On assignment in Croatia, Wanderlust reader Colin Baird ponders how to escape the cruise ship day-trippers
It was swarmed on Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main drag. The noise, chaos and ice-cream-licking hordes were getting to me. I took a sharp left up a narrow street and immediately there was peace, birdsong and something very different to the world of fridge magnets, ATMs and umbrella-waving guides behind me.
I ascended steep stairs lined with potted plants that gave the impression I was in a jungle-clad botanical garden. Dubrovnik residents live in such tight confines that street and garden becomes one and the same.
As I continued upwards, I glanced through an open door to see a collection of mandolins hung on a coat rail. A cat lay fast asleep on a window ledge, oblivious to its precarious position. A nearby ledge was home to a humongous jar of black olives.
I could not resist nosing through an open gate and was surprised to discover a state-of-the-art basketball court, of all things. Crockery clattering and the smell of something fishy signalled that lunch was being prepared.
Around 1,000 people call the Old Town home, and this display of real life – just metres from mass tourism – is what makes Dubrovnik unique.
‘Beautiful’ and ‘pavement’ are not two words you would normally put together, but Stradun is the exception. By late afternoon, the day-trippers had dispersed so that I could return from the backstreets and have a clear view of the shiny limestone that makes this street unusual. I could not take my eyes off the paving, mesmerised by the dazzle and addicted to the sensation of sliding my shoes across the smooth surface.
Where does this shine come from? I assumed an army of city workers tasked with out-of-hours polishing; in fact it is me who makes Stradun like this. And everyone else who has ever walked here since the 12th century; historical footwork has caressed the stone into a sparkle. For an idea of what the limestone was like before this happened, all you have to do is look up at the buildings, because it is all the same stone quarried from Croatia’s famous islands.
When the sun sets, the little lanterns along Stradun create warmth when gloomy street lights are the norm elsewhere. This is the time that locals come out for a stroll or go for a meal.
I ate black risotto, a Dubrovnik favourite made with squid ink. Ivana, a local guide, told me it was “just like my mum makes it” and explained that locals enjoyed the restaurants and cultural life just as much as the tourists.
There are posters for string quartets in Saint Saviour’s Church and Ivana talked excitedly about the Summer Festival that has music, performances and even Hamlet performed in Fort Lovrijenac.
It was clear to me that there was much that made Dubrovnik a unique place. You too can discover this on a visit; just make sure to begin with a sharp left.
Colin Baird travelled to Dubrovnik with Wanderlust Journeys.