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It all begins with the car rental in Dubrovnik. One of us had found a deal online and booked a car for the day a month or so earlier. On arrival we’re informed that a deposit is needed even though it had not been mentioned when the booking was made. And it must be on the same credit card as the original rental. None of us has enough cash on us. Need to transfer money to the credit card, therefore need to get on to Canadian bank. Don’t have Canadian sim in phone so can’t receive text with verifying code to get into bank account to transfer money. The quintessential catch-22. On and on it goes, and no, Don can’t simply pay the deposit. It was supposed to be so simple. Make a booking. Rent a car. Honestly it’s a complete circus that results in a work-around, the details of which we’ve forgotten, whereby Don pays for it all, and the whole thing ends up costing a lot more, and taking an hour and a half to sort out.

By this time we’re already worn out.

After an 8.30 start it’s not until 10.30 that we’re finally out of Dubrovnik and on the highway heading to the Pelješac Peninsula. Before we leave, rental-car-guy programs into S’s phone directions to a restaurant that he highly recommends for lunch. It would have been better if he hadn’t.

The peninsula, 65 kilometres long, runs more or less east-west, and the first town you come to is Ston. We didn’t do enough research. Our research indicated exploring the Pelješac Peninsula would be a nice day trip from Dubrovnik, and Ston is the obvious beginning. That’s about as much as we know.

We stop for coffee. Explore a little. The walls! We are completely gobsmacked. How could we have possibly done any research at all about Ston and not known about the walls? They’re over five kilometres long, way longer than Dubrovnik’s walls, and the second largest in the world after the Great Wall of China. They link Ston to Mali Ston, and are in the shape of an irregular pentangle. Hand’s up who remembers enough high school geometry to know what a pentangle is?

We can’t figure them out. What exactly are they trying to protect – the entire hillside behind the town? Or perhaps the directions north and south of the pentangle are the most vulnerable to attack? Puzzling.

Look at this photo below, see the way they go up over the hill, and then around the hill to the right all the way as far as you can see. And if you look carefully you can just see them across the top of the hill too.

All this building, all these forts

so the Medieval Republic of Ragusa could protect the peninsula and the salt pans near the town of Ston.

Ston’s a pretty town with a touristy main street and some typical medieval lanes running between the ancient stone buildings that form the core of the town.

On one ancient crumbling wall I see the remains of a fresco hundreds of years old.

We pass by St Blaise Church,

a bridge that looks as if it landed eons ago spanning what must have once been a moat around one of the forts,

and in a public green space a lavender patch alive with bees.

I’m always intrigued, and thrilled, that people live in these timeless spaces because to me they have the feel of a museum,

where modern wiring and air conditioners compete with traditional street lamps,

and gardens flourish in the smallest spaces. Looking through a tall rusted gate I see this lovely space,

and find plants adding a softness to the stone houses in several places.

Coulda woulda shoulda. A day trip from Dubrovnik to Ston would have been enough. As well as our brief exploration of Ston itself we could have walked to Mali Ston and explored there. We could have done a little hiking up on those walls for some fabulous views of the area. We could have visited the 2000-year-old salt works. And yes still had time for a slow luxurious lunch in the place recommended by rental-car-guy.

The restaurant he recommends is not in Ston. It’s not even in nearby Mali Ston, but further up along the north coast of the peninsula

in a village called Hodilje. A narrow winding road. It seems to take a long time, then a minute village, turning this way and that, then finally the restaurant, right by the water. Google maps says the distance takes six minutes by car. Google maps lies. It seems like hours, probably because we don’t know where we’re going as we head further along increasingly narrow back roads. It feels really off the beaten path, really isolated. We wonder how anyone ever finds it.

All the reviews for the restaurant online range from four-and-a-half to five stars. Ha! The setting definitely rates five stars.

but that’s about it.

We’re so excited to get fresh oysters. Three of us are Australian; we were practically weaned on raw oysters. I know it may seem strange to some that I’ll eat raw oysters, but won’t go near tasting the fried bugs that you find in SE Asian markets. Anyway, the Pelješac, and especially Mali Ston, is famed for its oysters, so we order a dozen, three each.

It’s a luscious start to the meal, but I actually find them a little too salty. I’ve never heard of oysters being too salty, but there you have it. They exist. Next comes a huge dish of prawn pasta for Don and me to share, and seafood pasta for S. All of it is way too salty, and no better than okay. L has veal with chard and mashed potato, which she says is nice, but it all looks kinda bland. There’s a salad to share, if you can call it that – slices of cucumber and tomato, with no dressing. The presentation is sadly lacking.

For me the most interesting things near this pretty restaurant setting

are the little fishermen’s “village” right next door,

and the bumble bees.

After lunch we carry on to the next item on our agenda. We are not yet aware that the oysters are spreading poison throughout our systems.

The Pelješac is known for its stony but productive vineyards and excellent wineries. L would like to get a bottle of the local wine, so we set out for a winery recommended by rental-car-guy.

Oh for the love of God could he not have directed us to a winery that’s easy to get to? Like near the main road for instance?

It takes hours to get there. Well, to get somewhere. We drive and drive, on increasingly narrow and difficult roads. I don’t remember, I didn’t make detailed notes, but I think we had to drive almost back to Ston, then along the main road west for a way, then off the highway onto these tiny roads with no signs. I don’t remember if Google maps even shows the winery we’re looking for, but if it does we still can’t find it in reality. Eventually we stop at another winery. It feels like we are way the hell and gone from civilization. The roads are narrow and challenging. We nearly attempt to leave the winery down a lane that would have probably ended in some kind of disaster, but fortunately a helpful local sees us and directs us back – requiring a very careful bit of reversing since the “road” (read back-country driveway) is so tight there’s no place to turn around.

Eventually L has finished chatting with the proprietor, has her bottle of wine, and we pile back into the car and continue.

In our pre-travel discussions I’d told the others of a hike from Viganj to Orebic. As a bonus Orebic has a sandy beach! Anyone who’s spent any time on the Croatian coast knows how rare that is. Most beaches have hard pebbles. This hike and the beach at Orebic had been one of the options of nice things to do as we explored the peninsula. So we wiggle our way back to the main road and start driving towards Orebic. It’s going to take another hour to get there. By this time it’s 4.30 and after a short while I suggest that perhaps it’s a bit too ambitious. Everyone agrees. So we decide to go to a beach directly across the peninsula from where we are at that point.

Well if the roads are bad up until now, we soon discover we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We run into road construction. Huge construction. The dirt/gravel/rocky road that is the detour to this beach is just too much. What should have taken us a half hour or so would take hours. Meanwhile the weather has turned from balmy to threatening.

Coulda woulda shoulda: had a quick stop in Ston for coffee and a snack, found an easy-access winery somewhere along the way, and headed straight out to Viganj/Orebic.
Coulda woulda shoulda: perhaps with a little more research we’d have learned about the highway construction and stayed away from that part of the peninsula.

Our original plan probably would have been okay, but we lost a lot of time just trying to rent a friggin’ car. Then we got sidetracked by deciding to follow rental-car-guy’s advice for a place for lunch when we’d probably have been able to find as nice a meal in Ston or Viganj (and not gotten sick from it). And then we got truly sidetracked again by trying to find the winery he’d recommended when we could have probably found one just as good on the main road to Orebic.

We turn around and head sad and exhausted back to Dubrovnik. Our day started with leaving home at about 8.30 am. After dropping off the car and finding somewhere close to home to get dinner, we arrive home absolutely depleted sometime after 9.00 pm.

We have achieved – poor S doing a LOT of driving on difficult roads, a bottle of wine from a local winery for L, a very mediocre meal in a lovely setting, which included oysters that gave us food poisoning, and a brief exploration of the village of Ston.

From my notes: A very long day seeing some very twisty back roads, and a lot of construction for the highway to the new Peljesac-Korcula bridge. One of those travel days where not much goes right.

Don: this whole post is pretty much a downer.
Me: that whole day was pretty much a downer.

I’ll finish with this: don’t worry, the rest of our travels in Croatia were generally excellent. The day trip to the island of Hvar was pure magic – one of those travel days where everything goes right! We loved Split, and two days on the island of Vis was idyllic heaven. I try not to use the word stunning. It’s become so overused, and so frequently used inappropriately, that it’s almost become a cliché. At best it’s lazy writing. But one cannot overstate the sheer stunningness of Plitvice Lakes National Park. All these stories to come.

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.