New Year’s Night in Dubrovnik’s Old Walled City

Leaving Split felt like we were escaping. Next stop – Dubrovnik, which many people had told us was wonderful. Since they had said the same thing about Split, we had mixed

The Adriatic was a rich blue

feelings. The road was tree-lined and lovely, winding along the coast with incredible blue seascapes below us. The first surprise was encountering what we first took to be a toll station, but turned out to be a national border. Since both Split and Dubrovnik are in Croatia, we thought we had taken a wrong turn someplace. No, it seems that ‘BiHa’ (Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the border guard’s parlance) dips down to the sea for a few miles to get port access, and then Croatia resumes. Sure enough, about three miles later on the same road we re-entered Croatia, and the signs pointed to Dubrovnik.
When we entered the town, we realized we were descending into a narrowing valley, with cliffs rising on either side and the very ordinary city getting squeezed closer and closer. As

The Pilay Gate is almost at ground level

we went down, we made a turn and suddenly the old city appeared – a walled port city filling the gap at the sea of a really very narrow valley, with about 30-meter high walls rising up to a point about forty meters below us! Obviously, when they built this, they were concerned about threats only from the sea. From where we were, we (or an invading army) could have dropped rocks inside the walls. We continued down, noticing the only road had become one-way (down), took a sharp turn, and found the walls now looming above us with the ancient moat now serving as a cramped and crammed parking lot. We had gotten the name of a travel agency which was the best source of ‘Apartman’ (private homes offering rooms) and followed the Navi around the walls to the open square serving as the bus station,

Statue at the top of the Pile (Pilay) Gate

where the agency was. Elizabeth got out while I parked on the sidewalk, and eventually returned to report that today was St. Sylvester’s Day – so of course the agency was closed. Why hadn’t we thought of that! (Saint who?) We were advised to just park and wander through the old city looking for ‘Apartman’ signs, and knock and ask. Easier said than done. The first available parking spot was up, up, up, a narrow street clinging to the cliff. Then we paid for 2 hours parking, and climbed down stairways back to the bus square. On this side of the old city, the moat was an attractive park, spanned by a drawbridge. We crossed, and climbed down a flight of stairs to the main square, with two churches, a huge fountain, and the entrance to the only real street – beautifully decorated for the holidays with its marble cobblestones gleaming.
We wandered down a few alleys, and asked at the first open store, and were directed up another few alleys, where we knocked at the first door we saw saying ‘Apartman’. After a long silence, a window was thrown open, to the cry of ‘wait’ and an attractive young couple came down and said that yes, they had an available room. The kitchenette was on the ground floor. Up two stories were the bedroom & bath, and above them were the family quarters – all beautifully tucked into a tiny slot of a house up against an ancient wall. Delightful, and inexpensive. Perfect, until we asked where we could keep the car. Their faces fell, and they concluded that our only hope was to find a space in the old moat, but it was difficult. Back we rushed to the car (our time was just up) and back to the single one-way road, this time winding up the other side of the valley. Once we reached the top, we turned back to the down road, and crept down to the moat, which was full. So around the city walls, up the up road, and down again to a parking lot we had seen near the bus square. They had space, but it was short-term parking, and parking the car would have cost us more than twice the cost of our room. So up the up road, and down the down road, and tried the moat again – still full. Around the city, up the up road, and at the top there was a city parking lot which was affordable and had spaces. Gratefully, we parked, and

Old fountain outside a church

unpacked. Two rolling suitcases, two briefcases, and six small bags, so we headed for the elevator – which only went up! We asked how we got down to the old city, and were directed to a precipitous staircase. Not optimal with wheeled suitcases. So we walked four km. down the down road and entered at the moat parking lot, across the city from our apartment. It had by this time gotten dark. Oops! Turns out that the entrance we came in was about ten stories above the main street, with streets connected only by crumbling medieval steps. We finally found some we could negotiate, climbed down, noting in passing incredible buildings, great smelling restaurants, and what were probably great views – but all we knew was weariness. We then climbed the few levels up on the other side, and found our apartment, where our hostess had decided we had gone somewhere else, and so was delighted to see us again. It had taken four hours from the time we took the place to the time we reached it with luggage. We collapsed.
Suddenly David remembered that ‘St. Sylvester’s Day’ was New Year’s Eve. I’d not made any such connection, but I knew that we’d planned to spend New Year’s Eve in Dubrovnik to join the celebrations. And I was not going to go to sleep. David took a short nap, but hunger finally woke him. We got recommendations for a couple of good restaurants from our hosts and set off (minus luggage) to check them out. The first was down at the Old

The Old Port is just outside the walls

Port, but it was closed.  Well, half the restaurants in town were closed; the other half were putting on $100/head fixed menu all-night New Year’s Parties, and would have at best squeezed us in somewhere in the back. We walked, and walked – in the meantime stopping for the end of a Catholic New Year’s Eve Mass in a beautiful Cathedral, admiring numerous buildings, and checking out every menu. All were too heavy (and too alcoholic – for our tastes. Finally, just down the alley from our lodgings on the main street, we found a Bistro unlisted in any of our guides with wonderful smells and a live pianist playing old American Jazz and Blues, which was right up our alley. They also had a menu, but were glad to serve us a la carte, and the food and wine were wonderful, as was the music. We slowly relaxed, letting the day’s tensions fade away, and became aware of a growing volume of activity outside.

At 11, the street was half empty.

It was now about 11:00pm and about five degrees below freezing. We came out to find the entire length of the main street filling with people, vendors selling beer & sausages and drinks (hot spiced wine, mostly), from the main square down to the Cathedral Square at the opposite end of the city (by the sea) with a dozen very large TV screens showing a stage being set up. If you look closely, you can see 2011 just to the left of the church tower.  The stage was set up in the square in front of the church.  We wandered down, but not too close, because the lead group was an excessively loud, raucous pop group, and the volume was physically painful. But we were promised classical music starting at midnight, and we stayed in the thickening crowd, until it seemed that every space – every cobblestone- in the whole length of the street was occupied. The girls were wearing too little clothing (how you combine miniskirts and plunging necklines with -5 ° weather I will never know, but it was decorative). The old men were drinking too

Behind us the street was alight with handheld fireworks

much, the young men were trying to impress the girls with fireworks (yes, cherry bombs and sparklers in the middle of the jam-packed crowd) and the music was overwhelming, but suddenly we were all counting

And finally at 12 the official fireworks started

down to midnight, and the official fireworks started. Then the classical concert began – which meant old Croatian traditional songs. The singers were old men, wearing traditional peasant garb, but literally everyone in the crowd sang along – including us. We didn’t know the words, but we could follow the tune, and song after song filled the city (and that is not an exaggeration – we could hear the echoes from the walls on either side). About 1:00am, 2011, Elizabeth and I staggered off to bed, but there were still celebrations (petering out) when we woke the next morning. P1040798

The bed was comfortable, the apartment was great, and our hostess greeted us the next morning with a traditional Croatian New Year’s cake up in her apartment, and gave us a broad insight into what the breakup of Yugoslavia had meant for her.
It was fascinating, but we finally tore ourselves away. We were a little more clever this time – we took the luggage out the main entrance to the bus square, and I left Elizabeth with it while I climbed, and climbed, and found myself lost, and turned and climbed some more until I reached the parking lot. Then I found I didn’t have enough Croatian money, but the attendant changed some Euros for me, and released me – to creep down the down road and around the city wall to pick up Elizabeth, climb the up road, and set off for the famous Bay of Kotor, said to be the most beautiful spot on the coast. Dubrovnik was not an unalloyed joy, but it was lovely, exciting, pleasant, and it will be a lot easier when we go there again.

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One Response to New Year’s Night in Dubrovnik’s Old Walled City

  1. deirdrebeth says:

    The cobblestone(?) on the street with the fireworks is gorgeous…it looks like marble tile!

    Question though…in your picture of the old port there is a small blue boat. Are those standard 10′ or so skiffs, or something much smaller. Because if that is a 10′ boat my scale for that image is waaay off (to me they look ~maybe 5′ long!)

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