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I’m at home in Vancouver now. On this cool summer day I can hear the traffic swooshing past outside the open windows, back and forth as soothing as waves. On the other side, next to me on the couch, I can hear the scratchy sound coming from Don’s earbuds as he watches something on Youtube. If I really concentrate I could probably make out the words. But I don’t, because if I really concentrate I am back in our Airbnb in Dubrovnik on the same kind of cool cloudy day.

5-10 May 2022. The apartment is nice, nothing fancy but clean and comfortable and has all we need. There’s a long balcony. There’s no furniture on it so I take a couple of cushions out with me, one for my butt and one for my back, and leaning back against the wall I take in the view as I drink my morning coffee.

The view is small-town semi-rural with little garden plots close by and in the distance a new housing development. It’s pretty enough to be enjoyable, and bird song fills the air; high pitched chirping and tweeting, and the endless coo-coo of pigeons. This is what I focus on. It’s a soundscape that soothes me. In the distance there’s traffic noise, but the birds are closer and more insistent. They are so busy with their birdy lives; their song has meaning and importance. They are happy. So am I. Despite the difficulties of this trip, moments like this are frequent and nourishing.

We are about a twenty minute walk from the world-famous walled Old Town of Dubrovnik

and I never learn the way there or back, despite covering the distance more than twelve times, since it seems we take a different route every time, involving main roads, many stairs, and back alleys with crumbling stone walls oozing history. And it doesn’t help that we sometimes get lost because Google maps is unreliable, and the signal keeps dropping out and everything swings wildly around until we find the way again.

Don and S and L all talk about the beautiful aroma of mock orange throughout the town. With my limited sense of smell I miss it. There are many real orange trees, their branches weighed down with oranges, and another tree in abundance throughout the town bright with springtime white flowers. Irises are blooming, and there’s a vine that I don’t recognise draping across walls and covered in vivid yellow flowers. Tall thin cedar trees dominate the landscape, reminding me of Tuscany.

As we get close the fortifications tower above us, almost menacing, certainly undeniable.

Eventually we are on the final descent to the Old Town, and see ahead of us the ancient walls that make it such a compelling destination.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d seen pictures of course, but it’s never ever the same as being there, actually being in a place you’ve only read about and viewed through someone else’s eyes. The reality is so much more powerful.

We do an early morning history walking tour, starting here:

with a guide who clearly loves her country and knows it well. That’s when Croatia comes alive for me; that’s when it becomes about the people, the complex history, the armies, the wars, the thousands upon thousands of ordinary lives lived in this story-book place that’s been inhabited for centuries. That’s when it begins to be more than pictures.

Between rugged limestone mountains and the shimmering Adriatic Sea Dubrovnik cascades down to the water. The Old Town hugs the shore surrounded by protective walls, ancient walls that are the defining feature of the city, built between the 11th and 17th centuries onto the same rugged limestone rocks.

It was a protectorate of the Byzantine Empire, and then a part of the Republic of Venice, but for five hundred years from the 14th to the 19th century Dubrovnik, as the sophisticated Republic of Ragusa, ruled itself as a free state, and rivalled Venice as a trading port. It is known, justifiably, as one of the world’s finest and most perfectly preserved Medieval cities.

We don’t start with the walking atop the walls, but with meandering through the town, most times entering by the formidable Pile Gate. Unchanged for centuries, history seems to rise up like a wraith from the marbled pavement of the grand squares,

from the steep cobbled streets and stairs, and from the ancient stone houses.

You know people must actually live here by the air conditioners protruding from the walls and the laundry fluttering high above, children playing ball on the cobblestones, and in some of the more hidden lanes small secret gardens behind tall metal gates, but it doesn’t really sink in. Mostly it feels like we are visitors on a movie set.

As we walk through the town, on several different occasions since all our day trips seem to begin and end in the Old Town harbour,

we pass Renaissance cathedrals and fountains, Baroque churches and monasteries, the Gothic-Renaissance Rector’s Palace, now a museum,

a Franciscan Monk feeding the pigeons purely for his own pleasure, and to the delight of the tourists,

serious medieval sculptures of serious people that strike our modern eyes as delightfully whimsical,

and the Saturday market.

And, of course, the ubiquitous sidewalk restaurants catering to the millions of tourists that flock to this city within a city every year. I’m so glad we’re here during shoulder season and not the height of summer. It’s busy but not impossible.

We go to the Buza Bar.

Looking down you can see its precarious perch on the rocks outside the fortifications.

You get to it through a hole in the wall, literally, the high solid impenetrable wall behind you, the shining Adriatic Sea spread out before you.

Someone had the inspired idea to make flat surfaces with concrete and build a bar there. We are enchanted. And thoroughly entertained by the golden light, the flotilla of kayaks,

and by the five young women having pizza and beer on the ledge below us, and then hurling themselves into the freezing water. Well they’re young and perhaps a little drunk. I can feel their joy and freedom.

After a somewhat disappointing meal, we walk out of the Old Town along the main street, known as the Stradun.

On another day we walk along the top of the walls and look down on the Stradun from above.

The fortress-like walls arising directly from the water, coupled with skilled diplomacy, allowed the Republic of Ragusa to remain free and independent for five hundred years. The walls have never been breached, though like most places in Europe the city has changed hands many times. Croatia finally gained independence in 1991 after the break up of Yugoslavia. Then in that same year the city was besieged for seven months by the Yugoslav People’s Army. Once again the attacking force could not breach the city walls, and finally in January 1992 Croatia was internationally recognized. All damage from rocket fire during the siege was meticulously restored. Here you can see the difference between the bright orange roof tiles of the restoration and the ancient roof tiles, the rebuilt walls and the ancient walls.

It’s a blue-sky sunny day, then cloudy, then sunny again as we walk the walls – two kilometres (6360 ft) and over 1000 steps. The reward is some of the best views of the town,

and the water.

The walls and forts are undoubtedly magnificent,

and walking along the top gives us a better understanding of them; how they hug the small safe harbour,

and how in places they are narrow so there’s room only for single file, and in places wide like a highway, wide enough to set up a cafe.

Photo by Don Read

It also gives us a glimpse into ordinary life within the walls, allowing us a kind of intimacy that we would not otherwise get: houses standing among rubble left from the 1667 earthquake,

a curtained window at eye level,

laundry hung to dry – jeans and t-shirts and children’s clothes,

and surprising gardens; so completely unexpected.

I look curiously down on the gardens of those living closest to the walls. They must know that they live in a fish bowl, for better or worse. The reality that people actually live here finally hits me, finally sinks in. It seems more like a stage set, a museum, than a town where ordinary people live ordinary lives, tending to children, jobs, finances, and the mundane activities of life. How incredible it must be to live in such a place, a place that has been here for a thousand years. I realize that for the people who live here it’s normal but to me it seems surreal. That people actually live in such places always surprises me. I experience this same feeling, of things being somehow out of whack, every time I go to Europe, as if there’s been some kind of time warp. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, there’s a crack in the fabric of time where the light gets in. I feel it throughout Croatia, but it seems especially strong in Dubrovnik, this light, this ineffable luminance that seems to come from still-inhabited ancient places. That such a place exists feels like a miracle, a serendipitous bleed-through from another time, as if it’s not quite real. It fills me with joy and wonder.

Lord Byron, on his Grand Tour was said to have called Dubrovnik ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic’. It’s hard to disagree. It’s not just the town, or the age of it, or the walls and fortifications, or the design of the town with its snug harbour, or even its stunning setting on the infinite blue of the Adriatic. It’s that Dubrovnik is one of those places where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts, and all of it together becomes a brilliant shining jewel. I feel about Dubrovnik the same way I feel about Venice – both bewildered and delighted that such a place actually exists.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.