Sunday, April 27, 2014

Simmering in Dubrovnik – some half-baked travel tips cooked in a story

If you have only one day in Dubrovnik, Croatia and you need to lose weight, plan to walk the top perimeter of the medieval city wall. Seat of the renaissance Republic of Ragusa, Dubrovnik is shaped like a huge, tilted shallow pan, south-facing to capture the maximum intensity of the sun. In summer the wall is the narrow rim of a simmering cauldron.

Our only navigation aid was Tom's Port Guide to Dubrovnik, one of a series of superb amateur guidebooks that helped us throughout our holiday. If you are looking specifically for useful advice and verifiable facts, I advise you to stop reading this immediately and go there. We entered the old town through the western, Pile gate (Vrata od Pila), one of a handful of ingresses to the city. Busking minstrels dressed for a renaissance faire put people in a medieval mood at the entrance to the old town. Happily, some other kind tourists subsidized the performance. It's a bit like public TV that way.

At the entrance to the Pile Gate. Saint Blaise is watching over us.

It was recommended we take the walk in the morning, before it became too hot. Apparently, 9 o'clock am is already afternoon in August. I was soaking wet midway through the first set of stairs. We circumnavigated the old city for almost two hours in the heat. The city circumference is unofficially 1.2 miles, but when you unzip the twisting stairs and wrinkles like a harmonica, I figure it's about 26.2, so we made time worthy of a Kenyan.

Stunning views from the wall and attached forts justify the 230 Kuna (Croatian currency) that covered our three fares. What a beautiful city is Dubrovnik. It doesn't only rival Venice in history, but visually, a cascade of burnt-orange tile roofs spilling down the hillside to the rugged Dalmatian coast and prussian blue water. On the downside, some enclosed spaces smelled like baked, stale urine. It brought back fond memories of London in that way.

A pricey frozen confection stand positioned midway through our circumnavigation helped against the heat. We waited in line in front of a large fan that mainly dissipated the odor of overripe tourists. Ice cream has the proverbial snowball's chance in this place. You can't eat it fast enough. It was all I could do to keep it from flowing down my forearm. The quality was that expected from a monopoly of an essential service, but it made for good sunscreen.

Many exterior scenes of King' Landing from the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones are filmed here. For those familiar with the show, winter is not coming to Dubrovnik any time soon during August. Filming was scheduled for a couple weeks following our visit, and I was glad not to have any restrictions to our access. I have firsthand experience of traffic and pedestrian disruptions stemming from filming of The Avengers in Cleveland; local and other interests typically take a back seat to those of Hollywood.

I didn't see any obvious signs of the early 90s war, though greater Dubrovnik suffered. Apparently, the old city mostly escaped due to its UNESCO world heritage status, with a few exceptions you can easily find documented on the Internet. What ruins there were looked very old, but they were often (not always) organically incorporated in the setting with gardens. Even the laundry lines are scenic. I photographed many drying underclothes for posterity.

I wondered if any of this damage was due to the 1990-1991 shelling during the Serb-Croat war. The ruin was nicely landscaped as a garden.

Circumnavigating counterclockwise we had good views to either side, particularly on broader patios atop the regularly-spaced fortifications. To the left is always the enclosed city - the image of a lake of fire below the irregular rim of a crater somehow appropriate. To the right are rocky grottoes, their terraced cliff-side beaches perched above azure water that quickly grades to a deep blue, dotted with sunbathers and beach umbrellas. Garish kayaks plying close to shore and boats in the east-side harbor reminded me there is more to do in Dubrovnik than stairs if you have longer than a day. As you swing to the north and climb west from the harbor, the modern Dubrovnik meets the old city on your right. The crown of the wall is the Minčeta tower fortress from which you can see the whole city spread below you.

Looking towards the "old fort" from the walls of the old city. Kayaks at the mouth of the little bay were part of tours offered for sale near the gates of the old city.

Looking towards the "Old Fort". The cove is named "Uvala Pile."

Buza "beach"

The old port on the east side of the walled city.

Looking outside of the old city wall to the west.

Best view from the north side of the city, at Fort Minčeta. Dubrovnik is currently being used to represent the city of King's Landing in the HBO series Game of Thrones. In the distance is the wooded island of Lokrum. According to legend, Richard the Lionheart was cast ashore there after being shipwrecked in 1192.

I lost five pounds and was in shape upon completion of the city circuit. After the walls, we wandered the Placa (Stradun) and its arteries. The Stradun is the lively main thoroughfare of the old city, composed of off-white marble that is polished smooth from countless feet and sealed with fat melted off tourists. A wide-brimmed hat, bottled water and sunscreen are essential gear. Blinding sunlight reflects off the marble, evoking a summer alternative to snow blindness, and the steep-walled street radiates heat like an oven if there is no breeze. But this artery carries the lifeblood of the city within the wall--people. And the heat of blood is life. The 15th century Onuphrius' fountain on the Stradun, near the western entrance to the city at Pile Gate, served to replenish water bottles depleted on the wall, so we could continue exploring at street level.

The Stradun

On the Placa (Stradun) the main street of the old town, with a pavement of polished marble.

We tended to stay on the shaded side of the avenue for some relief.

I'm not quite sure of this hat, but it did the job. The over-the-shoulder camera bag was invaluable, though a relative reviewing my photos asked me if it was a purse. A camera over the neck can put on quite a strain in a short time.

Onuphrius' Fountain. The cold water and a second helping of ice cream helped offset the heat. There is a smaller fountain at the eastern end of the Stradun.

Stradun is intersected by a fish-bone network of steep, narrow alleys on the northern (hilly) side, and relatively gentle-sloped streets to the south. At one small square we came upon a market with canopied tables of local produce, crafts, and souvenirs. There were samples to try at several tables. Dad bought Stacey a sausage-shaped fig roll wrapped in tissue paper as a thank-you for selflessly planning our inter-generational male family bonding.

You know you're looking north if you're looking up. Nearly all the streets of Dubrovnik have marble pavement.

We also went into the Saint Blaise (Sveti Vlaho) church for a brief respite from the sun. Saint Blaise is the patron of the city, who saved Dubrovnik from the Venetians, and you get the sense between these cities that Saints Blaise and Mark might have put aside their holiness if they'd met. The church itself had peaceful quiet, a beautiful baroque altar and the usual collection of saint's relics. An exception was the apparently incorrupt body of martyred Saint Silvan, dating from AD 350. People were a lot shorter in the 4th century. I'll stay on fence regarding the body's authenticity - real or wax. Either way, he looks good after 1663 years, if a little pale. He's kept out of the relentless Mediterranean sun. On second thought, if he were made of wax he'd have melted long before now.

Saint Blaise (Sveti Vlaho) church, at the east end of the Stradun. Ironically, Saint Blaise is invoked for protection against injuries and illnesses of the throat. I wonder if that's why Saint Silvan (martyred by a slash to the throat) is interred at the church. 

The patron saint of the city is Sveti Vlaho (Saint Blaise), whose statues are seen around the city. He has an importance similar to that of St. Mark the Evangelist to Venice. 

Tom enjoyed the cats of Dubrovnik. There were a lot of disheveled stray cats, a lot, and he took a picture of every one in the city. Most were in various stages of their ninth life, though we saw a few keepers. I've checked Thomas' bags twice since returning to make sure we have no desiccated stowaways.

Vendors of cold refreshments are well-positioned on the Stradun. Business is brisk, much as for the seller of generators after a hurricane, but I thought the gelato was more reasonably priced than the counterfeit thievery at the top of the wall. The refreshing treat consummated our visit before we returned to the Ruby Princess for a standard 10 € cab fare. Passing through the modern city of Dubrovnik I thought "I could live here."

When we got back there was the usual poolside lounging. Thomas immediately ordered what looks to be his standard four pieces of margherita pizza from the excellent pizza bar on Lido deck. I noted several withered sun worshipers in worse repair than Saint Silvan in AD 351, and we moved to the shade. Tom suffered through probably my best game of chess while the ship was pulling away. Maybe he was distracted by the stunning Dalmatian coastline. But he'll be beating me soon.

Franjo Tuđman Bridge. Pulling away from the city of Dubrovnik

View from the ship at port, towards a more modern part of Dubrovnik. My yacht is out there somewhere.

Tomorrow is Corfu.

August 7, 2013


Noel Morata said...

Looks like a wonderful day trip - must be fun doing this from a cruise and enjoying the magnificent views when you enter and then leave that magical city!

Michael Orobona said...

Thank you for reading Noel. It was a highlight of the cruise for me, my son and father, and it is well suited for a day trip. The nice thing is you can cool down afterwards on the cruise ship! Magical is an appropriate word for Dubrovnik. Everywhere I turned I wanted to take a picture. I actually had to consciously put the camera down so I could take it in with my own eyes.

Debbie Jensen said...

Mike...I particularly loved this entry...I was fortunate to stay in Dubrovnik for 2 days...I especially found the pictures to be a treasure because after my father passed disappeared. was just my dad and I on that happy for you and Thomas

Michael Orobona said...

Hi Debbie- I'm glad you got to spend that time with your Dad in such a special place. There's something wonderful about a trip with just one member of your family. I hope we'll be catching up in Minnesota again very soon- I'll bet the kids will have changed plenty (even if WE haven't).I'm glad I could remind you of a few good memories.

Sharon said...

Dubrovnik looks so amazing!! It has been near the top of my bucket list for so long, it really needs to move off it!

I am also a big cruise fan so it could be a great way to visit.

Michael Orobona said...

Cruising was a great way to see it Sharon, though I would have loved to have stayed a few days to see what was outside the old city walls. But for those of us with a normal job to get back to, it was a great way to get there with no hassles. It is truly beautiful, and hot.