I was excited about my next trip, a very quick trip to three Slavic counties – Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro. It was my first time in my region (almost, but I will explain that in an upcoming blog) and I was excited to explore.
It was also the first time since I have been back in the UK that I had travelled from Gatwick airport. To be honest it is really a little to far to drive for a weekend away, even a long weekend (at around 2 hours give or take depending on traffic) but as my departure flight was before 7am on Saturday morning I travelled down the night before and stayed in a small hotel near the airport for the night which made the journey somewhat more relaxed.
I arrived in Dubrovnik to a chilly and overcast morning and to a ridiculously long passport control queue! I have become a little too comfortable these days with just been able to walk through automated immigration gates at airports with very little time taken, but with no automated gates and 3 planes having landed in quick succession, the immigration queue was backed up. Thankfully I had booked a transfer so I was quickly (well as quickly as the traffic on the narrow roads could take us) taken to the old city.
I must now declare that it seems that I am completely giving up the pretense of being a backpacker (maybe a flashpacker is the term I need to be using) on these trips – ok, I am carrying a small backpacker but now I am booking transfers to the town and in this case, I have a small but convenient hotel room in the old city. Most of the hostels here are all in another part of the city and I really wanted to stay within the city walls. That said, my room is in the attic with a very small single bed and lots of beams for me to hit my head on! So I definitely have not forgone all hardships whilst traveling lol.
As it turns out I was also badly packed for this trip – a real rookie error (the first of a couple on this trip)! When I had checked the weather forecast earlier in the week, it was not forecast to rain so I had not packed a raincoat or umbrella and as it turned out, I definitely need both! I think from now on I am just always going to pack a raincoat just in case.
With the queues at the airport, I just made it in time to the meeting point for the walking tour I had planned to go on. But sadly, this was the first free walking tour I have done where there were just too many people and it was hard to hear the guide (I think he had cancelled the early one because of rain so there were definitely more people than normal). There were definitely way too many people for the narrow streets of the old city but the guide was good local guy (who was clearly passionate about the city’s history) so I tried to persevere despite the less than ideal circumstances.
I did of course learn some very interesting facts, as I always do on these tours. Croatia, and more specifically Dubrovnik is yet another country with a crazy history, and again, European history blows my mind!
Over the centuries, the city has been under the control of the Roman Ostrogothic Kingdom, part of the Byzantine empire, under the rule of Venice, then under Croat-Hungarian rule at which time it gained a great deal of autonomy as the Republic of Ragusa (former Italian name for Dubrovnik). It remained a free state for almost 500 years (although from 1382 it paid an annual tribute to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire) but was much weaken by a massive earthquake in 1667 which killed over 5000 inhabitants and destroyed much of the old city. In 1808, a weaken city was conquered by Napoleon’s French Empire and annexed under the Napoleonic Kingdome of Italy in 1808. Then after the fall of Napoleon it became part of the Austro- Hungarian Habsburg empire in 1815.
After WWI it became part of Croatia which was in turn part of the Kingdom of Serbes, Croats and Slovenes which became Yugoslavia after WWII. Finally, it became the independent country of Croatia in 1991.
All of these cultures left their mark on the city, leaving it rich in culture and enlightenment. They were early adopters of many modern laws and medical services with the first pharmacy opening in 1317 (which is still in operation today). They abolished the slave trade in 1418 and they opened the first orphanage in 1432. They also built a 20km water supply system in in 1438 providing water to the city via two fountains and numerous other outlets around the city (probably more importantly, they also had a sewage system around that time.) The fountains and other outlets are often decorated with animal faces or gargoyle type heads (or Muskeron as they are known).
Apparently, or so said one of the guides, the city used to elect a new governor every month to avoid corruption – a lot of effort to go to, but perhaps something some countries these days should consider doing??
Of course the old city of Dubrovnik is famous for the fortified walls that surround it – 2 metres thick on the seaside and up to 6m thick on the landside. The bulk of the existing walls were built in the 14th and 15th centuries and have survived earthquakes and bombings.
To protect the city, the early inhabitants, ingeniously used stone (rather than iron) cannon balls to protect the city – they had little or no access to the very expensive iron and stone was far easier to source locally. When it was to be used in canon balls that you literally ‘threw’ away, it just was not worth the money or the effort to source the iron!
These early citizens were traders so they really only needed ships and coastland with little or no need for any space inland space (in fact Bosnia is just over the hill behind the city).
Of course, we are very lucky to be able to see the old city of Dubrovnik today, not only has it been damaged over the years but numerous earthquakes (the last major one in 1979), it was also held under siege during the ‘war of independence’ or ‘homeland war’, and was bombarded by the Yugoslav Peoples Army in December 1991. The bombardment of the UNESCO World Heritage site provoked an international outcry. Thankfully no major landmarks were badly damaged and much of the buildings damaged have now been rebuilt/repaired. Our guide was just a baby during the war and was evacuated from the city with his mother and siblings whilst the father had to remain to fight.
As the walking tour continued through the narrow streets of the old city in the rain, there were already lots of tourists around the city – I can’t imagine what peak season would be like and I am not sure I would enjoy it much. Add umbrellas to all the people and it meant not a lot of photo opportunities – I took a mental note to make sure I was out early one morning to take some photos when there are less people around (and hopefully less rain).
I actually gave up on the walking tour about halfway through – the first walking tour I left early, but I know I will go back and re visit most places on my own over the coming days. And so, I head back to my little attic room in the old city (trying to remember to duck as I go under the low beams) and as I took a nap to recover from the early morning the rain came in and the cloud came down.
Having checked the forecast earlier in the week, I had booked a ‘Sunset’ tour and despite the weather they were still running so I went with very little expectation! I had booked with Eco Tuk Tours, a local family run, eco-friendly company who ran tours in 100% electric tuk tuks. So out I went in the rain in an electric tuk tuk – thankfully it had plastic sides/roof and if you kept your feet up you didn’t get wet from the puddles on the road lol. The guide was great and I shared the tuk tuk with a lovely American couple so I was ready to enjoy the experience regardless of the weather.
We drove around the coastline, past the cruise liners lined up along the docks and through the suburban, more modern looking areas which looked like part of the Italian Amalfi coast. Again, I enjoyed hearing the human stories from the guide, as with the walking guide, he had been evacuated with his mother during the war for independence whilst his remained behind to fight.
Thankfully the cloud lifted as we went the hill behind the city, normally the perfect spot to watch the sunset. There was definitely not going to be a sunset but we still got a lovely view over the city, though I did not want to get to close to the edge in case a gust of wind got under the umbrella and blew me off!
At the top of the hill we passed a village which had been captured and burnt to the ground by Bosnian and Montenegro troops during the war and it was from this hilltop were they rained bombs down on the city during the siege.
Standing in the rain and wind at the top of the hill, I was very, very grateful that I took my thin down jacket at the last minute – it was not very waterproof but it was warmer than anything else I would have had! I have definitely learnt by lesson learnt for my next trip, check the weather forecast the day before I leave not just 3-4 days out as it can all change in an instant!
I had hoped I could go back up the hill on another evening if the weather was better and you can normally get a cable car up the hill for the view, however the government had shut it down earlier in the week as they had not paid tax for 9 years (allegedly!). No one seemed to have any idea when or even if they would get it back up and running again so that was definitely not going to happen.
Given the weather, I picked up something to a couple of Croatian pastries and a small bottle of Croatian wine (which was actually pretty good) and retired to my room to enjoy an awesome thunder storm – lightning lighting up my room and such heavy rain (I was happy to be in the attic room to appreciate it on the roof 👍🏻). I do love a good storm.
As I had promised myself, I was up early the next morning. The rain had stopped and I did a quick walk around the to take a few photos I had missed the day before. It was great to wander the peaceful streets with only and few people and lots of cats – many of which appear to be ‘community’ cats 😂. I noted that morning that oddly lots of my photos look like they have a yellowish /sepia type filter on then when they don’t, it is just the colour of all the stone and the whole old city 😂.
Given that I am only in Europe for a year I am trying to make the most of it and seeing as much as I can. In most cases that means only weekends and in some cases one day in a country. Definitely NOT my ideal style of travel and I wish I had the time and money to stay a week or more in each place … maybe again in the future but for now it is just a taster – a whistle stop tour so to speak.
To that end, I had booked a couple of day trips, one to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina and one to Kotor in Montenegro. Both of which were equally as interesting and I will write separate blog posts on them so this post does not turn in to a novel rather than a short story!
After a full day tour, I was back in the old city and sods law, on a day when I do not have a sunset tour booked, there is a beautiful sunset. I went on a mission to try and find a spot to see it, or some of it. I found a ‘hole in the wall’ bar right on the rocks outside the wall which you got to by going through a small door in the city wall. It was beautiful but the views were really around the other side of the city and so after a quick drink I continued on with my quest.
Unfortunately the best views were clearly from the city walls themselves but you had to pay around Euro30 to go on them and they were about to close so it would be a very expensive sunset, so I kept walking around the city and found a couple of vantage points to take photos back towards the city bathing in the glow of the sunset , rather than seeing the sunset itself. Some of the spots were actually rather beautiful though to get to one I had to run the gauntlet of crashing waves to reach it, but it was worth it. (I probably sure note that I found another way on the way down from the view point which did not involve dodging waves on a narrow path – of course it was all part of the fun.)
From my wanderings around the old city I came to the conclusion that old walled city of Dubrovnik is guarded by cats – at different times of the day, different cats where on duty 😂, in particular guarding Pile Gate (one of the main gates into the city).
After another very long day trip to Montenegro (again this is another whole blog post), I was grateful I stayed the extra day so I could appreciate a little lie in on my last morning. It was also a beautiful day weather wise – the sun was shining and the Adriatic Sea was sparkling. In this beautiful weather I decided to walk the city walls – so many amazing photo opportunities.
As I was still chasing that sunset I never saw, and I found the perfect sunset spot, but sadly I had no more evenings. I was going to have coffee there instead but they only took cash and I was running short of Kuna – as always it is the last day balance of how much cash do I need but without having any left!
So, I just took a photo and went on my way 😂 to find a place that took cards to have my coffee 👍🏻.
These days, very few people live in the old city (around 700 from about 5000 in its heyday) and as beautiful as it is, life would be somewhat difficult with all the tourists, TV and movie filming and little in the way of shops, oh and no cars, so anything you want in your house has to be walked in! That said some of the remaining residents are doing quite well from the filming, being paid not to open their windows during the filming of scenes where their properties are in the background 😂. (Most recently Dubrovnik has new found fame from Game of Thrones, much of which is filmed in and around the city – I must admit I have never watched an episode but almost feel like I need to now lol.)
As you walk around the walls you do pass some areas that have not been rebuilt since the bombings, in the out of the way corner places that you only see from the walls and these are sober reminders of the harsh recent hardships this city has suffered.
Although the weather was far from perfect for my trip, I don’t think I would trade that for perfect weather in the summer. I think the heat in the city would be oppressive and with hordes of people would just be too much! I am also really glad I paid the extra to stay in the old city (much of the cheaper accommodation was in another part of the city) to be able to walk out the door and explore the narrow alleys and streets of the old city at any time made it particularly special for me.
The last day is always one of those days – I don’t want to go on a trip or go too far away in case something goes wrong and I am delayed getting back … but then I end up wandering aimlessly around and drinking a lot of coffee/drinks so I can pass the time after checking out.
So, after walking the walls I found a cafe and spent an hour savouring a plate of fruit and 2 coffees before moving on … this time to explore Fort Lovrijenac, just outside Pile Gate as it was included in my tickets for the walls. I had been over there on my hunt for the sunset a few nights before but did not go in as it was already closed at that time. This time was very different, no gauntlet of waves to run through – but a dry path and calm crystal waters – the view was stunning. What a difference a couple of days make.
I was so glad I got one day like this to appreciate the true beauty of the city and the Adriatic Sea surrounding it. But, unsurprisingly, the sun being out meant so were the crowds. I clearly did not get the memo as so many people were out in little sundresses, shorts and vests!! I was still in my fleece but did take the chance on 3/4 length trouser 😂. It was nice and warm in the sun, but rather cold when out of it! There were so many people around, there was actually a queue to get back in through the old city gate!
Given the sunshine, I decided to take one of short glass bottom boat trips. It was cold in the breeze and out of the sun, and to be honest, the ‘glass bottom’ was really no use but it was lovely to see the city from a different perspective which is what I wanted. The water was incredibly turquoise and there even some crazy people on the beach and one even in the water!
After all my activities were complete, I still had a couple of hours to kill before I needed to head back to the airport so I was planning an afternoon of lunching and people watching in one (or more) of the many cafes. Of course, my first stop turned out to be a rookie error!! I sat down, ordered and ate before checking if they took credit cards – they did not!! Thankfully between my remaining Kuna and Euro I had just enough to cover the bill (and a couple of Americans sitting next to me had offered to provide the extra Euro 3 I was going to need before I counted all my coins).
Annoyingly, this was the second time in almost as many weeks that this has happened! It also happened in London when I was there. Thankfully I could just run to an ATM to get more cash there. These days I just assume that everywhere – particularly city centre restaurants will take cards, it is definitely one of the things we take for granted.
Of course, at my next stop for dessert and coffee I checked first 🤦🏻♀️. And so, I wiled away the rest of my time in the city, sitting in the sun enjoying a Croatian beer and reading before heading to the airport for my flight.
Back in the UK and I had a long drive home from Gatwick, made long by an accident that closed all 8 lanes (40 minutes at a standstill) and then google.maps telling me to use slip roads that were closed for overnight road works adding an extra 10miles to the journey 🤦🏻♀️ . I am glad I don’t have many other flights booked from Gatwick!