Have Love Will Travel
Stari Stari Grad

Sunday 23rd May 2010

There was still uncertainty in the air when we woke up at 3am (our most ungodly hour yet) about whether we were actually going to fly today or not. For the past few weeks there have been several interruptions to flights because of the Icelandic ash cloud. The Eyjafjallajokoll volcano was causing havoc with European airspace with its potentially catastrophic dust particles spreading across the continent. Last week the Civil Aviation Authority increased the threshold of what it considered to be safe levels of dust in the stratosphere making disruptions less likely but that only added to Julie's anxiety. "It sounds like they don't know what their talking about!?" she remarked.

Because of our ridiculously early 4am scheduled check-in we stayed last night at the Hampton by Hilton hotel directly opposite Liverpool airport. We spent the evening watching the European Cup Final eating terrible food in their pretend "restaurant", then going to sleep after watching the Ten o'clock News. No news was good news about the dust cloud but it could all change over night.

All the signs were positive as we checked-in bright and early and were sat airside waiting for the shops to open. The cafe opened first at 4:30am followed by the shops half an hour later. After a coffee and croissant we distracted ourselves with some retail therapy and bought ourselves a pair of shoes each which is so unlike me.

I hate spending money on shoes but these were pretty cool, called Sanuk (a Thai word for good times) and were more like beach slippers. I liked them so much I put my old shoes in the box and walked out the store in my new funky shoes. I hadn't done that since I was a child!

With our lucky champagne bought it was time to make our way over to the gate where we queued to get on board. Three people (that's all) had paid the extra for Easy Jet's Speedy Boarding. They obviously weren't aware that we all just pile into a bus to be transfer to the plane and then it's a free for all. Lets just say they weren't amused.

Aided by three diazepams Julie appeared to be quite calm, even appearing to be excited and pleased when we got on board quite early and got to our favourite seats position just behind the wing. We settled down for take off which did start her nerves jangling.

Some ten minutes later, up above the clouds but before the seat belt sign had been switched off, there was an almighty shudder. "Oh My God!" screamed Julie.

It only lasted a second or two but it was quite a violent jolt. "What was that?" she asked turning to me for support but I couldn't explain what could possibly have caused it. It didn't feel like simple turbulence, we weren't high enough for dust particles.

It felt like we had hit something solid and quite substantial like a flying elephant. Or perhaps there was an elephant in the cargo hold and it had just fallen over.

No amount of diazepam would calm Julie down after that shake. For the first time ever even I thought the plane was going to drop from the sky. Thankfully it didn't and fortunately there wasn't another episode.

Julie was beyond recovery however as she suffered internal aftershocks all the way to Dubrovnik.

Shortly after two hours we descended down the Croatian coast. The view out the window of the many islands that littered the Adriatic was wonderful.

As soon as we landed Julie couldn't wait to get off. It had been quite a stressful flight for her this time.

With our luggage collected we were met outside the arrival gate by our transfer holding up a card with the mis-spelt Mr Colon Owem. "Aha, that'll be us"

"My name is Petar. Welcome to Croatia. " he said in a perfect bond villain accent "How was flight?"
"It was OK" I said not wanting to get into a conversation about the trauma.

We got into his air-conditioned 4x4 and he drove us the 19km up the coast. There was some glorious scenery along the way. "Here, Croatia is no more than some hundred metres wide!" he said pointing to the hills that separated here from Bosnia & Herzegovina. He talked a little about the troubles they had in the early 1990s. "The war was a difficult time" he said explaining when Yugoslavia descended into civil war and how Dubrovnik was caught right in the middle of it. "I am a Croat and proud" he continued.

Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik

A short distance from the UNESCO World Heritage city we stopped at a popular vantage point.

It was a short climb up the hillside and the view from the top was absolutely breathtaking. Nestled below me between the sea and the mountains was the picture perfect view of the Pearl of the Adriatic, a name given to Dubrovnik by the infamous Lord Byron.

Petar dropped us off outside the old city walls at Ploce Gate. He couldn't take us any further because inside the Old Town walls was (mostly) a pedestrianised zone. We wheeled our suitcases over the wooden drawbridge and into the ancient city of Ragusa as it was once called.

It was extremely busy amongst its narrow streets yet despite the hordes the stunning beauty of the city was immediately apparent, utterly gorgeous.

Julie and I made slow progress across to the steps of the Cathedral to meet the owner/agent whose studio apartment was going to be our home for the next four days.

We didn't have to wait long before she arrived and we quite literally followed her around the corner.

"That is yours" she said pointing to a quaint window above the door to a charming townhouse. It looked so idyllic.

apartment, Dubrovnik

Even the crude method of opening the front down by pulling on a wire just added to its rustic charm.

The simple appeal continued inside as a shabby stone staircase, lacking in even the basic safety feature of a handrail swooped up dramatically. It looked like we'd stepped inside a medieval monastery.

The apartment itself was nice, perfect for a few days.

We opened the wooden shutters of our window onto a lovely view of the Cathedral and we pictured ourselves sitting here every morning having breakfast.

"You can pay me later" she said "Please come to Pizzeria Castro. I have a pizzeria two corners away in Gunduliceva Poljana. I'll be there after 8pm" and with that she left. She was pleasant enough but we weren't going to mess with her. She looked like she could throw a good shot put.
Gundulic Square, Dubrovnik

We were starving hungry and after a short interlude we instinctively walked the two corners away to Gundulic Square. Pizzeria Castro was the first restaurant we saw, with its tables spilling out into the square. We hoped our landlady didn't see us as we weren't in the mood for pizza.

There was a small market down one side of the square. The fruit & veg stalls were packing up for the day but other stalls were still busy selling embroidery and lace to a steady stream of elderly tourists lured here by the hypnotic aroma of the lavender water also on offer.

There were a plenty of cafes and restaurants around the suare and we picked one called Ark A because it promoted itself as having vegetarian food.

The moment we reached the restaurant we were immediately pounced upon by someone trying desperately to encourage us to stop and eat, "Would you like to see the menu?"

Despite having already decided to eat here we almost changed my mind. My first reaction to places who employ tout tactics is to walk away.

"We're listed in the DK guide book Top 10" he continued.

I was expecting the menu to be a "tourist special" with bad photographs of each dish but it didn't, so we sat down for our lunch.

When it arrived the food was actually quite tasty. I had an anti-pasti platter of aubergine and cheese. The tastiest bit was the dipping the accompanying bread into the delicious olive oil they had on the table. At sixty five Croatian Kunas it felt a bit on the expensive side for what I had especially compared to Julie's dish which was only an extra 10Kn but was one of Dubrovnik's renowned dishes.

She was being incredibly adventurous and had ordered the Grilled Squid.

This challenging mound of tentacles and sacks arrived and she began to have second thoughts. She took a deep breath and impaled a piece on her fork, tentatively put it in her mouth and began to chew.

With a look of surprise on her face she said "Mmm, it's quite tasty". But as time passed however she became less enthusiastic. "Uh, I'm not too sure about the texture."

As the sea critters were cooling down they were becoming more rubbery. Each bite took longer to chew and swallowing increasingly difficult until she finally gave up.

"That was nice" she said "but I won't have it again."

Whilst Julie was chewing on sea-life's grizzle the clear blue sunny skies had gone and the mist had rolled in over the hills. The temperature had certainly dropped.

We paid our bill and set off on a stroll around the Stari Grad (old town) before it rained.

We weren't far from Dubrovnik's main street, known as Stradun but also called Placa, a long wide avenue that cut through the otherwise narrow streets of the walled city. It ran from Pile Gate, the main western entrance, all the way down to the Old Port.

Gundulic Square, Dubrovnik

Hidden from view for the most part was its famed white stone pavers, polished like marble by the constant flow of tourist who also unfortunately submerged it. Its beauty trampled under foot. I wasn't too upset however as I knew we had four nights here and once the cruise ship crowd and hotel hordes returned to their base we would have the street to ourselves.

It was mostly lined with cafes and shops to fulfil the tourists insatiable appetite for tat. We ourselves did step inside one to satisfy my own tat needs. I just had to buy a large Croatian flag for my burgeoning collection.

We spent most of the time glancing up the many side streets that branched out from the Stradun.

To the North side I was surprised to see steps that rose steeply up towards the city walls. Back in the 11th century this hilly area was apparently part of the mainland, whilst the Stradun was the channel that separated it from an island called Ragusa, now the area to the South of the main street.

The mist had now turned into ominous rain clouds and it wasn't long before we began to get wet.

We dived into a side street to get some shelter but there was no respite from the rain, so we dived inside the first Irish Pub we could find!

The Gaffe was waiting for us just a few steps away from Stradun down Miha Pracata street. We sat out the bad weather having a few jars of a local pivo (beer) called Ožujsko. Every now and then we would pop our heads out to check if it was still raining, which it was, so another round was ordered.

We noticed that the pub was showing football tonight which was a must for us to watch. It was such a coincidence that tonight's game on the TV was Croatia v Wales! It was hundreds of miles away near Zagreb but we just had to come back to the Gaffe later and support our country. It was a question of duty and honour.

An hour went by before the clouds passed and it was dry enough to venture out again.

We headed deep into the maze of narrow streets away from the Stradun crowds and were rewarded by peaceful back alleys. What with the earlier downpour and that we were a long way from the nearest shop we had the place to ourselves.

It was really nice strolling along in our own little world.

When we reached the south wall it was fortunate that no one was there to see us shuffling along the passage that ran alongside the wall as if we'd just stepped onto an ice rink.

It had the same smooth white stone pavers as the main street and with a fresh dousing of rain it certainly had the appearance of being slippery to the point of being lethal.

"This is a hard floor. One slip and you could easily split your kipper" we laughed, almost falling over in the process.

We were on the look out for another bar but this one was a little different. It was located outside the city walls literally on the rocks reached through a small door.

I remember thinking to myself "What's the point of a huge defensive wall if you've got a little door through it?!"

A simple wooden sign saying "Cold Drinks with the most beautiful view" showed us the way.

We soon came across the small opening and walked through the wall to the other side. Sadly the bar was closed due to the poor weather.

It really was on the rocks which could be quite dangerous when wet.

We did catch a quick peep at the "most beautiful view" and it certainly was wonderful.

We could quite easily imagine sitting here watching the sunset.

We stood for a while looking out over the Adriatic before sighing heavily hoping for better weather tomorrow.

We decided to head back to the apartment for a siesta.

Aided by a little Berlitz pop-up map we followed the wall eastwards then cut inside walking past the Church of St. Ignatius.

The square in which it stood didn't feel like part of Dubrovnik at all. The gravelled surface, the half painted terracotta houses and the Baroque Church all accumulated into quite an Italian vibe.

It's not surprisingly as the Republic of Ragusa was under Venetian rule or influence for much of its history.

A reminder of a more recent influence was found on the floor of a bar filled Buniceva square behind the cathedral. Julie spotted a shiny coin between the cracks of the paving stones. I picked it up to see that it was a Yugoslavian coin from 1989.

It was the year the Berlin Wall came down. The domino that knocked over the entire iron curtain. By 1991 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate into its constituent parts with the country descending into war.

A war that I vividly remember watching on the news. The poignant images of Dubrovnik being shelled, snipers in Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing atrocities carried out by both Serbian and Croat forces in Bosnia. It was such a mess.

We eventually got back to our apartment around 4pm. The early start and a few drinks in the afternoon had knocked the stuffing out of us and we fell to sleep immediately.

After three solid hours of deep sleeping we woke up late for the football! Duty called so we jumped out of bed and quickly made our way to the Gaffe, stopping along the way to pay our landlady the €220 balance.

The first half was almost half way through by the time we arrived but the score was still 0-0. We hadn't missed much.

The Gaffe wasn't too busy. We even got ourselves a table in the corner with a decent view of one of their televisions. The game ebbed and flowed then out of nowhere Wales scored!

How we clapped and cheered and everyone in the bar turned to look at us.

Most people appeared oblivious to the fact there was an important international friendly between to teams that failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa this year.

Which was quite fortunate really as most of them didn't realise that the goal had been disallowed for being offside.

The obviously Croat barman noticed our celebration and smiled mockingly.

Then to make matters worse within minutes Croatia scored a belter of a goal. The barman cheered and laughed at us, all in good humour.

Our thoughts turned to food at half time. The traditional Irish bar menu was a real home from home for us and we ordered a chip butty and hummus for me and Tandoori Chicken with chips for Julie. Perfect food to accompany lager.

The second half descended into a terrible game of football where both sides made five substitutions each completely unsettling the dynamics of the game. After Croatia scored a second goal we decided to leave

old port Dubrovnik

Our first port of call, if you pardon the pun, was the Old Port.

The city was beautifully illuminated especially down here at the dock with the subtle lighting reflecting in the rippling water. We walked along the quayside arm in arm soaking up the romantic atmosphere.

We left the harbour through a gateway that lead us back towards the Stradun.

As we passed the Sponza Palace we heard a sudden round of applause. Curious to find out more we stepped inside.

It was a wonderful setting, out in the open air inside the Sponza Palaca.

It seemed that we had just missed a performance but before we turned around and left another choir took to the stage.

Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik
Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik

We could only stand at the back and try to get a good view but we needn't have worried, it was all about the sound.

The choir began well with a rendition of "Sweet Chariot" then launched into a spectacular version of a song Whoopi Goldberg sang in Sister Act!

The song was Regina Regina? something or other? It was such a grand finale, goosebumps, spine tingling, hairs on the back of the neck standing up, the works as the whole palace was a rocking! (in an ecclesiastical sense.)
Memorial Room to the Defenders of Dubrovnik

As we left we noticed a small room to the right. It was the Memorial Room to the Defenders of Dubrovnik.

Its walls were filled with tragic black & white photographs of local victims of the war. Most were young men who died defending Dubrovnik during a siege that happened in 1991-92.

It was so sad to see also images of the city burning after being shelled from Serbian artillery.

It was crazy to think how this could have happened. Not specifically the bombing of such a treasure but how Yugoslavia fell apart to such devastating effect.

Reading about its history perhaps it was a powder keg, a country waiting to blow up.

Yugoslavia was only formed in 1918 after the First World War by the break-up of the losing Austrian-Hungarian Habsburg empire bringing together the southern Slavic nations into one kingdom. After the Second World War it became a communist country and appeared to flourish as an united country under the leadership of Marshall Tito but beneath the veneer the tension between the many ethnic parts was simmering.

In 1990 with all of Eastern Europe embracing democracy it was Slovenia who first to broke away and after a ten days of conflict quickly reached an agreement for their independence. Unfortunately Croatia's transition to independence was not as smooth. Serbian communities within the Croatian borders began to resist the separation and decided to take up arms to protect themselves. It was the beginning of the end as four years of fierce fighting shattered Yugoslavia.

What we saw in the Memorial Room was the human cost for Dubrovnik, a price paid by many more towns and cities across Croatia, Serbia and especially Bosnia.

With those sobering images we left the Sponza Palace and walked into the middle of a jubilant choir of young girls singing their hearts out in an impromptu performance on the steps outside. It was a wonderful experience to witness their youthful joy and excitement.

The setting was spectacular as we stood gazing at the moon rising over the facade of the Church of St. Blaise. It was one of those uplifting "Can life get any better than this ?" moments.

Church of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik
We walked up the quiet Stradun and found ourselves in a n even quieter side street drinking in a small local bar watching five grown men suddenly stop talking, put their beer down, drop their bottom jaw and stare at the television in the corner as Victoria Silvstedt (ex-Playboy Playmate of the Year) wobble her breasts in front of Cuba Gooding Jnr in the banal film Boat Trip. It was hilarious to watch.

We moved on and ended up in a very loud and lively bar called Oliver Twist.

We didn't stay long as the bar must have attracted the younger street urchin crowd.

The average age of the drunk and disorderly must have been around fourteen. It was quite shocking to see. Some kids were even wearing their father's suits, obviously several sizes too large for them in an attempt to look older.

Feeling particularly parental and much much older than we did five minutes earlier we headed back towards our apartment.

We strolled back down the empty Stradun past the Sponza Palace and the striking Church of St.Blaise.

The city looked absolutely gorgeous, especially the entrance to the Rector's Palace. The arched portico with its vaulted ceiling looked so beautiful in the glow of the subtle lighting.

Unfortunately we had reached the stage in the evening when we thought it was absolutely hilarious to call it the Rectum's Palace. Yes it was well past our bedtime.

Hard Jazz Cafe Troubadour, Dubrovnik

Before that however we stopped for a nightcap at the Hard Jazz Caffe Troubadour on the corner of Buniceva square, right behind the Cathedral. This was a far more civilised mature scene than the juvenile delinquents of Oliver Twist's.

We were a little short of cash but we were so near our apartment that I was able to pop back to our room pick up some Kunas and was back at our table where I'd left Julie before our drinks were brought to our table.

We sat outside in the balmy evening air being entertained by a three piece band consisting of a pianist, a drummer and the cool cat singer who also played the double bass.

They were very good and their smooth jazz grooves created a wonderful relaxed atmosphere to end the day.

Their sweet lullabies were sending us to sleep so after we finished our drinks and stopped staring at the moon we made our way across Buniceva square back to our apartment.

It was now midnight.

It was difficult to comprehend that we had been awake for a whole twenty one hours (less the three hour siesta!). We were absolutely shattered but we had enjoyed such a lovely day.

Hard Jazz Cafe Troubadour, Dubrovnik
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