The Jakarta Post
WITH GREAT LOCATIONS AND FRIENDLY PEOPLE, CROATIA IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S HOTTEST DESTINATIONS. THE ANCIENT WALLED CITY OF DUBROVNIK IS ONE OF ITS MOST IMPRESSIVE PLACES TO STOP BY.
With an impressive fireworks display that lit the sky in capital Zagreb, Croatia joined the European Union at midnight on July 1, 2013. Ascending to the ranks of the grouping was strong motivation to avoid future conflicts ' apart from the future economic benefits ' some technocrats said.
Some might even boldly say that Croatia joining the EU is like a 'homecoming' after it achieved post-war stability during the last two decades. Between 1992 and 1995, this erstwhile corner of Yugoslavia endured bloody conflicts.
During the Croatian Independence War, sieges were laid and city walls defended by citizens; at the southern tip of the country, Dubrovnik was the prize everyone wanted. It is separated from the rest of country as a piece of Bosnian land, the so-called Neum corridor, cuts Croatia in two pieces. Help from the capital Zagreb was literally a world away.
'In the beginning we thought Yugoslavia would leave us alone. Shops were still open and I went to school,' my friend, Mario Begovic, recalled of the fall of 1991. 'But we soon realized it was a real war.'
Bombardment ensued and there was damage to many of the limestone structures and the world-famous Renaissance rooftiles; the main street looked like a mass of craters and ancient palaces burned day and night.
The war ended in 1995. Thanks to international pressure, this UNESCO World Heritage city (since 1979) was soon restored to its former glory. Nowadays, you are most likely to spot any existing traces of war by looking at black and white photos in the museum.
However, a different form of 'war tourism' is developing in the city. Dubrovnik is a tiny, almost minuscule, town. Venturing from wall to wall, you can see the ancient town in under two hours. Fortunately, what it may lack in size it makes up in other attributes.
Take its fortress, for example. Solid, tall and perched on natural sea rocks, it boasts impressive moats and four magnificent city gates in limestone; it was the reason Dubrovnik was able to resist advances from its many enemies.
Recently the medieval walls of Dubrovnik were chosen as a set for the cult TV series Game of Thrones. For the few who are unfamiliar with it ' very unlikely ' Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy created by George R. R. Martin. Adapted into a TV series by HBO, this might and magic saga has gained a worldwide following.
With or without promotion, legions of the series' fans are heading to this jewel of the Adriatic Sea. As a follower of the series, I can see why Dubrovnik was picked as the set for King's Landing, the capital city in the fantasy world where each cycle of summer lasts for several years.
Dubrovnik, too, is blessed with a warm climate all year round, perfect for depicting the fantastic city where city gates are raised to allow citizens to circulate freely along its uninterrupted city walls. And let's not forget Dubrovnik's rock-solid city walls. For Croatians, Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian region is a popular choice to escape the temperate weather inland. The beauty of Dubrovnik and its picturesque surroundings also lure many cruise ships to set anchor off its coastline.
During the day, some 3,000 passengers go ashore. It may appear great for the economy, but apparently not everyone agrees. One of the local ladies at the city gates canvassing renters for private rooms in their homes complained, 'cruise passengers might buy a souvenir or an ice cream, but they don't stay, they sleep on the boat.' She had a point. The peak crowd arrives just before midday, leading to an overwhelmingly bustling vibe in the city.
'That's why locals prefer to live in the village and travel to the city for work. We still get the best of both worlds,' explained Mario.
In a place where the mercury is always high and a suntan is given away not acquired, going for a dip in the sea is second nature. First, one needs to find a beach. While beaches are scattered along the coast, they're not easily visible or accessible.
And I heard locals zealously guard their secret beach favorites. But Croatians are a gentle and friendly people; ask around and someone will tell you their favorite.
'Hotels have private access but all beaches are free,' Mario told me in my quest to find a beautiful beach. So I exited the Pila gate, one of Dubronik's four, and followed the coastline for a good half hour.
Honestly, it felt more like a scenic dream. The country boasts over a thousand islands, many of them spread along the 230 miles of the winding Dalmatian coast. I found myself gazing many times at them, appearing like natural sanctuaries and shimmering under the harsh sun of a Mediterranean summer.
At the intersection I spotted the Bellevue hotel. So I took a left and dodged slippery searocks before discovering a secluded beach with a handful of locals. I threw my towel over the golden sand and alternated between dipping and sunbathing. I felt life was glorious and I was loving each second that passed.
In the distance, the Old Town stood proudly, as it has for more than a millenium. The clean turquoise water of the harbor is now waded through by yachts and kayaks, not war flotillas menacing the Republic of Ragusa.
This was the name used by the ancient Romans for the small Dalmatian town protected by Byzantium rulers. This legacy lasts to this day: the city plan follows the Roman tradition of maintaining a main road (Stradun street) along which majestic palaces were built and church domes that appear to have been brought from Venice.
Ragusa grew in commerce thanks to its strategic location and status as a free port. It succumbed to Venice, the fiercest and most ambitious enemy, who ruled it in the 13th century; it was such a massive blow to this city-state that it sold the town of Neum to the Ottomans to ensure Venice could never get too close. Later, the arrival of Slavic migrants slowly changed the Romance tongue spoken and the name of Ragusa was replaced by Dubrovnik.
A couple of seagulls tussling over a stray scrap of bread roused me. I wrapped up my towel and headed back to the old town. From here, my options were endless: I could take the cable car to enjoy the fantastic view up the hill, or walk up the medieval city wall to admire the glimmering horizon. In the end, I stayed put at the lagoon harbor. I was amid lines of tableclothed tables, live music from the cafe and sipping a bubbly cocktail. Such was the perfect way to end my day.
Getting there: Dubrovnik is highly accessible and can be reached by air, land ' or even better ' boat. Croatia Airlines (croatiaairlines.com) connects from capital Zagreb and European cities. Major cruise companies make a stop in Dubrovnik but ferryhopping is seasonally possible and more fun (croatiaferries.com).
Travel times: Like the rest of the country's coast, summer starts early from June, with peak season lasting until September. But you can still find good accommodation deals in October and beyond; locals often hawk rooms at the station and city gate at discounted rates. Rooms outside the walls are cheaper.
What to do: The Game of Thrones walking tour is offered by viator.com and starts from '¬55. Dubrovnik has an Oriental influence and an aristocratic vibe, Venetian style;explore it at your own pace, stop at many of its fruit and veggie markets and sip your favorite drink at the marina. What's the best way to enjoy one of Europe's best preserved walled cities than getting right on the wall? Access to the city ramparts can be purchased from: Pile Gate, Fort Street or Dominika Street.
' Photos Gama Harjono
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