Last night, the battery was still too weak to crank the engine after dinner. The good news is that there was a slight charge as the instrument and operating lights work. After breakfast, I recruited two bellhops who helped me push and jump start the bike. I didn’t need two, as with both pushing unevenly, I fought to keep balance. So we shoved Doc up to the top of the driveway, and just one of the bellman ran while pushing me down the driveway. I popped the bike into second gear, and Doc started right up. To charge the battery, I took a scenic cruise down the coast and back.
I must also find a room for the night, the Sheraton is sold out. Turn out that Sheraton owns a couple apartments down the street. They don’t honor points for these properties, but the location was perfect and though more expensive than I’m used to paying, saving time is more important than saving a few kunas (the Croatian currency) this time around.
Now it’s time to explore the old town of Dubrovnik. For the past few weeks, I’ve listened to warnings from other travelers. They warned me Dubrovnik is overcrowded with tourists. I prefer to travel off the beaten track, but some places are mandatory, like Machu Picchu, Rome, Barcelona and Paris—all very touristed locations I’ve visited in the past. Then again, I’ve traveled to Lalibela, Lesotho, and Talampaya—places not well known.
I’ve got to visit Dubrovnik at least once.
The good news is I can take a water taxi to the old town and enter it from the eastern, or Ploce Gate and away from the hordes entering through the busier western Pile Gate by boat, bus, or plane.
For much of Dubrovnik’s over 800-year history, the only way into the walled fortress was through one of these gates. Though in 1907, the Austro-Hungarian’s build a third, the Buda Gate.
The long wooden skiff that ushers visitors from the southern beaches and resorts pulls up to the small loading dock near my hotel. Another couple is waiting to board with me, and we motor on into the Adriatic, stopping once to pick up passengers at another beach and then moved north toward Dubrovnik.
The approach from the South is impressive. First, we whiz by Lokrum Island, home to a monastery and botanical gardens and then as we motor closer to the old port, the imposing St. John Fortress, ominous towers and massive city walls tell of Dubrovnik’s medieval past.
Travelers had warned me about Dubrovnik. First, in Greece, they advised me of maddening crowds. Then, a week ago the Czech travelers said while they enjoyed the beauty and history, the tourists and rampant kitschy consumerism left them with a bad taste. They lamented the possibility of spending more time in Albania had they not wasted precious travel days here.
The boat drops us near the Ploce gate, and soon I’m walking down the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main promenade, or street. There are no cars, not even an electric cart. It’s about 4pm, and while it’s near the end of the busy tourist season, I’m told Dubrovnik is experiencing longer and longer seasons. One vendor tells me that in a year or two, there will be no off-season. The tourists come all year round.
I walk across the polished stones of the Stradun. Behind me is Ploce gate where I entered, and about 300 meters east is Pile Gate. Along the way, I’m taken back by the number of ATMs lining the Stradun. I count. By the time I reach the Onofrio Fountain outside Pile Gate, I’ve run out of fingers and toes—over 20 cash machines in just 250 meters. I think that’s more than I saw in the entire country of Bosnia.
To get a better understanding of the history of the old town and the Dubrovnik and Regusa (Italians were here too) Republic, I look for a guide offering a historical walking tour. The smartly dressed woman with knee-high boots, wearing ruby red lipstick, and carrying a bright orange umbrella tells me she’s about to start a tour featuring sites from the HBO hit series, “Game of Thrones.” Yes, she tells me they will also cover basic history. When I ask her if I can join just the history portion, she points out that the two subjects flow together. I think, “great,” you get both fake history with some crumbs of actual history. I only want the crumbs.
I’ve seen a few episodes of “Game of Thrones,” as I have little time to watch or stream television. What I learn is that many memorable scenes of the popular series were filmed here in Old Town Dubrovnik, or “Kings Landing” as it’s known in the show. To be sure, Dubrovnik has always been a popular Balkan tourist destination. However, since the secret about “Game of Thrones” got out, the number of tourists visiting Dubrovnik has more than doubled over the past few years.
On the one hand, I find it offensive a fantasy television show drives interest and tourism in what, on its own, is this fabulously well-preserved medieval town with a rich history of its own. Who needs fiction? Yet, in the windows and on shelves of tourist shops, it’s hard to find anything but junky and disposable “Game of Thrones” kitsch.
It would be admirable if tourists drawn to this town because of the show would leave Dubrovnik with a fresh awakening and interest in history. I can fantasize, but there are more “Game of Thrones” tours and information than the alternative.
Tourism aside, I walk atop the two kilometers of walls that for hundreds of years protected this city. From here I can see to the south Lokrum Island, and to the north the St. Lawrence Fortress which sits on a bluff outside these walls. I’m alone as I walk the walls, surprisingly. Peering down on the Stradun, the city is quieter than I expected, given the fair warnings from other travelers.
Some walls reach eighty feet high and in places are twenty feet thick. Surrounding the entire city, at one time, was a moat. Drawbridges hoisted up at night with large chains controlled entrance and exit of the city. Along the Adriatic, the walls drop into the sea atop Dubrovnik’s rocky shore. From the land and sea, the walls protected this city from attack for hundreds of years.
As I’ve traveled the Balkans and traveled many miles to explore and gaze upon fortresses built by Romans, Venetians, and the Ottomans, here in Dubrovnik with its clear medieval routes and a diverse mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the city seems absent of any Ottoman influence.
While the Ottoman’s wreaked havoc on the Balkans and at various times of its five hundred year history in these parts, it invaded, occupied or ruled every square inch of land from Greece to Slovenia—except Dubrovnik. Due to its proximity to the Adriatic Sea, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the 13th Century during the Fourth Crusade, Dubrovnik, then known as Regusa, was invaded by the Venetians and developed into the Venetians southern Adriatic naval base. Dubrovnik negotiated a degree of independence from the Venetians by allowing unfettered access to its port.
The Republic never had a strong military, but where it lacked in firepower, it more than made up in diplomatic skills. Later, in the 14th Century, Dubrovnik (the Republic of Ragusa at the time) became an autonomous republic after the Venetians signed the Treaty of Zadar with Hungarian King Louis I, which forced them to abandon any claims along the Adriatic.
Some one-hundred years later when the Ottomans were collecting land in the region, using its legendary diplomatic skills the Republic of Dubrovnik signed with them a treaty that gave Turks access to its port and opened them to trade along the Adriatic. The Republic of Dubrovnik managed the trade business for the Ottomans. This provided Dubrovnik additional benefits such as access to trade along the Black Sea, tax exemptions, and protection granted by the Ottoman Empire.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Dubrovnik enjoys international awareness, investment, and plenty of tourists. The old town is well preserved though in 1667 a massive earthquake destroyed almost every building in the town. Then, in during the Siege of Dubrovnik in the old town suffered massive shelling for two months by the Yugoslav People’s Army. It astonishes me that our humanity, that people, would level attacks against an ancient site so rich in history. During the siege, many buildings burned blew up or crumbled. Gazing down from these walls into the web of small streets and alleys that crisscross the tiny walled peninsula, I realize how bright and shiny the orange roofs appear. Most were re-roofed due to fires and damage from the siege.
This afternoon the old town is devoid of passengers from cruise ships. Only a few small groups wander the Stradun. Though I notice one ship docked in the eastern harbor, I surmise they must have all left the city before I got here. I’m lucky. No wonder it’s so quiet.
I continue my walk on the walls. Huge towers on the corners of the walled fortress dominate Dubrovnik’s presence. On the southwest side of town, just outside the sea walls, sunbathers and swimmers find refuge from the heat and the crowds. After circling the entire city, I climb back downtown. I see even more ATMs on the side streets, but also find that the cafes, boutique shops, and polished marble pathways positively endearing. There’s not much to do in Dubrovnik, save wander around, imagine the city in a different time, and watch people.
I find a seat at a cafe at the far end of the Stradun, near the clock tower and watch people and relax while sipping a cold draft beer. The mix of languages from others sitting nearby piques my curiosity. Before I can decipher and locate the language and dialect, the screeching and squeaking of dozens of bats overhead steal my attention. It’s dawn, and they’re playfully flying high above the Stradun, and yet those strolling the promenade or sipping coffee at the cafes don’t seem to notice. I raise my camera but feel it’s futile, yet I try to grab a photo that might capture the moment.
Later while wandering the narrow streets, I stumble upon a grand stairway that looks like a scaled-down version of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Though I’m on a wider street, this isn’t the Piazza di Spagna, but a passing tour guide explains that this baroque staircase is knowns as the Jesuit Stairs. They climb to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit College. Like most buildings in Dubrovnik, they constructed the church and the staircase after the 1667 earthquake that devastated Dubrovnik. Yes, she mentions, they were modeled after the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. Just as she’s walking away, she turns around. “Oh, and this is where they filmed “The Walk of Shame” in the “Game of Thrones.”
Hmmmm. Good to know, I guess.
Later I try to get a solo table at one of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Dubrovnik, but they are fully booked. I decide on a more casual option off the main Stradun. I chose Steakhouse Paparazzo due to its location adjacent to the cathedral and proximity to Ploce Gate. When I look at the wine list, I realize that they offer wine from only one producer, Saints Hills Vinaria. I find this odd and question the waiter.
“We have only Saints Hills, here. We have an agreement,” he explains. I question this.
“You cannot have an agreement with other wineries?” I ask. “I think your customers would like to try different Croatian wines.”
My suggestion falls on deaf ears; he doesn’t have a say, anyway. I ask the owner, an older gentlemen, but his English and my Croatian are insufficient to have a more in-depth conversation. So I order a glass at his suggestion and finish my meal.
I just make the last departure on the water taxi. The lights of Dubrovnik and the orange glow of the city walls fade as we head south. The drone of the engine drowns out the otherwise quiet night.
Tomorrow I’ll return to Dubrovnik once more. I guess that means I’ll visit the old town twice before making my way back to the Peljesac Peninsula where I hope to gain a Croatian wine education that goes beyond Saints Hills.