a passport, an appetite, a can of pepper spray
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Walled In, Part I: The Search For Grit

Walled In, Part I: The Search For Grit

I needed gelato. Some would say that nobody medically needs gelato but I didn’t run into any of those doubters in the steam bath Dubrovnik was immersed in around mid-June. Wearing long pants and a long sleeve button down, I know I wasn’t dressed appropriately (let alone did I pack appropriately) but even if I was clad in nothing more than the flag of Croatia, I would still be sweltering.

My lack of preparedness might have taken the gorgeous coastal city I was there to admire down a notch or so. Jutting out defiantly into the Adriatic, Dubrovnik’s old city, like Venice, is an open-air showcase of the its triumphant past when they had a few bucks and the guns to back them up. Unlike Venice, there were magnificent — and fully intact — medieval walls in lieu of canals and it was unfortunate. I could’ve use a canal to push half of the tourists crowding every narrow alley and piazza into.

Sure there were tourists in the other places I had been but nowhere near the crush I encountered in Dubrovnik. All of the blaring reminders of mass tourism were there: wide-brimmed sun hats, corpulent fanny packs and tourist menus. It’s hard to fully appreciate a dramatic bas relief on an old cathedral when you can overhear a maître d’ trying to lure the package tourists and daytrippers in with a special on oysters. It was also difficult to admire a dramatic bas relief on an old cathedral when I took up the maître d’ on his oyster offer.

I hadn’t heard American voices and accents on my trip thus far and so hearing the nasal tones of my compatriots, I have to admit, was a bit jarring. I thought I had the Balkans all to myself. After marveling at how a disco can be crammed into a five hundred year-old building I headed out of the walled city into the surrounding areas that most Dubrovnik-niks live in. My main goal was to get a hotel room well below the three hundred Euro-a-night going rate within the walls.

The cab stands were tightly regulated by the government. A sign was posted that stated the flat rate fares to different neighborhoods. The cabbies were professional and their cars new and gloriously air-conditioned. As we drove, the city plumed its feathers for me in the form of endless terra-cotta roofs clinging to steeply graded hills. The bright blue sky matched the sparkling blue water. Every photo taken was an easy postcard.

I got a fairly-priced room at a three-star in Lapad, a neighborhood more residential than commercial. After cooling off, I took a walk towards the natural bay with perfectly situated boats tied to the docks with pristinely framed mountains looking down.

What was exciting me about Croatia the most was the change in cuisine. While it was still easy to have a poetically greasy kabob within licking distance, Croatia’s huge coastline made it an obvious trove of fresh seafood. Seated at a place surprisingly affordable for calling itself a “yacht club”, I downed bottles of sparkling water like, well, a fish. A procession of aquatic jewels slowly began to arrive. First up was a complimentary house-made tuna salad with capers which melted on impact. A perfectly cooked cold octopus and shrimp platter raised the abundant hairs on my neck. Halfway through a mountain of some of the best fried fish that ever graced ceramic, I had reached capacity. Believe it or not, I have one. But the black risotto with shellfish was making its way to my table and warranted at least a couple of bites. The rice could have been more tender but the musky, inky flavor more than made up for it.

I hobbled off my meal by getting myself lost in the neighborhoods surrounding the bay. The houses were modern, roomy structures. Teenagers came out of convenience stores with over-sugared drinks. Alleyways made up of a million stone steps ran alongside leafy parks. The buildings were being colored ochre by the slowly setting sun and before I knew it, I was actually lost.

That evening, back behind the walls, the outdoor cafes were full and the Coca-Cola sandwich boards rattled in rhythm to whatever oozed out of the large speakers set up in the main square. All of the hardworking service people spoke serviceable English. I wanted, hoped really, to see if the old city wasn’t the tourist corral it was during the day. No such luck.

Dubrovnik, and I can only assume the rest of the Croatian coast, is built for tourism. Or should I say re-built for tourism. In the 90s, the Yugoslav army had the foresight that is common during civil wars to shell those old walls. Like in Mostar, the city just brushed the dust off and refashioned itself into a company town, keeping the few structural reminders out of site of tourist eyes. More than economics maybe it’s also how a place moves on after a national trauma. Croatia is now one of the top 25 visited countries on earth.

No question that the city was beautiful. But again, like Venice, everything seemed perfectly situated to be so. Everything was well-managed, safe. If you wanted to get swindled in Dubrovnik (hotel prices aside) the government probably regulated the swindlers as well. I was craving some edge, a little grit; something the rebuilt Dubrovnik wasn’t providing at all.

All of that was forgotten the next morning when I arose early and headed back to the walls so I could procure a ticket to walk on top of them. For about $12 I could join a bunch of other overweight people and climb the endless steps to the top. Once there, I could, and did, circle the entire city, and admire it from above. It was a conga line of tourists and I, making our way between the turrets on the dark grey stone pathway. This being Europe, every several hundred meters along the wall there was a cafe, a refuge from the baking heat. I took down anything wet the waiter put in front of me and also took in one hell of a view. The cannon and turrets pointed out over the impossibly perfect sea. The beaches and the cliffs looked like a skilled sculptor had formed them. I have to confess I was taken aback. Dubrovnik really does befit the word scenic.

Heading around the last quarter of wall left to walk, I was inundated by everything around me. I smiled. Maybe it was okay to be in a beautiful place and just enjoy it. Maybe I didn’t really need the mild thrill of haggling with a cab driver or finding that dive with the great food. Maybe I can learn to love my time in the postcard.

While I stood, bathing in perspiration and euphoria, I saw it instantly appear in view. A white shape divebombed just two feet above and dropped a wet, hot load on the top of my head. It was a hit that would make a fighter pilot blush. Obviously startled, I assessed the damage. It felt gritty.

WHAT: a heap of pan-fried ocean goodness
WHEN: June 9, 2012
WHERE: Dubrovnik, Croatia

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