I have been fortunate enough in my life to have traveled many places, but none of my excursions, expeditions, not even my wildest dreams, ever prepared me for the glory of Dubrovnik. In a nation boasting both the blissful solitude of the northern island Krk and the breathtaking wilderness of the central Plitvice National Park, Dubrovnik keeps jaws agape as one approaches Croatia's southern border.
Perched delicately upon a winding, jagged and pristine coastline, this former city state and coastal fortress is one of the many jewels in Croatia's dazzling crown. However, it is in no way easily accessible or reached.
My own journey began at ten in the morning in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. After a six-and-a half-hour trek by train I disembarked in another capital city, Zagreb. A meal and short stroll later and I was on a bus, hunkering down for the 12-hour overnight epic quest for the promised land. I tossed, turned and cursed the world throughout the night and into the early morning hours, uncomfortably cramped into a tiny seat in one of the countless Croatian bus liners.
The second Dubrovnik came into view, however, I was at a loss for words. Unfolding before my very eyes was a small city trickling down a hillside against the endless backdrop of the Adriatic sky. It was the kind of place I thought existed only in romanticized novels or history books. The red clay roofs, the rickety fishing boats setting out from the harbour and an air of absolute, undeniable calm was overwhelming. It was as if I had come home to a place I had never been.
Dubrovnik is not a big city. It is home to about 15,000 people, and one can walk absolutely anywhere in about a half hour--but only if you can keep yourself from stopping every few steps to soak in the surroundings. Walking along the main artery toward the old town, all one needs to do is look to the right to see the Adriatic vastness. It is one of the lone places I have been where it is hard to differentiate the sky from the sea at the horizon. The sole breaks in the endlessness are tiny islands, dotting the landscape and piquing the curiosity of every wilderness lover.
As you approach the bridge leading you through the city walls and into the old town, you are serenaded by the crashing waves from the inlet far below the medieval fortress and lookout. Majestically perched atop a jagged outcropping, the monolith offers one of the greatest views up and down the sleepy Croatian coast. On a clear night, over a bottle of wine and a tasty Walter Wolf cigarette or two, even the lights of the smallest, most remote outposts can be seen for miles as the delicious salty sea breeze perfects the moment.
Once the city walls have been penetrated, a wondrous cacophony of sights, scents and sounds overwhelms even the most seasoned of journeyers. The deceptively wide main promenade, littered with bustling cafes, is merely a gateway to an immaculate labyrinth of complex avenues, side streets and dead ends. Plants dominate the walls, giving an even wilder feel to the traveler's wanderings. The smell of seafood, pizza and freshly baked bread waft up and down the alleyways. And every passerby has a smile for you.
Eager to put it all in perspective, you climb the stairs to take the two-hour stroll along the ancient city walls. Along one stretch, the old town lays itself at your feet. An elderly man hangs his laundry on a line strung between two windows, schoolchildren wind their way home for lunch and a young woman suns herself--naked in her backyard. As you round the bend however, the rhythmic lapping of the waves returns as, hundreds of feet below you, the midday Adriatic does what is has done for centuries. Rolling in. Rolling out.
There are still scars throughout this magical place though, silent reminders of its not too distant past. After all, nothing and no one is immune to war.
The Grand Hotel just outside the city walls still lies ruined after burning to the ground in the early '90s. A small home with a view across the sea is no more than rubble. The hills encasing this wonderland are forbidden, off limits due to innumerable land mines strewn about the area.
The beauty of Dubrovnik cannot be described in mere words, it must be seen. It needs the simple experience of an early evening coffee on the main street or being immersed in the laid back, happy-to-be-alive way of life.
Dubrovnik is quite simply the closest I've ever come to that elusive notion of heaven.
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