Our Adriatic Journey (a personal essay)

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Day 1: Late Evening, Dubrovnik

So here we are in Dubrovnik, Croatia – “Pearl of the Adriatic”. We just got off our last plane after 26 hours of total travel time from the West coast. Our group consisted of 6 women, 4 of them teenagers including my daughter Jackie. Upon arrival, we finally are able to get rid of our travel clothes and almost immediately we jumped into the dark, warm waters of the Adriatic sea. Magical walled city – Dubrovnik is glistening near by, but we are just too busy, swimming in the warm sea. We are finally here to enjoy our 7 days in Croatia, a country that most Americans cannot locate on the world map. An unfortunate sad reality.

As we began swimming our pains of the long journey and a jet leg were melted away. Then suddenly I heard voices of nearby swimmers speaking Russian, which happens to be my native tongue. Being nosy by nature, I listened in, swam up closer to them and momentarily joined the conversation. To my surprise, those 3 young men – a Russian, an Armenian and a German happen to be Laureates of 2007 Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow. Those talented men were invited by the city of Dubrovnik to open up its 58th International Summer Festival that was starting the next day.

After chatting with the boys and promising attend their first performance, we parted as if we were old friends. Unfortunately, my usual matchmaking did not really work as I tried for the girls. A few days into our vacation, one of the girls would sadly point it out by saying to others: "you know, the only guys we met on this trip were those 3 your Mom introduced us to”. But that’s another story.

Day 2

Every morning we had the luxury of waking up in our spacious 3 bedroom, 2 balcony with only 1 bathroom apartment! The worst part was that there was no elevator, but 152 steps to climb up and down. By the way, I found the apartment online which is something I do not like to do, but owner’s wife name made me look at it – her name the same as my daughter’s – Jackie, made the sale.

Jackie and her husband Ivo (a native of Dubrovnik) fulfilled their dream of retiring at 50 and moving from Sacramento to Dubrovnik. Oh yes, that could be my dream as well…

Today Ivo took us sailing on his 47 foot yacht. It was a nice full day of doing absolutely nothing other than swimming, sunbathing, eating and drinking, taking great photos while sailing by numerous islands and even a bit of fishing. We took a super long swim to the island of Lopud, ah the water was amazing.

Later that evening we returned to the apartment, and started getting ready for an event we were not invited to - the Opening Night of the Festival , “Libertas’58”. We were dressed to impress, walking through crowds of people, who were in no rush to see the ceremony for some odd reason. Little did we know that it was by invitation Only. When we found it out, we still did not give up that easily. At first it seemed like there was no way to get in, and all the gates were sealed since the President of Croatia was scheduled to attend the event. Then suddenly I noticed a building in the middle of the square, that looked abandoned, so I sent Jackie upstairs to check it out. You are probably wondering why I didn’t go upstairs instead… Well, by this time my legs endured 600 to 900 steps per day and I felt like even 10 more steps might finish up the job and kill me right there and then. So a few minutes later, Jackie runs back happy, pointing at the door on the third floor with a forgotten key inside it. Here we were in an empty office with a perfect view into the Festival’s procession. How lucky could we get?!

We were so excited; imagine that – we managed to get the best seats in the house – overseeing the whole magical event below. The main square was filled with singing and dancing performers, there were fireworks, marking the beginning of the festival. For the next 45 days, classical music, dance, and all sorts of performances were found all over Dubrovnik. The city was full of life, happy young people were everywhere, music came from every corner on the streets and, from every café and bar. We are walking around looking for the best place to stay, and listen to some live music. We finally found the famous “Troubadour Hard Jazz Café”, overlooking onto the Cathedral. It was a near-perfect experience indeed! We did not return to our place until 3 in the morning, walking all the way home made us realize how safe this city really was. The crowds are so well-behaved, everyone looked like a local here, barely any tourists and no police in site.

Day 3

There was no running today, well, we just can’t run anymore. We barely are able to walk up and down those stairs, to be precise 600 to 900 stairs per day. But, what a magical view we have from our balcony, it sits up here overlooking the whole city below. The Old city of Dubrovnik - World Heritage site is sitting in the middle of the crystal clear blue sea. Almost two kilometers in length, Dubrovnik’s city walls are among the best-preserved on this planet, and a walk along them is an absolute must.

The island of Lokrum, can be seen right from our balcony. According to a legend, Richard the Lionheart was cast ashore here after being shipwrecked in 1192 while returning from the Crusades.

Later in the day, we headed down to the city market to purchase some local grown fruits, vegetables and cheeses that are sold every morning in the main square. Everything is so tasty, so we spent the day at the beach, lounging under giant umbrellas and swimming. Our teenagers finally joined us at the beach after a whole night of partying (bars close there at 6am). My daughter takes her Canon and a tripod, she packed in her suitcase without my knowledge. By the way, she was stopped at every security point because of it. So, she is off for great picture taking experience – this part of the world is a photographer’s paradise.

Here it is – the first night of the Festival, and we set off to see our new friends perform with the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra inside an impressive 13th century Rector Palace. The palace is a museum now, with a beautiful courtyard for recitals and classical concerts. The concert was sold out! What? Ok, so we buy standing room only seats, and we end up sitting in the 3rd row! Wow, how lucky can you get ?!

Our young musicians lead the orchestra into some amazing musical pieces by Tchaikovsky, but Ben Moser – a German pianist took me by surprise with his Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. It sent chills up and down my whole body. His performance just threw me off balance, and made me run to him after the concert to thank him.

Oh, what a magical night it was, we walked on cobblestone streets for many hours, watching people everywhere enjoying themselves. I wish there were words to express how I felt that night. The whole night we felt very safe, happy, surrounded by smiling, polite, genuine people. The air smelled of sea mixed with blooming flowers and fresh seafood being cooked at every restaurant. A little about the food: every restaurant has a display tray of fresh fish, and you can point which dish you would like to be cooked for your dining pleasure. I prefer local caught mussels – a local specialty, presented in the large pot steaming hot. Yummy! Another southern specialty is the local grown olives, as a result, the olive oil is superb here and it is so good for your digestive system.

Local wines are very good, too. It seems like every city in Croatia and even some populated islands produce their own wines they are proud of, and, to tell you the truth, they should be!!! Even local beer is very tasty. I think Croatian people know the secret to happiness, they know how to enjoy life after everything they’ve been through.

Day 4: Montenegro

After seeing James Bond “Casino Royal” – I just had to see if that amazing scenery in the film actually existed. The movie was shot on location in Montenegro, so I decided to check it out.

We were in good hands that day, we had 2 private guides – Ivo and Bojo. First we stopped to pick up Ivo at his house in the Konavle valley, a major wine region 50 minutes outside of Dubrovnik. It was a very pretty area surrounded by green lush hills on the border with Montenegro.

We stopped at the walled city of Kotor, the best preserved 13 century old town, an UNESCO World Heritage site. We then drove along the Bay of Kotor coast, the only fjords in southern Europe. The drive was jaw-droopingly beautiful, and we parked and hopped out to admire the hundreds of little islands in the glistening waters. Just by standing there, you could feel the presence of the people before us, who used to live in these ancient buildings. Each island had it’s own distinctive features. Some were decorated with monasteries, churches and others had fortresses around them making each one unique and equally breathtaking.

An Island of note was Sv. Stefan island, it is a walled city in the middle of the sea which is connected to the mainland by a thin road. We couldn’t stop taking photos, too bad we weren’t able to go on it since some big shot just purchased the whole island with a city on it!!! The city was closed due to remodeling – how rude!!! Then set off to our final destination Montenegro, Budva – another UNESCO World Heritage 2,000 years old city the oldest one in Balkans.

Day 5

We finally take a short ferry ride to the island of Lokrum, the one we could see from our balcony. The beauty of it just blew our minds, it has a Botanical Garden with some rare plants brought from Australia and South Africa, plus was a home to Benedictines Abbey and Monastery from 11th century, and a Fortress built later by the French.

There is a tiny saltwater lake called Mertvo More (Dead Sea) which is said to have healing powers. Lokrum now is a Nature Reserve covered by thick pine forests. Various animals make Lokrum its home, like peacocks that are not afraid of people, and will gladly eat from your hands. We swam so much that we almost missed the last ferry back to Dubrovnik. While in the water we suddenly realized that we weren’t ready to leave this heavenly place, 7 days is definitely not enough to see it all.

Day 6

We set off to the island Korcula, the birthplace of the famous world traveler Marco Polo. We drove about an hour than we take a ferry to Korcula – another perfectly preserved city inside its walls. This picture perfect island-city with its narrow streets and a long lazy dinner right at the foot of Adriatic made us forget time.

We indulged in more wine, more beer, more mussels, and the biggest lobster I’ve ever seen just starring at us from the restaurant’s display tray. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was hoping we would miss our ferry this day, and miss our plane next day and just get lost on this island for sometime. Well, maybe, one day…

I realized why our experience in Croatia was so enormous – there were practically no tourists!!!

Croatia will be discovered pretty soon. All major cruise ships just recently started to make Dubrovnik its regular stop. But five hour stop is way too short to be able to see anything worthwhile, plus ships are gone by 5pm and the main attraction – the Festival that lasts from July 10 to August 25 only starts in the late evening and is not to be missed.

Day 7

We packed our bags and set off to our favorite island Lokrum. Another magic day of swimming, snorkeling and some topless sunbathing before our journey back. Our plan to extend our trip simply did not work, but I know I will be back very soon. Every morning I wake up here in our beautiful San Diego and this picture flashes in my mind of that view we had from our balcony overlooking Paradise below…

July, 2007 San Diego,

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