A fortress city besieged by armies and dragons. A casino town for the rich getting richer from the spoils of galactic wars. We were in Dubrovnik, known more internationally for its movie settings than for anything else. We had been to Dubrovnik five years ago and had vowed that we would come back some day to spend more time in this “pearl of the Adriatic.” In the intervening years, the old town of Dubrovnik had witnessed some upheaval. The recent filming of the latest Star Wars movie and the, now just finished, Game of Thrones tv series, had brought Dubrovnik out of its shell. Tourists have now “discovered” this charming medieval town and are flocking to its cobblestone streets and narrow alleys like pigeons to a loaf of bread. While cruise ships had been coming to Dubrovnik prior to the city’s on-screen appearances, the sudden uptick in popularity has caught Dubrovnik by surprise and forced the city to look at drastic measures to curtail the onslaught of tour groups traipsing through its gates. Thankfully, we were not going to be one of these tour groups, rushing in and out, frantically snapping pictures and seeing the sights before being pulled back out to the waiting buses on invisible wires by the leader holding the upraised umbrella. We had nine days in a little apartment off the main square right inside the main walls, where we could patiently wait for the tour groups to leave, then go out and enjoy the medieval town all to ourselves, with all the time in the world to go and see everything we wanted to see.
Unfortunately, there was not much to see.
Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large, unexpected cheque in the post, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homy restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it.Bill Bryson
Now, don’t get me wrong. Dubrovnik is an amazing place with narrow alleys leading to quaint streets filled with hanging laundry, sleepy cats and charming little cafes. It was so much fun to actually be staying inside the city walls and experience life right in the center of town. The last time we had visited, we had come as part of a cruise. We took the city bus in from the cruise ship terminal, which was very easy to do and did not require joining up with a tour group. Staying right in the town walls was much nicer though and we had a cute little apartment with lots of space for us.
The problem is that Dubrovnik itself is too small to spend nine days in by itself unless you are there deliberately to relax. We had known from the beginning that it was going to be a more relaxed time there after our busy time in Jerusalem. However, by the end of the nine days there, we had run out of things to do. The change in the weather didn’t help either as it rained heavily a couple of the days we were there, which also discouraged us from day-tripping to the little islands surrounding the city.
Exploring the Museums of Dubrovnik
There are a number of museums in Dubrovnik which you can visit cheaply by purchasing a museum pass. This pass also includes the ability to walk the city walls, which was definitely a must-do for us. It was nice to be able to get the cheaper pass for museums. Despite the number of museums you can visit in Dubrovnik, they are all very small and don’t take very long to visit. So it was nice to be able to combine them and save money using the museum pass.
One of the better museums was the Rector’s Palace, just off the main square. The rector used to be like the Doge of Venice; the commander, protector, and mayor of Dubrovnik. Interestingly though, unlike the Doge, rectors were “elected to the post every month so as not to feel the sweetness of power”. The palace is quite a bit smaller than the one in Venice but still fun to wander through. Upstairs housed the apartments while the main floor had some artifacts from the early days of Dubrovnik, though there is not much left after fires and earthquakes devastated the city.
We also took some time to visit the Dubrovnik Ethnographic Museum which housed some ethnic clothing, tools and jewelry and the Dominican Monastery which had a beautiful cloister in the middle and some displays of the Apothecary shop that used to be located there. The Maritime museum housed displays of Dubrovnik’s important maritime past. Dubrovnik once rivaled Venice for supremacy on water, though that period in history was fleeting. All these museums could be done in a morning, which gives you some idea of the size and number of displays. We were also going to go to the Aquarium which is housed in the town walls. However, the reviews we read were fairly negative and referred to the aquarium as being small, not well maintained and not really worth the money or time. The highlight of our museum pass was a chance to view the town walls.
The town walls of Dubrovnik completely circle the old town of Dubrovnik and not only give you an amazing view of the town’s medieval buildings but also wonderful views of the coast surrounding the town. It’s not a short stroll so we chose a slightly cooler day before the rains came to do our exploring. One of the sights I wanted to find was a basketball court built into the side of the wall which looked like it was hanging above the rest of the town. It’s a really cool site though no one was playing on it as we passed.
The rest of our time in Dubrovnik itself was spent exploring it’s little passageways, coffee shops and bars. Dubrovnik has two nice little bars which are located on the other side of the wall along the edge of a cliff. To get there, you go through two doorways and down some stairs. It was fun to sit along the edge with our drinks enjoying the atmosphere, though the bars did tend be very busy with other tourists.
On another day, we took a kayak tour around the fortifications to one of the enclosed beaches along the coast nearby. We had done some kayaking in Australia and felt we were up to the challenge. However, we had been in fairly smooth water there. The waters around the harbour were much more challenging. It was also hard to keep up as, whereas most kayaks had two rowers, Deanne and I were the only ones really doing any rowing in our two boats! However, we got through the 6k kayak trip and enjoyed the great views of the town harbour, learned a little history and had fun resting in the little cove next to this very exclusive hotel where celebrities apparently like to stay for 5,000 Euros a night! We were pretty tired after that excursion and our arms and backs sure felt it for the next few days! I thought we did quite well though, only having one person rowing in the boat and still being able to keep up. Our previous experience also helped as we were better prepared and able to steer our kayaks more adeptly than some of the other kayakers.
To get a different view of the coast, we took a submarine boat out into the harbour. It wasn’t an actual submarine but had windows under the water where you could view the sea-life. Unfortunately, there was apparently no sea-life in the area as we were not able to see anything. The kids still had fun inside the boat while the rest of us enjoyed the views above the water. It almost took us on the same route as our kayak trip but, as we weren’t huffing and puffing trying to keep up with the rest of the kayak group, we were able to actually see and enjoy the sights!
One of our favorite events was going to a concert hosted by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra. The concert was supposed to be in the Rector’s Palace courtyard (which apparently had great acoustics). However, due to rain, the concert was held in a little room on the edge of the city wall near one of the main gates. I don’t know how they managed to squeeze all of us in but somehow a full symphony orchestra and the audience all managed! The concert was Peter and the Wolf, which the kids enjoyed. The last part of the concert was Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik. The kids also enjoyed this too as they recognized the music. However, the surprise at the end was a real treat for the kids. The conductor spent some time explaining how he led the orchestra, showing us the different movements he uses to keep the orchestra coordinated and in time. Then, he invited people to come up and Siena got to go up and try her hand at leading the orchestra. Siena discovered that conducting an orchestra is not as easy as it looks! Though in her defense, doing 3/3 time is not easy.
Exploring the Countryside
One of the things we wished we had done more of was explore the countryside of Croatia. We didn’t have a car (as you can’t drive inside the town of Dubrovnik) so we needed to rent one. We were a little hesitant about renting a vehicle and weren’t sure if it was going to work out due to our recent problems with my license.
We had known that my license was going to be up for renewal while we were traveling. However, as we were going to be back home in April, we were not too worried. Thinking we could just renew it in April, we left it until just before it expired. We forgot one thing though. The license wouldn’t be ready the same day and it would have to be mailed to us. This was going to be inconvenient for two reasons. One, we didn’t have a home as it was being rented and we would be gone before it arrived. This was very worrying as we now only had a temporary paper license and an International Driving license which is not always accepted. This was going to be especially problematic in England (as the main bulk of our driving in this last part of our travels was going to be in the UK). Thankfully, both days we rented cars in Dubrovnik worked out and the temporary license was accepted.
Our first car rental took us into the rugged coast line of Croatia. We were headed to one of the main wine growing regions in Croatia. After driving the windy, twisting roads through the hilly landscape of Croatia, we came to the little peninsula housing some of the finest wineries in the area. We stopped at three places; all small family-owned wineries. There we got to sample some of the most delicious wines I have ever had. One of the wineries gave us a tour of the cellar. This particular winery still kept some of the wine in the traditional clay amphora jars like something right out of Greek legend. The nice thing about these wineries is that we got to chat with the owners. At the last winery we went to, we chatted a little bit about the owner’s daughter and how the school system works in the area. As there is not enough of a population to keep a school open on the peninsula, most kids go to Dubrovink for High School staying in the town during the week and coming home on the weekends. After our visit was over, we took the slightly more scenic path home. This entailed us driving through this unlit, single-lane tunnel through the hill. We just hoped we didn’t meet anyone in the middle! Coming out the other side, we got to see glorious views of the coast with vineyards stretching down the hills. One of the owners said that many of the vineyards are only accessible by donkey still to this day. As is usual when we use Google Maps, our path led us along very twisty, one lane roads. Not being used to these roads, we tended to go very slowly so it was a little unnerving when we were faced with oncoming locals racing along the roads as if they were about to miss some important engagement. One turn involved a very tight turn. However, as I tried to reverse up the hill to try and turn the wheels, the car would roll forwards towards the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t seem to reverse it without moving forwards more towards the edge! Suddenly, I realized that the car believed that I was trying to parallel park and was trying to move the car using the sensors. Once I disabled this function, we were able to reverse properly and get ourselves around the tight corner. It was a little nerve-wracking though!
The second outing we did was to a new country. Croatia is a very thin country and a quick trip into the hills brought us to a completely new country: Bosnia! We were headed to the old town of Mostar which is famous for its medieval streets and bridge, which spans the river Neretva. The old section of the city is very alluring. We headed down to the riverbank for some great views of the bridge. On the bridge were some men who were preparing to dive. Apparently, this is an old custom here. However, in recent years, they have put a new spin on it where they ask for money before diving. The men do not dive until they feel they have gotten enough of a “donation”. We finally did see one of the men dive and it was pretty spectacular. There were lots of great views of the bridge but the best view was from the top of a spire belonging to the old mosque. I’m not sure if the mosque was still being used for worship but, for a small fee, you could go inside and up into the tower, which had stunning views of the river, old town and the bridge. It was neat to walk through the old mosque. The only other mosque we had been in was in Istanbul where we toured the Blue Mosque. This was not quite at the same level but it was still very interesting. After wandering the streets a bit more (and having our requisite ice cream cone), we headed back into the car and headed back to Dubrovnik ready to face the multiple checkpoints along the way. Heading to Mostar, we only had one border crossing to face. However, as we were coming back a different route, we were going to be facing 3 different sets of checkpoints. Croatia is very interesting as it is separated in one spot by a strip of land belonging to Bosnia. This strip of land allows Bosnia to have access to the Mediterranean and goes back to an old agreement between the kingdom of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. However, it also means that you have to go through a few checkpoints to actually get back to Dubrovnik. From Mostar, we entered Croatia, then we hit the strip belonging to Bosnia, then we re-entered Croatia. Lots of stops and starts.
The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent wandering around. I spent some time looking for the spots where they had filmed Game of Thrones scenes. The best spot for this was the area where they filmed scenes showing King’s Landing. This was a little harbour just outside the main walls of the town between the two fortresses. It is a very pretty little harbour and not nearly as crowded as I thought it would be. We also found the spots where scenes from “The Last Jedi” movie were filmed. For that movie, they actually took the entire main boulevard and added facades to all the shop entrances to make it look more like a different planet. One of the other things we did was see a movie. The old town of Dubrovnik actually has a little tiny movie theatre right in the main square. There are only two theatres but they do show English language movies from time to time (with subtitles in Croatian). The new Aladdin movie had just come out, so we trooped down there on a rainy day and enjoyed some movie time. It was actually well worth the trip as the movie was very cheap. A movie with two large popcorns came out to be less than half of what it would have cost us in North America. I think it came out to be about $24 Canadian, which is a great deal for a first run 3D movie!
And that was it for our time in Dubrovnik. While we had enjoyed a more relaxing visit, nine days was probably too much time for Dubrovnik. If we were to plan it again, we might have attempted to explore more of the countryside or added a few more days onto our time in Germany. Despite that, we really enjoyed our time in Dubrovnik. It made a huge difference being able to stay inside the walls as I don’t think we would have enjoyed it as much otherwise. In the early morning or late afternoon, we would see the children coming and going from school, restaurants setting up for the day and locals heading out for their daily shopping. We got to sip coffee in the late afternoon as the tour groups headed back to their ships and enjoy our Croatian wine from the stoop of our little apartment. It was a relaxing re-introduction to the European way of life.