Monday, April 5, 2010

Working Holiday: Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
I arrived in Kiev on 14 January expecting to kick-start a freelance writing career supplemented by some DJ'ing in the evenings. The freelance writing career is crawling along, but progress has not been as rapid as I had hoped. The DJ'ing did not materialize at all, though I have had a few good research nights out in clubs.

I also had to maintain ties with my day job back in the United States, which required several hours of work made more stressful by the combination of deadlines and spotty internet (most recent message from my boss, which I discovered today a few days after it was sent: "Andrew - please let me know when you are online").

And travel is just stressful. The making of plans and arrangements for accomodation have been enormously so. Consider these facts, and myriad mini-hells I have experienced (stuck on wrong train, dropped reservations, a bus station full of shady characters), and you will understand that while I have had a very fine adventure, it has not been paradise.

So hate me for this. I'm in sunny Dubrovnik in a private room that costs me $15 a day. I have opened the doors on both sides of this room to enjoy the crossbreeze. Skies are bright blue and the sun is shining. Temperatures (in the sunlight) are in the 70s, and in the relative cave of my room they might be a slightly-chillier than comfortable mid-60s (brrrrrr). Yesterday, I drank a beer while surveying the blue-green Adriatic from atop the famous city walls. Today I spent three hours lying on a pebbly beach with a light sweater over my face as sunscreen, with a gap opened just a peek so that I could watch the waves lapping the shore. I just finished the best ice cream cone of my life (vanilla with Snickers bits). I have good company from some American and Aussie travelers.

Dubrovnik, like Split, is another seemingly all-tourist-driven city. There are signs for rooms for rent everywhere. From the hostel where I am lodging to the Old Town it's a 60-minute walk. It's a pleasant walk, with pastry shops and stores selling fruit along the way. I usually pick up a Coca-Cola Zero and 1.5 liters of water during this stroll (Coke Zero, incidentally, has nearly eliminated Coca-Cola Lite [Diet Coke] in Croatia; I hope Croatia is not a test case for Coke's eventual plans to drop Diet Coke outright). The day is too short for walking in and out of the Old Town every time, so once you've gotten the hang of things you hop onto the number 6 bus, which whisks you to the Old Town in no time.

The Old Town is a gorgeous network of red-shingled, white marble Roman buildings, adhering for the most part to a grid, enclosed within a mighty wall. A 70 kuna ticket ($13) is required in order to walk on the wall. If you skip this ticket to save money then you've fucked-up your trip to Dubrovnik, because the wall offers another city atop the one you explore for free below. The views alone are worth it, and there's coffee and beer up there as well. In the Amazon there are arboreal laboratories where scientists study the action of the treetop canopy; this is the spirit with which you should explore Dubrovnik's walls.

I've sometimes felt a bit like Charles Darwin as I've poked along rocky shores and focused my binoculars (which I finally made use of after hauling them for three months) on various bird species. I added a new "lifer": the alpine swift, the largest swift species I have seen. They are common in the Old Town, where they swoop over the main promenade like fighter jets as they enter and exit the various holes in the old buildings which contain their nests*. Alpine swifts clearly prefer the easy living of Dubrovnik to the Alps.

You hear a lot of English, including much American English. I am surprised by how many Americans are exploring the Old Town. Most are retirees, but there were also some "Gossip Girl" sorts ohmigawding on the bus back from town last night. Because of all the English-speaking tourists, plus all the other tourists who use English as their fallback language, one can get by with English in Dubrovnik. In fact, it almost feels unnatural to say "Dober dan" here, as one would in Zagreb; in this sunny, Mediterranean paradise a simple "Hi" seems more appropriate.

Some cities are dominated by feral dogs with cats being the rare exception, and some are dominated by feral cats with dogs being the rare exception. Dubrovnik is a cat city. (I would imagine a cat city is also a birdless city, but cats cannot easily reach the nests of the aforementioned alpine swifts, so at least one species is safe from such predation.)

A kitten romped around our table during lunch. As I watched it, I imagined that newspaper articles should be written about such things. "31 March - In Dubrovnik, Croatia, a small kitten played around the tables of two local restaurants to the delight of patrons of all ages. One observer remarked that the kitten was spotted like a cow. A mother pointed out the kitten to her 2-year-old son while saying, 'Meow! Meow!' The kitten approached several diners, but turned suddenly and adorably shy whenever a person reached out to it. The whereabouts of the kitten's mother are unknown, but the kitten appears healthy."

Dubrovnik is so much a tourist destination that I cannot detect the city's own personality (all tourist cities have this problem; what is Niagara Falls's personality, for example?). Tourist cities unfortunately come with tourist prices (most of the dishes at a Lonely Planet-recommended vegetarian cafe cost at least $10; the only cheap eat is a slice of pizza). The people who aggressively court you to come to their restaurants are a bit annoying. But these are small laments. Dubrovnik is pretty perfect, and once the ferry service to the nearby islands gets going it will be a spectacular summertime destination for those fortunate enough to know about it.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
As that number of aware people grows, the city will get worse. The several dozen souvenir shops will transform into people wandering around the streets selling plastic representations of Dubrovnik landmarks the way those guys pacing under the Eiffel Tower sell mini-Eiffels today. The already high food prices will rise even higher. A nearby waterpark seems inevitable. The escalating kitsch factor will soon see folks wandering through the crowds in historical costumes, maybe with some staged Roman gladiator sword fights for good measure, and thus Dubrovnik will become a parody of its historical self.

Nearby the monastery is a memorial to those who died defending the city during the shelling of 1991 and 1992. It's a single room with photographs of the dead. Lots of young faces, feathered haircuts and mustaches from another place and another time. Their heroism then paved the way for the souvenir sellers stationed just outside the memorial today.


* These holes, an aspiring German architect named Daniel told me, might be for scaffolding, but he wasn't sure since it seemed to him that the holes were not regularly-enough spaced. Here is a photo of these holes/alpine swift nesting spaces for your own consideration.

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