Dubrovnik, that gem of a city on the Adriatic, is now famous as a filming location for scenes in Game of Thrones, and astute fans may also recognize parts of the city in Star Wars VIII scenes. Croatia as a nation has existed on maps with its current boundaries for scarcely more than a decade, after years of ongoing struggle for sovereignty and independence. The city, though, is solid, ancient and unforgettable, picture postcard worthy.
Because I have never seen Game of Thrones, I had no inkling of the imposing beauty of this city on the Adriatic. It is so much more than a stage set! In the 7th Century, when the Dubrovnik Republic was born, this settlement on the shore of a dramatic fjord already had a long history.
It staggers the senses, but citizens of Dubrovnik celebrate those centuries of history as their personal legacy, both the good and the bad. They embrace it all, and speak as openly about the years of oppression and conflict as about the glory days when seafarers jockeyed for position with other independent maritime governments, chiefly Venice, Genoa and Napoli.
The cultural awareness extends back in time, far back. History is pervasive; it’s a living legacy. By contrast, Americans are still so young on the world stage, barely more than toddlers compared to Dubrovnik, indeed in contrast with most of the rest of the world.
There is much to love about this walled city with its sturdy ramparts and fortifications. There is also much to discover: Art and architecture, upscale shops, trendy cafes with impeccably groomed servers. Young people sport smartphones and the latest fashions, children smile and play happily on the polished stones of the pedestrian-only Stradun; old folks stroll hand in hand, silently testifying that an everyday existence is very much still a part of this old city.
Teens pose for selfies by a bronze statue with nose and fingers burnished bright by visitors. Visiting adults find it hard to resist as well.
Dubrovnik is crowded during daylight hours; it’s quieter at night. There is little of the “touristy” appeal of American beach towns and tour bus destinations. Lines to enter the city gates are often long, but quite orderly. We entered through Pile Gate, with throngs of others eager to explore the life and spirit of the city within the legendary walls.
Dubrovnik has, of course, outgrown its old boundaries, just as other ancient cities have burst their seams, and life in the new city is very different. Buses and taxis rule, and the pace is loud and congested.
I was enthralled with old Dubrovnik, more so with its people. They live in a storybook setting, with a past that intrudes on the present in a sensory way.
I would return there in a minute. Although I was able to visit only a scant portion of the country that lies along the sea, rarely have I been so charmed by a place after only a short few hours. Heading north along the coast on a bus was, at times, a nail-biting experience. But the trip was well worth it.
To be sure, there is something unfair about judgments formed so quickly. But there’s a permanence about Dubrovnik. It seems the kind of city that will remain standing far into the future, both the popular old city and the new one sprung up outside the walls. The city is a wonderful destination, and could be a jumping off point for the rest of Croatia. However, travel to Dubrovnik, other than by cruise ship, is not yet so easy for Americans. It’s more convenient to arrive by air from London or another European capital, or to travel to Dubrovnik, by ferry from Bari, Italy. “It’s the end of the season,” we were told. All large cruise ships depart by the end of October, and the cadence of life changes. Locals live quietly, or leave on vacation, even though the local weather remains pleasant throughout the winter.
Indeed, as our ship made its way out of the harbor, residents lined up on shore to wave goodbye. I had a fleeting vision of families bidding similar farewells to generations of sailors leaving port for adventure in unknown lands.