After our visit to Kotor, Montenegro, Karla and I took a bus north to Dubrovnik, Croatia — more or less a two-hour ride. We didn’t realize that we’d actually be passing through a third country: Bosnia-Herzegovina, on our way. I had assumed B-H was landlocked but it turns out that it possesses a minuscule coastline of just 12 miles, granted to give it access to the sea. The border controls between Montenegro and B-H and then between B-H and Croatia are pretty loose — we didn’t even have to leave our bus, but it was interesting to see the varying levels of scrutiny for people of different nationalities. For those of us who are American, the border guards didn’t even bother to lock eyes onto our passports.
Croatia’s Adriatic coastline, reported to contain more than 1,000 islands, is at varying points beautiful, dramatic and mysterious but unfortunately I don’t seem to have taken any pictures that do it true justice.
Throughout our time in Montenegro and Croatia many people asked if we were American. In the spirit of Peace Corps goals #2 and #3 we always qualified our affirmative answers with “…but we are both Peace Corps Volunteers living/serving in Albania.” This led to a number of interesting — and sometimes significant — conversations about life in the Balkan region.
Occasionally people cracked jokes about Albania (most of which related to Albanians’ propensity for driving Mercedes) but more often their first comments/questions revolved around religion, religious diversity and religious tensions. Given the ethnic/religion-based strife that has dogged the former Yugoslavia over the last 25+ years, it was not a surprise that this would be top-of-mind for former Yugoslavians. But, what was a surprise was their skeptical looks when we said that religion (see this earlier blog post for details) is pretty much a non-issue in Albania; it appeared that it was difficult for them to comprehend that a country with religious diversity could be a country without conflict.
The recent history of the former Yugoslavia is full of religious and ethnic conflict, with multiple wars and military actions and many episodes of ethnic cleansing. Croatia’s War of Independence began in 1991 when Serbia objected to Croatia’s attempt to leave Yugoslavia. The war lasted for four years, including a seven-month siege of Dubrovnik, one of Croatia’s most historic (and beautiful) cities.
The history of post-1990 conflict in the Balkans is too complicated and too politically fraught to discuss here. But, when traveling in the region, it’s clear that many people believe that wars and violence are not brief and rare exceptions to the daily rule. On one walking tour, our young female guide told us matter-of-factly that Croatia “has a war every 50 years,” as if it is part of the country’s destiny or DNA.
Dubrovnik, because of its historical walled city and location on the Adriatic, is one of Croatia’s (and the Mediterranean’s) top tourist destinations. We visited in October, well after the summer rush, but the city was still packed with people thanks to the constant stream of behemoth-sized cruise ships jamming the port. According to locals, cruise-ship traffic is even more intense during the summer, with as many as 10,000 people per day visiting from cruise ships alone. And now, with the popularity of “Game of Thrones” tours, the city — #14 in population with fewer than 50,000 people — is busier than ever. Multiple times we heard locals bemoan the crowds, the high prices and the “Disney-fication” of their city.
A couple of Peace Corps friends told me to skip Dubrovnik — that it’s too busy and too touristy. Others told me “yes, that’s true, but it’s too beautiful to pass up.” I agree that it’s a must-do….although I am grateful not to have been there during the height of the season.
The number one tourist attraction in Dubrovnik is “walking the wall,” which means trekking two kilometers around the medieval ramparts surrounding Old City Dubrovnik. We were told that, in order to avoid the crowds, we should do the walk first thing in the morning — right as the gates opened — so that we could finish just as the crowds were starting to build.
Where Kotor’s walled Old Town was small-scale, rustic and charming, Dubrovnik’s, built between the 9th and 14th centuries, is grand, coherent and pristine — a completely different experience. Yet, both offered the delight of exploring narrow, winding streets and happening upon unexpected squares, churches, fountains and buildings that were impossible to find again later.
One of the highlights of our time in Dubrovnik was our visit to the War Photography Museum, which is really more of a store-front-sized gallery that uses the work of photojournalists to illuminate the impact of recent wars and conflicts from around the world. The second floor of the museum was devoted to conflicts in the Balkans — one exhibit on the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War and the other on the 1991-1992 siege and blockade of Dubrovnik, during which the Serbs intentionally destroyed UNESCO-protected buildings/monuments in Old Town. Neither Karla nor I anticipated the emotional impact the exhibits would have on us and, as a result, we never made it past these two exhibits because we spent so much time talking about what we were seeing. There were several points during the visit that I found myself crying and at one point I actually broke down. One of the pictures that had the greatest impact on me — because of its incongruity — was a shot of young girl carrying a bird in a birdcage as she boarded an evacuation boat in Dubrovnik harbor.
We also made an excursion to Lokrum Island, a nature reserve a short ferry ride from the city. The island is small and we were able to walk its trails in a few hours but the variety in views, vegetation and terrain made it feel much bigger.
The east side of the island (the side closest to Dubrovnik) reminded me of New England: pine trees, craggy rocks, scrubby bushes. The middle section was more Mediterranean, with olive groves and cypress trees, and the west side (the side open to the Adriatic) looked like the surface of the moon: bare, flat rocks and no vegetation. People were using the rocks as their base for swimming in the Adriatic, getting in and out of the water using swimming-pool-type ladders that had been installed into the rocks for that purpose.
In addition to the varied terrain, there were a couple of other surprises on the island: free-range/wild peacocks the same color as the Adriatic and a tucked-away swimming grotto.
After our time in Dubrovnik Karla and I — and our trusty backpacks — boarded another north-bound bus, this time for a three-hour ride to Split, Croatia’s second largest city (population ~170,000).
Diocletian, a Roman emperor, ruled for 20 years around the early 4th century. He is the first Roman emperor to have voluntarily retired from his position and the palace, with his residence, its military quarters, commercial and residential districts was his retirement home for the last 10 years of his life.
What makes the Palace so interesting and impressive is the layers upon layers of construction that occurred over centuries. There are Roman ruins (including mosaics), churches from the Middle Ages, medieval fortifications and Renaissance-era buildings. Outside the Palace walls, Split is a seaside port not unlike cities on the French Riviera, with palm trees and a promenade.
Dubrovnik is first and foremost a tourist destination, but Split is much more “real life” — a living, breathing city on the move. And, while Dubrovnik was pristine and well-maintained, there is something wonderfully seedy and a little worn about Split. As with the other walled cities we visited, Split is full of nooks, crannies and narrow streets and getting lost/going in circles in part of the experience.
We stayed at a B&B — Palace D’Augubio — just off the main square (in this case, “palace” means simply “home.” The Venetian-style building, built on the ruins of an even earlier edifice, dates to the 15th century when it was a nobleman’s home.
During our visit to Split we also took a full-day excursion, first to the historic city of Šibenik and then to Krka National Park, known for its waterfalls. There had been a great deal of rain in the week prior to our visit and the Krka river had begun to overflow its banks and many of the causeways over the river were closed, either because of flooding or because the force of the river was so strong.
While we were there, we saw several places where water had breached retaining walls and park employees were starting to sandbag. Both Karla and I found the speed and strength of the water extremely unsettling and confined our exploring to areas where we didn’t run the risk of what we kept referring to as “certain death.”
Here are some scenes from the city of Šibenik: