Fully revived Croatian city exquisitely calm
Posted on Sun, Mar. 27, 2005
BY CAROL PUCCI
Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on my own experiences and readers', I'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. My column runs the last Sunday of each month.
DUBROVNIK, Croatia - At the Gavun fish bar, trays of salt cod, sardines and fresh squid fill a glass case in a closet-size kitchen. Diners relax outdoors on sidewalk picnic tables shaded by red umbrellas.
In between bites of a $3 tuna carpaccio sandwich, I caught the attention of Alan Durovic, the Gavun's young owner, and asked about the Complaints Book.
''The Complaints Book is on the front table,'' read a note at the top of his menu.
I had no complaints, but I was curious.
''Do you really have a complaints book?'' I asked, as he darted past my table with a platter of the finger-length sardines Croatians eat like French fries. ''Of course not,'' he smiled.
I'd been trying to solve the mystery of the Complaints Book ever since I'd seen a dusty blue volume labeled ''Complaints'' sitting on a hotel bar a few days before. On my way to the restroom, I peeked inside. There were instructions in five languages and carbon paper for making copies, but all the pages were blank.
''Is it something that's required by law?'' I asked Durovic.
''Of course!'' he smiled again.
A regulation left over from the days of Yugoslavia and communism, he speculated, but Durovic now has bigger concerns. Among them: how to kick-start a fledging business in a postcard-perfect town that many foreigners still equate with bombs and destruction.
Dubrovnik has been called the city of light and stone; a city of poets, writers and scientists. Today, it might be called the city of survivors.
A dozen years after a siege by the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army damaged more than 70 percent of the buildings, the historic walled Old Town has been completely restored. Few signs of the war remain.
More than 250 people died, but not everyone fled.
''Some of us stayed,'' said Vesna Gamulin. Dressed in flared blue jeans and a white shawl, her blond hair tied back to show off a pair of handmade silver earrings, she showed me the ''street'' where she was born, a steep alley of stone steps and landings where my husband and I rented an apartment for a few days last spring. ``We defended the city with our presence.''
Her fluency in several languages earned her a job as a translator after the Balkan war. Today she guides visitors on walking tours through old Dubrovnik, pointing out friends who reopened jewelry shops and restaurants after the war ended.
Ringed by medieval walls 80 feet high in some parts, Dubrovnik's historical center was rebuilt in Baroque style after a 1667 earthquake. Millions went into reconstruction after the war ended in May 1992. Today, the only way to tell a building that was damaged from one that was not is by the color of its roof -- red tiles for new; yellow for old.
Renting an audio guide and walking the 1 Ā½-mile sea wall is the best way to orient yourself, but we were able to get our bearings by just looking out our bedroom window.
Most visitors stay in the modern city outside the walls, in resort hotels stretching along the Adriatic coast. But for us, spending the night in pedestrian-only Old Town left us feeling less like tourists in an outdoor museum and more like part of the living city that old Dubrovnik becomes once the day-trippers leave.
Huffing and puffing our way up 84 stone steps on Palmoticeva, a pedestrian alley that passes for a street in Old Town, was a small inconvenience for the rewards that went with the apartment we rented through a Croatian travel agency.
Our neighbors panted their way up the stairs just like we did, only they lugged bags of groceries from the corner store. They watched satellite TV, played basketball, grew gardens in tiny patches of grass surrounded by acres of stone and strung their laundry on clotheslines that stretched between buildings.
A few steps away from our apartment was a row of outdoor restaurants and cafes on Prijeko Street. Prijeko means ''across,'' a reference to the time when this part of town was divided from the rest of Dubrovnik by a swamp, now limestone-paved Stradun, the main pedestrian promenade.
From our third-floor window, we looked down over the rooftops at the rotunda of the big, 16-sided Onofrio drinking fountain, built in the 15th century, that continued to work and supply water during the Balkan war.
To the right was the 14th-century Franciscan monastery and cloister with an antique pharmacy that still serves as the Old Town's main drugstore. Below us was the Stradun and the Cafe Orlando, our favorite spot for morning cappuccino and 60-cent slices of cherry strudel served by waitresses in blue blazers and gold neckties.
Casual strolls down random alleyways led us into courtyards where we found women selling dried figs, hand-knitted booties and oils made of lavender.
Modern craftsmen carry on Dubrovnik's tradition as a jewelry-making center. On the Stradun, jewelers Luci Vierda, 19, and her father, Matija, sold craft reproductions of traditional silver and gold filigree earrings and pendants in a shop that has been in the family since 1914. Nearby, Galerija Nakita, displays more modern designs inside a maze of rooms flooded in neon light.
Around the corner from our apartment we found the Convent of the Transfiguration where Franciscan nuns first came to live in the 13th century.
Vesna had tipped us off about a small museum that the nuns open on request. When we walked into the stone courtyard and rang the doorbell, Sister Karolina stuck her head out a top-floor window and motioned for us to push open the wooden door and come inside.
She spoke only Croatian and Italian, but she spent 45 minutes showing us through exhibits stored in the basement where the nuns hid during the war. On display were antique irons, tools for spinning and weaving wool, urns used for storing olive oil; paintings and artwork. Shells and pieces of shrapnel from the war were arranged on a wooden table.
Sister Karolina went to a drawer and found some printed material in English that explained how workers uncovered ancient paintings and other architectural elements of an original medieval church next door to the convent when they removed plaster while making repairs after the war.
Dubrovnik was a major maritime power when it broke from Venetian and Hungarian rule and became the independent Republic of Ragusa in the 14th century. Strip away the trappings of the tourist destination it is today and it remains essentially a fishing village. Mussels, squid, sardines and octopus are the local specialties, and old Dubrovnik supports a thriving restaurant and cafe scene.
The restaurants along Prijeko would tempt any visitor with their displays of shellfish on ice and candlelit outdoor tables. But locals consider them tourist traps, and pointed us instead to neighborhood spots such as Lokanda Pskarija, a harborside cafe with a few tables scattered around a stone patio next to scales where fishermen weigh their catch.
We watched more than one sunset here as we sampled local specialties such as black risotto -- colored so with squid ink -- and Mussels Buzara, cooked in wine, oil, garlic (never onion) and tomatoes. Rarely did we pay more than $20 for a meal for two.
''Hole-in-the-wall'' and ''hidden hideaway'' are clichĆ© descriptions, but they literally fit the Cafe Buza, an outdoor bar clinging to a sea cliff just outside the eastern walls.
The only way to reach the Buza is through a hole poked into a cement archway, and the only clue that you've found the place is a wooden sign with an arrow that says Cold Drinks.
It was chilly and beginning to rain when we claimed the last free table on the terrace. We ordered beers and waited out the storm under a thatched awning while listening to Frank Sinatra tunes blend with the sounds of waves pounding against rock.
A waiter came by with a tray filled with tiny plastic cups.
''Something to warm you up,'' he said, handing us each a shot of a clear liquid that tasted like vodka.
Rather than rushing everyone out the door to clear tables for new customers, he offered drinks on the house.
I wondered if the Buza had a Complaints Book, but just couldn't bring myself to ask.