fun in its own way and had good people-watching.

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View of Split from the car ferry
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People watching inside the car ferry

From Split I took the most scenic bus trip of my life south to Dubrovnik.  The bus snaked along the winding hills of the coast, with the breathtaking Adriatic sea below.  I barely read or wrote; music, daydreaming, and staring at the magic outside the window were all I needed.  My favorite part was when the bus stopped for a break in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mostly land-locked country, but there is one small section where it gets a tiny bit of the Adriatic coastline, and breaks up the country of Croatia.  The bus took a break at this random little supermarket and souvenir shop.  The shop was packed with Asian tourists, and even had signs in Japanese.  I stocked up on cheap snacks, juice, and shampoo and soap to replace the ones I’d lost in Split.

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Croatian coast as seen from the bus
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Spoils from the Bosnian market
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Bosnia as dusk approaches

Around 5, we arrived at the main Dubrovnik station.  From there I had to take 2 other city buses to find my hostel, a Hosteling International Hostel high on a hill up a long flight of stairs.  I have a lot of beef with HI Hostels, and was disappointed that I was staying in one, but the price was right and the location was good so I stuck it out the 3 nights that I was in Dubrovnik.  It was clean, quiet, and institutional, in a large, old Communist building.  I felt so isolated there, like I was in my own Grand Budapest Hotel, but the rundown Cold War incarnation.

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My own Grand Budapest Hotel

After checking in to my empty 6 person dorm, I hopped on a bus to the old city to get some food and have a look around. Dubrovnik’s main attraction is its walled, medieval Old City that has gained fame in recent years as a filming location for the show Game of Thrones.  Strolling it’s smooth, tiled floors and wandering it’s jumbled alleys is a magical experience, especially at night.  I was starving, and miraculously discovered Spaghetteria Toni, a recommended restaurant from my Rick Steve’s guidebook.  I had the most amazing tagliatelle with shrimps and roasted tomatoes, and the kind, attentive waiter gave me a complimentary glass of cherry rakia as a digestif. I strolled a bit more, ducked into a souvenir shop for postcards and a Dubrovnik shot glass, and took the bus back to my hostel.  Dubrovnik has seriously inefficient buses.  Everyone must board at the front, and it’s a touristy town so getting on the bus at the Pile Gate, the main gate to the Old City, can make for an overly full and crowded bus.  Because most tourists pay the driver and/or don’t know how to validate their tickets, so loading a crowded bus takes a ridiculous amount of time.  Most of the time, I feel that European cities have public transportation down; not so in Dubrovnik.

Once back at the hostel, I discovered that I had acquired a roommate: a middle-aged Croatian woman.  This woman was traveling with her husband, but because HI hostels are gender-segregated, her poor husband was in another dorm on the other side of the building!  Ridiculous.  I understand that for young girls traveling, safety is important, and gender-segregated dorms can be helpful for this, but I prefer mixed dorms.  I always end up meeting interesting travelers of either sex, and I like it that way.  On Friday morning I got up bright and early to take advantage of the included breakfast – which sucked.  At least the coffee was Turkish coffee, so wired I went off in search of internet, another thing lacking at my HI hostel.

After a quick jaunt at an internet cafe, I had a day of solo sight-seeing in the old city of Dubrovnik.  I walked along the Stradun, the main, smooth-tiled thoroughfare of the city and took in the medieval statues and fountains.  My favorite was the clock tower.  It’s main face has 8 hands, representing an octopus and the city’s connection to the sea, and below this lies an orb that accurately depicts the phases of the moon.  The clock still needs to be wound every two days, and there is a little window that can be opened to give the clock-winder light to see by.

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Clock tower in Dubrovnik
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Tourist posing with a Medieval statue
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Tanned Croatian man drinking from a fountain

The first sight I went into was the synagogue and museum.  It’s only two rooms, but quaint, and the second oldest synagogue still functioning in Europe (the oldest is in Prague). It has a tiny, one-roomed Beit T’filliah (the main place of prayer) with a screened-off section upstairs for the women and feels quite Moorish in its design, as most of Dubrovnik’s early Jews had been kicked out of Spain during the Inquisition.  While I was there I got kind of emotional.  I’d seen many houses of worship thus far on my trip, but this was the first of my people, and that was powerful.  The museum was also small, but had some beautiful torahs and decorational objects as well as some fascinating artifacts from the Nazi era, like decrees restricting Jewish liberties.

My next visit was to War Photo Limited, a powerful photography exhibit.  When I was there, they were doing a special exhibition on the war in Syria, as well as their permanent collection on the Yugoslav wars.  Man, that was heavy stuff for 10 am, but I’m glad I went.  Surrounded by so much beauty and folks on holiday, it’s easy to forget the more serious recent history of the region.

I grew hungry from my morning of attractions, and grabbed a sandwich and some snacks from a market and ate on a bench watching the boats in the pretty harbor of the old city. After lunch, I saw my final museum of the day, and probably the weirdest one of my trip – the Ethnographical Museum.  It was housed in the old granary of Dubrovnik, and they had covered over holes in the floor with glass, so you could peer down into the cavernous depths where for years grain was stored to feed all of Dubrovnik.  The entire main floor was an exhibit on Croatian pagan folklore and rituals, which was fascinating, but strangely executed.  Since there are no real artifacts to exhibit about pagan mythology, it had these elaborate, wordy stories printed on large, pixellated images of trees, and creepy papier-mache models of witches and fairies.  Bizarre.  Upstairs were displays on Croatian folk traditions, which were interesting but I’d already seen many similar exhibits on the subject in Bulgaria.

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Lunchtime view

Around 1 I was museumed out and melting in the heat.  There was only one thing to do: go to the beach!  I followed Rick Steves’ directions from my guidebook to St. Jakob’s beach, a peaceful, hidden cove down a flight of steep steps behind a church that would have been impossible to find had I not been looking for it.  There’s a reason why Rick Steves’ guidebooks are my favorites, and in Dubrovnik all of his suggestions were spot-on.  The beach was hot and pebbly, the water cool, clear, and inviting.  I spent a relaxing few hours there before heading back to the hostel to freshen up.

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The beach beckons. . .
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St. Jakob’s beach, view from the hidden staircase

Back at the hostel, I had a new roommate, an adorable Japanese girl named Saki.  She became my date for the evening, and we went back to the old city and took the ariel tram to the top of Mt. Srđ for the view over the city. It’s a pretty high mountain, and from the top you can perfectly see the old town nestled within its formidable walls, as well as the sea, nearby islands, and hillsides.  The ariel tram was expensive, but completely worth it for that view.

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View of the old city of Dubrovnik from the top of Mt. Srđ
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Me and Dubrovnik!

On our way back into town, we ended up on a side street and found the nicest jewelery shop run by a mother and her daughter who hand make all of the pieces they sell.  I bought a necklace and earrings that boast the famous lattice-work metal balls and red coral of Croatia.  We continued down, and happened upon a gorgeous plaza with a fountain, where we found Konoba Kamenice, another restaurant recommended by my guidebook.  We split the octopus salad, a Croatian delicacy, and mussels risotto with beer for her and a dry white wine for me.  It was easily one of the best, and most memorable, meals of my trip.

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The street with the jewelry shop
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Croatian beer and wine
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Saki, my adorable Japanese friend

After dinner, we tipsily strolled along the Strandun in the waning light, and Saki mentioned that she would like to see the sunset.  I led her along the port and outside the city walls, to some large rocks where other people were camped out.  It was a perfect place to watch the sun sink lower, see flocks of swallows darting on the wind, and watch the water gradually turn to molten metal with the fading light.  We stayed there for nearly an hour, then, sleepy and content, made our way back to the hostel and our waiting bunks. Clearly, my time in Dubrovnik was full and glorious, and far too much for a single post.  More to come next time!

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Sunset on the rocks

Good Luck and Happy Travels,

Mo

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