Dubrovnik (1 – 3 June 2013)
After a short morning walk around old Split one last time on 31 May, it was time to leave for the grand finale of our grand tour of Croatia. We were going to Dubrovnik.
It was a very long bus journey from Split. Was it a 5 hour ride? Anyway, it felt even longer than that because of this Irish guy (he said he was from Ireland) behind us who could not stop talking to the girl next to him, who seemed quite entertained, and unabashedly sharing his frequently unlearned opinion. He was also quite loud.
The road to Dubrovnik went through a tiny little stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina, no more than 10 km wide. That meant that we had to get our passports checked twice within a short span of time (Irish guy did not seem too pleased with that). The little piece of land, Neum, gives Bosnia and Herzegovina access to the sea but cuts Croatia into two. I did get a kick out of being in a different country even if it was just for less than an hour for the driver to get a break. Things at the rest stop also did not seem cheaper than in Croatia but comparable. The ice cream stand charged 8 kunas or 1 euro per cone.
It was raining for much the bus journey but not when the bus pulled into the station in Dubrovnik in the late afternoon. We were therefore able to do the crazy thing of making the half an hour journey to the old city on foot. It would rain again during dinner and freeze our socks off. We were reminded of how lucky we were again by our landlord in Dubrovnik although thankfully he did not use the word “lucky”. The weather should be quite dry in Croatia that time of year.
We were however very comforted by the wonderful apartment that we were renting in Dubrovnik. This was the best accommodation that we had had in Croatia, edging out the one in Split by just the width of a strand of hair. We even got our own bathroom in each of our bedrooms. Maybe that was why both of us were more impressed with this one than the one in Split.
Our first full day in Dubrovnik was on 1 June. It was somewhat amazing to me that I had been away from home for a month. This spoilt brat had survived 1 whole month away from his usual comforts at home! That was quite an incredible feat.
Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, was really gorgeous. It was even more crowded than Split, and therefore really annoying that way. But it was not quite the same as the other cities on the Croatian coast. Dubrovnik had been the free Republic of Ragusa for a long time and was under Venetian sovereignty for a much shorter time than the other coastal cities. Maybe that did much to make it stand out today. E mentioned that everywhere else in Croatia should have been like Dubrovnik.
Our landlord had planned our itinerary for us. Our first day was going to be spent mostly on Lokrum, the island just off Dubrovnik, to get away from the cruise stopovers that would descend upon the city in hordes of an epic proportion that day (it was a Saturday). We would of course later discover that the city was crowded with or without the cruise stopovers. The second day we would go to Mljet. And the third day we would check out and then spend the day exploring the old city before boarding our ferry to Italy at night.
As it turned out however, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. The weather was a dark grey that first morning in the city and the winds were too strong for the boats to Lokrum. Even when the dark clouds disappeared later in the day and the sun came out strong and proud, the winds remained strong. We were stuck on the mainland with the incredible hordes.
To be fair though, the crowds were actually quite alright in many places in the city. At least in Dubrovnik when it got annoying, we were able to slip off down some alley into quieter areas.
However, if one wants to see the must-see sites of Dubrovnik, one must jostle with the crowd.
Our landlord had waited for us on the steps of the Church of St Blaise the day we arrived. This was along the busiest street in town, Stradun, and in the day it felt like all the cruises in the world had unleashed at the same time all of their passengers onto that street. The landlord was expecting to see an old couple but saw us instead. In front of the church is a Gothic statue of Roland, a symbol of the city’s independence at the time the statue was erected.
Inside the Church of St Blaise lies the remains of one St Silvan. He was martyred for his faith in the 4th century AD. His body is purportedly incorruptible although I could swear that his body was in fact merely wax. I mean look at his body, it looks exactly like something out of Madame Tussauds’!
We also got to visit 2 monasteries in the city, one Dominican and one Franciscan.
The Dominican one was peaceful and serene, as a monastery should be. The Franciscan one was unfortunately its direct opposite. It did not help one bit that the latter was right along Stradun and just a couple of steps away from the Pile Gate, the main entrance to the old city. If the incredible horde had not entered the old city from the harbour, it had entered from this gate.
The Franciscan monastery was also interesting for having the oldest still operating European pharmacy (but third oldest overall) in the world. When I was there a group of Korean tourists were trying to get their hands on beauty products made from purportedly age old recipes.
One church that I discovered serendipitously was the Jesuit Church of St Ignatius Loyola. This was no more than 100 m away from our apartment past a couple of restaurants and up a flight of stairs. Its interior was really quite pretty. In fact, this might be the most beautiful church in Dubrovnik.
Being in a maritime city, we decided to visit the local maritime museum. It was not that we were particularly interested in things maritime, but we could get in free with our Dubrovnik Cards. Besides, we were quite interested to see the inside of the St John Fortress where the museum was housed. This fortress was built at the entrance to the harbour to protect it.
What we remember most from this visit was, sadly, this crazy woman from either China or Taiwan who went around touching every exhibit in the museum. She even had a go at testing the rolling ability of this spindle and then could not get it back to its original position despite numerous attempts because it kept rolling to some other side each time. The noise from her numerous attempts alerted the museum attendant, who had been busy playing with her phone, and the attendant of course got quite upset with that crazy and extremely inconsiderate woman. I had assumed that museum exhibits were not meant to be touched unless invited to but it looks like this assumption was not universal.
I suspect that this incident helped to further the belief that Chinese people are inconsiderate and rude. I wondered what sort of treatment I would get during the rest of my journey since apparently I looked so obviously Chinese to these foreigners. In any case, after this incident, the museum attendant started keeping a close eye on the remaining visitors on that floor, i.e. E and me.
One of the best things that anyone can do in Dubrovnik is to take a walk around the city wall. It is possible to walk around the whole wall and the view from up there was absolutely gorgeous. Dubrovnik is such a beautiful city and a walk on the wall gives the city a chance to show off its beauty.
As we were queueing up to get our tickets to walk on the wall, we encountered this group of Italians in front of us who were quite confused about where they should be going. The ticket guy tried to help them but the Italians seemed unable to make up their minds and kept talking among themselves. Thankfully they did not stay at the counter for too long. When they had finally left and it was our turn, the ticket guy complained to us that, “These Italian people, they only know how to talk talk talk!” Unfortunately for him, the lady at the souvenir store opposite heard him and retorted, amongst other things, “Excuse me, I have some Italian blood from my father’s side! What about you Croatian men!” The exchange was all in English and it was obviously for our benefit. I hope she did not see how I nodded my head vigorously in emphatic agreement with the ticket guy. But it was all a very entertaining and amusing prelude to our lovely walk on the city wall.
We were fortunate enough to encounter a Croatian wedding on our second night in Dubrovnik. It was a rousing affair with musicians and the couple was lovely. We were only a little surprised to see that the ceremony seemed a little patriotic since the national flag was carried during this procession they made to the cathedral.
E and I were of course not the only people drawn to the spectacle. Some Taiwanese women (we could tell from their accents) came along and started clapping along and dancing a little to the music. It was as if they were doing a little singalong of Taiwanese folk songs at a campfire in 70s Taiwan. E and I almost burst out laughing but controlled ourselves remarkably well so as not to offend anyone. We were lucky not to sustain any internal injuries from all that laughter suppression.
It definitely looked like the group was having even more fun than the people actually involved in the wedding. E and I were quite entertained but all the same we steered clear of the folksy group in case people thought that we were with them. These aunties were funny, but in a rather LC sort of way.
Our landlord recommended a Bosnian restaurant in the old city and a local sausage that looked like dog shit (according to him) called ćevapčići. We decided to celebrate our first night at the Bosnian restaurant and, to my delight, ordered a set meal with a lot of meat, including the ćevapčići, to share. We were however not sure which ones were the dog shit sausages. I am happy to say that none of the sausages that we had there looked anything like shit, or tasted like it for that matter. It was during dinner the following night when I asked for ćevapčići that I finally found out what it looked like.
It was rather salty but pretty good. And one thing I have to say about Croatian meat dishes is that every time I ordered one it would be accompanied by a chilli condiment. I remember the first time I tasted that in Poreč I was so happy that I almost cried. To think that I had prepared myself for 3 months of no chilli. Although the condiment was hardly spicy, well, beggars really cannot be choosers.
Lokrum finally became a reality on Monday, our very last day in Croatia. After a morning walk in the city, we checked out of our lovely apartment and followed our landlord to his office just outside the Pile Gate to dump our bags there for the day. Even though it was Monday, the city was as crowded as on Saturday.
The island looks like a big lump of rock in the sea topped with greenery. And the island is full of peacocks. These were descendants of peacocks brought over from the Canary Islands by the Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg in the 19th century when he built a mansion for himself on the island. These creatures have now established themselves firmly on the island and as part of the attractions of Lokrum. They are not afraid of people at all.
I was pretty excited when I saw some peachicks since I had never seen them before. They were really adorable. E was so taken with them that she simply could not resist grabbing one and hugging it and scaring the living daylights out of the poor little thing. It was surprising that its mother did nothing to save the chick.
The botanical garden on the island is a small one but interesting. The first gardens were planted by the Benedictines monks who were most likely the island’s first inhabitants. They were the first people to cultivate exotic plants on Lokrum. Later, Maximilian started introducing plants to Lokrum as well. The current botanical garden was established in the 20th century to continue the tradition of botany that was started by the monks.
I learnt at the botanical garden that there are more species of palm in Singapore than all of Africa. That was pretty amazing to me since Africa is a continent spanning many climate zones and Singapore, although in the tropics, is minuscule compared to Africa and so heavily built up that not much of its original floral cover is left. Still E and I were pretty impressed. At the same time, it demonstrated to me how little we Singaporeans know about and appreciate, and how much we underestimate, the natural wealth of our own country. These botanists in Croatia, a country whose people I suspect know next to nothing about Singapore, actually recognise the biodiversity of my country. This visit left me wishing that more is being done to help Singaporeans know better about Singapore’s natural wonders and for their protection.
Besides the botanical garden, we can still find on Lokrum remains of the Benedictine monastery and the Fort Royal Castle. The castle is on the highest point of the island and we got good views of the surroundings from up there. It was a hard climb up to the castle for unfit me but I knew that I would have kicked myself if I had not dragged my ass up there.
We boarded the ferry back to Dubrovnik in the late afternoon with me feeling quite satisfied. I dare say that green Lokrum was a nice finale to our little visit to Dubrovnik. The city is a brilliant gem in so many ways and I am likely to return if given the chance. I think I can probably drop by again when I visit Bosnia or Montenegro.
Soon it was time to board our overnight ferry to Bari. That marked the end of our time in Croatia and I felt a little sad about it but very introspective about my time in the country. It is quite unbelievable how much I had seen and experienced in the country. I cannot say that I was impressed all the time, but there were parts of the trip that made all the effort of getting to the country very worthwhile. There was Dubrovnik needless to say. Zagreb was lovely to hang out in with its quaint central European city vibes and quirky museums. The little pools in Plitvice were just so absolutely gorgeous. Diocletian’s Palace in Split was unforgettable. And I am still thinking about that Greek watchtower on the Stari Grad Plain.
Croatia is a country that has a long rich history and seems to have done very well preserving its heritage for posterity. That to me is the real key to a country’s longevity. It is not merely how much GDP the country produces but how well it maintains that link between its past and present and sustains the consciousness in its people about who they are. That is what makes a country is it not, its people with their common history and collective memory, and not its wealth?