EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia

Dubrovnik F.Tudjman-BridgeEarly the next morning, I cranked in the pulley clothesline to retrieve our clean laundry, which had spent the night drying on the line that stretched from our apartment window to a stone wall on the opposite side of the alleyway. The fresh scent of lemon soap wafted toward me as I reeled in the garments, still flapping gently in a soft, morning breeze. Years ago, I had learned to pack hand-washable, quick-dry clothing, and such items certainly came in handy on long trips.

We packed, then went in search of a photo shop to print out our bus tickets, which were saved on our iPad, for the trip from Dubrovnik to Split. While we had made our travel plans, I asked Dave, “What about flying?” At the time, no flights existed between the two cities, which are approximately 150 miles apart. Train, perhaps? There was no train. Ferry? Great way to see the stunning Croatian islands if you have ten hours or more to spare. Car? This made no sense, as we planned to only travel one way, so it wasn’t worth the effort or expense to rent a vehicle. This left us with one alternative, and the most popular means of transportation for tourists and locals alike—the bus.

Onofrio's Big Fountain Dubrovnik Croatia After a few challenging moments at the photo shop, when the owner couldn’t figure out how to print our tickets, he called in his young son, who was working in the back of the store. I turned to Dave and smiled. He, too, had a smile on his face, as did the owner. In five minutes flat, the son printed our tickets and left without saying a word.

En route back to our apartment, we detoured for breakfast. While waiting for our order to arrive, I immersed myself in one of our guidebooks. I skipped from reading about sights in Split to a blurb about the large fountain, which we had just passed on our way out of the Pile Gate. This giant, round structure is Big Onofrio’s Fountain. In the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik had a complicated aqueduct system that brought water from the mountains seven miles away to the city. The water ended up at the town’s biggest fountain before continuing through the town. This abundant supply of water and large salt reserves from the town of Ston, as well as the massive Rupe Granary, made independent Dubrovnik very siege resistant. The precious salt pans contributed to Dubrovnik’s wealth, and are still being worked today.

Finished with breakfast, we collected our bags at the apartment and headed to the Pile Gate. Outside the gate, we caught a taxi to the main bus terminal. We had reserved seats on an express bus from Dubrovnik to Split with a travel time of four and a half hours, or thereabouts. However, after an hour’s wait at the station, we were informed that the nonstop bus had broken down and we would have to take one that made “a few stops.”

Taking this minor issue in stride, we boarded the bus, dug out our cameras, and settled in for the ride—and a long one it would be, for a number of reasons. But the minute I spotted the Franjo Tuđman Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge at the western approach to Dubrovnik, near the Port of Gruž, I was so absorbed in the scenery I forgot about the drive ahead . . . for the time being.

Split Bus Ride and Ston Wall Unfortunately, on a bus trip you can’t stop whenever you’d like for a photo op, the first being the bridge. And, shooting through glass can certainly diminish the quality of your pictures. We tried to open them, but the windows wouldn’t budge.

The next photography opportunity came as we closed in on the outskirts of Ston, a small city on the peninsula of Pelješac. The town has the longest stone wall in Europe, second in the world to the Great Wall of China. The stone wall has forty towers and five fortresses, and stretches from one end of the peninsula to the other. It protected salt production from potential thieves and protected the town from potential attackers. If I had known about its existence before planning the trip, it would have been a must-see for me. Besides salt production, Pelješac is also famous for wine production. Californians, and most Americans, are probably familiar with the name Grgich Hills Estates, a winery in the Napa Valley region of California. Born in Desne, Croatia, Mike Grgich emigrated to the US in 1958. In 1976 he won the Judgment of Paris wine tasting with his chardonnay. At the time, he was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena. Ston is also known for oyster farming. The shells farmed along this coast are of the highest quality in the world due to the exceptionally clear seawater and the ideal weather conditions.

Farming in the valley in Bosnia and Herzegovina We hugged the coastline until we reached the Neum corridor in Bosnia and
Herzegovina, where the border control boarded to check passports or identification papers. When we handed over our passports, the guard said, “Americans,” then handed them back without even opening them. However, the Australian couple across the aisle wasn’t as fortunate. They had packed their passports in their luggage. The guards made them get off the bus, haul out their bags, and produce their identification. It took a good twenty minutes before we were on our way, but not in the right direction, as we soon observed. I turned to Dave and asked in a low voice, “Where are we going?” The moment I uttered the words, our driver announced he had mail to drop off and passengers to pick up at a bus stop “near here.”

We were a bit skeptical about this unexpected stop, but what else could we do except ride along and hope to reach Split before the end of the day? As we veered inland, the scenery changed from lush green with coastal views to a rocky terrain of what appeared to be limestone.

An hour inland, we pulled alongside a store similar to a 7-Eleven. Next to the mini-mart was the bus station. During the thirty-minute stop, we bought snacks and visited the bathroom. Then we collected four passengers. I saw no street or town signs, so I have no idea where we were in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Split, Croatia yellow tollway boothsBack on the road, our driver motored along a series of small back streets for about forty minutes until he sped onto the A-1. With nothing much to see scenery-wise, we napped. When we woke, the bus was climbing along a rather steep rise. Below stretched a verdant valley with water ditches channeled into the rich, dark earth. As an avid gardener, I was drawn by the fertile farmland. I snapped a few pictures and checked the time. We had been riding for five and a half hours. Surely, Split had to be nearby.

Thirty minutes later, I spotted something bright yellow looming in the distance. I’ve never been so happy to see a tollbooth in my entire life. We passed through the yellow tollway, and soon the rocky terrain around us gave way to the vibrant blue of the Adriatic coastline. We had arrived in the seaport of Split.


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EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik, Croatia – Part 2

Dubrovnik city wallWe woke to a warm, sunny October day and prepared for our morning trek on the walls of Dubrovnik. We’d heard that on top of the fortifications the sun can be intense and there were few shady places, so we slathered on sunscreen, donned baseball caps, and stuffed water bottles into our daypacks. Then we headed in the direction of the Stradun, the streets deserted at six-thirty on a Sunday morning. Or so we thought.

Dubrovnik jam festival As we turned the corner, the hum of excited voices filled the air. Unbeknownst to us, we were in for a sweet treat. Today was the last day of the Croatian festival of jams and jellies. The event is held in front of the Church of St. Blaise, and over thirty small producers exhibit more than a hundred types of jams, jellies, and marmalades: orange, fig, plum, lemon, cherry, strawberry, and other fruits, and in all possible combinations. And to add to the festive mood, all exhibitors dress in the costumes of their regions.

As enticing as it was to linger at the jam and jelly displays, we wanted to beat the tourist crowds, so we continued on to the nearest ticket office at the Ploče Gate. There, we stopped briefly to photograph the dozens of cats and kittens waiting patiently for a woman to feed them.Women at Dubrovnik jam festival

A few minutes later, we began our mile-and-a-quarter trek atop the massive stone fortifications that encircle the city. For almost as long as Dubrovnik has existed, so have the walls, which were beefed up during the fifteenth century because of threats from the Ottoman Empire.

If you are interested only in speed-walking the wall, it can be done in an hour, or so we were told. However, we devoted the entire morning to the walk, interested in capturing all of the views and taking our share of photos. The day before, we had purchased a guidebook and therefore had a general understanding of the history of the City—with a capital C according to the inhabitants—and the construction of its walls.

From our lofty perch atop the ramparts, there were magnificent vistas in all directions, and we paused to photograph every one. The first thing that captured my attention was the sea of reddish-orange roofs that stretched to the cobalt-blue Adriatic—a captivating visual. Upon closer examination, I noticed the difference in color between the older tiles and the newer bright orange tiles, replaced after the recent siege of 1991-1992. Although I saw a few damaged structures from the bombings and signs of buildings under repair, the City has made remarkable progress in restoring Dubrovnik to its original state.

Dubrovnik Minceta Fortress wall Engrossed in what it must have been like to man the city walls during a siege, I walked slowly along the narrow stone passage to the Towers of St. Lucy and St. Barbara, and then climbed to the top of the Minčeta Fortress for a panoramic picture of the Adriatic.

At the Bokar Fortress, Dave stopped to consult the guidebook on the history of the walls, while I snapped photos of everything from the rooftops, to the sea, to arrow slits cut into the bulwarks, to cannons, and even the moat below the defensive walls—a total of over a hundred pictures on this morning alone.

During one of these history interludes, I meandered to the outer edge of a wall and peered over the side into what looked like someone’s private garden; a peaceful, sun-dappled yard. Three walls framed the stone patio where a table and two chairs sat. On one wall, bridal wreath bushes in bloom hugged the crumbling stone. On the other a fuchsia bougainvillea sprawled across the enclosure, and on the wall closest to me thrived glossy-green trees. Of what kind I had no idea, until a soft breeze kicked up the clean, inviting scent of lemon. Then I saw the fading blossoms on the citrus trees.Dubrovnik city walls

At the Tower of St. Mary, we took a water break. Here, on the highest point of the peninsula, was the site of the original settlement. As we closed in on the noon hour, the number of tourists had increased, and despite the posted signs telling wall-walkers to proceed counterclockwise, not everyone heeded the rule. However, a couple ahead of us sent a group of ten packing in the right direction, so we could make our way to the bastion of St. Margaret, then the Fortress of St. John, without dodging oncoming tourists.

After our hike along the wall, which reminded me of my backpacking days but without the heavy pack, we had worked up quite an appetite. So back at street level, we cut through the Stradun from the Ploče Gate to the Pile Gate, on the lookout for a lunch place.

At the gate, we had a rather lengthy delay as we waited for the cast of Game of Thrones to conclude shooting a scene. Finally, we crossed the Pile Bridge and immediately spotted Restaurant Dubravka 1836. More interested in giving our feet a short break than anything, we each relaxed with a glass of a local wine, ordered seafood salads, and ate our meals with four friends—pigeons—looking on.

Dubrovnik Fort LawrenceWe worked off lunch with a trek up the hill to Louvrjenac, the Fort of St. Lawrence, an impressive limestone fort that gave us a stunning vista back across the water to the walls of Dubrovnik. Engraved on the lintel above the fort’s gates is a message for the world: “Freedom cannot be sold for any gold.”

We returned to the Stradun at a slow gait, taking in the sights and the sounds of the jam and jelly festival as it wound down. On the steps of the Church of St. Blaise, a group of men appeared and serenaded the crowds, singing a cappella. Then church bells resounded throughout the City, an uplifting and moving experience.

That night, we ate dinner at Restaurant Gallus, and the owner engaged us in a lengthy and informative conversation regarding the 1991-1992 siege. He apologized for interrupting our meal with his musings. We quickly responded by thanking him for this personal perspective on the harsh realities of war. He left us with these words: “There is nothing more precious in the world than freedom.” Next week, we board a bus for Split, Croatia.


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