Dubrovnik - Hidden Gem of the Adriatic
What would you do if your town and your own house were bombed, shattered into mere rubble?
Clean up and invite the tourists to stay?
That is exactly what the resilient residents of Dubrovnik have done â and for that we should be thankful.
For this wonderful old town to have slipped into obscurity after suffering through the Balkans wars of the 1990s would have been a terrible shame. But, fortunately, tourists' memories are very short and what were war zones only short years ago are now among the fastest growing tourist destinations in Europe.
The Adriatic Coast of Croatia is no exception and Dubrovnik is truly its pearl. As the traditional holiday destinations are showing signs of overdevelopment and becoming homogenized in their services because of an influx of foreigners â to the point where you can barely find a paella for all the bacon, eggs, sausage and chips on the menu â more and more travelers are looking for an alternative.
Irresistible with its town walls, enclosed old city, pristine beaches and only a few big hotels in eye shot, Dubrovnik might be it.
I first arrived in Dubrovnik on a local bus and before I could recover my backpack from the luggage lockers, I was approached by an opportunistic and persistent local.
She had a hand written sign, Sobe, which means âRooms,â and indicated to me that she had a place for me to stay.
Reluctant, but in need of a bed, I agreed to follow her. She introduced herself to me as Katy and insisted on carrying my heavy pack and was disappointed I would not let her. Katy, who would have been around 65 and aged by the Croatian sunshine, spoke a handful of words in English and was positively delightful.
She lead me through Pile Gate, the main entrance into the old town, a simple act that felt like stepping back in time. Dubrovnik was like a clean slate.
After the war, Dubrovnik immediately began rebuilding, but with an awareness that it should retain as much of its original charm. Thus, the town banned billboards and large signs in its restored heart.
Som along Stradun (the main thoroughfare) there are no clamorous advertisements. Development is restricted by Dubrovnikâs small size, and the townâs steep and narrow streets make large-scale construction difficult.
The towering medieval white-stone city walls, still intact, could not protect Dubrovnik during the war, these days they do protect it from a new menace: tourist development.
We walked slowly through the town, at Katyâs pace. Though the uneven cobble stones were shiny and gleaming, they were slippery as well and trouble for my host.
We turned into and out of narrow streets, leading into narrower streets, turning in directions that seemed as if we were walking in circles.
Off the main street you quickly fall into the neighborhoods and you can not help but wonder what it must have been like for the residents to see their terracotta roof tiles blown away, bullet holes pounding divots into their walls and their monuments destroyed.
The few buildings yet to receive restorersâ attentions are grim reminders of the bombing of Dubrovnik in 1991.
Steps to a different kind of travel
Taking it all in and trying to keep my bearings, I continued following Katy. Next, we encountered steps â lots of them. Dubrovnik is nestled on a tiny peninsula, surrounded by hills and the Adriatic.
So, for such a small city there are many steep staircases to contend with. They were clearly a problem for Katy.
She kept on apologizing for the steps, then around the next corner would apologize again for yet more steps.
I think I was sorrier than she was, feeling somewhat responsible for her sojourn to the bus stop to pluck this tourist from the conventional world of hostel and hotel-based travel, and take me into her world.
She succeeded. Katy showed me another side of travel that many other places fail to deliver. The opportunity to see how the locals live and what itâs like behind the walls of Dubrovnikâs stone houses was a privilege.
Katy and I finally arrived at her house, and she was beaming with pride. She wanted to show me her renovations, her plans for further additions and improvements.
After I settled in and could look around, I thought that her house was just about perfect. She lived in a very narrow three-story house, nestled among many others made of the same gray stone and adorned with simple doors. Inside there was an unexpected courtyard with a grape vine for shade.
My room was decorated with the same charm you remember from your grandmotherâs house: lace curtains, family pictures hanging on the walls, floral wallpaper, a shiny satin bedspread and big pillows.
Katy makes her livelihood from tourists coming to stay with her in her home, and with this money she has been able to renovate her 16th-century property.
Many other Dubrovnik residents are doing the same.
Without this income, many of the homes would still be in ruins, and without the residentsâ enterprising approach, travelers would not have such a great opportunity to live so intimately in a medieval town.
Life in the neighborhoods
Walking through Dubrovnikâs backstreets, you can see residents leaning out their windows talking to neighbors across the alley way â so close they can almost reach out and touch.
Or you see them sitting on the steps, pets by their sides, catching up at the end of the day.
You can even see the cushions that are permanent fixtures on the staircases, where these gossips take their breaks. Many of these houses reveal that familiar advertisement, Sobe.
To appreciate the city, tourists can climb the walls that circumnavigate the city and walk the entire way around. You can see the restored roof tiles from up here, some repair jobs, and some old rooftops that have survived the 1991 blasts.
Their rich terracotta color is a spectacle against the dark blue Adriatic in the background. You can even see Katyâs place from up here.
I ventured up the hill behind the town to the lonely road heading south to the Bosnian border.
There are no tourists up here, just a lot more steps and houses that have seen fewer repairs.
But you can see the whole of Dubrovnik and the peninsula, as well as Lokrum Island and the fortresses that defended the town between the 14th and 18th centuries, but failed it in the 20th. It is a wondrous view.
The beaches are another attraction. The Adriatic is clear and clean, and the beaches are popular with both locals and tourists.
Parts are covered by beach chairs and umbrellas, and serviced by wait staff, and other areas are open to all who can find a space.
But what is missing â thankfully â is the sea front lined with large hotels and tourist shops selling endangered coral and other tourist paraphernalia. It is interesting that what results from tourism is exactly what some tourists these days strive to avoid.
This new attitude suits Dubrovnik down to its gleaming cobble stones.
What made this part of the Adriatic defensible in history â the hills to the east, the Adriatic to the West, and only small, steep coves for landing access â are also protecting it now from development.
Dubrovnik was able to recover from the war but will be damaged forever if developers get their hands on it.
Back in the old town you can get a sense of how important it is to Katy, other residents and the new generation of tourists that the developers fail.
Between the houses are clothes lines dangling laundry like webs throughout the alleys. The sun manages to sneak a ray between the streets for a short amount of time each day.
Down along the Stradun, the tourists wander, gazing at the unique architecture of stone churches and spires, or they sit in the sun in cafes that line the squares. However it is the backstreets where Dubrovnik comes to life, and it is there you have to stay to experience it.
I know just the old lady to show you, but youâll have to find her yourself. She lives behind any sign that says, Sobe.