The Balkans Part 2: (More) Croatia & Serbia

Going from the culture shock of Mostar, Bosnia, to the familiarity of a place we’d never been was an odd experience. Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a city most people would recognize if shown a picture, though almost none of them could properly name it. Millions of viewers see it every week as the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, and other royal families play the Game of Thrones inside its walls, which stand in as the (heavily CGI’d) King’s Landing.

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(King’s Landing Photo Credit: Reddit.com’s GoT Forum, who knows where they swiped it from…)

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HBO’s blockbuster series has put what was already a city with a successful tourism industry on the fast-track to global “must-see” destination. Dubrovnik’s gleaming medieval walled old city is straight out of a fairy tale. The imposing fortress walls stand hard against the soft reflection of the blue Aegean sea at its side and red orange tiled roofs make it look more like a painting than real life. It’s easy to see why the show’s creators settled on it as their ultimate seat of power.

Our visit started in suburban Dubrovnik, as the Old City can be a mad house in the middle of the day. While “wildlings” and royal armies may not be able to breach the walls of King’s Landing, blue hairs and mobs of cruise tourists waddling behind their guides have found the city wall’s weak points.  When the ships release their masses between 9-4p, the smart traveler retreats.

We instead stayed in a lovely flower lined street only two blocks removed from the sea. The house even had an ocean view outdoor kitchen; we were ready to move in and never leave. One of the true joys of travel is meeting and spending time with wonderful people with interesting life stories. Villa Jozefina embodied this and we were made to feel at home from the first welcome drink and hour long chat we had upon arrival. The home’s characters were many. The elder statesman of the house provided homemade liqueur at 9AM saying, in the only English he knew, “here, for breakfast, sweet, not too strong” before handing over a bottle and two glasses and walking off. The matron ensured a constant stream of coffee and kept a hoard of curious if shy kids in check, a master cat-herder for sure. And finally, if perhaps most importantly their son, who at 20-years old joined the Croatian “police force”, the primary military defense of the city just as Serb and Montenegrin forces launched their bombardment from the surrounding hills. We spent hours over coffee, and stronger drinks, discussing life, war, and the ever present tension still existent in the region. Now in his late 40’s with many children, you could see the concern in his eyes when he spoke of the occasional flare ups of tension and talking about how the war, “stole the best years of my life, I just don’t want that for them”. Nothing brought everything we’d been learning and experiencing home quite like the moment when he looked over his shoulder and said “the grenade landed right there,” pointing to the stoop of the kitchen, only 5 feet away.

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Today, Dubrovnik and Mostar lie in stark contrast to each other. While Mostar wears its wounds like a badge of honor, Dubrovnik patched everything up, the city, the suburbs, the beaches are all gleaming and new. A very few monuments and pock marks remain, but one has to go looking for them.

Now the tourists flood in and everything is, seemingly, right as rain. Aside from our conversations with our hosts, you’d have never known the recent history the town held. Our experience looked a little more like this.

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Our first day in Dubrovnik was largely eaten up by travel and our wonderful sunset stroll. So by day two we were ready to reengage our tourist gear. We tackled the old city of Dubrovnik, climbing up the adjoining fortress, strolling the seemingly endless maze of streets in the old town, and even ate a big plate of nachos for lunch… tex/mex itch, scratched!

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Bonus points, we learned the Lovrijenac Fortress was hosting the summer Shakespeare festival in Dubrovnik. So we scooped up tickets and watched William’s “Twelfth Night” comedy brilliantly performed in a medieval castle that is also a filming location for Game of Thrones.

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(Photo Credit: httpwww.portaloko.hr)

The next two days were spent climbing along tiny goat trails to reach secluded swimming holes, waiting out one crazy rainstorm, the aforementioned chatting with our hosts, and transferring by ferry back to island life.

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Korčula town is a mini old town Dubrovnik, a medieval walled city greeting you at the the main port of one of Croatia’s largest islands. After a few days of city life we were in the mood for small town hangouts and beach days on end. As such, we planned to head out of town immediately to our accommodations in a small fishing village 10km away. But, Korčula came dressed to impress. First we arrived to this…

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No rain, but a rainbow, you’re just showing off. Then, we walked about 10 feet towards town and saw this at the first restaurant along the way…

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Now, if you think we were passing up our first shot at something even resembling good BBQ in 8-weeks, well, hi, we’re Grant & Kate, clearly we’ve not met. Testing our patience, we were told dinner was still two hours away. To pass the time we took in the city, saw the (contested) home of legendary explorer Marco Polo, and window shopped until Pumba was ready for our date. Korčula, thankfully, can be seen in just about two hours, beautiful, but pint sized.

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Our patience was rewarded…

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We capped the night off with some rakija and another hour long conversation with a Croatian local playing music in the restaurant that night. We met “Milo”, because we gave him a raucous applause for his rendition of Okie From Muskogee. He was apparently as surprised we knew the song as we were the he was playing it. A poor gypsy who learned how to do some basic electrical work, Milo caught on with the American forces during the Balkan war. He stayed on with them as a civilian contractor all over the Middle East eventually even to Houston before returning only recently to Croatia with enough money to retire and return to playing music on the islands during the tourist season. To say he was vocally pro-American would be an understatement. Amazing people with amazing stories. When we’re back in the states, you can listen to the CD he gave us. One last funny anecdote… The one place he wants to visit most in the world is Corona, California. For those not familiar with LA, Corona is hardly a tourist destination. But, it just so happens to hold the Fender Guitar factory and Milo isn’t planning on checking in with St.Peter until he holds a Fender fresh off the line.

We awoke the next day in Lumbarda on Korčula island to one of the hottest days of the trip yet. So, post haste, we made our way down to the “beach”, really just a long rocky shore with more perfect blue water, and isolated stretches of wild coast. All surrounded by grape vines and medieval villages. If this is all starting to sound like Forrest Gump, “So, I met the President of the United States, again…” well, you’re right. And it’s amazing, Croatia is truly our idea of the lap of luxury. Perfect hamlets, vines and olives everywhere, with kilometers of sea front uninhabited, untouristed, and waiting, seemingly, just for you. All you want/need to do is wake up (optional) slide into a bathing suit (in some parts of Croatia, also optional) and just wander down the coast. You’ll find whatever it is you seek as long as it isn’t techno music or wal-mart versions of tourist resorts.

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After 36-hours of just this, we did have to check back into reality briefly. We had packages that needed mailed and as our trip to Greece was looming, so too was the seeming implosion of its financial system. While changing our Croatian Kunas for Euros in the local tourist office, we learned about the local tradition of celebrating “Half New Year.” We were promised a parade, fireworks, and lots of shenanigans. Now, the one thing we hadn’t had in a while (read, a whole month I think…) was a good festival with fun people. Croatia came through on all accounts, again.

Glad to see they had survived their adventures on two wheels, we met back up with a couple we’d briefly met in the Lumbarda tourist office on the bus to Korčula for the evening’s festivities. We’d met lots of folks along the road, but spending time with Laureli & Peter came so naturally it was a real treat. While the young and old make up the bulk of travelers, it’s rare to meet young professionals in the middle of their careers on extended journeys. While we had to overcome the vast cultural divide that separates all Canadians and Americans (sarcasm font) we fell into familiar conversation quickly and naturally.

The grand festival of “Half New Year” may have been a bit oversold by our erstwhile tourist center representative, but while not exactly Carnivale in Brazil, we had a great time. What may be the world’s shortest parade was followed by a 3 hour dinner which primarily consisted of wine, and finally, fireworks over the city walls.

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Shaking off a few cobwebs the next morning we had a “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles,” kind of crazy travel day. With an early start to Korčula by bus to catch a ferry to Dubrovnik to catch a bus to the airport, to fly to Serbia to fly to Athens. We almost missed the first bus, the ferry, and the bus back to the airport in Serbia. But, the Force was strong with us that day and we made all of our connections.

Wrapping up our trip through the Balkans, we had planned an extended layover in Belgrade, Serbia. We’d love to tell you all the interesting things we learned about Serbia from our time in the political center of all the aggression of the 90’s…but 4-hours in town doesn’t leave you much time for such things. We went sightseeing, watched an amazing sunset of the Danube, and read about some of the city’s history in WWI. Funny, not much on the Balkan War to be found in the public spaces of Belgrade…

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Well, that wraps it up. Our trip through a wild, mysterious, tortured, and a thousand other adjective wonderland that is the Balkans was so much more than we ever could have hoped. We sincerely wish we’d allowed more time for neighboring Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and the other regions of the countries we visited, but, you have to leave something for next time, right?

Mr. & Mrs. Trading Paradises

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