To Dubrovnik and beyond: busy but beautiful

Our Facebook posts of our trip to Croatia and Italy show sunshine, coffee and pastries, cocktails, wine and beautiful landscapes. What the photos don’t show is the crazy, exhausting whirlwind of unfamiliar people and places in unseasonably hot autumn weather. Or the sense of being caught up in a mindless global madness to visit the latest most celebrated picturesque places.

Even though it was early September, light-headedness and dehydration threatened as we traipsed the smooth-worn stone steps and paths of Dubrovnik’s medieval wall together with countless other people. Many more had preceded us and many hundreds would follow in a non-stop single-file procession throughout the day despite the 200 kuna (NZ$50) fee. In 2018, over a million tourists visited Dubrovnik; and in August 2016, a record 10,000 walked the wall in a single day. Dubrovnik has now imposed a limit of 4000 people a day entering the old town through the city gates.

The peak summer season was over when we arrived, the European school children back at school, but still as we had a late breakfast outdoors at the Cafe Festival in the main street, the Stradun,  we watched appalled as busloads of people spilled in from cruise ships. Dubrovnik’s old town, even more than Venice, has become a Disneyesque attraction, a theme park where everything is geared to tourists. During the day, in the walled medieval Old Town where much of Game of Thrones was filmed, few local people were there. They were only to be seen if we got up early in the morning, making deliveries before the streets become too crowded. The population is a fifth of what it was, down from around 5000 to just 1500. The shop and cafe workers we spoke to lived out of the old town, or neighbouring countries like Bosnia to work during the tourist season. The wine bar was staffed by the family who owned the vineyard and winery outside of Dubrovnik.

Later that day, we went in search of the two hidden bars situated on rocks on the side of a cliff, each of which you get to through a hole in the wall. You don’t actually need to climb through; arch doorways are cut in to the city wall. Now that they’re marked on Google Maps. they’re not actually difficult to find and there’s some signposting as you get near. Stil there was the thrill of being an explorer in unknown territories. Once we got there, the drinks were expensive but the scenic locations hard to beat.

Our well-worn Airbnb apartment had been part of a three-level family home. Now the ground floor was rented out to a travel agency that took bookings for boat and bus tours; from the travel agency, stairs led up to our two rooms plus basic kitchen and bathroom; further up the stairs was another apartment to let. The family still owned it; but they had moved into the new part of town. Though the Airbnb listing was by English-speaking sisters, Marija and Petra, it was their father who met us, helped us up with our bags, and seemed to be there each day as people came and went. The daughers presumably had a job elsewhere, so the family made the most of the opportunities of Dubrovnik’s still increasing popularity.

In the cooler evening,  the women emerge solitary in faded dresses to buy a few necessities from the two grocers that remain. They move slowly, head down, keeping to the edges of the street to avoid acknowledgement of the invaders whose presence has marginalised them within their own town. For the elderly, it’s too crowded to navigate the cobblestone streets while the day-trippers are there. And they stand out, objects of curiosity for the passing parade of visitors. 

We watched from a wine bar one evening as visitors headed unheeding up the paved narrow street, stopped abruptly 50 yards short of the end, and made a U-turn. A handful of elderly women had brought out chairs from their care home, carving out a territory that clearly signaled no throughway  to any outsider. 

Cafes, restaurants, and boutiques selling Italian linen dresses, traditional embroidery and coral jewellery, and Game of Throne mementos now line the streets. Shops selling daily essentials are hard to find, though apparently there are a couple of barbers and a tiny post office on a side street. The one bookshop stocks books in multiple languages. 

On a short city walking tour, one of many on offer, our tour guide Anna told us that people move to live outside of the ancient walled towns, at least for the summer, if not altogether. In Dubrovnik’s Old Town, renting out an apartment for a week can bring in the equivalent of a month’s income (around 6,400 kuna or NZ$1600). 

But in Korcula, quieter and less overrun, the shopkeepers sitting outside in the lane waiting for customers and smoking, were happy to exchange smiles and a few words. When we ventured in to look, there wasn’t the overwrought attention we’d experienced in Dubrovnik where, despite the thronged streets, the shop owners were very aware that the tourist season was fast coming to an end and the old town would all but close down for the winter. 

Relaxed and friendly as Korcula was, we felt our role as outsiders as we looked on from a distance while a real-life drama played out. It was Sunday evening, and we were waiting for a concert of Bach cantatas by the Croatian Baroque Ensemble to begin at nine o’clock in Sveti Marko, the Cathedral of St Mark. A stout local woman was splayed on stone steps, being fanned by another while others stood round conferring. She had been in church, for the service, and had been overcome by the heat. Outside it was only a bit cooler and scarcely breezy; she didn’t look good. Her friend rubbed her legs and stayed for an hour or more as others dispersed, except for a younger man, perhaps, we hoped, a doctor or medic of some sort. By the time the concert finished, they had gone; and the next day we moved on to Hvar.

We’d foregone trips inland in favour of some island-hopping and had no regrets . From Korcula, we caught ferries that stopped off at several nearby islands and went swimming in between cocktails. To get to Hvar, we also took a ferry; and from Hvar we went on a boat tour of caves and islands with more swimming, and snorkelling too.

Our last stop just for a night and a day was the port city of Split. After the beauty of the beaches. and Dubrovnik, my impressions were of a hot, flat, busy place. We did some whirlwind shopping in the market stalls that seemed to be everywhere. Both of us ended up with more than one Italian linen dress for between $25 and $50 New Zealand dollars, a whole lot cheaper than the $199 they sell for at the mall back home. Once we’d exhausted our shopping rush, we asked directions to the medieval palace without realising we were in it. The hundreds of market stalls surround the very narrow lanes and buildings of the palace complex, which is now filled with boutiques, bars and restaurants, but lovely for all that.

We took the Italian-owned SNAV ferry overnight from Split to Ancoma on the Italian coast. We watched the sunset and the lights of Split recede, then feasted on a picnic of salami, cheese and tomatoes before settling down to a sound night’s sleep in our comfortable en-suite cabin. Trains took us on the rest of our travels through Umbria and Tuscany, Florence and Venice. That time too confirmed for me a preference for villages over cities, for stunning landscapes over must-see attractions, and places where local life continues much as always over hotspots overwhelmed by tourism.