I’ve never been to Disneyland, but I have been to Dubrovnik.
On the first morning, I wake at daybreak and join my sister, Gill, downstairs in the lane where she’s gone for the first smoke of the day. Out on the Stradun—the wide main street of the walled Old Town—it’s empty and hushed but for the clatter on limestone of a scattering of hand-carts taking fresh produce to the market, a three-wheel truck delivering crates of wine to cafes, and sporadic bursts of voices calling to one another. They are the stagehands, the scene setters. Soon their job is done and they disappear.
When the Cafe Festival on the far side of the Stradum opens, we take our seats at an outdoor table for breakfast. A straggle of sightseers arrive on foot, then droves of day-trippers wash in through the Pile Gate, wave after wave of them. What was an empty stage is transformed into a crowded street scene. People gaze, chatter, and point at the striking pale gold, stone facades of the three-storey buildings that line the length of the Stradun, the teal shutters at every window, and the charming vistas up the steep narrow lanes on either side.
The wait staff are bustling and brusque but we ask anyway, “Is it always this busy?” Our waiter tells us, “Six thousand people a day were coming in from the cruise ships. Too many. Now there’s a limit of 4000 a day. But those people just come and look. They don’t stay. They go back to the ship for meals.” Unlike us. In this light, even our drinking seems virtuous, a contribution to the local economy. We’re staying for three nights, eating out, and drinking both in and out. After afternoon cocktails—Margarita for me, Piña Colada for Gill—comes red wine with dinner. Then we go in search of an extra bottle of budget wine for Gill each evening as well as her daily supply of cheap cigarettes.
We watch riveted as the influx continues, many drawn to see the intact and stunning medieval locations where Game of Thrones was filmed. Some people are drawn by the aroma of fresh bread and the sight of sweet pastries in the bakery window and a long line develops: we vow to be there ourselves early next morning. Others, like us, are undeterred by the 200 kuna ($50) fee to join the continuous flow of visitors threading their way along the city wall that encloses the Old Town. The stone wall, built to deter marauders, is now smoothed and polished by a hundred thousand footsteps to a slippery surface that’s worn down further whenever safety concerns decree it needs to be roughened up.
The outlook from above the Old Town is of a jumble of sloping tiled orange roofs and blue-grey tiled domes packed close, stretching all the way to the brilliant azure blue of the Adriatic Sea beyond. It’s September, autumn, but the temperature is a stifling, wooze-inducing 35 degrees. I’d noticed the first-aid station near the entrance to the wall. I just have to get the rest of the way round without actually fainting. I buy more iced water from the ice-cream stand tucked into a recess in the wall.
Out in the cooler evening, with the hordes gone, a woman makes her way down the street with a string shopping bag. She stands out. Elderly, solitary, in a faded cotton dress, she moves slowly, head down, keeping to the edges of the Stradun, avoiding any acknowledgement of us, the uninvited guests. She heads for one of the two small grocer’s stores that remain, banished to the back streets by the invasion of Italian linen dresses, lavender, lace, and embroidered aprons that fill the narrow ground-floor tourist shops.
Seated at a small family wine bar, we see a handful of elderly women, residents of a rest home, set up chairs outside in the cool of the evening. A group of visitors drift unheeding, up the paved narrow street, halt abruptly 50 yards short of the gathering, and made a U-turn. The women have carved out a territory that clearly signals no throughway to any outsider. It’s another small glimpse of local life. The wine bar owner tells us, “Come back in winter if you want to see the real Dubrovnik. It snows, it’s beautiful, there’s a procession.”
We head back to the Airbnb we’ve rented from sisters Marija and Petra. We don’t meet them—they must have jobs somewhere—but their father, whose name we never know and whose English is more limited, carried our bags upstairs when we arrived. “This was our home,” he told us as he led into what, by virtue of an old desk and some tattered travel posters, was a tour agency, then up to two shabby but air-conditioned bedrooms, and a tiny airless kitchen and bathroom. “Now we live in the new town.”
Renting out an apartment in the Old Town for a week can bring in the equivalent of a month’s income. Two-thirds of the population have moved out to make room and money from the increasing torrent of tourists. Anna, our walking-tour guide, tells of growing up in the war of the early 1990s. She points out King’s Landing and Red Keep, fictional locations from Game of Thrones. We shouldn’t be too surprised if emboldened by alcohol, a naked male tourist re-enacts Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame down the stone stairway of the Jesuit Staircase. Dubrovnik was seeming more and more like a theme park.
We take a ferry to our next port of call, Korcula Town on the island of Korcula. There, within the old town walls, we sit in another lane outside another Airbnb so Gill can smoke, and exchange companionable greetings with the proprietor of the next-door gallery who also sits outside smoking, waiting for a customer to come along. We become aware of a small commotion up on the main street. A stout elderly woman is splayed on stone steps, being fanned by another while others stand around conferring. Our Airbnb host passes by; tells us she was at the Sunday service and was overcome by the heat. Outside it is only a bit cooler and there’s scarcely a breeze; she doesn’t look good. We watch as we wait for a concert of Bach cantatas to begin in the same church. Her friend rubs her legs, stays with her for an hour or more as others disperse, except for a younger man, perhaps, we hope, a doctor or medic of some sort. But does a small town on an island in Croatia have a doctor to call? By the time the concert finishes, they have gone.
The next day we move on to Hvar and we never know how the drama ends. We are the audience, not the players, there for the show, then gone.