Dubrovnik: A haze of smoke
We spend a couple of days in Dubrovnik relaxing and taking it easy in what is mostly a pleasant place to visit. Especially at this time of year when things are getting quieter, but the streets are still quite busy. Tourists regularly spill out of buses and converge upon the narrow streets of the old City. At the entrance of Pile gate a flamboyantly dressed man awaits with a perch full of brightly coloured parrots. People (particularly children) gravitate to him as he places birds randomly on passersby, seeing how many of the disgruntled creatures he can bedeck someone with before they get antsy and start pecking at each other… “Don’t bite!” he cautions an errant member of his troupe before scooping another up and kissing it – freeze-framing at the right moment so the cameras can flash and capture the kodak moment. His treasure chest sits below the bird perch awaiting donations from the masses.
The only broad street in the old city is lined with cafes and restaurants all boasting pretty much the same menu. Old men pace the streets attempting to persuade some tourists to venture up the side streets to the cafes on the next level. A steady stream of tourists hand over their coins to gain entrance to the steps leading to the top of the city walls where they can get a bird’s eye view of the city that is crammed onto this big rock. All the stone is white – white blocks or white marble paving. The roofs are a rich uniform terracotta red. The colour scheme is exactly matched in the heights above us where the city has grown up into the mountainside. The buildings are all tall, and most of the streets are narrow. Even when the sun is at its fullest there’s plenty of shade amongst the side streets. The somewhat haphazard growth of buildings always keeps to the traditional materials and endeavours to provide pedestrians with respite from the sun. This is a relief as we venture up the infinite steps leading to new levels that can’t be seen from below.
There we find yet more streets full of cafes and restaurants before these give way to residential housing. The further you climb, the more you can glimpse of the city. I don’t envy whoever carts all the fresh produce up these steps every day to stock the restaurants. After checking out the view we make our way back down to the depths of the city where the crowds are focusing their attention. We stroll the streets getting orientated in the sprawling mass. It’s like stepping into the middle of a medieval novel merged with a modern-day crowded island like Singapore. Who knows what might be around the next corner? An impressive amount of buildings have been crammed into a tiny space giving weird angles and levels with random dead ends. You get a hint of Escher looking up at the higher levels that seem to go on t0 infinity. Meanwhile you wouldn’t look twice if a medieval peasant or King passed you by on the street. There’s a timeless quality to the city.
Sitting in one of the many cafes or restaurants you can watch the hustle and bustle pass you by. Every hour the bells of the surrounding churches ring out in a clamour that drowns out all conversation for the next few minutes. It’s as if they earn a few more Kuna for every extra peal that’s crammed in. It’s clear that this is very much the off-season for Dubrovnik, yet despite the numerous closed restaurants it’s lively on the streets during the day. You can only imagine how packed it must be in the stifling heat of mid-summer when every establishment is open and moving amongst the crowd of bodies is all but impossible. As it is you have to constantly avoid colliding with a foreigner who is paying more attention to the sights than where they’re going. This appears to be open season for the old folks and they’re out in droves, meandering somewhat aimlessly in all directions and doing their best to trip you up no matter how hard you try and dodge them.
The buses come and go, the day grows older and the streets are much quieter as evening settles in. There’s a wide choice of location for dinner, but the fare is pretty standard regardless of where you go. One evening we eat outside the city on a terrace with a view of the city walls and forts, the next we sit in one of the squares or at a pizzeria lining a narrow street in the midst of the maze inside. The sound of jazz drifts across the square along with the now familiar smell of smoke. A three piece band is luring in the straggling tourists that must have accommodation nearby. They alternate between puffing away at a cigarette and pasting a cheesy grin on their faces as they trundle through a playlist of your average elevator jazz music. At times it’s unclear if any of them are actually playing the same song as they ‘rock out’, looking disappointed when the elderly crowd are more interested in heckling them to play something else rather than applauding their efforts. It’s entertaining in a car-crash kind of way. This isn’t exactly the time of year or venue to go expecting quality jazz music, but the band adds a little something to the atmosphere in the surrounding areas and achieves its mission of luring a few more customers to the bar.
Dubrovnik is a stunning-looking city. It’s easy to see why it’s such a popular destination. It’s a shameless tourist-trap with expensive prices, but the food is hearty and unlikely to result in food-poisoning, and the ambience of the busy streets even in the quiet season is pleasant. It’s well worth spending a few hours wandering up and down, back and forth through the maze of winding streets with their old-fashioned exteriors and modern interiors. Information maps at the gates look like they’re depicting a giant game of battleship, marking out the areas that were damaged during the civil war. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the scene. Thankfully it seems the occupants have made the most of their rebuilding and managed to keep the charm of the streets while fixing them up and melding in modern conveniences.
One of the lasting impressions of Dubrovnik however, will be the pervasive smell of smoke. Constant clouds of ash have made their way into the fibre of my clothes. It seems you can’t experience life here without coming away smelling like an ashtray. In October the weather is mild and the smoke hangs in the air. Any welcome breeze coming around the corner only brings staler fragrances with it. The patrons of the busier restaurants contribute regularly to ensure it doesn’t get a chance to dissipate. It sneaks in through the windows of our apartment and I’m pretty sure even the clothes in the suitcase that I haven’t worn yet are already in need of fumigation. After a few days of taking it easy and exploring our surroundings we’re ready to move on from this tourist mecca and explore further up the coast. Next stop Split.