There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Dubrovnik (1), Around the City Walls: Part 4 of The Balkans


South of Mostar the land becomes flatter and the Neretva gives up any pretence of being a mountain stream. Our route followed the river, leaving it only to visit the bus station at Čaplijna, a town apparently constructed from a cheap kit in the 1960s. Cleaning up the graffiti which covered every surface would have improved it, but it would still be dire. The villages became less war damaged as we headed towards Croatia and mosques gave way to catholic churches

Castle and Cross, South of Mostar

At the border, a young guard walked along the bus checking passports and sent us on our way. Nearing the coast we re-crossed the border, another guard checking us out of Croatia, while Bosnian officialdom remained deeply uninterested. Croatia is shaped like an underfed, asymmetric pigeon. The tip of its southern wing was detached in 1699 when the Treaty of Karlowitz handed otherwise landlocked Bosnia a 25 km strip of Adriatic coast around the town of Neum.

As Bosnia’s only outlet to the sea Neum might be expected to be a naval or commercial port, but not so; it is a second rate seaside resort on a coast packed with first rate resorts. There are plans for commercial developments – and there have been since 1699.

We halted at a hotel on the by-pass. The driver ate an early lunch, the woman in the seat in front of us drank a huge slivovitz and we had a coffee before queuing up with our fellow passengers to spend the last of our Bosnian marks.

The 65 km long Pelješac Peninsula runs parallel to the coast and belongs to Croatia. A little beyond Neum a large coat of arms with Croatia's distinctive red and white chequer-board is prominently displayed on the hillside just in case anybody forgets. The bay between mainland and peninsula is crowded with oyster and mussel beds.

We entered the Croatian exclave without further formalities. A pretty drive along the Dalmatian coast brought us to Dubrovnik bus station beside the deep water harbour, where two enormous cruise ships were tied up.

Shellfish beds in an inlet
Bistrina Bridge, Croatia

It was raining, so after visiting an ATM to stock up on Croatian kuna we made our way to the taxi rank. As in Sarajevo it was a fixed fare, but at least here there was an official sign saying so. Part of modern Dubrovnik clusters round the harbour while more sits on the wooded slopes of the Lapad peninsula where most of the hotels, including ours, are situated. The Old Town, the honey pot that attracts so many bees, squats on a small headland south of Lapad.

As we checked in the rain changed tentatively into sunshine, so we ventured out to a nearby restaurant, the Magellan, for a late lunch. The menu made it clear we had arrived somewhere new. Instead of grilled meats, burek and ćevapi we were offered pizzas, pastas and risottos.  Most of this coast – though not actually Dubrovnik – was part of the Republic of Venice from the middle ages to the 18th century, so it is unsurprising that Dalmatian and Italian cuisine have many similarities. Had we been in Croatia’s Balkan ‘wing’ rather than its Mediterranean ‘wing’ we would still have been among the grilled meats and stuffed peppers.

On the way down to the Old City

After lunch we walked down to the old town. Old Dubrovnik is a perfectly preserved (or perfectly restored) 17th century city, its massive wall still completely intact. Yugoslavia became an increasingly popular holiday destination in the 1970s and 80s and Dubrovnik was its main attraction. War brought tourism to a shuddering halt but it has since regained and is now surpassing its previous level, which may explain why I could not find a gap in the crowd when trying to photograph Lynne at the Pile gate.

Lynne outside the Pile Gate

The gate has an inner courtyard where a large map charts the impact point of every shell that landed on the old city during the seven month siege in 1991. It also points out, in very large letters, that it was the Serbs and Montenegrins who were to blame. Three buildings were completely destroyed, many sustained severe damage to their roofs and many more suffered more superficial damage. Dubrovnik had not at first been defended as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosević had given an undertaking to respect its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About a hundred civilians were killed and a couple of hundred soldiers on both sides died before international pressure led to the lifting of the siege. Here, as with Mostar bridge, the loss of human life seems to concern us less than the loss of old buildings - ‘us’ being those members of the human race not directly involved in the conflict – and I find that puzzling.

Placa (or Stradun)
The main street of the Old City, Dubrovnik

Inside it was a little quieter and after admiring the Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438, we walked down the main drag, called either Placa or Stradun, pausing at the church of St Blaise.....

The Church of St Blaise

 .....the patron saint of Dubrovnik.........

Inside the Church of St Blaise

......and then out to the old harbour (not to be confused with the deep water harbour by the bus station).

The harbour, old City

It was a Saturday afternoon and as we walked back, a wedding party processed up the main street, the man nearest the camera is waiving the flag of St Blaise, without which not much happens in Dubrovnik.

Wedding party

Despite the blue sky in the picture we were rained on as we walked the mostly uphill mile back to our hotel.


In the morning the sky was blue and the air was warm, but the forecast sellotaped to the hotel reception desk promised rain for the afternoon. Back down in the old town we bought our tickets and climbed the steps up to the city wall. It is 2½ km all the way round, but there was plenty to see and no need to rush so it took us over 2 hours.

On the steps up to the city wall

I always like looking down on terra cotta tiled roofs. Normally there is a mix of colours, from the bright red of the newest tiles to the mellower colours that come with age and weathering. Here the vast majority of roofs sported shiny red tiles, a legacy of Serb shelling.

Following the walls anticlockwise, as directed, we walked first along the seaward side, pausing to photograph the city streets.....

Placa from the city wall

the roofs......

The roofs of Dubrovnik


Lynne on the wall

.....and views of the coast.

The coast outside the walls

As we approached the harbour end we could see another cruise ship anchored beside an offshore island and a flotilla of small boast bringing the ‘cruisers’ ashore.

Cruise ship anchored off Dubrovnik

The wall is lower around the harbour then rises on the landward side.

The wall rounds the harbour

We had already climbed up and down many steps so when we reached the watchtower Lynne chose not to climb to the top. I left her in the shady entrance, climbed the stairs and took this photograph.

Across Dubrovnik from the watch tower

Lynne walked out along the wall so I could photograph her but I did not see her, indeed I did not look for her as I knew she was in the entrance and out of sight. I received an earful for that when I came down, I should apparently have known what she was going to do. I was almost certainly in the wrong and clearly demonstrated my lack of emotional intelligence by not looking for somebody I did not believe I could see.

Our lengthy circumambulation had largely been conducted in direct sunshine and although it was only eleven o’clock an administration of cold beer was deemed necessary. We found what we required in a shady terrace just outside the Pile Gate. We might have been embarrassed to be drinking beer when two other tables were occupied by people eating breakfast, but concluded they were at fault for getting up too late.

Back inside the gate we intended to visit the Franciscan monastery. They had, according to the guide book, a magnificent cloister, Europe’s third oldest working pharmacy and a small museum of liturgical objects. There was a nominal fee for the (probably resistible) museum, but the rest was free. We soon discovered we had to pay 40 kuna (£5) each to see anything. As we had just spent 70 kuna each to walk round the walls we came over all mean and left. We had, after all, come to see Dubrovnik, not buy it.

Perhaps we were suffering from the ‘just arrived from Bosnia’ effect. Croatians, on average, have less than half the wealth of west Europeans, but the Dubrovnik exclave looks unusually prosperous and prices reflect that. Croatians, however, are three times wealthier than their Bosnian cousins and we found ourselves looking at Croatian prices through Bosnian eyes.

We did visit the Franciscan Church - that was free. Outside it was just another wall along the side of the main street, inside it was seriously ornate with statues of the Virgin Mary and paintings of saints in elaborate marble frames. We watched a Japanese couple staring at it all, clearly bemused.

Inside the Franciscan church

Walking slowly down through the town we found ourselves back at the harbour where a long queue of cruise passengers was waiting for the boats back to their floating hotel. Their visit had been meaninglessly brief.

It was time to go in search of lunch, though given the quantity of restaurants in Dubrovnik ‘search’ is the wrong word. Several clustered around the harbour and more lined the square just the other side of the clock tower, but as we wanted to pay for the food not the view, we ventured into the backstreets. Some are so narrow it would be difficult for two laden donkeys to pass each other, though that precise problem went away some time ago. Any that are a little wider are lined with the chairs and tables of small restaurants.

We only wanted a light lunch, not the full works, and soon found a suitable place. Lynne ordered beef soup with crusty bread and I had some squid lightly dusted with flour and gently fried. My meal came with a substantial pile of chips, leading Lynne to question my commitment to a ‘light’ lunch. Maybe she was right.

In the narrow alley we could not see the morning’s blue sky being overtaken by thick clouds. Only when we emerged onto the wide main street an hour or more later did we realised that rain was imminent.

As we plodded back up the long hill the threat became a reality as the hotel weather forecast was proved right almost to the minute. We soldiered on for a while, but as the rain changed from light to hard and threatened to become torrential we passed a bus shelter and decided it was a good place to stop. We were not alone.

If you wait in a bus shelter long enough a bus will come along, and as it was a No. 4, which we knew went past our hotel, we hopped on board. Dubrovnik buses have a flat fare and it is more expensive to pay on board than at a kiosk but we had no choice. As we had walked a good part of the way before the storm became serious we did not get the best value for our bus ride, and we still received a soaking running the fifty metres from the stop to the hotel. Such is life.
Modern Dubrovnik from the Lapad Peninsula

The rain did not last long and in the late afternoon we took a walk through the streets of Lapad. It is a green and pleasant suburb, though we found little of great interest.

It was beautifully presented - before I messed it up with a knife and fork
Magellan Restaurant, Dubrovnik

We could not be bothered to walk down to the old town again in the evening, so we re-visited the Magellan Restaurant across the road from the hotel. Lynne enjoyed her seafood risotto while my pork in a white sauce with wild mushrooms and roasted vegetables was beautifully presented, perfectly cooked and packed with flavour. It was a dish that would have graced a much more expensive restaurant and made me reassess my earlier feelings about Croatian prices.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)

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