June 30th, 2008


Croatian Romance-6/10

Ellen's father pointed out that I'd skipped Dubrovnik, Croatia. He suggested I'd suppressed it, because of having freaked out walking the walls. The truth is, I wrote the post and simply lost track of which ones I'd posted. So here it is, a little bit of Croatia, late but present and accounted for.


There's something about being aboard a ship that makes me wake up earlier than usual. It could be the anticipation of a new port, a new country, a new adventure. It could be the engines revving to slow the ship down and bring her to the dock. It could be the stewards knocking smartly on adjacent doors to get people up in time for their dawn--excuse me--8 am tours. In any case, we managed to be up by 7:30 and on the shuttle bus from Dubrovnik Luka (Port, I'm guessing) to the old walled city by 10. Which for us, counts as moving pretty fast.

Dubrovnik is a tourist town. It couldn't be anything else. It's a genuine Renaissance walled city, with ramparts and complicated gates a hostile force would have a hard time navigating. Apart from a couple of miniature trucks, the only wheeled vehicles we saw were hand-drawn flat carts like oversized dollys. Consequently, the marble-paved streets are polished to a high and even gloss by the passage of millions and millions of feet. The houses and walls and churches have been recently cleaned and restored after the Bosnian war, most of the population speaks several languages, Euros and dollars are accepted (although they prefer their own krone), and on the whole, it has a distinct flavor of Disneyland Croatia.

That said, it's really beautiful there. We walked along the ramparts, looking out over a sea of terracotta roofs, blinding orange in the bright sunlight in the intervals of climbing up incredibly steep flights of steps with my eyes fixed firmly on the step in front of me. Can I say I found the ramparts somewhat challenging? Ellen went all the way around, but I bailed at the first opportunity, having traversed, naturally enough, the most vertiginous part of the route. Was it worth it? Well, I wouldn't do it again. But I'm glad I did it this time.

While Ellen marched the ramparts, I explored the streets below, discovering 1) a grocery store we could buy wine in; 2) a restaurant we could have lunch in; 3) an interesting store we could buy coral and silver jewelry in.

The restaurant was Bosnian rather than Croatian, since most of the Croatian restaurants offered pizza and spaghetti, which didn't look very appealing. The Bosnian restaurant, called, for some reason best known to itself, the Taj Mahal, gave us cucumber soup made with caraway seeds and dill and feta cheese and veal borek, which are ground meat in puff pastry and grilled mushrooms with kaymak, which is (the waitress informed us) a cultured dairy product. It has a taste somewhere between butter and cheese and is incredibly rich.

And then we wandered around the streets. Even not very tall buildings seem tall when they flank a street that's no more than maybe 5 feet wide. The sky looks small and very far away--further when you're at the foot of one of the many streets that climb the hill behind the town, streets built practically straight up steep and endless flights of steps.

There's no visibility in Dubrovnik, no sense of vista or direction. Things that look like side-streets turn out to be courtyards or dead ends. Some of them are streets, but are filled with sacks of concrete and iron bars or garbage bags. There's a lot of reconstruction going on in Dubrovnik, still, from the war in the early 1990's. Above one ATM machine, the owner of the building had painted the words "Never Forget" (in Croatian). And in the Fransciscan Monastery, where there was a 15th Century Apothecary shop (complete with German herbal and notes for compounding medicaments, written in Italian) and small museum, several chips and holes were carefully framed and labeled: Mortar, 1991, bullet, 1990. Nobody talks about it unless asked (tourists don't like to think about unpleasant subjects while they're on vacation), but war has left its mark in Dubrovnik.

The jewelry store (one of many along one street) was small, dark, deep, draped in ox-blood coral and turquoise jewelry in every style from High Folklorique, fit for a barbarian princess, to lovely simple necklaces and silver and coral earrings made by the proprietor's son. I bought Ellen one of each, and we ended up going back for a pair of earrings for her mother, who looks good in deep red and won't spend money on herself. The jeweler was our informant about the war. He was 10 at the time, but survived the bombing of the elementary schools because he was home sick that day. "I wasn't afraid," he said. "It was like a game. But afterwards, it was terrible. Everyone wants to forget, but we must remember." His father was in the mountains for 3 years, fighting. And now he runs a little jewelry shop in a tourist town.

Before we left, we saw a reproduction wooden galleon, high poop, round belly, the works, sailing across the harbor. Well, motoring, actually--the sails weren't raised. It was a total fabrication, but it was also demonstrably real. And genuinely, if calculatedly, Romantic. A lot like Dubrovnik.