April 28 – May 26, 2016 (Spring)
Greeting: Dobar dan
Currency: Kuna (kn)
Visa: 90 days in 180
Cost of living: Medium
Dubrovnik is not a town for introverts. Cramped streets within the medieval fortress walls force crowds together and aggressive salespeople bark at tourists with tangible desperation. Since most visitors are cruise ship day-trippers, there’s no incentive to be nice and every incentive to sell, hard. But past the gauntlet lies a truly beautiful city, well-deserving of its moniker “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” We had one luxury most visitors do not – time. We learned which days to keep away from the chaos, and the golden hours when all the interlopers had gone home but attractions remained open and blissfully deserted. Channeling our inner Rick Steves, we pushed past the main avenues to find quiet back streets that nobody sees but the locals. Even after a month of organizing our lives around avoiding other people, Dubrovnik remained enchanting.
Where we stayed
Finding a suitable Airbnb↗ for this stay was more of a challenge than usual. Since most apartments located immediately in and around the Old Town walls were out of our budget, we looked out further to the neighborhood of Babin Kuk. Several kilometers north west of the city walls, it sat between the city’s second hotel district (centered on the Šetalište kralja Zvonimira walking street) and the all-inclusive resorts near Copacabana Beach. But our neck of the woods was thankfully residential. Grocery stores and walking paths were easy to come by, and just a few minutes of walking brought us to a well-connected bus terminal – great for cutting down on walking time to the city gate, if we didn’t mind having to push our way on sometimes.
It should be noted that queuing etiquette, already particularly poor in this part of Europe, went out the window completely in this crucible of cultures. Mobs scraped and clawed to reach the bus doors, and if we wanted to get on, we had to compete. This almost came to blows when some cranky British bloke decided to pick a fight with us as claustrophobia got the better of him. Sorry buddy, but the mass of people around us in every direction was pressing us into you, it was nothing personal. That said, when in Rome, you know? Can’t go inviting yourself to someone else’s country and then get pissy when the rules are different, that’s just part of travel.
Our apartment served as a much-needed fortress of solitude. It was easily one of our nicest apartments to date. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living area, and a sizable deck for warmer spring days felt like the height of luxury. Our host welcomed us with some food, wine, and a fruit basket. The furniture was new and very classy, including giant wardrobes in the master bedroom that easily absorbed all of our clothing and bags. A small workshop downstairs sometimes reverberated machine noise through the concrete walls, but in general, our area was much calmer than the Old Town.
But the absolute best part of our location was what we overlooked. Our apartment came with a stunning view of Franjo Tuđman Bridge, backed by the mountains marking the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the sun hits that ridge just right, these hills sing. Walking down to the waterfront took no time at all, and pretty much the entire peninsula was rimmed with a path that we often had all to ourselves. Occasionally, we’d pass people fishing or lashing tiny boats to dilapidated piers, sometimes even wildlife. The juxtaposition of those dinghies and the massive cruise ships docking on the opposite shore was a trip. If we fully rounded the point, we’d end up back on Šetalište kralja Zvonimira. Though as a tourist center, it was full of the usual hawkers trying to fill the next boat tour, they were far less pushy than the professionals by the Pile Gate who would harass anything that moves. We completed the circuit more than once. On our last day in town, paid a visit to Cave Bar More, the only literal cave bar we’ve ever visited.
What we did
Our default plan to travel from Split↗ to Dubrovnik was to bus. But the four hours of driving and two border crossings (remember that little strip of Bosnia in the middle) got tossed out the window when we discovered a seaplane route connected the two cities. We boarded our flight right on the dock in Split, then raced airborne► past tour boats and ferries. With seventeen seats but only one other passenger and one crew ride-along, we essentially had a private plane. And the Croatian coast from just a few hundred feet up was gorgeous. Out the left side the coastal mountains rose higher than the plane. On the right, islands dotted the Adriatic. Dubrovnik didn’t yet have a seaplane-ready harbor, so we dropped some wheels out of our pontoons and landed at Dubrovnik Airport. Watching the sprawling full-size runway dance around outside the front window really put into perspective the immense scale of an airport. The whole trip only took 45 minutes, but it was one of the best memories of our time in Croatia.
During our month stay we didn’t do all that much sightseeing. Though the city is famously beautiful, it can be seen in an afternoon. But we nevertheless paid multiple visits to Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It was practically impossible to get good shots of the Pile Gate; the mobs piled in to the city though it and salespeople chased down stragglers outside. But once through the arches, we found our peace and quiet level rose exponentially with our distance from the Stradun main thoroughfare. The steep, narrow stair-streets were perfect for losing ourselves and soaking up the medieval vibes. Tucked between the 700-year-old protective walls, the entire town is made of nearly identical grey marble. Some surfaces still showed scars from the 1991-92 siege. A number of churches and museums are worth a visit, especially St. Ignatius and the Ethnographic Museum. But forget what’s between the walls. For a couple of castle fans↗, going topside was our top priority. We timed our visit for a shipless day and took our sweet time looking down on the city from above. The barricade isn’t just a single line of stone. Towers, bulwarks, the massive St. John’s Fortress, neighboring Fort Lovrijenac, even the sheer cliff face the city is built on all functioned as defensive mechanisms to keep invaders at bay. Parts of the wall even house museums and businesses, particularly the thematically appropriate Maritime Museum. The highest point in the circuit, Minčeta Tower, offered the best views from within the walls, but Lovrijenac was actually the prime spot for taking it all in. We did at least two laps before we finally descended back among the townspeople. We shelled out for the 7-day Dubrovnik Card instead of buying wall tickets (and everything else) piecemeal, which was a fantastic deal at about $35 a person. Especially since around a year later, the price has skyrocketed to over $50!
Lokrum Island makes for another perfect afternoon getaway. A ferry from the Old Port of Dubrovnik cost us about $12 per round-trip ticket. Though the boat over was crowded and uncomfortable, everyone spread out the moment we disembarked. There was more than enough room for everyone, with miles of trail to meander the forested island. Little targets of sightseeing opportunity included a Benedictine Monastery, the rocky shoreline looking back on the city, and the hilltop Napoleonic-era Fort Royal. We savored the opportunity to spend an afternoon hiking, taking in views of Dubrovnik and the tree-lined hills. Peacocks and rabbits wandered around adorably, nibbling natural treats or whatever was dropped by tourists. The rocks on the western shore were otherworldly. Some more-prepared travelers brought bathing suits to take a dip in the “Dead Sea,” a salty little swimming hole on the south end of the island. Though restoration work prevented us from visiting the monastery, Fort Royal offered the best views around. Hidden in Lokrum’s visitor center was a replica of the Iron Throne, the perfect photo op to cap off our visit.
Inspired by the Croatian scenery, we started watching (and reading) Game of Thrones in Split and binged entire seasons in Dubrovnik. We had lots of fun immersing ourselves in the show’s fictional world while exploring so many of its real-life counterparts at the same time. The city’s dominating walls showed up with as King’s Landing with only minor airbrushing. Minčeta Tower was the exterior of the House of the Undying, and Lokrum’s gardens doubled as Qarth’s. Tourists shouted “shame” as we walked a certain staircase, a reference we wouldn’t get for another week. The city embraced the the association wholeheartedly. Even after production had moved on to other settings, GoT tours were ubiquitous, and we were never more than a stone’s throw from an Iron Throne. But that was not the only media event we discovered this month. As Americans unexposed the rest of the world’s media, we’d gone our whole lives never once hearing about Eurovision. It turns out, a kitschy continent-wide audience-voting singing competition is quite the spectacle! And it’s been going on for decades. This broadcast came with oodles of camp and extra-catchy choruses as nation plied their earwormy tunes to win the hearts of judges and votes of viewers. The opening sequences introducing each country provided extra inspiration for our itinerary. Lithuania↗? Malta? You guys just got bumped up the bucket list!
Food & Drink
Given the high prices at many restaurants (the area lives on tourism, after all), we cooked the majority of our meals at home. The most convenient grocery stores were Pemo and Tommy, with slightly better prices at Tommy. We occasionally ventured further to Studenac, or even the massive Konzum directly by the cruise terminal. A ribarnica just off of Šetalište kralja Zvonimira sold fresh fish, and we bought our bread and pastries from nearby bakeries, especially tiny Pekarnica Klas on our walk home. Ledo Mediterranean frozen vegetables again came in handy as sides or an easy dinner of veggie pasta. For quick breakfast bites, a fig yogurt from Dukat was unexpectedly flavorful.
Croatia is known for seafood, but the Mediterranean overfishing means much of what ends up on plates is imported. We poached monkfish and baked trout at home. Splurging just a couple times at downtown restaurants, we tried squid ink seafood risotto and oysters from one of the bays on a nearby island. Both were wonderfully tasty. On a more adventurous afternoon we also bought an octopus burger (blander than it sounds) and fried anchovies. While the anchovies were good at first, they became progressively less delectable as they cooled.
A lot of our calories came from snacking, especially given our TV kick. Spicy ajvar, affordable caviars, and various pates made perfect dippables for any delivery carb we could get our hands on: pretzels, breads, or Chio crackers. We laid out large snack spreads and methodically worked our way through the treats. For protein we would sometimes throw in some of the incredible local varieties of cured meat, like kulen or pršut. Jadro cookies and peanut puffs rounded out our snack cabinets.
Just like in Split, the beer was once again terrible. Mass-market varieties like Ožujsko and Karlovačko were at least cheap and easy to find. But in terms of flavor they were forgettable at best. Tomislav was probably the best bang for the buck, and Zmajska was about the only Croatian craft to show up in aisles (though we found a few more in restaurants). Not bad, but expensive for what you get. If we wanted quality at a valuable price, at least Czech beer was an option.
Rakija was the liquor of choice, distilled from plums or other fruit. Many locals like it, but we really didn’t. Wine continued to be hit-or-miss, too. Higher prices and lower variety punished us for picking such a touristy spot. Many medium priced reds (plavac mali) and whites (graševina and debit) were just fine. Some of the lower-shelf bottles were absolute garbage, which may be expected elsewhere but disappointed us after the last few months of great value finds. On the other end of the spectrum we found Skar Winery, located on the waterfront not far from our apartment. Their tasting flight was tasty and well worth the visit, and the building and decor were spot on. Even their liqueurs distilled with fruits and herbs were winners.
Most visitors to Dubrovnik arrive by cruise ship or day-trip from Split. We came by seaplane. Unfortunately, European Coastal Airlines now appears to be defunct. But that brief flight was a highlight – not just of the stay, but our entire trip. If they ever restart the route, we’d happily recommend it or fly again ourselves!
Even though we stayed a couple miles from the City Walls, the walk from our apartment to the Old Town was pleasant. It was an investment though, at almost an hour each way. Fortunately there was also excellent bus service for days that we felt a little lazier. Tickets cost less than $2 each, with discounts at Tisak stands for buying in bulk. The Dubrovnik Card came with several transit tickets, so we ended up with a surplus at the end of the month.
On arrival, we opted to have our host arrange a taxi from the airport, which cost nearly $40. We were smarter on the return to the airport and took a bus from just outside the Buža Gate that cost about $6 per person. Taxis here were expensive even for locals, but Uber↗ now offers an affordable alternative.
Stuff of interest
We used Tele2 SIMs↗ again. Initially we re-upped our numbers from Split, but it turned out that our tourist SIMs were only good for 30 days (though we checked with the agent at the store, and were told it would work). So the very next day we had to purchase entirely new SIMs, which was actually cheaper than the data pack at about $7 each (including an impressive 3 gigs of data).
Since we worked from home a fair amount this month, it was a treat to have a real desk. Between the eye-level shelves and an ironing board, we had everything we needed for a pretty decent standing desk, too. Our home wifi was fast enough for most of our needs, especially streaming HBO NOW. But the repeater used to extend the signal throughout the apartment gave some of our devices a lot of trouble. We just left it unplugged most of the time and dipped in to our phone data when browsing at the extreme ends of the apartment.
After hours, the Dubrovnik TV station switched to a live feed of Stradun, the central street in the Old Town. Watching folks stroll (and sometimes stumble) by was a surprisingly amusing guilty pleasure.
This city is home to one of RIT‘s handful of campuses outside Rochester, New York. Seeing how beautiful this place is really made us regret never studying abroad in college. Making up for it now, though!
What we learned
While we’re glad we got to see Dubrovnik, the city isn’t a great choice for digital nomading or even extended stays. It really can be seen in an afternoon. Our choice of an outlying neighborhood was the right one for us, keeping us away from the worst of the crowds and immersed in an underrated gem just a little further out. Everyone else can squabble over the Pearl, we were happier to have the oyster to ourselves.