Once Upon a Time…they said there existed a Garden that was meant to be the picture of earthly perfection. They said that man has been forever banished from this Garden, and that searching for it, assuming it really existed, is a fool’s errand. I say, stop wasting time looking and schedule immediate plans to visit Croatia. There, in the gentle fortress that is Dubrovnik, you will find Paradise.
For as deeply as my heart has become tied to Dubrovnik, my time in Croatia did not begin there, aside from the obvious fact that we were docked in their port. On our first day there, I was quickly whisked away to a small Croatian village, hidden in the mountains of the country’s rocky coast. There, we were greeted by a local couple who invited us into their home for food, drink, and traditional folk dancing. After taking a customary shot of brandy, and sipping a tall glass of homemade red wine, I sat down under a canopy of grape vines to watch the man charmingly wave his arm across a fiddle-like instrument while our hostess gracefully slid into an accompanying one-two step. By the time I was down to the dregs of the wine, we were all moving about in a friendly circle of limbs, attempting to master the simple yet elusive pattern.
Home (to the ship that is) by dinner, it was time to venture into Dubrovnik, or, as the locals refer to it, the Old City. Shower, shave, phone tag, GO! Ah, but wait. Despite its desire to, Croatia is not part of the Eurozone. This throws all of us off, as now we must discover the new exchange rate between the dollar and the Kuna, Croatian currency. It turns out the Kuna is worth 5.18 American dollars. No wonder the Croats are switching to the Euro next year. We swoop down on the nearest ATM, fill our pockets with pictures of Croat legendaries, and squeeze onto the bus.
It grinds up a deserted hill to roar to a stop that surprises us. Why isn’t it bustling with throngs of off -white spectators in I Heart Croatia t-shirts? They are nowhere to be seen. Instead, harmonious Croat tongue bounces around the empty space. But we know that we are in the right place. Ahead lies the towering stone gateway, and, a bit thrown off, we drift through.
The minute we pass under the drawbridge and down the giant marble steps, into the actual city itself, delighted voices and melodic chirping greet our ears, the sweet salt of the sea tangs our noses, and our eyes swim in a million different directions. Some of us take in the pristine cobblestone streets, polished and glimmering in the orange afterglow of the evening. Some of us become absorbed in the colorful embrace of all the knotted vines and bursting flowers. Marigold, primrose, smiling violet. Still some of us are drawn to the enormous rotund fountain in the square to our right, where children take turns squirting each other from the running spouts, couples lazily share a water bottle, and a wrinkled man sits and plays the harmonica—a screechy, off key, rich sound. Grateful listeners drop Kuna into a spotted hat and we silently stare at one another. There is no way this is real.
And yet, we discover, it is. This is no façade. It’s not a tourist trap, a front, or a scam. It’s actually Dubrovnik. There is movement and interaction all along the main street. Relaxed wanderers flow into the side avenues, and despite the activity, there is very little noise. That’s when it occurs to me that I don’t think I was ever in a city where I wasn’t worrying about getting mauled by a car. They are not permitted inside the walls that constitute the Old City of Dubrovnik, which is the vast majority of the city.
As we meander, we pick up pieces of conversations here and there, eventually determining that hvala means thank you. Tiny bookstores, cramped boutiques, and small bars are all buzzing with friendly greetings and cheerful goodbyes. The churches that rival St. Peter’s intermix with the tall apartment buildings decorated with clotheslines and old glass bottles. The restaurants and bars sit side by side with the brick cottages and family run knick knack shops. Such beautiful pearls. Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, they say.
Further along, the air gets crisper and whispers as it guides us to the nightclubs and beach bars. Walking by the rocky cliffs, we begin to hear intermittent screams from below that overpower the crash of the waves. First comes the chant, “One, two…THREE!” then the yelp, the distant splash, and the crowd roars. Several bars, all in a row, allow you to sit and enjoy cocktails on a veranda, and then strut right up to the cliffs they are perched on, and jump.
This is Dubrovnik. But the beauty extends well beyond the ancient stone wall. The manmade splendor of the city is a reflection of the natural magnificence of the Croatian landscape. Royal blue is a cheap imitation of the peaceful water; forest green a desperate attempt to imitate the tall pines on the Croatian mountains. A cloud never touched the sky here, and the sun embraced us all. The flowers that grew on the hillside weaved their way down to the city and slithered up through every crack and crevice they could find, draping the old wall in a mossy green overcoat.
Italy may have held restorative powers, but Croatia is the epicenter of all relaxation. The experiences described above, which happened during out first day in port, continued throughout our entire time in the Slavic nation. It was impossible not to be at peace with yourself, those around you, and any situation you encountered. We just missed the proper bus at 3:30 in the morning? So what! Let’s listen to that band across the street playing Croatian melodies.
Dubrovnik was safe, entertaining, manageable, and calming. It was inspiring to travel and learn about a place that bears such a sad and brutal history, but has come out strong and revitalized, maintaining its cultural roots and ethereal beauty throughout all of the recent struggles. It’s hard to imagine any sort of violence happening in the quiet countryside of Croatia when you are kayaking around the harbor, taking in the beaches and the giant rocks and waving to people as they hang out their laundry. Everyone seems so at peace.
I don’t know why more people don’t talk about Croatia. It’s a place with a fantastic culture, friendly people, and an inspiring story. The turmoil and devastation of the early 1990’s is still in the minds of the Croat people, yes; but they have turned their pain into something magnificent and built their country into what they have always wanted it to be. For me, this speaks volumes.
I have begun what I have found to be a rather difficult healing process, but a healing process none the less. From what? That’s another post entirely. Everyone has a person or persons who inspires them, but I have found from my time in Croatia that I am inspired by an entire nation. Or at least, this nation’s story. Again, my love of stories has found its way into a post, but I cannot emphasize how important the telling of stories is to our existence. There is a reason the It Gets Better project is compiled of hundreds and thousands of videos and short stories, and not just one single inspirational speech or video. Stories entertain, inspire, challenge, and, perhaps the most important, revive. A good story can rebuild anything: confidence, hope, a broken heart. Croatia tells a very good story. Try it sometime, if you don’t believe me.
Croatia is a fairy tale come to life, hidden away on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. When you arrive there, you become part of the tale—you experience new adventures, strange yet alluring concoctions, magical lands, quirky characters, and, if you do it right, your own happy ending.
I can’t say that I lived happily ever after, but I certainly left happily ever after.
“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole”—Derek Walcott