Monday, September 2, 2013

The Walled City Of Dubrovnik

A bird's eye view 
As a last hurrah to summer, we spent the long Labor Day weekend in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We've visited before, three times in fact, but love this beautiful walled city so much that we keep returning.  Like so many places here in the Balkans, Dubrovnik is just a few hours away from Tirana but culturally, socially, and economically is a world away.  A unique combination of Central and Western Europe with a smattering of Venetian and Balkan influence thrown in for good measure, Dubrovnik itself is just downright beautiful.  Add in the food, people, and culture and you have a dream vacation spot.

Croatia may be the newest member of the European Union, but her history runs deep.  Dubrovnik is located on the Adriatic Sea at the southern end of the fabled Dalmatian Coast.  (The old town is actually located atop the sea with the ebb and flow of the sea affecting her stability).  Since 1979 the walled city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such receives millions of visitors each year.  The city has a long and varied past.  Her modern history is tragic.  A part of former Yugoslav Republic, the city was bombed in 1991 by Serb-Montenegrin forces and suffered significant damage before being liberated the following year by the Croatian Army.  (A solemn museum inside the city pays homage to the young men who lost their lives during this modern war).  The city was first settled in the 7th Century then later came under the protection of the Byzantine Empire.  During the 11th Century Dubrovnik fell under the sovereignty of Venice and the Venetian influences are readily apparent today.  After the Venetians came the Ottomans then Napoleon's Army followed by the Austria-Hungarian Empire before finally becoming a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.   From ancient Byzantine churches to marbled alleys the past is still alive in Dubrovnik.  Yet the city is quite modern.

The view from the water
This visit to Dubrovnik was a bit different from previous ones.  We were traveling with friends so instead of booking our usual hotel we reserved a series of small rental apartments which allowed us to accommodate all of our sleeping preferences and budgets.  I know people who swear by vacation rentals but we've always stuck with hotels.  I like their one stop convenience that includes parking, fresh linens daily, and room service and coffee on demand.  Our Dubrovnik apartment, however, might have made me a convert.  Tucked away in the old city but away from the hustle and bustle of the main street, our accommodations were both spacious and homey.  Sure we had to lug our bags up a lot of steep steps to get there and we had to go out to get our morning coffee, but our little stone apartment was like a slice of heaven.  I actually found myself fantasizing about what it would be like to live there all of the time!  The other major difference about this trip was the season.  We'd visited the city during both the Christmas season
The marbled streets in the pre-dawn hours
and late spring and loved the sleepy feel of the city.  This was definitely not the case this time around.  The Dalmatian Coast is in the midst of peak tourist season and the streets, restaurants, and shops were bursting with tourists.  As if there weren't already enough people there, each day two or three mega-sized cruise ships offloaded their passengers for a day of exploring on shore.  At times wading through the crowds of map holding, sun hat wearing and shopping bag totting tourists was too much to bear.  But when that was the case we could retreat back up the stairs to our shading hide-away and wait for the crowds to thin.

But some things don't change regardless of the amount of people there.  The old city is just plain beautiful.  Whether viewed in the early morning light, the blazing midday sun, or after dark Dubrovnik is breathtaking.  The pedestrian-only white marble streets and alley ways of Stari Grad are a maze of  dead end paths providing the perfect opportunity for the three little boys in our group to run, explore, and chase pigeons to their heart's content.  Yes there were crowds but knowing that they weren't in danger of getting run down by a scooter or speeding car made gave all of the parents in a group a sense of relief.  Inside the city walls are numerous shops, restaurants, and outdoor cafes so
Every time I see this I think of a pirate's lair
despite the crowds finding an empty table was never a problem.  My favorite spot was actually a tiny bar perched on the outside of the wall overlooking the Adriatic Sea.  With the boys under the "supervision" of their father's, us girls retreated to this little piece of heaven without worrying about small children falling over the side of the cliffs.  However brief, this respite was priceless.  As is the case with any tourist destination, the prices are steep.  A part of the sticker shock comes from living in Albania where food and drink is ridiculously inexpensive.  In Dubrovnik, single meals cost more than a week's worth of groceries in Albania but the food was so fresh and delicious and the atmosphere so unbeatable that we just went with the flow.  After all, we were on vacation.

As our days in Tirana wind down, I realize that opportunities like this are indeed numbered.  We've visited many places over the past two years but very few compare to the beauty of Dubrovnik. Perhaps that is why it is one of the few places we've returned to again and again.  And because we enjoy it so much, it is likely that we will return here yet again long after we've moved out of the Balkans.  I just can't get enough of it.

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