Balkan Summer Trip 2022, Part V: Dubrovnik Old Town

On our second full day at the beach house, we woke up early, took a quick swim, and ate breakfast on the patio in preparation to go to old town. Initially the plan was for me to drive us the 12 minutes to the old quarter and find a place to park, but as I was dealing with some extreme vertigo out of the blue while getting ready, V and A – after lingering a while in the hopes I wouldn’t be delayed – were eventually convinced to take an Uber there without me. I had been unsuccessful in averting my head-spinning situation, and ended up vomiting several times, taking a Dramamine, and lying down. My head felt like a yo-yo on the end of a string, and as I lay still and miserable I had to keep one foot on the floor and a hand on the wall to avoid zero gravity sensations. But as is typical and hard to explain, my stomach did not hurt at all. After about a 90-minute nap, I reawoke in the silence of the empty house to the waves crashing outside. I sat up cautiously and ate some fake Pringles. The dizziness had subsided and it was as if it had never happened. I was going to old town.

This motion sickness has happened to me off and on since childhood, sometimes when flying, riding in a car, waking up from surgery, sailing, eating in slowly rotating restaurants I have no business in, and sometimes apropos of nothing. I don’t know if the origin is hereditary, the result of damage from an ear infection in infancy, or just something I’m predisposed to. My dad gets motion sickness too, but his seems more connected to stomach upset, whereas mine seems more a result of sudden dizziness and losing sense of time and space.

It gets exacerbated if I’m exhausted, hungover, traveling too fast for too long, scrolling too much, or sick. Generally if I can get my body temperature as low as possible, get medicated, and get horizontal, I can get it stopped before it goes full tilt. If I can’t slow it down before the spins get crazy, my day is pretty much on pause for hours and possibly even finished. Fortunately this time I was lucky. I hate it, and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I also manage it very well. People often don’t even know it’s happening until it’s very out of control.

Our visit to Dubrovnik, August 2022

I finished getting myself together and ordered my own Uber, which I rode in with the windows down and my sandals pressed into the floor mat. I kept an eye on the horizon as the cool sea breezes buffeted my hair and thanked my lucky stars I had not tried to drive and park in the absolute circus side show of Dubrovnik high season traffic.

The entire seaport city of Dubrovnik, with its medieval architecture and picturesque, fortress-like appearance has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Nearly the southernmost point in Croatia, Dubrovnik was founded in the early 600s A.D. and the city plan of today dates back to the 1290s, when it was rebuilt after a devastating fire. Sometimes referred to as “the Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik lies very close to the Croatia-Montenegro border and has a long maritime and mercantile history.

Panorama of Dubrovnik (Source: Wikipedia)

I had visited only once before, 17 summers prior, in the summer of 2005. It was the year after my Peace Corps service had concluded and I’d returned to Macedonia to reunite with a former boyfriend, N, and resume travels the medevac that ended my service a few months early had interrupted. I began to write about those travels very briefly three years ago; maybe I will expand upon them in another flashback post at some point.

With V at Gradska Kavana Arsenal Bar & Restaurant

While waiting for my Uber, I had launched a map to where I was supposed to meet V and A from the beach house wifi, because once I got out in public I’d again have no internet. I think I wasn’t so much being cheap on this trip by not organizing my cell service as I was just trying to disconnect a bit; every time I had internet access I found myself ruminating excessively over photos, posts, and messages on social media to do with my friend T’s death. I knew on some level it was necessary for me to try and take a break from the sadness I had been so immersed in for the past three months; my mind would keep circling the topic regardless, but the more I could be present with my family and distract myself with fun, the better. However, not having any cell connectivity was a logistical irritation the few times I wasn’t with V or A.

Within a few minutes of being dropped off, though, I did enter the walls of the city where no cars are permitted and find the lunch spot. I joined my husband and stepdaughter mid-meal and ordered myself a fabulous salad and cocktail overlooking the water, listening to their chatter about what they’d seen already. I felt grateful again to feel so much better and have made it down there, although the sensation of motion recurred from time to time and I felt it “underneath” the Dramamine. I pressed my feet into the stones beneath me, drank bottle after bottle of water, and ignored it.

In only a couple hours’ time, V and A had already accomplished many of the things they wanted to see in the old town, so we decided to wander and look for a museum or two.

Crkva Sveti Vlaho / St. Blaise’s Catholic Church

A beautiful photo A snapped in the market

Dubrovnik Museum

Dubrovnik Museum

In Dubrovnik Museum, among many other items of note, we saw an exhibition by Božidar Gjukić entitled “War Photographs 1991-1992.” It looks like it may have just ended last week after being on display since 2009, so I’m not sure how long the museum will keep the link active. But in essence, the exhibit comprises a collection of 80 photographs taken during the early 1990s Balkan conflict (which is referred to in Croatia the “Homeland War,” because it was seen as an act of aggression by the Yugoslav People’s Army and military units from Serbia and Montenegro). The photos specifically showcase the wartime destruction caused in Dubrovnik, as well as the role of wartime photographers as witnesses to war crimes.

Dubrovnik Museum

It was certainly hard to see the beautiful old city shelled and the people suffering in the photos. During the war, Dubrovnik spent 240 days blockaded by both land and sea. For 138 days the electricity was turned off. On one day alone in December 1991, the old city took several thousand projectiles, which damaged 461 buildings and burned out nine palaces. By the end of 1995, hundreds of civilians and combatants had been killed and more than 1,500 injured. I asked myself if it was more sad because Dubrovnik is such a unique place, and I didn’t have a good answer. Perhaps on a historic level, the unbearable, irreplaceable scale of the destruction is underlined and it’s such a shame. But on a human level, people are people and suffering is suffering, whether in cities or villages or seaside towns. It’s all sad.

An earthquake in the 1660s that destroyed much of the city and killed 5,000 inhabitants may have been the only force more physically destructive in the city’s long history.

For some reason I was really craving pizza for dinner, so V and A indulged me by helping find a delicious pizzeria, Pizzeria Oliva, where we sat outdoors in a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, decorated with sparkly little white lights and jammed with patio tables all shaded by jaunty umbrellas

V enjoying the sunny afternoon

V and A

I have not watched Game of Thrones, but I know Dubrovnik became an even more sought-after tourist destination after the hugely popular show used it as a filming location. As it was, I certainly saw a difference between the Lonely Planet book type travel of my 2005-era visit and the more sophisticated, tech-savvy, book-on-the-go travelers of 2022, who wandered the streets, smartphones in hand, presumably reading reviews on hole-in-the-wall eateries or trying to create bespoke experiences that once required you to know someone, and now just require a credit card and a click.

July 2005, age 26; August 2022, age 43 ~ 17 years ago I had visited Dubrovnik on a bus excursion/day trip with my boyfriend N while we were on vacation in nearby Budva, Montenegro. I was a couple of weeks away from moving to Sydney, Australia to begin my masters program in international relations. Less than a year and a half later, I would move to Washington, DC and meet V.

By evening, V and I were ready to buy tickets to stroll around the top of the nearly 80-foot (25 meter) double walls extending almost 6,400 feet (1,940 meters) around the perimeter of the old city. A had not been up there before, and the wall walk provides an excellent view of the ocean and down into the interior of the streets below. However, we’d lingered too long over our pizzas and beer, and by the time we arrived for tickets, the walls were closing within 45 minutes, making the steep price of tickets cost-prohibitive. A didn’t want to go up alone just to check it out and take some pics, and after the whole day on our feet, we happily decided to call it a day and head back to our patio for some wine and relaxation.

Beautiful tricks of light

We exited the city and hailed a taxi back to the beach house. As we climbed the narrow roads west through snarled traffic towards the sinking sun, and V got into an animated discussion about Balkan politics and the economy with our driver, A and I gazed contentedly out the windows down over the coral-colored rooves stacked up close to the sea. The next morning we would be leaving for Sarajevo; at three nights it was a short visit, but Dubrovnik was worth the drive and the expense. Everyone should see this gorgeous city at least once, and I have been immensely fortunate to spend time here twice.

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Sarah W Gaer

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