the following night, dave and i touched down in croatia and were wandering around an empty, unlit terminal searching for a rental car company in the dark. when we finally found the right bungalow, it was apparent that the guy running the office had been waiting for us for awhile, his final customers of the day. his demeanor was very gruff, cold almost, but not rude. there was a measured indifference in his voice, and i could tell that he was ready to go home for the day. i surmised that there was a good chance that i would experience this ‘measured indifference’ again during my time in croatia.
the dubrovnik airport is located about 20 minutes south of the city, so i had a little time to get comfortable with our volkswagen golf on the darkened highway, pressing the accelerator to the ground a couple times and hugging a few turns, making dave nervous in the process. getting a reaction to my driving from him was becoming one of my favorite things about traveling with dave.
we pulled into the outskirts of dubrovnik and began searching for the apartment we had rented from airbnb, making a few wrong turns and getting slightly lost. the apartment seemed to be located somewhere between the two roads that had forked off of the main highway we had been traveling, one going high up along the mountainside, and the other down below, closer to the walled city and coastline, and we couldn’t locate any actual roads that could get us anywhere between the two. in this area of seemingly un-navigable land lay rows of old houses and high-reaching walls that all gradually made their way further up the mountain. we needed to get in there somehow. i found a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit a car, and pulled the tiny vw into the tight squeeze. i drove slowly for a minute while dave checked the map on his phone, and the alley widened ever so slightly. there was an SUV parked tightly up against the wall on the right and i inched the car alongside and past the SUV, leaving a mere inch on either side of the car.
“how did you do that?!” dave exclaimed. i laughed, proud of my navigational skills. i pulled the car ahead of the parked obstacle and began creeping forward again as the alley began to narrow again, searching desperately for an address or a street sign in the dark that might give us a hint of where we were going or where we were.
suddenly two bright headlights came rushing down the alley from around the corner and stopped in front of us, the two cars staring face to face, nowhere to go. dave and i froze, staring blankly ahead, unsure of what to do and hoping that the other car would back up into some magic parking lot behind them around the corner that obviously did not exist. the men in the other car began waving their hands directing me to get the hell out of their way. okay, i thought, i’m the person who doesn’t live here, i need to go back.
“shit. okay here we go man.” i said to dave and shifted into reverse.
“okay, but, wait! watch out for…!” dave panicked as i quickly backed the car back into the extremely tight space between the wall and the parked SUV. i was going backward faster than i had gone through forward before. i frantically swiveled my head back and forth, checking my mirrors repeatedly as i eased the car backwards past the SUV and back out into the alley, down the narrow, winding alley, and back out into the main street entrance, the exiting vehicle impatiently following me the whole way, then making a quick pass once they had a chance, escaping out into the night. i shifted into park and slumped back into my seat, letting out a big sigh of relief. i looked over at dave. he was staring at me with eyebrows raised and his mouth agape.
“what just happened? i blacked out.” i joked. honestly i had no clue how i had escaped the situation unscathed either.
we eventually were able to locate the apartment, and after being welcomed by the owner, andres, we ran quickly down into the walls of the old city, about a 15 minute walk. the city streets were empty but very well lit, and the white polished stones in the walkway projected the lights overhead back upward, giving an ethereal mirroring effect that made you feel like you were walking on an ancient mirrorball. after wandering around for a few minutes, we located a small restaurant that we had read about in online, known for great local croatian cuisine and wine. tucked away in a little nook of the city and built into the great outer wall of the city, the place looked empty and closed. undeterred, i poked my head inside anyway and found three people sitting on barstools at a small counter in the front, and a waiter on the other side who looked up to see us with a surprised and welcoming smile.
“hi, are you still open?” i inquired.
“yes, please come in my friend! welcome to my restaurant, the bota sare!” he ushered us to the corner, bringing us waters and menus. the place had a very elegant but simple feel to it, white stone from floor to ceiling. the menu was full of local ingredients and seafood, made into sushi arrangements. also oysters. lots of oysters.
“i’ll have a dozen oysters and a bottle of a local white wine. whatever you recommend that is reasonably priced,” i instructed politely. dave placed a large order of sushi and we elected to share. the rest of the establishment was empty, so it was only a short time before our food arrived. as we feasted, we couldn’t help but listen in and appreciate the 3 locals at the bar who were extremely drunk. i couldn’t help myself as i listened to their clumsy conversation, bouncing back and forth between croatian and english, slobbering and stumbling every step of the way. there were two men and one woman, all three of them were tall. they kept ripping through bottle after bottle of wine, and the restaurant owner tried to dissuade them from ordering more, but they persisted. at one point, one of the men fell off of his stool and flat onto the stone floor, where he lay unconscious. it wasn’t a violent fall, more of a slow slump, so when his friends began laughing at him raucously, i couldn’t help myself and began laughing as well. the owner looked at them disapprovingly, embarrassed that they were causing such a scene, but when he looked over to see david and me laughing appreciatively, he smiled in relief. the woman stumbled over to us while the man woke his friend up and encouraged him to drink more.
“where y’ from?” she managed to blurt out.
“the US,” i replied with a smile. she turned around and motioned to the owner.
“shots! rakija! for our american friends!” she demanded, not out of rudeness, but more out of the brain’s necessity to focus solely on essential words after speaking becomes a labor and politeness and prepositions become an afterthought. the owner brought around some shotglasses and poured 4 shots of a clear liquid.
“what is this?” i asked curiously.
“rakija. a croatian brandy made from fruit” the owner informed me. okay, here we go, i thought to myself, trying to prepare for what might turn into an all-out binge.
“Živjeli!” said the locals, and we knocked the shot back. for about .5 seconds, everything was fine. suddenly a wave of disorienting aromatic sweet and sour tingling came rushing up my esophagus and down the inside of my nose. the sides of my tongue began throbbing with a strong cherry tart flavor. the croatians all began laughing as dave and i attempted to recover and salvage some dignity. i actually liked the rakija, but i prayed to god they weren’t going to offer me anymore. i didn’t want to binge drink tonight, i wanted to a restful sleep. luckily the drunk woman slapped dave on the back and laughed heartily, then returned to her drunk friends and eventually left.
the owner explained to us that they had all been friends since primary school, and that typically in the tourist off-season (december, january) the city is completely empty, so the locals
will often times to go the places they don’t normally go when they are crowded with tourists. we informed him we weren’t bothered at all by drunkenness, if anything it made the otherwise quiet night more enjoyable. i then began asking the owner about his life in dubrovnik. there were no other customers in the restaurant, so the owner pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine. he began to tell us about how beautiful the summers were and how wonderful croatian people were. we began to drift backward in time, i started asking questions about the war in the 90s, unsure if he would be willing to talk about it with us. after a little hesitance, he started sharing openly, telling us that he had been in this very building as a child when the first bombs had hit the walls of the city, fired by serbia. dave and i listened with wide eyes as he recounted the horrors of the war, and we smiled with him when he
spoke proudly of how the thick and sturdy walls withstood every shell and missile fired, never collapsing or failing. he admitted that shells had obviously hit inside the city,
and he informed us that if we walked enough within the right areas of the city, we would still see the craters and demolished buildings. we asked him how things had changed over the years, and we asked him about current relations with serbians. he admitted that he had a difficult time accepting serbians because of the atrocities that he had witnessed and the friends and family that he had lost at their hands in the war. as he shared with us, i found myself minorly shocked about how different his childhood was from mine. we were roughly the same age, i had been through my own tragedies and warzones (i grew up in gangland southern california during the early 90s race riots. those were fun), but nothing like what this man had seen. his city had been bombed by another
neighboring country, and had undergone a horribly pointless war for 3 years, simply because his countrymen had wanted independence from the mess of socialist yugoslavia. i felt fortunate that i had never had to experience something so conflicting and awful. but i also was appreciative of this man’s willingness to share with us openly about his experiences. at the end of the night we thanked him and went on our way.
the next morning we arose early and elected to pay a few euros to walk up onto the city walls and walk the perimeter of the whole city. it was a beautiful, blue sky day, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly over the sea on the other side of the castle walls.
old dubrovnik was quite a sight indeed. the walls alone were incredibly impressive, standing 80 feet at its tallest and 20 feet at its thickest, i tried my best to imagine just how difficult it would be to build fortified walls like that. how many layers of stone blocks is that?!? the modern walls that you see now were initially built starting in the 12th century, and is considered to be the greatest defensive fortification of the middle ages, as the walls have never
been breached in open combat. i gawked at every new angle i could find from atop the walls, looking down the outside from the top edge, appreciating the way the walls sloped down and out, wider at the base to protect from any lean or tipping. the city had also done a great job of staying updated with the times, as the defensive purposes had not been necessary in almost 20 years, so the cosmetic work that had gone into preserving and beautifying the city and it’s famous walls had been extensive, and the work had been effective. dubrovnik was perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places i’d ever been in my entire life.
as we completed our lap around the city, i found a tower in the northern corner of the walled city, what looked to be the most strategic defensive position of the city with the best view of the entire city. i climbed to the top and looked out the tiny window, surveying the man-made wonder around me, paired with the natural beauty of the mediterranean sea just beyond the city walls. directly below of the tower i was in was an elevated basketball court with high fences and a great view that a group of young boys were playing in. after watching them for a few minutes i decided that they were playing basketball on the best court in the entire world. no nba court in the US could compare with the beautiful simplicity and unique backdrop that these young croatians had.
“hey man, we should get a move on if we want to make it to make it into montenegro before dark.” dave had caught up to me. i descended the tower and we exited the great walls of the city. i would definitely be back some day.
this week’s musical selection is actually not a new song, but it’s new to me and i can’t stop nodding my head to it, so i’m sharing it with you. hailing from tacoma, washington, motopony’s song “seer” sports a dirty little acoustic guitar riff as the spine, and a solid rock n’ roll backing that builds an anthem with muddy pianos and guitars, a soaring organ, and quirky vocals that give just enough bite to keep you wanting more. enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…