Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Dubrovnik Rocks!

Written 4th May

We awoke in our dappled glade to the sound of bird song

and headed back down the roller coaster of a road to the city.

Dubrovnik is the ultimate of walled cities on a peninsula surrounded by water and it is beautiful.

First established as a settlement in the 7th century by the Romans of Epidaurum (now Cavtat, a little way down the coast) who were fleeing from a barbarian attack, what was at the time a rocky islet, quickly became an impregnable fortress.   It merged with the later established mainland settlement in the 12th century and was subsequently joined to the mainland, the whole being named Dubrovnik after the dubrava forests, holmoaks, which covered the slopes of the surrounding hills.  Having established itself as a strong independent republic and trading centre, Dubrovnik came under venetian rule for a brief period between 1205-1358, before once more establishing its autonomy and extending its territory to include, Peljesac, Mljet and most of the nearby islands.  The city was nearly destroyed by earthquake in 1667 and thus rebuilt to its current baroque style but never recovered to its former glory and was eventually captured by Napoleon in 1808.  He didn't last long though and in 1815, Dubrovnik, along with the rest of southern Croatia, came under Austro-Hungarian rule until the end of the first world war.

And as I say, it is beautiful, especially when seen from above.

With hindsight though, 11am on the brightly hot holiday weekend Sunday, was not the ideal time for a first visit.

The Pile gate and drawbridge, which once did everything they could to repel marauding invaders, now try to funnel them in as quickly as possible, a jostling mass of humanity all fresh of their tour buses and cruise liners.

We made it as far as the end of the main street (the Stradun), saw the two fountains and a church or two, to the tourist office,

around a few back streets, lined with restaurants,

and up the hill, before deciding  that we needed coffee and a break from the frenetic crowds but didn't want to pay tourist prices.  Its funny how quickly you adapt.  10kn is about €1.40, which is cheap compared with what we would happily pay for french coffee, and nothing compared to what you pay for coffee back home but it is almost double what coffee should cost in Croatia (from our extensive survey!) and that makes it very hard to swallow. (sorry)

So we set of on a quest which took us out, past the foot of Lovrjenac Fort,

round the Gradac Park with stunning views down to the sea, and eventually up to a dusty back street where the pace of life was more suited to the state of our temperament and the price of coffee was more suited to the state of our wallets.

Thus fortified, we set of towards the leafy suburb of Lapad, the fancy boats in the new harbour

and the ferry terminal of Gruz to check out the ferries to Bari - didn't book anything as a) we just knew that if we did, our anticipated package of electronic goodies from Kiri would somehow get lost or delayed and b) the office was shut anyway - and on, round the harbour, with a view of the fancy cruise liners - more like floating islands than boats! certainly bigger than some islands we have seen - and other sailing ships, to a gentle stroll around the shore of Babin Kuk.

All in all, a very pleasant and relaxed afternoon and our return to the old town - after we had seen at least three coachloads of people being ferried back to their ships - found a much more relaxed place for wander up the steps to the door of Lovrjenac Fort  - Dubrovnik centre's make-out mountain for those without the necessary transport for the dizzy heights of Srjd fortress ;) for a view over the town

which looked like so many dolls houses

and up to our parking eerie

and then a stroll in and round, through the softly lit old harbour with its mellow background accompaniment of live jazz, stopping for a nice beer in a warm pavement cafe.


But you can have too much relaxed, so by way of complete contrast, we spent the rest of the evening at a rock concert in a castle - as you do!  Well, we haven't managed to see any traditional folk music, folk dancing, sword dancing or Klapa whilst we have been here (helpfully, in its Split chapter, the lp said "there won't be a visitor to Croatia who hasn't heard the dulcet tones of a Klapa song"  but then didn't give any indication of where all these visitors go to hear the dulcet tones of a klapa song so now thete are two visitors who haven't!) so we figured Croatian rock would be the next best thing.  And it was brilliant!.  

The tourist office lady had tried to describe what sort of music it would be, but as her reference points were also things we didn't know, it didn't really help.  And we weren't sure if they were a famous Croatian rock band, a cover version of a famous Croatian rock band or just did songs a bit like a famous Croatian rock band...  Here is the poster, one of our new Croatian readers will no doubt know!

Anyway, they were really good, in castle with pretty lights and lots of people jigging up and down and jiving around.  Much fun!

Yesterday morning, we again awoke in our leafy hilltop gladeband headed to the fort and the Homelands War museum.

Dubrovnik was one of the major hot spots in the war for independence - known in Croatia as the Homelands War - and the Srjd fort was a key stronghold and battleground for the defense of the city, especially in December 1991.  

As I have said before, I don't remember much about the conflict in what was Yugoslavia.  This is not all my fault, I think the gulf war took up much more news space and was deemed to be of greater impact on the UK at the time - well western oil supplies in a middle eastern  desert vs a territory/boarder squabble in some former communist country, it was obvious which was going to take priority on the UK airwaves! - and anyway,back then, the likelihood of me ever going to what I would have thought of at the time as some far away, dismal, grey, eastern bloc country would have been so remote - I'm not sure I really even knew where Yugoslavia was to be honest other than 'vaguely east, must be near russia' -  that what little reporting there was (I remember some footage of men in blue helmets and a general consensus that they were pretty inneffectual) would have been just background noise in my friends and sleepovers and school and homework filled, largely self obsessed little world in sunny south cambridgeshire - don't be too harsh though please, I was only 12, I don't think I was that abnormal!

Now of course I have been here and found that it isn't so very far away, and it is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people.  Although in someways, this actually makes it seem almost as unreal that it could have happened so recently as watching it on the tv would have done all those years ago. 

Apart from the memorials everywhere, and the almost home made looking little armoured car we found near the port, made in a shipyard in Korcula,

and Croatia's first 'warship', little more than a speedboat with a metal cockpit and a dazzle paint job,

and the pile of shells and other ordanance in the museum, and the maps which show where 2000 of such pieces rained down on the city as it was blockaded by land and sea. 

It is almost unbelievable, especially that anything of the city survived at all, and even more so that there is so little evidence remaining of the damage inflicted as it has been so very well restored. 

And the footage they showed off the shelling - places where we had walked only the night before, was terrifying.  And I was only watching it from across the room on a tv not much bigger than the one we have at home!  I can't begin to imagine what it must have ben like at the time.

Apparently 68% of the buildings in the old town were hit or damaged with over 400 direct hits on the streets and walls.  Nine historic palaces were completely gutted by fire and most of the churches and other monuments were were also damaged.  The restoration apparently cost over US$10M with donations and restoration experts pouring in from around the world.  Just unbelievable.

I am not in any position to form any opinion on the why's and wherefores or the rights and wrongs of it all - and the museum is in no way an unbiased presentation of events, for all its initial stated intentions! - but no one can dispute the facts of destruction of the city and it is humbling and inspiring to see how life can and does go on, in such a vibrant way, after such terrible events.

Anyhoo, on to brighter things.  We have had visitors from foreign lands!  Albeit only fleetingly.  Quite by chance, Will's aunt and uncle happened to be passing through Dubrovnik yesterday,

en route to a fabulous sounding coastal voyage on an exclusive little cruise boat which looks like something straight out of an Agatha Cristie novel - they are expecting at least 2 murders to solve by the end of the trip :)

Luckily they had space in their luggage for an oil filter - two acually, so we have a spare as well! - and an unexpected campervan present as well.  Thank you so much Jim and Elissa!  They were getting straight on their boat and sailing on so it was sadly only a brief encounter at an airport arrivals gate - I love that moment when the doors slide open and there is the person you are expecting, from either perspective, but get to do it so few times...  so they headed off north and ship bound and we headed on south and in search of traditional mills and croatia's southernmost point as suggested by Kiri.

The Konavodski mills were lovely, a small area of woods and trickling streams

and waterfalls,

down some rickety paths (most were less rickety!) near an old watermill, now a restaurant.  There was even some event for a coash party with people dressed in traditional costumes selling candied orange peel, dried figs and sugared almonds, so we managed to mingle just long enough for a nibble before heading onwards south towards Prevlaka, the peninsula which is the southernmost point of mainland Croatia.

Its a long time since we have been on a cardinal point search.  It was never going to happen in Italy or Slovenia or northern or eastern Croatia - too remote - and our volcano related change of plans in Pula meant that the westernmost point was missed too.  but south we can do.

Not really knowing what to expect, we arrived too late (again!) just as it was closing up, so decided to stay down that way and try again the next day.  But we did also see the border crossing into Montenegro which we thought might be worth a look, just for the sake of having done it.  We don't have the requisite insurance to drive there so the idea was, just to walk round the corner, take a photo into Montenegro and come back... 

Leaving Will in the van with the laptop, I set off towards the barrier, just intending to ask the question.  The border guards were a bit bemused but agreed one photo would be ok, so off I set to the corner.  

No corresponding barrier insight.

Was just turning back when the customs guy shouted "200m round to the left" after mee.  So I kept going.

And was soon out of sight, round the corner, in no-man's land, way outside the EU in the gathering darkness.

With no passport, I suddenly realised.

I went a bit further, got a bit scared, turned back, told myself not to be so silly, they knew I was there so would let me back in,  went on again, realised the Montenegrin side didn't know I was there and might have a problem with me being there, got scared again and turned back again just in time to see will coming round the corner with my passport as the customs guy had apparently started looking a bit anxious...

This is as close as I got

but I got back in ok, and got my 'entering Croatia' picture I missed on the way in!

We concluded that, actually, it was a silly idea so turned back anyway - much to the relief of the customs guy and police woman.

Seemed like such a good idea... At the time :)

So we settled down on a quiet side road for dinner - cooked in the dark ascstill in sight of the already slightly suspicious border control people - with a view across the water to the glimmering lights of Montenegro.

Someone said the other day, that they would quite like my life, but the 1st class version, which involves more hotels and fewer spanners, but I don't know - candle-lit, fancy fish dinner in dubrovnik harbour accompanied by live piano jazz for what would be the third day running, or special rice (addition of egg and sweetcorn makes it special, otherwise it is onion risotto... ;) in my lovely little van,  in the unspoilt moonlight, listening to the lap of the waves and over looking another country?  I know where i'd rather be...

Anyway.  The next day, we were up bright and early - luckily just before the bin men arrived to collect the wheelie bins which we were parked next to, a fact which they seemed to find hilarious! - you can't say we don't take you to all the best places on this trip... ;) 

So of we set back to Prevlaka.

It is a very odd place.  From what I have been able to gather, mostly after the event and from wikipedia so no doubt Kiri or someone will correct me, Prevlaka peninsula is a fairly disputed piece of land, being as it is, a strategic control point at the entrance to Montenegro's main port at Kotor and the town of Herceg Novi.

There has been a fortress on cape Ostro, Croatia's southernmost point, since the Austro-Hungarians built the first structure in the 1850's and it was bombed heavily by the Germans in 1943 when the Italians surrendered to the Allies.

The whole peninsula was deemed to be part of Croatia after the WWII but was occupied by the Yugoslavian forces during the seige of Dubrovnik in 1991.  Eventually it was demilitarized in 1992 and the UN moved in and didn't leave until 2002 and it is now a sort of ghost town, with overgrown paths leading to the remains of military buildings and installations from various era,

including the shell of the abandoned UN building

which contains an odd mix of reminders of the occupiers in the form of various forces stickers

information posters about how to set landmines

and the kind of bossy signs about keeping things tidy that you see in most office kitchens in the uk.  There was even a 2002 newspaper just left behind by someone when they all moved out.

So we spent a happy few hours cycling round, poking about in old buildings and scaring the bats - bit creepy but i'm glad we went.

So, back to Dubrovnik with time to spare before our agreed rendezvous with the package of goodies so we stopped in a car shop we happened to see for Will to buy new airhose - the final piece in the fuel project, the old hoses are perished, as is the bike inner tube bandage solution will improvised several countries ago, and there is no point measuring airflow in and air/fuel mix out if you have a massive unmeasured airleak between the two... - and from the array of fancy steering wheels and performance airfilters, this seemed like exactly the sort of kev-boy* shop we were looking for, which indeed it turned out to be.

And our package arrived early and contained much more than we expected!  Thank you Kiri! So as well as the engine project, Will not has the wherewithall to retrofit an external arial to the laptop so I won't have to spend so much time hanging around on street corners if I want to check facebook - hurrah!

The plan had been for one last wander into old dubrovnik but sadly, what with where we were parked, ferry times, ferry ticket office opening times and availability (and more specifically lack thereof) of space on tonight;s ferry, this was not to be.  So yes Kiri, when not searching for petrol last minute and finding everywhere closed, Will did spend his last few hours in possibly the most beautiful city of our trip so far (if not, indeed, as you say, the world) playing with bits of arial whilst I walked to and from to ticket office many times...  But it works (so far on a test fit) and I am very glad you sent the bits!

It was all a bit tense.  Officially no room for Jules on the boat, but the vety nice lady rang her boss who said if we came back later there would probably be space, but we didn't want to go too far, and By the time she finally said "look, go away and come back at 10:15we won't know before then", all the supermarkets were closed so we couldn't spend our last few kuna on nice food and wine (although sadly not enough for a bottle of Dingac anyway!) for the trip as we had planned.  But there was room for us in the end - I got back from my 5th trip to the ticket office 30 minutes before gangplank up, tickets clutched triumphantly in hand, to find Will surrounded by police, who were not unreasonably wondering why he was parked outside a ferry terminal and fiddling with a gas tank attached to a van...

But we made it, we are on board and Jules is safely stowed below, right at the back behind a big coach.  Hurrah! 

We have also discovered that on Jadrolinjia,  'deck class' largely does mean literally mean deck, as in outside, as there isn't enough space inside for everyonebut fortunately lots of hardy american backpackers seem to be out there whereas we have found two uncomfortable seats and a oatch of floor by the only power socket in the lounge so we can ug the lap top in.  Shockungly, we have discovered that our original suppliers of tv (we are calling it 'off-site back up', a service for which I am sure they should be paying!) have let us down badly and we only have a random selection of about 15 of 24 of Day 6!  Shocking!  Complaints will be lodged.  When those responsible return from gadding about in foreign climes...

So, Enemy of the State it is.

So avast me hearties! Weigh anchor!  Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum (well ginja, which Will thoughtfully packed) and across the seas we sail!

*kev-boy = a cambridge/essex term used to describe teenage boys who spend a disproportionate amount of time and money making their cars sound or look louder, shinier or faster with demonstrably improvement in actual performance.  They usually have very, very thumping stereos with the bass turned right up and drive very slowly through town centres trying to impresss teenage girls - it doesn't always work...

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