People were moving towards the edges of their seats. Ipods were off and cameras were out. A hush went through the bus.
Dubrovnik was coming into view.
There aren’t that many places that have that effect on people. We usually approach cities these days via their outskirts, having nasty-looking things like warehouses and car yards give us a first impression of a place. Not so much Dubrovnik. If you enter by road, you pop out along the coastline, high above the walled city. The Republic of Ragusa, as it was known for centuries, would take my breath away each and every time.
I’d always, without fail, get my timing wrong when coming into Dubrovnik. Talk to any tour guide and they’ll tell you that it’s one of the hardest things; working backwards from you arrival time and trying to figure out how much time you’ll need to tell your group everything they’ll need to know about their next few hours. For Dubrovnik, I’d get myself into the same trap each time. After the Montenegrin border I’d do a general Croatia talk, go way too long as per usual, then plonk down on my seat, figuring I had enough time to catch my breath. Nope. That sign would flash by, freaking me out every single time.
DUBROVNIK 4 KM.
Then I’d have to try and get people interested in a multitude of things about Dubrovnik – its history, its ties with Italy, its role during the wars in the 1990s, its food, its walls and its plethora of churches. Plus I’d have to tell them how to avoid the cruise ship crowd and basically give them their whole walking tour before we’d even step foot off the bus, due to the Croatian authorities not being too happy about letting foreigners guide on their soil.
But I’d be fighting a losing battle. Because I’d be competing with views like this.
I understand that this photo is actually quite rubbish and doesn’t really do my argument any justice. But really, it’s the best one can do through a window, on a moving bus (driven by an enigmatic Croatian happy to be back home) when everyone’s shifted to the the left side to the point where I’m genuinely concerned that the whole bus, lovingly nicknamed Boris Coachovski, will tip over.
And just keep in mind that less than 24 hours ago, we were in Albania. I rest my case.
We’d be pulling up near the cable car station seemingly in a matter of seconds, and we’d be in the teaming heat. As an Australian I should be used to hot weather, but nothing prepares you for Dubrovnik in August. It feels as if you’re being heated up from two angles, like in an oven; from the relentless sun and then from the blindingly white footpaths, where I’m sure you’d hear a ‘tsss’ sound if you were stupid enough to touch them with a bare finger.
With that in mind, I’d guide up to forty excited (and mildly hungover) souls down a complicated zig-zag route to the Old Town’s entrance, shouting route markers for the journey back but convinced someone would inevitably get lost.
Keeping one eye on my charges who would at this stage be heading in at least a dozen different directions, and another on possible undercover tourist police who would be very happy to fine me for ‘guiding’, I’d complete a pseudo orientation walk on the sly and let them all go.
Then, my favourite two hours of an entire fortnight would all of a sudden creep up on me. I’d be completely free, with all of Dubrovnik at my disposal. It was like a date I’d look forward to all week. Actually, it wasn’t ‘like’ that. It was a date.
Despite my previous whinging about cruise ships and Dubrovnik being overtouristed, I adore the place. People often compare it to Venice, due to its history (the two would compete with each other over trade on the Adriatic Sea) but that’s a bit ridiculous. Venice has its canals and has a sort of faded elegance to it, whereas Dubrovnik has the brilliant sea views and the bright white and orange colour scheme going on.
I would wander, through the crowded squares and into the quiet, slightly cooler laneways. They’d all have incredible inclines, which would make me feel incredibly sorry for anyone moving house. In some lanes you’d just find tourist infrastructure – hotels, restaurants and overpriced boutiques – but others would be entirely residential. They were a bit rare, but I’d get a bit excited whenever I’d see washing hanging between buildings or neighbours chatting in the streets. People live here, I’d have to remind myself.
On one occasion I went up on the famed city walls and completed a loop around the town. Yes, you have to pay but yes it is worth it; the views are to die for and after the initial crowds, you can have sections on the opposite side all to yourself. The heat would be relentless and every time I wanted to keel over, I’d drown myself in water (they thoughtfully sell it on the wall itself) and push on. The pictures? Why, they tell a thousand words.
You can’t go to Dubrovnik and not do the wall walk. It’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, or not posing in a red phone booth in London. Every metre promises views even better than the last.
Afterwards, I would collect my passengers, all looking quite rosy in the face. It wouldn’t just be the sun; they were showing the after effects of a date with Dubrovnik, too.