It’s been almost a year since we last set foot outside of Ireland. A long year with many changes (and many more to come before the end of the year). Somehow we hadn’t managed to take a break at all during the year up until now, and were definitely feeling burnt out. We decided to stay a little closer to home for our holiday and investigate more of Europe. The word on the street is that Croatia is a beautiful place to visit. Not many people seem to have actually verified this with their own eyes, but the country certainly has a good reputation to live up to. So we booked ourselves some time off, with no real fixed plans other than arriving at Dubrovnik in the south of Croatia, and returning back from Venice in Italy approximately two weeks later…
As our plane begins its approach to Dubrovnik we see a rugged coastline stretching out below us. A dry and rocky land, with sporadic greenery and buildings clinging here and there to the rocks along the outer belt of land that’s skirted by glittering blue seas. From the air you can see that the population here is sparse and mostly limited to the very edge of the land. A coastal road winds along, occasionally accompanied by a higher one far up on the rocky slopes. The old city of Dubrovnik itself is easily identifiable despite never having seen an aerial view of it. A mass of buildings congregate in one area, lining the side of the mountain down to where a walled-in lip of land juts out into the sea, utterly covered in densely packed small buildings. There’s only time for a glimpse before the plane continues on and begins its descent.
As expected, Dubrovnik airport is a tiny place. Officials barely glance at the incoming passports while they stamp them with such little ink that the writing can barely be deciphered later. We stand for some time watching luggage wend around the conveyor belts. A number of large blue bags similar to ours rotate past repeatedly. A couple of rotations later I check the name tag on one and realise that my memory of the design on the side of our bag is faulty. Oops. Brodie makes a couple of snide comments followed by some muttering under his breath, and then it’s off out to pick up some Croatian Kuna and hop on a shuttle bus bound for Dubrovnik. It’s a very simple operation compared to some of the countries we arrived in last year. Now we just have to locate our accommodation for the night. Hopefully this won’t be a similar experience to the numerous hours we wandered around Bangkok before finding out that Thai maps are quite inventive when it comes to placing landmarks correctly.
After a short drive the bus descends from the heights of a rocky road into Dubrovnik itself. We round a corner and are suddenly faced with contrasting masses of rock towering over us on either side. We continue through the narrow border between the competing might of nature and man. To one side is harsh rugged mountain stone through which the road has been hewn. On the other, massive worn blocks of white stone reach to the sky, marking the boundary of the weathered old city walls. In strategic places, arches organically grow out of the mountainside, providing extra support and giving the impression that the city has literally grown out of the mountainside. Before we have time to finish being impressed, we arrive abruptly at our destination of Pile gate. We disembark to a chorus of queries from locals as to whether we’re looking for accommodation for the night.
On a terrace overlooking the Old City we pause to quickly take in a view of the city all lit up at night. Time to decipher the couple of squiggles in my notebook that are meant to denote the general location of our accommodation. The ‘roads’ on Google map are mostly narrow stone steps and ledges disappearing into the depths around us. Only a stone’s throw from where we stand, but closer to the sea level is the hostel office we’re looking for. The proprietor, Marko, bustles out. Glowing with friendliness he bounds off down the narrow street, continuously offering to take the bag that Brodie is bouncing off stone steps with a vengeance. It doesn’t take long to reach the gate of the ‘hostel’. We’re led to the top floor of a simple apartment block and offered our choice of the two rooms. They’re virtually indistinguishable from each other. Reasonably spacious rooms that should do the trick for our first few days in Croatia.
Once our gear is stowed away we venture out to see more of what looks to be a truly unusual city. We’re situated right in the heart of things. It’s a quick walk to the walls of the Old City and Pile gate. The city itself looks like a mighty fortress from medieval times, its buttresses pushing out to the limits of the cliffs above the waters below. This place was built to withstand a lot. Within these thick walls are a crowded maze of buildings and streets built on several different levels.
The Old City is a strange mix of old and new that blends together impressively. The old building fronts contain some very modern interiors that happily coexist without the expected discordant clash between old and new. Shops and restaurants have been absorbed into nooks and crannies. Tables and seating edge the sides of narrow streets, even in dark lanes of steps that lead further up to murky unlit levels we’re not inclined to explore this late at night. The inner streets are quite lively with tourists rambling around. A choir strides out the doors of a church at random and begins to regale onlookers with a rendition of something unfamiliar, but religious in tone.
After exploring enough to get our bearings, we retire back to the restaurant terrace outside with a view of the city walls, the sea, and one of many forts. The white lights across the whole exterior make the stone appear to glow a little in the dark. Small bats swoop across the sea here and there while waves roll in below us. The food is nothing special, but it’s good and filling. The service is almost non-existent however, and it starts to get very chilly sitting out and waiting to settle the bill. The staff dealing with tourists in Croatia can be surprisingly sullen. Maybe it’s just because it’s the end of a very long summer season, but they’re making Irish customer service seem incredibly friendly in comparison. Something I never thought I’d be saying!
Our final stop of the night is one of the ubiquitous gelateries on the main street. Put on the spot by another cantankerous employee, Brodie is overly influenced by his impatient server and ends up with a colourful blend of red,white and blue that I’m not convinced he meant to choose. I’m a little suspicious of the brightly coloured foodstuffs with unfamiliar labels. I stall for some extra time and come out with a familiar mix of chocolate and vanilla. It’s not quite the taste of Italian gelato I was looking for though. Brodie informs me that the blue one “tastes of domestos”. I point out that the label for that tub was a list of E numbers rather than a flavour name. Hardly a good sign to begin with. And he’s right, it tastes exactly like I imagine domestos would when I sample it. The vast majority of the icecream finds itself melting down the drain of our sink a short time later. We agree that Brodie is formally banned from selecting any blue-coloured icecream for the rest of the trip unless the label clearly states that it is actually raspberry flavour, not overpriced toilet bleach.