I’m going to let my American readers in on a little secret: the best place to enjoy the Mediterranean is the coast of Croatia. I didn’t know this myself until my four-day visit to Dubrovnik became a fourteen-day trip along the length of the country.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d sort of assumed Croatia was still recovering from the war in the ’90s, and therefore wasn’t a great place for visitors, but that ridiculous idea was immediately proven wrong as I walked the streets of Dubrovnik (which has been a World Heritage site for over 30 years, and which charmed my mother when her family went on vacation there in the ’60s–its been attracting tourists for awhile). Croatia has recovered just fine, thankyouverymuch, and it’s one of the more popular vacation spots for Europeans.
I rented an audio tour of the city walls of Dubrovnik, and the theme of the tour was how much the people of the city have always valued liberty above all. Dubrovnik was a city-state for several centuries, and all its (male) inhabitants were citizens. There were no slaves. They also abolished participating in the slave trade in 1416, centuries before the rest of the world caught up.
With major power Venice just across the Adriatic, smaller Dubrovnik had to do some maneuvering to maintain a measure of autonomy. It was a big trading power until the 17th century, when shifts in trading routes and a major earthquake changed the city’s fortunes. Still, the city remained a republic until Napoleon’s forces came through in 1806, and later it fell under Austro-Hungarian rule.
As with any medieval town, Dubrovnik was built within sturdy city walls. The approach from land was rocky and mountainous, so the main concern was an attack by sea. Walking the two kilometers of city walls, you can look at the islands dotting the sea and the cruise ships docking for an afternoon, and then you can turn in and see the back gardens of people’s homes, church basketball courts, laundry hanging limply in the still, hot air. Being at roof level makes for a different view, and all the buildings are topped in the same curved, orange-ish tile, which is striking against the deep blue of the sea.
There are several churches and grand buildings in the old town. Probably my favorite was actually the courtyard, or cloisters, of the Dominican monastery. The columns and decorative touches were particularly graceful, and greenery and orange trees filled the open space in the middle.
The Rector’s Palace had quite a few paintings and treasures, but my favorite part about it was sitting on a ledge on the second floor of the open courtyard and listening to two women rehearse for a violin and piano concert later that evening.
One afternoon, I took a ferry to the island of Lopud, then walked across the island for about 40 minutes, at which point I was rewarded with Sunj Beach, the only sandy beach for miles. It was a lovely little spot, with shallow and warm water. I made friends with a six-year-old French girl and her grandparents, read my book, took a dip, and then shared the cost of the golf cart taxi ride back across the island so I wouldn’t miss the last ferry back.
Dubrovnik had many other lovely spots: churches made of marble and white stone, a cable car that climbed the hill overlooking the city to give a good view, the tower rebuilt after it started to lean like the one in Pisa, a massive fountain greeting people as soon as they walk through the impressive gates at the southwestern entrance, dozens of alleys and steep side streets leading past ivy- and flower-bedecked buildings. Despite the masses of June tourists blocking the main roads (myself included), it was still a charming place, steeped in history but not frozen in time, and I hope to visit again.