By Dora Ohrenstein
After considerable stress over non functioning cash machines and overpriced taxi rides, I catch a bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik next afternoon. We drive along the impressive Adriatic coast, where a string of islands obscures the horizon. It’s very picturesque, but the frequent resorts climbing up from the beaches are overcrowded and without much character. After the intensity and dry heat of Mostar, it feels distant and unreal to me.
We reach Dubrovnik at 9:30 pm. Milo, owner of Vila Klaic, welcomes me heartily with hugs. As he’s full for the night, I’m taken to a different family’s home, very close to the old town. All signs point to Stari Grad, the Old Town, enclosed in massive walls that are the city’s signature. They were first built in the 13th c, and aggressively expanded in the 15th in anticipation of a Turkish invasion. My guide book says they are the finest walls in the world. The only city walls I can think of to compare are those of Jerusalem. Dubrovnik’s great wall is right up on that level, worthy of anyone’s Bucket List.
Surrounding the Old Town are steep hills, on which many homes have been constructed. The fastest mode of transport is by foot, on endless staircases which cross heavily trafficked roads. You need to have your wits about you to find your path to a specific location. Luckily, getting down from my pension is easy, and I mill happily among many tourists. It’s 11:30 pm, very lovely and cool here, a relief after baking in Mostar. I find a small bar just outside the old town where I enjoy a cheap half bottle of local wine, and accustom myself to this astounding new reality. I watch people emerge from one of the huge gates, clucking at scanty Euro fashions. Bottle consumed, I hike back up the hill and sleep most soundly.
Next day I’m taken to the Vila Klaic promptly at 9 a.m. as Milo has commanded, but my room is unready. This gives me a chance to experience the pleasant ambience of the Vila, built on several levels, one with a pretty little pool, overlooking the city and sea. At the top is the breakfast room where I sit with a group of Aussies who are making complicated plans. At last I am led to a nice little room, throw my things in, and clamber down hundreds of steps to the old town. This place is much further than the one last night, and the path more complex. Almost immediately I wander into a square with outdoor booths, and in one I spot crochet. There are several pieces of lace in the same shape, a gracefully elongated diamond. The work is stunning, very high quality and I know this time I must buy. The man selling, middle-aged, hard worn, tells me it’s all made by his mother, who must be quite elderly. Of all the gorgeous pieces, I have my heart set on one with lovely little bullions. Price is 375 Kuna, about $75. I’m hoping for the price to come down, so I tell the seller I’ll come back. My frugality stems partly from the fact that I’m planning to do some serious shopping later in the trip in Istanbul. To be honest, staying on budget for this long trip is never too far from my mind. Later that day I return and buy it for the asking price.
More wandering brings me into a hat shop, where I meet Marina. I love her very original, artistic hats. She asks me right off where I’m from and when I tell her New York she gets very excited; when she tells me she’s a singer too, we really get going, talking about being artists, getting older, and the similarities between the residents of Dubrovnik and New York City: in both cities, people have seen it all, and have no patience for fools. Dubrovnik has about 8000 residents though, compared to New York’s 8 million. She tells me the wonderful history of the shop: The Ronchi Hat Factory, which you can read about at
www.dubrovnik-online.com/ronchi/index.html. Promising I’ll be back, I leave to seek lunch — an ice cream cone does the job. Now is as good a time as any, I think, to walk around the city walls. It’s starting to heat up quite a bit and will only get worse.
Dubrovniks medieval wall is not only what gives the city its outstanding, instantly recognizable profile, it’s also a spectacular vantage point for viewing everything around it. Of course that was the purpose of these high defensive walls. Despite the heat, it’s breezy up there and the views are surreally beautiful. I snap and snap photos, and watch the Adriatic bashing into the walls from a million different perspectives, over the top of the wall, or through the little cut out windows where once cannons were pointed. I stop and talk with a woman making and selling embroidery. Here people seem to really want to know about you, and are very open about sharing their lives. I love that, and it is like New Yorkers. This lovely lady is an educated woman who tells me she chooses to earn just enough with her needlework so she’s free to enjoy life. Another kindred spirit, as was Marina earlier in the day. Continuing my walk around the wall, I run into lots more families and crowds, so I pick up the pace. By the time I finish, I’m overheated.
From up on the the wall I had spied a spot, right at the point of the city as it thrusts into the sea, where people are sunbathing and swimming in the Adriatic. That’s exactly what I want to do. I head over the rocky landscape to where a small group of young Americans are lying around on the rocks. I ask them, “Do you think I can get away with swimming in my underwear?” One girl says “Sure, it’s Europe,” just what I want to hear. I strip to my undies and make my way down the metal stairs attached to the rocks down into the water. It’s absolutely divine, bouyant, sweet-smelling and salty. When I emerge from the surf into the bright sunlight, I realize my wet undies are entirely see-through and I’m quite embarrassed — it’s an I Love Lucy moment. No one cares much though, the Americans boys and girls are all wrapped up in each other. It’s perfect really, I feel protected because they’re around, but hardly noticed. To get my underthings to dry, I assume some peculiar positions in order to give the sun access, and get a bit sunburned in the process.
Once fully clothed, it dawns on me that earlier I went to the wrong museum, and I really want to see the Ethnographic Museum here, perhaps find an expert who knows something about crochet history. I try to find it again, and stop in an art gallery for directions. The proprietress is talking to two tourists and when I stick my head in she admonishes me not to interrupt. Thus do I meet Tea (Thea), who, after the ladies departs, says, “You are Jewish and from New York, right?” ” Yes” I say. “What do you do?” “I sing.” “What kind of music?” “All kinds, opera too.” She starts humming something she says is from Traviata, but it’s not. I start singing Violetta’s aria for real and she goes berserk. “You must come and sing at my party tomorrow night!” Sure I say. She urges me to sing more and some Basque tourists come in to admire the singing, and we encourage them to sing for us in Basque, which they do. Tea shows me her book — a beautiful art book, written in three languages, about Dubrovnik. Then Steve, her British husband, is summoned to show me the other gallery — Tea has five — where the party will be tomorrow night. The event is an opening for a Chilean artist married to a local. Steve and I go for coffee and he tells me how he left Wales 10 years ago, met Tea here and never looked back. He’s a sailor, and they have a patch of land on an island with a house he’s rebuilding. It sounds enchanted and romantic. We discover we are both old hippies, though from continents apart.
You can take a cruise with Tea and Steve, find out more at http://www.sailcroatia.co.uk/.
I seem to be drifting from one lovely personal encounter to the next, seriously neglecting my touristic activities. I do manage to see the interior of a gorgeous little church, Baroque but with Byzantine icons, but unfortuntately never make it to the Ethnographic Museum.
I revisit Marina in her hat shop. It’s 7 pm, closing time, and she invites me to the place where the locals eat pancakes (palacinken). There are only dessert pancakes, and we eat them stuffed with chocolate and ice cream for dinner. In her upbeat manner Marina tells me about her twin daughters, one of whom is happily married, while the other is miserable and hates her. Also that her husband is in poor health. What I like a lot about Marina, among many things, is that she laughs heartily at her own jokes. We vow to keep in touch as I head off to walk up to Klaic. Though I set out with great determination and a map, I’m defeated by the never ending streets connected to never ending staircases, with signs not well enough lit for my fading eyes. I wander for an hour in the dark, hopelessly lost, then manage to contact Milo by cell and get bus directions to Vila Klaic.
Next day I decide to check out the small island of Lokrum, a short boat ride away from the city. It’s a nature preserve just across from the city, all green and tempting, only half an hour away on a little boat. Once there, I treat myself to a sit down meal in an empty outdoor restaurant and order grilled calamari and veggies, which are as tasty as any I’ve ever had. After consuming this in ecstasy, I realize I have no lek (local currency) to pay for it. Luckily they accept my dollars. I’ve heard there’s a nude beach here on Lokrum and hike all around the island in search of it. Small dense trees cover everything, and the roar of cicadas never stops. An easy road runs all around the island’s edge, and you can wander out to the rocks whenever you see something interesting down on the shore or in the sea. I walk the entire length around, not all that long really, and don’t meet a soul. After a while I add my voice to the wailing insects, warming it up for the evening. When I find the nude beach at last, the rocky descent into the water makes me chicken out. Ah well, it’s been a very lovely walk. Totally sweaty, I take the return boat back to town, rush back up hundreds of steps to Klaic, take a quick shower, then run down in heels for the gallery opening at 8 pm.
Tea’s tiny gallery is situated under arches and tunnels which in turn are under the city walls. The crowd is still sparse and rain is threatening. I sit on the wall at a nearby square, where opposite me is a guitar player entertaining diners in a restaurant in the square. I’d seen him earlier that day on Lokrud, playing with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He sounded good there and sounds good now. This must be the guitarist Tea mentioned who’ll be playing at the gallery opening. Later I learn his name is Frano. While I’m listening to Frano and watching the diners in the square, it begins to rain and the boss hollers at the young waiters, who unfurl huge umbrellas over the dining tourists.
Around the corner at the gallery, more guests have arrived and fabulous Chilean wine is flowing. A glass of it helps me reach perfect relaxation to sing my aria (O mio babbino caro,) and the crowd is in perfect receptivity to hear it. A very special moment. Frano and I work out that we can play Summertime together, and we do. The small, international audience seems delighted. The artist has made pretty paintings of Dubrovnik’s waters, and she tells me about the wilder work she recently completed of the Amazon. It starts to really storm and we all cram into the little shop and tunnel, with blasts of lightening creating an eerie cityscape around us. For the next hour or two we all get gradually plastered on delectable wine. What an interesting group: the Chilean artist and her German-speaking family, Tea’s beautiful daughter visiting from Italy, a delicate young Russian pianist, two British boys who’ve stumbled in from the rain . . . Tea (the lady not the beverage) and serendipity have brought us together to share this midsummer night’s dream.
And it’s still not over. Eventually the rain stops, the crowd dissipates. Tea and Steve take me to a waterfront cafe with a good-sized crowd sitting outdoors. My two new friends are falsely promulgating the idea that I’m a famous soprano, and waiters come rushing over to have their photos taken with me. A handsome pianist, Braco (pronounced Bratzo) is playing and singing jazz standards, all the while beaming a smile at me. It seems the right thing is for me to get up and sing a couple of ballads with him. Till this evening, I haven’t performed in a while and thankfully I sound pretty good. Braco plays really well and follows perfectly. Everyone in the cafe applauds warmly and I’m enjoying impersonating a star. After his set Braco sits with us for a few minutes, then vanishes. We three are left, still in a party mood, and Tea and Steve tell Mustafa-Fatima jokes. We down our Croatian pizza and eventually there’s nothing more to do but say good night.
Tonight I take the bus home, sitting right behind the driver so I won’t miss my stop. The driver is a young madman, blasting the big bus insanely down streets and right through stop signs, all the while moving his rear around in his seat erotically. It’s very weird. I wonder if it’s for my benefit or if he’s just an oversexed kid. Probably both. There are a lot of gorgeous, semi clad young women all over this town. Right now I’m really glad not to be one of them.
It would be great to stay here another day, but I’ve decided that given the dicey travel to Albania, I should leave tomorrow. I’m expecting the next day to be grueling, and indeed it turns out to be. But I’m well fortified by the magic I take with me from Dubrovnik.