20 July 2014

A week in Dalmatia: 1. Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik from the Lovrjenac Fortress
A few weeks ago in June I was lucky enough to spent a week travelling in Croatia on an Intrepid tour with entertaining, like-minded travellers seeking a bit of adventure on the Dalmatian coast. I decided to arrive a day before the tour started to explore solo and get my bearings. So the trip commenced with the obligatory pre-dawn start at my friends' place in London and a walk along near-deserted streets to Purley station for the 5.45am train to Gatwick and the 7.50am Easyjet flight to Dubrovnik.

Gatwick was the usual hubbub of travelling families, hen parties and (most avoidable) stag party crews, and the full flight to Croatia was distinguished by the extra-loud babbling of a dozen or two excitable English folk. It was the first time I've seen passengers stand in the aisle for almost the entire flight, so they could carry on their vital, and rather exuberant, conversations. Naturally, the correct behaviour for air travellers is to sit in their seats, unspeaking and unmoving, for the entire duration of the flight. Also: absolutely no eye contact.

After flying over the Alps and along the eastern coast of the Adriatic the A320 turned to land at the far southern tip of Croatia. The airport coach (35HRK, NZ$7) sweeps along the great cliffs above the famous walled city, affording passengers (particularly those sitting on the left side) a splendid view of the walled city of Dubrovnik glistening by the sea. Alighting at the city's Pile Gate in its western walls, I walked 1.5km up the long, sweeping main road to the city's YHA, where I was spending the night. If you're planning the same walk, be sure to have drinking water with you, as I did - or if you're feeling lazy, just take the bus up the hill.

After dropping my bag in my room and admiring the view from the top floor sun terrace, I ambled back down to the old town for a first look inside the city walls. Passing through the mighty Pile Gate and a narrow second gate into the city itself, the view immediately opens out into a splendid vista with the arrow-straight pedestrian boulevard of the Stradun dividing the city in two - formerly a Venetian-style canal, it's now paved in smooth stone burnished by centuries of foot traffic. To the right of the Stradun is the venerable dome of the Onofrio fountain, built in 1438 but damaged in a 1667 earthquake and during the conflict in the early 1990s. At the end of the Placa is Luza Square, which is graced by the elegant facade of the Sponza Palace, St Blaise's Church, and a statue of knight of legend, Roland (who was also renowned for his proficiency in making excellent synthesiser keyboards). Behind the Rector's Palace, from whence the city was governed, lies the Dominican Monastery and the beautiful marina, which now bustles with tour parties and waiters serving the many shaded cafes. Venturing into the twisting alleys of the city's southern half is an exercise in exploration, with narrow passages between dwellings and an enjoyable sense that you might emerge in a completely different part of the city without even trying.
Dubrovnik's Pile Gate
The Stradun
Dubrovnik Marina

Following a night at the hostel I spent much of my first full day in Dubrovnik exploring the nearby island of Lokrum, a wooded retreat threaded with rocky paths a short distance from the town. The ferry departs from the marina and drops you at the island in around ten minutes, and if it's summertime you may well get a close up view of a superliner parked in the bay. (We passed the Italian vessel Costa Magica, the sister ship of the sunken Costa Concordia). Lokrum itself is a pleasant antidote to the crowds of Dubrovnik, with a cafe and small rocky beaches to enjoy if you want to relax, but also a swathe of trails to explore. This is a particularly good idea on a hot day, because there's plenty of shade to shelter under while you explore rocky cliffs and admire the coastal views. There's also a fine vista from the little fort at the summit of the island. The locals claim that King Richard I of England was billeted on the island when he returned from the Crusade - perhaps at an earlier iteration of the monastery that still occupies prime territory on the ocean side of the island. Perhaps there's a grain of truth to the story, but most histories seem to follow the narrative that Richard went from Corfu to Sicily and then landed or was shipwrecked at Aquileia in the far north of what  is now Croatia, before heading north to his eventual capture by Leopold, Duke of Austria, near Vienna in December 1192. If Richard was to visit the island nowadays he'd be impressed by the cool, fresh air, but perhaps not by the beach resort that blasts enormously loud pop music across a third of the island.

Back in Dubrovnik I paused for an hour or so taking in the must-see exhibitions at the War Photo Limited gallery, down a narrow side-alley from the Stradun. Designed to highlight imagery from the Yugoslav conflict in the 1990s, the gallery now also hosts a variety of challenging photography from contemporary war zones. When I visited the theme was the ongoing Syrian civil war. It was particularly poignant for me to see many of the sites I so enjoyed visiting in 2008 now ruined, and the citizens afflicted by so much danger and hardship. Many of the photos were of a challenging nature, but the exhibition provided a glimpse into the harsh reality of life and death in modern Syria.

After a day exploring I retreated to Lapad Bay in Dubrovnik to meet up with my Intrepid tour party at the Hotel Adriatic. The nine others on the tour turned out to be a fun bunch of like-minded travellers from Australia, the US, Canada and England, and Croatian tour leader Dinko proved to be a genial and knowledgeable host. We commenced proceedings with a relaxed roof-terrace restaurant dinner and planned the day ahead. The next morning, we commenced with a walk around the Dubrovnik city walls, which are astonishingly well-preserved and which offer magnificent views across the red tiled roofs of the city. Some of the tiles are venerable, but most of which are only two decades old, having been shattered during the Yugoslav siege in the 1990s. The walls provide an ideal vantage for visitors to appreciate Dubrovnik's dense-packed medieval layout and to admire its architecture from all sides.

Dubrovnik city wall view
Following the wall walk, we split up to pursue our own interests in the rising Adriatic heat. I paused for a visit to the city Maritime Museum, located inside one of the towers in the thick city walls. While the ancient and medieval history sections were of some interest, displaying the rich nautical heritage of the area, the upstairs gallery concentrating on portraits of ship owners and glass-cased steamer models was a little staid. My next stop was the Lovrjenac Fortress on the city's western edge, which provides superb views over the city after a strenuous but fortunately short climb up to its highest point. And finally I explored the 15th century Rector's Palace in the middle of Dubrovnik, which was the base for the city's appointed governor for nearly four centuries. The gilded interior boasts luxurious gilded fittings befitting the grandeur of a wealthy trading city, and provides pride of place to the ornately decorated sedan chairs the Rector used to move about the city.

Rector's Palace
Later that evening before dusk I took a walk in the hills behind Lapad Bay, admiring the coastal views and from the high vantage. On the trail I was caught by a beautiful Dubrovnik sunshower that erupted from the skies like an enormous spigot had been turned. I sheltered under a tree for the duration and enjoyed the refreshing cool breeze. Once it abated, I wound up the evening soaking up a stunning crimson sunset over the bay, before heading back to the hotel to prepare for our final morning in Dubrovnik.

Lapad Bay sunset
Following breakfast we gathered for an expedition to the summit of Fort Imperial, the Napoleonic-era fortress that overlooks Dubrovnik from a 405m ridgeline just behind the city. Visitors craving a relaxed journey can use the cable car to reach the top, but if you're feeling energetic the zig-zagging pilgrim's trail to the top is a rewarding climb. At the fortress there's a museum of the siege of Dubrovnik of 1991-92 which cost around 350 lives including around 85 Croatian civilians; the fortress was successfully held by the city's defenders despite being the target of Yugoslav Army artillery bombardment and airstrikes. Visitors can easily imagine how important the fortress was to the psychology of the defenders: from it, the entire region is visible, and if the Yugoslav army had taken it from the defenders, Dubrovnik's resistance and morale would have suffered greatly. During the siege, all supplies had to be lugged by hand up the path we walked up, including all food and ammunition. Given that my knees are still aching from the walk, that's no mean feat.

Dubrovnik from Fort Imperial
Following the fortress walk our tour party returned on the number 4 bus to the Hotel Adriatic to gather our bags and board a minibus for the next stage of our journey - on to the beautiful Adriatic isle of Korčula!
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