Two Sides of a Beautiful City
Dubrovnik is a happy memory in a very special time for us. It’s where history and beauty meet in a city by the sea, and it’s probably the most beautiful city we’ve ever lived in. We split our time in Dubrovnik between two different parts of the city and we really got to see a lot of the area. Life is simple there and it was a great place for us to learn more about ourselves.
That could have gone better
We’re trapped in a movie theater lobby. The lights are off. Everyone has gone home. We see the only other couple who was at the late-night 3D screening of “Passengers” wandering around the darkened concession area, clearly as bewildered as we are. How do you get out of here? The 3-screen movie theater, and small shopping center it’s a part of, are completely abandoned. It’s after midnight, there’s no one to call out to, and we are clearly trapped inside. We didn’t know what the experience of, “calling the police in Croatia” would be like but we didn’t want to find out. Especially not when you’re inside of a building that’s supposed to be locked!
Out of options, we backtracked into the theater that we had just exited and headed for the emergency doors at the sides of the theater. To add to the pressure, we’re now being followed by the other trapped couple, who has clearly put all of their hope of escape in us. Cringing as I waited for the sound of an alarm, I pushed open the side door and… silence. We filtered out the door into a narrow sidewalk behind the theater. It was dimly lit and lined with tall bushes that had lost most of their leaves, giving everything that “Sleepy Hollow” vibe. Creepy factor aside, the path did lead us back to the street without incident. That was Croatia in a nutshell. “Just let yourself out when you’re done. And don’t mind the spooky walkway, it’s perfectly safe here.”
Weird, But Effective
So. Many. Stairs.
“Holy crap! Why are there so many stairs?” It’s something you’re sure to blurt out at one point, with no expectation of getting an answer. It will just be an observation that has to be remarked upon loudly in a moment of desperate exhaustion. Sure, Dubrovnik is a beautiful place. It’s downright postcard perfect in spots and it’s referred to as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” for a good reason. But the gorgeous scenery is just a bonus to the great butt you’ll develop after you’ve lived in Dubrovnik for a little while. Stairs are a way of life here.
We had two different apartments while living there, each with its own unique experience in separate parts of the city. For the first half of our stay, our Airbnb apartment was positioned high above the old town fortress with an amazing view of the Adriatic Sea. The place we rented was called the Rock Palace and we stayed in the White Rabbit Room there. It certainly wasn’t a palace, but it also didn’t lack character. The apartment was painted in multiple bright colors with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd themed bedrooms. The walls were decorated with album covers and black and white photos of rock stars from the 1970’s. Someone had clearly never forgiven themselves for missing Woodstock. The decorator turned out to be our host Zlatan. He’s a very nice guy who lives with his family above the White Rabbit apartment. He has pet turtles that roam the gaudily decorated yard in front of the building. Our cats freaked out when they saw their first turtle. We laughed our asses off.
Fun Fact. There were over four hundred stairs, up or down as stairs tend to go, between our home and old town. I know. I counted. (The number varied depending on the route we took but the number was always over 400) It also makes it very important that you don’t forget your camera back at the apartment and then remember it again after you get all the way to the bottom of the stairs. Go with the flow. Neither one of us was going to go back for it so we’ll just say it was meant to be. Some days are meant to go undocumented.
It was surreal for us to walk down the stairs from our home to an old fortress every day. You just don’t usually find fortresses and castles mixed into the landscape, when growing up in America, so it’s something we never got used to. Mimi had Excalibur Hotel I suppose, since she grew up in Las Vegas, but that’s not even close to the same thing. To live in a part of town that centered around a fortress was exciting for us and the view never got boring
Dinner inside the fortress walls, always had a romantic quality about it. We probably ate out more often then we should have but it’s hard not to love the way candlelight flickers off of massive stone walls while someone brings you wine. Of course, I think it’s beautiful any time someone brings me wine, but the atmosphere inside the walls really did add a lot.
Since it isn’t practical to have every meal at a restaurant, and with the added fact that we sometimes stay inside for days when working from home, food for the apartment had to be secured. Groceries were found at small markets with fairly limited choices. Labels were in Croatian and most brands we had never heard of, so pictures were very helpful at times. Pizza delivery was a challenge near old town without a local phone number, so we often found ourselves climbing up the stairs with bags full of food and water. Joining a gym seems completely unnecessary in Dubrovnik. Of course, I wasn’t looking for one, but I don’t think we saw one the entire time we were there.
It’s one of those overused catch phrases that travel writers say about every historic destination but I’m fairly shameless so I’m going to say it anyway. “Old Town is like stepping back in time.” (I promise to smack myself now) But seriously, it looks like an old fortress taken right out of fantasy novel. It has the big tower, the giant crenellated walls, and the whole thing is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. As a guy who played Dungeons and Dragons growing up, I thought it was awesome and I geeked out a little every time we approached the Pile Gate and crossed the moat.
Old town Dubrovnik technically consists of 5 fortresses, most of which are connected by the city walls. A stroll along the city wall could take you several hours, if you take your time to enjoy the incredible views. If you’ll allow me to play virtual tour guide with your imagination for a moment you can feel free to imagine me with a nasally voice over a loudspeaker. Fair is fair. We recommend starting your walk along the walls at the naval museum entrance. This way, you’ll pass the harbor first and get a feel of what it was like for the old ships to enter the city walls by sea.
As you continue along the city side of the walls, you’ll come to the tallest point, Minčeta Tower. The wide views you get from the top will give you a good idea of the size of the fortress, the layout of the walls, and how tightly packed the buildings are inside of the walls. City life back then was not for the claustrophobic.
Continuing from there you arrive at the walls most spectacular stretch. Standing on the wall looking across that rocky bay with the waves crashing on the rocks and Lovrijenac fort in the background, is a gift to any photographer. It’s beautiful and unless you stick your thumb over the lens, your pictures will probably come out great.
The last part of the walk follows along the ocean. With the sun shining off the Adriatic Sea and an island off in the background, it’s hard to imagine the savagery of pirates attacking. It feels really peaceful up there, as long as you don’t look at the canons scattered along the walls. Keep in mind that the time of year you visit will determine some part of your experience. In the middle of summer there are cruise ships spewing tourist all over the streets and blocking your view of the bay. It can make the old fortress a very crowded place to explore. On the flip side of that, we were there for the first half of January and it was a ghost town. Most of the restaurants have closed and a lot of the locals use the time to visit family in other cities. March-May or August-December are great times to visit. I’m sure it’s beautiful in June and July as well but we really enjoyed being there at a less hectic time.
After the first rains of winter, our Airbnb apartment overlooking the sea was in full bloom. As great as that might sound, what I really mean is that it developed a serious mold problem. Zlatan was gracious enough to let us out of our Airbnb agreement halfway through our three months, so we rented a place near Lapad Bay. Despite the hassle of having to move, we really liked the new apartment a lot. It also gave us an opportunity to explore a different part of Dubrovnik.
Apartment Coba Gallery, as it’s listed on Airbnb, is still probably our favorite place that we’ve ever rented. The hosts Neven and Antonia are wonderful people who foster stray cats that can be seen playing throughout their beautiful property. Our cats, Walter and Olive, really enjoyed that feature. Neven’s father was the famous Croatian artist Marijan Kockovic and some of his sculptures could be seen on display throughout the property. Serious works of art are not a normal feature with an Airbnb rental, so it felt pretty special. Neven and Antonia are both musicians and sometimes Neven and I would jam in his studio. Until I meet another host that can shred like Neven, he will be the undisputed king of Airbnb host.
Lapad Bay is that gorgeous place you imagine when you’re daydreaming at work. It’s a screen saver or stock wallpaper image that you can’t even imagine being real. It’s bay with a sandy beach and several rocky outcroppings on which people could spend the warm days sunning themselves. It was December by that time, so we never saw anyone do it, but I imagine it’s very nice in the summer. Walking down a mere 100 plus steps (it’s funny how your perspective changes) we would arrive at the water’s edge. To our right there was a peacefully winding, tree lined walking path that followed along the bay. To our left was a promenade lined with café’s, restaurants, and the movie theater that we got trapped in. It was great for about two weeks until everything shut down for the winter. For our last 18 days in Croatia there were two choices if we wanted to go out for dinner. One was a pizza place that hosted kid’s parties. It wasn’t our first choice when we thought of atmosphere but thankfully they delivered. So, there was never any reason for us to actually go there. The only real choice in Lapad was a Korean restaurant that our friend worked at. It was a no brainer when we went out. It seems odd to say but we had a lot of Korean food our last few weeks in Croatia.
Dubrovnik has some of the coolest bars in the world. There were two in particular that were accessed through nearly unmarked openings in the fortress wall. They felt exclusive in the respect that most people would probably have a really hard time finding them. Both offered a spectacular view of the Adriatic Sea while we enjoyed a cold beverage. They were smart enough to realize that when you have a place of such natural beauty, you let mother nature do the decorating. All a bar owner has to do is provide chairs, a little shade, some good tunes and alcohol.
Our favorite place inside the walls was D’Vino, a wine bar down one of the many narrow alleys that branch off from Old Town’s main street, Stradun. They have the friendliest and most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs in Dubrovnik and they like to play reggae music. It was inevitable that we would become friends. If you stop by, say “Hello!” to Toni and Anita for us.
There was one bar that we never got a chance to see because it was closed for renovations. It’s built into a cave near Lapad Bay and it’s supposed to be awesome. We’re bound to visit friends in Dubrovnik again at some point, so it gives us the perfect spot to meet up for drinks next time.
We both hate doing dishes. However, we both love going to restaurants. It’s been an unspoken assumption since early in our relationship that we’re going out for dinner unless someone feels motivated enough to cook for some reason. So, it’s only fair that we thank these restaurants for helping to keep us alive. Zuzori and Pantarul are wonderful fine dining choices without being overly expensive or pretentious. Nishta is a great vegetarian restaurant with food good enough to please anyone, even if you aren’t vegetarian. Presa is a great choice for cheap eats.
We wouldn’t call Dubrovnik a food lovers paradise. It has some good restaurants of course but I think Croatian food is still finding its own identity to some degree. Personally, I would recommend that they start with their coffee. We couldn’t find whole beans anywhere and I’m sorry, but instant coffee is not real coffee. I realize that people are entitled to have their own taste but that’s where I draw the line. Food can be subjective. Coffee is sacred.
While working at home one day, we suddenly started smelling smoke. Pulling our concentration away from our computer screens, we noticed smoke pouring in through the open window. We jumped up to investigate and noticed big flames shooting up from the yard just below ours. Huge piles of branches and various landscaping carnage was being burned about twenty feet from our open window. It was a big fire and I had serious doubts about how much control the guy supervising the burning, really had. With the language barrier it was hard to translate, “What the hell are you doing?” into Croatian but with the help of our charades skills, I think he understood our meaning. He assured us that everything was under control. At least I think he did. He mumbled something in Croatian, while waving a hand in our direction, and walked away. That had to be good sign, right? We closed our windows and got the cat carriers ready in case we needed to escape in a hurry. As fortune would have it, outside of a little black lung, we survived the incident unscathed.
Over the hills and through the woods
Split is a four-hour bus ride away from Dubrovnik. The scenery along the drive is both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Gorgeous scenery speeds past your window as the huge bus you’re on, tries to qualify for the grand prix. It’s definitely a city worth visiting if you have the time.
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and we took a few days to visit and see the Winter Markets there. It’s won best winter market in Europe from Trip Advisor for the last 2 years and while I’m not sure that I agree with that, they were very nice. It was a short flight from Dubrovnik and well worth the trip.
Winter Festival in Dubrovnik. Timing is everything they say, and we were lucky enough to attend the Winter Festival during our time in Dubrovnik. It’s not as large or picturesque as the markets in Germany but it’s still done with loads of holiday charm. Seeing the lights strung up along the streets of the old city proved definitively that Christmas lights can brighten up any space, including a stone fortress. Most of the cottages that line the streets offer food of some sort. Some of the best food we had in Croatia was procured from these booths and to our great appreciation, they stayed open until just after the new year. There was a decent variety of local favorites there including many types of sausages. The spicy varieties like Slovanska, were definitely our favorites. There was a grumpy older lady that we used to buy them from and once I learned how to order in Croatian, I like to think we became friends. We still couldn’t understand each other but she was at least a lot nicer.
I have a sweet tooth. And while Mimi may have self-control when it comes to sugary goodness, I don’t. After feasting on festival food, I often partook in a favorite local desert called prinkle, (pronounced prink-la) consisting of fried balls of dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and sometimes drizzled in chocolate or Nutella. They’re delicious and I still crave them sometimes.
Christmas in Berlin. For years Mimi would meet up someplace fun with her family and friends for the holidays. After her and I met, it wasn’t hard to talk me into traveling every year to maintain the tradition. We’ve met up in Whistler and spent a week snowmobiling in Park City on another occasion. Since we were already in Europe, everyone decided to meet up in Berlin that year. The Germans are masters of the Winter Market, so we knew it would be a good time.
New Year’s Eve. We welcomed in 2017 crowded inside the old walls of Dubrovnik. We had spent the night hanging out with friends at D’Vino, drinking wine and doing shots of Slivovitz. Mimi’s mom followed us back from Berlin and was in town visiting us. We spent the evening getting her thoroughly drunk and finally we were ready for the big celebration. About a hour before midnight we added ourselves to the already crowded streets in front of a big stage where a band was playing. We sang songs in a language we didn’t know and danced along like we knew what we were singing. I’m sure it sounded like gibberish to everyone else, but our wine from earlier came with a huge side helping of the need to sing like drunken sailors, so we didn’t care. We sang loudly, and we felt like we were nailing it.
The fireworks went off at midnight, we toasted our champagne that we had carried with us from D’Vino, and the band kept playing. After a couple more hours, of showing everyone our wicked hot dance moves, (umm no) we took mercy on the crowd and went back to the wine bar. We drank while we rested but we eventually had to face the unthinkable idea of our drunk walk home, climbing up over 400 steps. Travelers Tip: Sometimes it’s a really good idea to take a taxi.
Let Me Sum Up
Dubrovnik was the second place we moved to, but it was the first time that our experience started to take focus. When we left Los Angeles and moved to Barcelona we were filled with the feeling of new found freedom. It felt like a three-month vacation at times. Moving to Dubrovnik made everything more real. We were really doing this. We were moving around Europe because we live here now. Knowing you’re at the beginning of something you love, where there is no end in sight brings up a lot of emotions. It’s wonderful. It’s scary and exciting. It’s the anxious feeling of worrying about the details for the next move. And after each move is over, there’s the calm reward of having navigated the obstacles mixed with the anticipation of a new city.