Croatia Trip: Dubrovnik and surrounding islands

Buses from Split to Dubrovnik run from the main bus station (on the seafront) and take around 4 hours to reach their destination. Our  bus was relatively empty, and we sat on the right – definitely recommended as the drive down is beautiful, all coastline and mountains and pretty red-roof houses. While Croatia can boast most of the coast (what a nice rhyme), Bosnia & Herzegovina managed to grab a very small sliver of coast. This tiny chunk of the country is actually on the way to Dubrovnik, with no way around it, meaning that we had to wait for passport checks. As we entered, we realised that we had another country to add to the list!

“But it doesn’t count unless your feet touch the ground,” Hermione claimed. Just then, the bus stopped on B&H territory and announced a short break. So, I can proudly say that my feet touched the ground in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I even used the toilet there. From what I saw, it was pretty, although not much different from the rest of the coast on the way down.

By the time we reached Dubrovnik, we were over-saturated with pretty coastline and red roofs, which is what Dubrovnik uses to draw its crowds. We actually didn’t get there until 6pm (our ferry to Split was early, so we had a few hours to hang out there and get lunch), and upon exiting the bus – you can guess it – loads of little old ladies with hotel signs accosted us, asking if we needed a room. We had booked three nights at the Vila Vala on the Lapad peninsula, and we waited at the bus station for a good 35 minutes after calling them to wait for a lift. It was definitely worth it, though, as the area surrounding Dubrovnik’s old town is very big and would take a long time to walk around.

Our room was a private one for the three of us (and at 20 euros a night, the same price as the shared rooms I’d found, worth it) with a small kitchen area and patio. A network of houses climbed up from the bottom of the hill, and ours was somewhere near the top, meaning that to get to the town below we were to walk down several sets of steps into other people’s gardens. This seemed a bit weird, but also very warm and friendly. A little old lady cleaning the steps with a hosepipe greeted us as we entered our little apartment.

On the first night, we decided to head down onto the pedestrian area, which was dotted with restaurants, shops and little stands advertising excursions. We chatted to a few of these salespeople, each one trying to convince us that their three island boat trip was better than the others (they all seemed pretty similar). Feeling a little financially drained, we found the local supermarket – a big shop with a lot of bargains. Our pasta, pesto and vegetables cost us 2 euro each, and we cooked at the apartment and just relaxed.

The next morning, we headed to the famous old town, the main attraction. Dubrovnik drew international attention during the war of the early 1990’s, when it was sieged, although you’d never know today as they have done their best to repair the damage done by bombs and rebuild their city to manage the influx of tourists. The old town itself is now a UNESCO world heritage site and draws a LOT of tourists. We discovered this after taking the bus from our hotel area to the old town as early as 9am and finding ourself surrounded by cruise ship crews.

The main thing to do in the old town is to climb along the walls. This costs 70kuna (and they don’t take euros! – the amount of times I laughed at people seeming outraged by that!) and lasts about an hour. You get to see the whole of the old town from above, and it is quite nice and interesting, but the sun was already blazing hot by then and there are a lot of steps. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is very unfit or has trouble walking. We survived with the help of handheld fans and stops in the shade, but by the end we were a little bored and just wanted to sit down and drink something cold.

Within the old town itself, it looks pretty enough – similar to Split or Hvar but a little more open – but is ruined by the touristy nature. Not only were there too many people there, but everything is either an expensive restaurant (with touts, which always discourages us), a souvenir shop or some kind of museum. Jeff assured me that it was much nicer here when it was quiet, and I believe him – so, go in the afternoons or evenings, and preferably not in the heat of summer.

View from the wallsOne interesting thing that we did find was an exhibition of war photography (War Photo Limited), which was a little hard to find down small side-streets but an eye-opener for certain. On the walls, you’ll see images from the Yugoslavia war, striking and heart-breaking, shocking when you realise how recent it all was. I admit I don’t know much about that time, as I was just growing up and barely aware of the news, but I aim to look into it. The museum also contained photography books from other conflicts, including Yemen, Egypt and Libya (very recent). Some of the pictures were downright traumatising. But not every moment of your holiday should be about getting drunk and having fun. We travel to experience, we travel to learn. The history of Croatia and other former Yugoslavian countries is integral to their identities today, and we should not go over there merely to drink their wine and swim in their seas, but to understand the conflicts that shaped who they are and how their countries stand today. What that museum did was to show us how fresh those scars really are, and how truly ugly war is (although that is something I have always believed, seeing those pictures brings it to light a bit more).

OK, for those of you who don’t enjoy preachy or heavy, I’ll go back to the nice things. We tired of the old town pretty quickly after that, and headed back to the area near our apartment for some lunch. There’s a nice pizzeria called Mamma Mia on the end which does cheap food, and we shared another jumbo pizza for 80kn or so (total). It was good. So good that we went back to the apartment for a “siesta” (i.e. falling asleep while watching the finest that Croatian T.V. has to offer – Miami Vice and Full House with subtitles). We followed it with a walk down to the beach (5 minutes away) and swam, snorkelled and all that. I saw a multicoloured fish and a man fishing with large cages, which was a bit upsetting to watch from my underwater vantage point. We cooked at home again and spent the evening playing card games and drinking wine on the patio.

We had decided to do a three island excursion after all, and picked the company with the most friendly, least pushy sales assistant (Adriana tours, I think). We congregated at the stand for 9:30 the next morning, from where we walked for quite a while and waited for our boat. The boat was a little bit like a pirate ship, and seemed to be the least crowded of the lot – score! All of the excursions, by the way, were between 200 and 250kn, but this one came with a free journey to some other islands, usable any time. Jeff and I wouldn’t be able to use them, as we were leaving for Montenegro the next day, but Hermione was spending one last day in Dubrovnik before catching her flight back, so she was able to use them.

The boat!

The boat came with unlimited free drinks – water, sodas, bitter lemon and wine. There were skanky red and white boxed wines, as well as a dessert wine in an ancient lookingbottle, which turned out to be sweet and delicious. Were we drinking wine at 10am? Maybe, just maybe. Not too much, of course. The boat took us to three of the Elafiti islands, the first one being Lopud, where we were given two hours to explore. Our sales assistant had told us that the sandy beach near the dock would be too crowded, but if we walked or hired a small buggy to take us to the other side of the island, we’d find a secluded sandy beach. The beach near the boat, with its dark sand, looked quite empty, but we grabbed an ice cream and started walking to this secluded, magical beach. The road was narrow, and little golf buggies kept coming past. After ten minutes, we realised that we were heading rapidly uphill, that it was really hot, and that EVERYONE was walking the same way. Just how secluded was it going to be? Laughing to ourselves, we turned back and went to the first beach. We’ll never know how nice the other beach was, but it’s no secret if you tell every customer about it, and the beach near the dock was just fine. We managed a nice swim, and I realised that I had been spoilt by rocky beaches and didn’t want anything to do with sand any more. Well, perhaps luxurious white sand, but this was thick and dark and reminded me of quarry sand.

We got back onto the boat for 13:30 and were presented with lunch (we’d got to pre-order earlier and choose between fish, chicken or vegetables). I chose fish, and it really was a whole fish, eyes and all, but living in Japan has toughened me up and I cut through the skin and ate it. Not the eyes or anything near the face, but the rest. It came with cabbage, and afterwards there was a lot of everything left, so we were given some chicken, too. Barely had we finished eating when we arrived at the second island, Šipan. This time, we only had an hour, and we skipped the pretty small town and headed straight to the nearest beach. This one was secluded – down some precarious looking steps and into a small rocky cove. Well, this was the clearest water I’ve ever seen, and there was no special “swimming area” – just the big, old blue, where we could dance with boats if we really wanted to. The snorkelling was great – not much in the way of variety, but perfect visibility, and patches of warm water. At that moment I thought “THIS is why I came to Croatia”, and I knew that I could leave feeling satisfied.

Oh yes! There it is

The final island, Koločep, was small and cute again, but we were perhaps a bit over-islanded by that point. We walked past the beach (another sand one) and sat on a small piece of concrete, just dipping our feet in. I couldn’t really resist swimming yet again, though, knowing it might be the last time I swam in the Adriatic (for a while, anyway). It was a great way to spend the day. We finished our evening with an unimpressive meal at some restaurant on our street and perhaps more card games.

In the morning, it was time to say goodbye to Hermione and for Jeff and I to head to Montenegro.

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