I arrive in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s famous walled city on the Adriatic coast, after an exhausting 36-hour bus journey from Turkey. After months on the road, most of it across difficult and remote territory, I’m looking forward to the sunny weather and relaxing seaside atmosphere that Croatia is famous for.
I join up with my sister Katie, who has flown directly from Istanbul, and my mother Lynda, who is joining from Toronto. While in Croatia, we are staying exclusively in accommodations listed on airbnb.com, and our first apartment doesn’t disappoint. Our one-bedroom condo unit is perched high on a hill above the city and has sweeping views of the sea. Our host, an older lady with a stout stature and adventurous eyeglasses, welcomes us with a bottle of local wine.
That evening we descend the hill into the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik. It is the very picture of a fantasy novel castle, with white towers, red tile roofs, and sheer crenelated walls, all cramped up against the blue-green waters of the sea. The white stone streets of the old city are so highly polished that, at night, they reflect the lights from the restaurants and shops as if slick with rainwater.
There are numerous museums and galleries in the city, some of which we visit, but they are barely worth mentioning compared to the splendor of the city itself. The full length of the old city walls is open to the public, and we spend several hours wandering along them, gazing at the gorgeous city below and the Adriatic coastline beyond. It looks remarkably like King’s Landing in the hit HBO TV series Game of Thrones—in fact, several episodes were filmed here.
No doubt the city’s popularity will continue to grow as Croatia is “discovered” by more tourists, and indeed, we are told numerous times that Dubrovnik already strains under the weight of mass tourism in the summer months. Right now, though, in mid-May, in perfect weather, we feel neither crowded nor rushed. My advice is to come and see it soon!
We take a catamaran from Dubrovnik to the island of Hvar, the latest chic playground for the wealthy yachting crowd. Hvar city is polished and fashionable. Beautiful childless couples in dock shoes/sandal-heels swish along the seaside promenade like silken peacocks, perusing the shops for the latest yachting fashions. It smells like lavender, grilled seafood, and money. As lovely as it is, we feel out of place, and decide to catch a taxi to more laid-back Starigrad, which is just across the narrow island. The 15-minute taxi ride costs us the equivalent of $50 USD—the same that I paid for a 5-hour ride from the Kyrgz/Uzbek border to Tashkent.
Starigrad is much quieter. There are only a handful of open restaurants, and the yachts are more reasonably sized—this is a place where single-digit millionaires would feel comfortable. Our two-bedroom airbnb apartment smells endearingly like an Ontario cottage (i.e. musty), but opening the windows allows in the cool sea breeze. We are the only diners in a lovely pasta restaurant by the sea.
The next morning, I strap on my backpack and follow the shore on foot to the outgoing ferry. The emerald sea laps up against the rocks, the gulls circle, and I feel content. Being on the ferry is like taking a cruise, with gorgeous weather, ample deck space, and a stylish “salon” where guests sip coffee and play cards. I feel relaxed and content.
Our ferry arrives in Split, Croatia’s second-largest city, in the early afternoon. Like most of the world, I had never heard of Split, which seems absurd considering how amazing it is.
The core of Split is built in and around the ancient Roman ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, which has been the centerpiece of town for about 1700 years. Emperor Diocletian had it constructed as a sort of retirement residence, and after he died the locals moved in, where they divided it up for residential and commercial use. In fact, “ruins” is not really the correct word, as the structure has been in continuous use for the entirely of its existence. Thousands of people still live inside, and the air hums with music from bars and clubs long after dark. There’s something incredibly satisfying about sipping a glass of wine inside a 1700-year-old Roman courtyard, or shoe shopping in what might have been a Roman noblewoman’s boudoir.
One afternoon, we meet up with my mother’s neighbour’s high school-aged second cousin for a whirlwind city tour (what can I say—we’re a family of networkers). She flits from sight to sight, regaling us with amusingly disjointed stories about life in Split. This hollowed out stone thing was Emperor Diocletian’s bathtub. This shop has the best ice cream. Diocletian liked to grow cabbages in this spot. Eat the cevapi (Bosnian meat balls) here, they’re very good. Over there is a magnificent and perfectly preserved ancient Roman tomb of somebody, I don’t remember whom. Rub this statue’s toe and make a wish. And so on.
Early on our last day I rent a bicycle to explore the city and environs. Only a few minutes outside of the city center is the heavily forested, appendix-shaped Marjan hill and surrounding park. I soon find myself surrounded by the scent of pine and the sound of waves lapping against the shore. It’s the same familiar sensation that I get when I cycle through Stanley Park near my home in Vancouver, and I experience an unexpected pang of homesickness.