Simply put, Dubrovnik rendered me speechless. But in a laughable attempt to 1) preserve my memories for years to come, and 2) try and communicate my experiences to you, you'll find that I'll begin to get rather chatty about this beautiful city on the Dalmatian Coast.
Our "real life crew" is nodding furiously at this point, I'm sure. Cassandra and I have yet to shut up about this gem on the Adriatic Sea. Sometimes, if we have one drop too much wine (or are stone cold sober even), we'll start yammering on in broken Serbo-Croatian. Kako si? Dobro, a vi!
Last we chatted about Europe, Cassandra and I were about to leave Split. I still remember the Riva waterfront bus depot. Travelers waiting in small clusters in front of parking spots labeled ZAGREB or BOSNIA or SIBENIK in fading paint. We had two bus tickets booked to Dubrovnik, but with no clear instructions on how to retrieve them and conflicting directions from vendor owners and the ticket office, it was quite overwhelming. Cassandra and I traded off. She'd try and gather some intel on how this all worked, I'd stay with the bags. She'd order me a Coke in an attempt to nab free WiFi, I'd clumsily knock it to the ground and invite all the stares. Teamwork!
Somehow, we managed to figure it all out and boarded the correct bus.
Off to Dubrovnik we go!
If you're ever on the same bus route, sit on the right side of the bus. And if you're going the opposite direction, sit on the left. Trust me on this one, and your Instagram will thank me.
The ride was long – five hours? Six? – but there was much to see and observe. Towering cliffsides, the coast snaking this way and that, the sprawling new highway, small town rest stops. At one point, we made a brief stop in Bosnia, passport check included. Not thirty minutes later, we were back in Croatia.
Before we continue, how about some background? One reason why it took so long for me to share my experience in Croatia is that I have been struggling with how I was going to tell this story, how I wanted to represent this region because let me tell ya, this is tricky territory.
Here's the thing about former Yugoslavia: what's the first thing you think of? Is it the gorgeous shores of the Dalmatian Coast, the Game of Thrones castles? Or do you think of it as a desolate region still at the brink of recovery from the recent war in the 90s? You're not alone. My initial expectation was the former, but many people I've since spoke to – mostly older than I– think first and foremost of the latter.
The fact is, there are truths to both. Very much so the beauty and rising tourism of the Dalmatian Coast, but also yes, the modern day Balkans region is indeed deeply intertwined with its sad history. But it's not just that, and I find it so sad that when "Serbia" or "Bosnia & Herzegovina" are brought up, that's where the mind jumps to. There's so much besides. It's this "so much besides" that I hope to share with you in the next few posts.
The first time I was exposed to Croatia was through The Londoner's Yacht Week posts a few years back. Around the same time, Cassandra discovered a new favorite actress – Stana Katic, anyone? – who hails from the region. From that point forward, we started seeing Croatia everywhere and we promised that someday we'd make our way there.
But it's a place akin to, I don't know... Tibet or Patagonia: a bucket list item for sure, but faraway in a sense that it just seems more likely we'd be hitting up Paris or Tokyo before ever stepping foot near such a destination. It seemed so unreachable. Why go to Croatia when we haven't even seen London, sort of thing, y'know?
Then, in the beginning of senior year, the stars aligned. Stanford offers three week long "overseas seminars" in cool places. Houseboats in Denmark, marine biology in Palau, eco-photography in Costa Rica, and so on. Nearly fully subsidized by generous donors, it's an incredible deal. Once we arrived in Dubrovnik and till the day we left, we forked over not a cent of our own money. In fact, we even got an allowance while we were there. We were basically paid to stay and learn in Dubrovnik.
I hate my Dubrovnik self.
By some lucky force, both Cassandra and I were both accepted to the seminar, an Eastern-perspective course about the history and culture of former Yugoslavia, as told through arts and photography, led by two Stanford professors whose families are from Serbia. This meant delaying the conferral of our college degrees (and consequently, the job search) for three months. It'll be worth it, we convinced ourselves. Little did we know, it would be. But much more than we ever could've imagined.
Okay, phew. I told you so. I'm getting my ramble on, that's for sure.
A car fetched us from the Dubrovnik bus station and took us to Hotel Adriatic in the Lapad district. More about our adventures at this hotel later. MUCH more. Half of our classmates had already arrived and were sleeping off jetlag. Our professor, Jovana, met us in the lobby and checked us in, in a flurry of Serbo-Croatian. I can't tell you how nice it was to have a translator after a couple of days basically blindly going about our ways in Split.
She waved us off, telling us to meet in the lobby at six.
Ravenous as we were, we tried to find the supermarket per Jovana's directions. But incompetent be we, we couldn't. Instead, we ordered mojitos at a cafe and waited it out till dinner.
Spoiler alert. By dinner, we were quite tipsy. "You two really were quite oddly social that first night," our friend recalled a few weeks later.
That first night was quite a treat. Right as we de-boarded the bus, Jovana whispered excitedly: look, there's the former president of Croatia! An older gentleman dressed in fine plainclothes, followed subtly by a bodyguard or two, unnoticed by all except for our two professors. What an introduction to Dubrovnik!
Dinner was at a restaurant with a hidden courtyard right at the entrance of Old Town. Copious bottles of wine, delicious, buttery squid, and slightly awkward getting-to-know-you conversations marked the beginning of a wonderful three weeks.
^Is this familiar to any of you Game of Thrones fans?
The next two days were spent getting acquainted with Dubrovnik. We took intensive, three-hour long crash courses in Serbo-Croatian. Our guide, Helena, took us around Old Town Dubrovnik ("Starigrad") – showing us monasteries, pointing out buildings with unique histories, stopping at the farmers market in the center of town and buying us candied orange peels, fresh figs, and peaches to try, reminiscing on her high school afternoons spent strolling down Stradun, the "Main Street" of Old Town, giving us directions to the best ice cream in town with a wink.
And of course, she took us atop the city walls.
This is the must-do activity in Dubrovnik. You climb the (many) (steep) steps up to the top of the city walls and from there, you traipse around the perimeter of Old Town.
Among the sights that you are sure to see:
Sloped, terracotta roofs. Aquamarine and navy waters glimmering under the sun. Peaceful floaters. Daring cliff-divers. Hole-in-the-wall bars. Far-off islands. Kayaks and sailboats. Stradun, stretching off into the distance. King's Landing from Game of Thrones. Craftsmen selling jewelry. Laundry hung on clotheslines. Sweaty tourists bearing fanny packs. Restaurants lining the streets, with hostesses calling out to passersby, waving English menus boasting free WiFi. Jugs of homemade cherry brandy lined up on windowsills. And much more.
When I think of this first day exploring Old Town, I mostly think of the sweltering heat. We found out later that we were in Dubrovnik in the middle of a heatwave, and we walked the city walls at the peak of it. That day, it reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were as close to the sun as physically possible.
I remember my clothes being soaked in sweat, the lingering smell of sunscreen, the back of my neck slick with perspiration when I finally gathered my hair into a ponytail. Gorgeous imagery, amirite?
The fact that all the girls ended up buying sunhats, but Cassandra and I did not.
I probably got three shades darker that day.
I remember how overbearing the heat was, how it pushed at my lungs. How we braced ourselves against the cool walls of a watch tower at the top of the walls, unwilling to go on.
I have much more to say about this heat in a later post.