I catch the earliest water taxi to Dubrovnik. On the way, I pass the remnants of the Kupari Resort a former Yugoslavia military retreat that catered to the elite of the Yugoslav People’s Army. Built sometime between the two World Wars on prime real estate on a secluded beach just south of Dubrovnik. It was once home to a lavish complex of five hotels. Today, as I gaze and wonder, the Kupari resort is in ruins. In 1991, the Yugoslav Army seemed to take revenge and shelled the shit out of the place its former offices lavished themselves in extravagant luxury. I wonder who owns the property today, and will it ever revel in its former glory given the mass influx of tourists the area entertains every year? For now, it looks like what it is, a war-torn reminder of the Balkan apocalypse.
Once again I enter the old town from the south. There’s a fancy yacht complete with a helicopter parked in the smaller harbor. I did not understand when I disembarked, but I would soon learn that there here are at least five cruise ships moored in the northern harbor outside old town Dubrovnik. Today I visit a much different Dubrovnik.
What doesn’t change is that the city is gorgeous. It is well preserved, and the stories these walls have seen beg telling. Like the grim reality of the 1667 earthquake that killed more than half its population. Leveling the town sparing only St. Saviour Church, the Revelin Fortress, Sponza Palace and the Lazaretto.
Back then, the leadership of Dubrovnik relied not only on the imposing walls and gates to protect the city. The city created the first quarantine in the world. You see, because its maritime base brought an influx of trade and people from all over the world, those arriving by ship were quarantined in the Lazarettos. They would have to wait outside the walls and inside one of several Lazaretto buildings until cleared for entrance.
Constructed in perhaps the most seismically active area in Croatia, Dubrovnik sits on a tiny peninsula that juts into the aquamarine waters of the Adriatic. Over the years, the city suffered the wrath of destruction, disease, and devastation caused by many earthquakes. In 1520 a smaller quake scared but also spared the city from much damage. Thankful, yet fearful more would come, this quake inspired city leaders to commission a new church. The new church would serve as gratitude to God for saving the city from more damage and death. It was also a prayer seeking a promise from God that the city be free from further destruction. The prayer didn’t work, however. Though much more destruction came from the 1667 quake, the church is one of the few structures that stood after the rumble and the fires.
Next to the St. Saviour Church is the Franciscan Monastery which originally sat outside the city walls. Realizing this was a lousy location, city leadership ordered a new monetary built inside the fortress. Like other buildings, the 1667 earthquake severely damaged the new monastery. Even during reconstruction, the Franciscan Monastery continued to serve patients with one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, continuously operating here since 1317.
Just across from the Monastery with its legendary pharmacy and library, sits the current tourist information office. This building during the14th and 15th centuries was a convent. It was here that the nuns created and operated the first organized orphanage in all of Europe.
I discover and detail this history about Dubrovnik not because I can indeed get near these historical buildings this morning. I cannot. The throngs of tourists cramming through Pile Gate is astounding. The crush of people entering this city reminds me of crowds lining up to get into Disneyland. Like I did yesterday, most of these tourists, over one million in 2018 so far, will each pay about twenty Euros for the privilege of walking the city walls. Yeah, I guess Dubrovnik is just another amusement park, lined with cafes, souvenir shops, and ATMs.
The $25 million raised by the entrance fee is managed by a nonprofit where all the proceeds go to improving and advancing the old town. This is a luxury, I learn, that no other destination in the Balkans can claim. Support from local and national governments for tourism and historical preservation is minuscule. While some international aid and nonprofit organizations offer assistance, the support and funds typically take years and usually are encumbered by complex policies and bureaucratic minutia.
I escape the crowds down one of the narrow ways that splinter off the main drag, the Stradun. Here I see a man collecting trash and dumping into containers connected to the first motorized vehicle I’ve seen in Dubrovnik, so far. It seems some money is well spent and town leaders recognize the importance of keeping the amusement park clean and tidy.
I round a corner as I wander the maze of side streets and alleys when a clueless tourist, staring up in the sky, jerks her body around and knocks me in the face with her selfie-stick. “Did you get the shot?” I ask. She doesn’t speak English and sheepishly turns and walks away.
I look up, and instead of staring and myself through my phone, I realize that most of the buildings lining these alleys are three stories. There are no billboards, obnoxious signs, or other hints of consumerism gone mad, save the “Game of Thrones” displays in street-side shop windows. Thanks to UNESCO mandated rules, the exterior of buildings are similar, and signs for shops and streets all adhere to the same style.
Here in Dubrovnik, dating back to the 14th century where shipowners operated a business on the ground floor, lived and slept on the second floor, and cooked and dined on the third or top floor. Even back in the 14th century, the Republic of Dubrovnik enforced zoning or building safety code practices. It supervised construction so that kitchens only be built on the top floor in the event a fire would break out.
The more I try, the more I relent. I look for solace and points of historical or artistic interest, anything colorful, textured, and compositionally interesting to point the lens of my camera. But everywhere I look, every tacit turn I make, every stumble on these streets paved in marble, all I find are crowds. Why not, I wonder, just take their photos?
The banner waving, umbrella-toting, and flag flying tour guides and cruise directors lead the hordes of tourists through the city. Some wearing bad microphones connected to tinny speakers, others try to exercise decorum fit their passengers with receivers with earpieces while they spout into transmitters. Perhaps less invasive, but still intrusive.
The amusement park is at capacity today. I long to get away from the crowds, so rather than wait in line for the thrilling ride up to the top of Mount Srd on the Dubrovnik Cable Car, I hitch a ride with a few other travelers. Up here the views are breathtaking. And for the first time today, I look down at the city, and I cannot see a tourist.
Oh, there are tourists up here with me taking in the same view. After I snap a handful of pictures, I notice a beautiful woman standing nearby. Her lips glisten in the late morning light which also makes her amber eyes sparkle. The breeze tosses her hair in her eyes. With her slender and French-manicured fingers she delicately moves it back. She’s different from anyone else up here. She’s not holding a phone or a camera. Instead, she peers down on the old town, seemingly in contemplation or meditation. I cannot escape the siege she has on me and my mind. I move closer, and then openly share with her my curiosity.
“Hi,” I brake the ice. “It’s stunning isn’t it?” She agrees.
“I have to say I’m impressed. You are the only person on this mountain not taking pictures, selfies, or glued to a device. Good for you.”
She smiles, her eyes capture the light. She moves the hair from her face.
“My boyfriend,” she points to a young guy who has jumped the fence and is precariously standing on a rock taking a selfie. “He’s taking the pictures.” She glances at him, smiles.
Personally, I wonder if he will fall. He’s taking a picture of himself. Speculating for a moment, I think his girlfriend would be a much better subject—on this side of the fence. The guy moves to the left, then backward. He seems to struggle to get the shot. For a moment, I reflect on the young woman who fell to her death while taking a selfie on the cliffs in Greece, high above Porto Katsiki beach in Lefkada. I turn to the woman once more.
“I hope he gets good shots.” I walk away, and for a moment I think to myself I should take her picture. It’s part of the story. Would that be weird? I ponder but keep walking.
Dubrovnik is beautiful. Despite my brush with selfie-obsessed, “Game of Thrones” fanatics, and ATMs, I feel good about my time here in Dubrovnik and am pleased and have been well-rewarded for taking a second day in the old town.