A few hours after hopping into a car on the Montenegro-Croatia border, the couple who had reluctantly picked us up stopped at a viewing spot. The front cover of the Croatia Lonely Planet guide shows the walled city of Dubrovnik in the distance; a nutty coloured cluster surrounded by glorious sky and sea.
That image became reality on the hazy miradora where we stood, sinking our teeth into Montenegrin apples and soaking up the scene. Viewing the subject of a Lonely Planet’s cover through your own eyes is always a certain type of satisfying; a feeling only experienced when realising a long harboured fantasy, and this particular experience was blue and fabulous, with all the sparkle of Adriatic promise.
Dubrovnik is renowned as a jewel of the Mediterranean; home to stone walls, cobbled streets and a crystal clear ocean lapping at its door. All of these things we found to be true, the beauty of the place surpassing what we had expected. But after stepping inside the walls for a moment it became obvious that a lot of other people had heard the same rumor. When I say a lot, I really mean it: swathes of tourists covering those famous streets to the point that there were more feet visible than stones. Fresh off the cruise ships, these people looked good; sporting outlandish sun hats and snapping away with expensive cameras, making the two slightly grimy girls of which I make up one half feel very out of place. We had spent the night before in a squat in Kotor (Montenegro), and being confronted by the sight of clean, normal people in large quantities was a little too much.
Swiftly we found ourselves heading for the side streets, turning off the harshly beaten track at any available opportunity. Winding our way through the narrower alleys, caught far more occasionally now on the cameras of strangers, we stopped in little shops to sample fig salami and lavender vinegar, turning our heads to watch the breeze stream through lines of colourful washing. Away from the main streets we began to see how lovely things must have been twenty years before, when one could have turned 360 degrees in the main squares and seen only a handful of others doing the same. This is of course the classic travel conundrum; one surely cannot be so selfish as to expect anyone else to visit the places that you yourself have travelled so far to appreciate, yet when everyone has the same initiative the beauty cannot help but be diminished. This was certainly the case with Dubrovnik, meaning that a longing to escape was somewhat inevitable.
Thankfully this was not difficult for us as, after hearing how expensive accommodation in the city was, we had joyfully accepted the Couchsurfing offer that read: “I’m currently sailing around Croatia’s southern islands on my yacht, do you fancy joining me?”. So after an initial day of escaping the crowds and trying to see past those devilish sun hats, we headed back to our yacht and its well-stocked beer fridge to see out the evening in a tucked away harbour. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Couchsurfing, it’s a website where people offer up a bed in their house, or a space on the couch as the name suggests, for travellers to crash in. The concept is amazing because it’s so reciprocal: the host gets a chance to show off their city and enjoy the company of new people, whilst the traveller not only gets a lovely place to stay but also access to a local’s inside knowledge. The website hits the nail on the head with its tagline ‘you have friends all over the world;’ an heart-warming idea that this scheme really does demonstrate.
Returning to the glamorous bustle the next day, this time freshly showered with almond croissants in our tummies, we felt far more ready to embrace the hectic touristy atmosphere. After being charmed by a gelato man who had developed an art for elaborate ice-cream related tricks, we made our way up the city’s steps to Buza bar for the day’s first beverage. Set into the outer side of the city wall, the rocky outcrop is adorned with white umbrellas, round tables and good music, making it the ideal spot for a beer in the sun. Although the place is poorly equipped to the point of hilarity, they don’t even have toilets or a source of running water, all this can be forgiven for the fact that it is a lovely sun trap with an incredible view. If anyone finds themselves getting a little too warm, as we did, they are free to strip off to their underwear in front of a large amount of amused drinkers and agonise over whether to do the bar’s 12 meter cliff jump. After a good amount of time spent doing just that, we bottled out of the bigger drop but took the plunge and did the 8 meter instead, which I still feel is a fine achievement even if the lead up was a little embarrassing.
After consuming a large portion of beef and gnocchi (a delicious local dish) to calm us down, we decided that it was time to scale the city walls and do the legendary walk at sunset. The path, threading its way around the sprawling old town, was not empty, but neither was it overcrowded. As the sun began to fall low in the sky and smoke to rise from the restaurants and houses below, the hordes of people on street level seemed to pale into insignificance. Leaning over the sun-warmed walls, the irritating presence of those crowds seemed to matter less when faced by that expanse of beautiful, timeless stone. They crawled like ants through the wide streets but their presence no longer managed to bother me, as I turned my face to the burnt-orange ocean. I knew in that moment that people will come and go but the city will remain, and so although for now its charm is clouded, those stones will still stand long after the cruise ships and people like me have forgotten their existence.