Of course, if I would title this post Croatia, it would just be a bit too easy. Dalmatia is much cooler, because it is a little less used and has a faint echo of dog to it. Yes, those spotty white dogs do come from this part of the world, originally. The bit with the 101 of them originates in England: a playwright by the name of Dodie Smith wrote the book, Disney turned it into a movie 5 years later. But back to Dalmatia. This week, the cruise ship I was on stopped there twice, first in Zadar, then in Dubrovnik. Zadar is a city as old as dirt, at least 2,900 years or so. They have ample old stuff to prove it too: there is a roman forum, the church of St. Donatus that is a cool 1,100+ years old and massive fortifications because a lot of people over the centuries have had their eye on Zadar. Alas, I did not see any of it, because I traveled by bus to the nearby Krka National Park which is know for some pretty impressive waterfalls. They are near the town of Skradin and the locals call them Skradinski buk. There, now you know that ‘buk’ is Croatian for waterfalls and the number of situations in which this knowledge will come in handy are legion. Water here flows over a series of travertine terraces and some very easy walking trails take you by a handful of historical structures, meticulously restored, and over, und and past myriad waterfalls. Best really to look at the pictures, they do the place much more justice that words can. Back in Zadar, there was just enough time to have a listen of the Morske Orgulie, a water organ designed by Croatian genius Nikola Bašić. He put 35 big pipes under a terrace at the waterfront and as the water moves in and out of the tubes, it creates some very random low whistles. Time was tight, but I could easily imagine sitting there for quite a while just letting the seas sing to you. It was beautiful. Bašić also created the roundish array of solar panels, which collect the light of the sun and gives it back during the evening and night in constantly changing colors. Two intrepid fellow travelers did stay behind in Zadar and we so kind to get me some bread, a bottle of Dalmatian red wine and three pieces of cheese from the Gligora cheese shop. And that can only mean one thing (wait for it….): week 15’s cheese had to be Paški Sir, the sheep cheese from the island of Paks, just off the Dalmatian coast.
Further down along that very same coast is Dubrovnik, probably the most visited city in Croatia by a wide margin. This is not just because it is such a popular cruise stop: Dubrovnik, with its massive medieval walls, its bright, wide and clean streets and its friendly people is a three dimensional postcard in many ways. Like other living and breathing cities, it has flaws and imperfections, but there are moments, such as on Easter Sunday when there was a stage with costumed dancers and musicians in front of the 16th century Sponza Palace, where you could be forgiven for thinking that you are actually in a really well done version of the EPCOT center – Dubrovnik is almost too perfect.
Across from the modest palace is the church of Sveti Vlaho, St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city, a very elegant baroque church and between them stands Orlando’s column, with a bigger-than-life-size statue of a medieval knight who, according to legend, defended the city against the Saracens. Of course he did no such thing, but that’s too long of a story for here. Orlando and France’s Roland are one and the same person and in the Middle Ages, Roland/ Orlando became sort of a generic brand name for heroes of all shapes and sizes. The column, along with the surrounding buildings and the bell tower at the end of Stradun, the main street in Dubrovnik is the heart of the city. Not far from here is Rozario, tucked away a little behind St. Nicholas’ church. It’s a small friendly restaurant that serves splendidly simple fresh food at prices that are more than reasonable. Must…eat…their…marinated anchovies…
A few blocks further away in a street that runs parallel to Stradun is the place where you can get all the souvenirs you could ever want to bring home from Dalmatia, including ties with Glagolitic letters (yes, I have one of these and I will surely wear it one day. I will. I really will….). The shop is called Medusa and they’ll take all the money you want to spend on the local economy – they really do a good job in marketing Croatia. Not to miss is the Franciscan monastery from 1317, which houses one of the oldest pharmacies in the world that still functions as one – it goes back to that same year. Once you’re here, near the Pile Gate, the huge fountain is a curious landmark, and you are also close to a set of stairs that afford access to the massive walls, which you can walk all the way around town. They charge an entrance fee, and it is somewhat of a workout, but not doing it once you have made it this far is like – well – think about things where you are almost there and then, you retreat. You will leave Dubrovnik and always wonder how much more exciting your visit would have been with a walk along the walls.
The harbor area, finally, is the best hangout in town. There is water everywhere, some teenagers jump into the azure waters from the rocks below the walls and there is a coming and going of small vessels, among them the tender boats of the large cruise ships. It is also the place to practice the most important word of the local language: sladoled. Ask for it, and ye shall miraculously receive ice cream. And the Croatians make some mean ice cream, just like their sheep cheese – more about that in another post.