A Trip To The Balkans Part Five
by Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor
Normally we prefer the older parts of a city when we pick a place to stay. But we chose the modern Hotel Adria on the road above Dubrovnik rather than deal with narrow streets and parking our rental car.
And it turned out really well. Our room and its small terrace looked over the port of Dubrovnik, with the old walled city behind us to the south.
The port was a long way down, as we learned when we asked the desk for walking directions. The clerk sent us to a stone stairway a block from the hotel and we began a steep downward climb that must have taken us a quarter of a mile.
We got to the bottom and renewed our supply of Croatian kuna at a cash machine, and found a taxi to take us to the old city.
We have visited walled cities in Europe and expected to find ourselves in the middle of a tourist scrum. But Dubrovnik has an extra special lure that makes it even more popular than other destinations, especially for the selfie crowd. That’s the “Game of Thrones” factor.
Trip Advisor has a special page for tours.
So you can imagine.
Crowds on foot poured in and out of the main gate, the western entrance to the long Stradun, the main drag of the old city. Tour groups followed bright signal flags held high on sticks. Straight ahead, three football fields away, stood the 15th century bell tower marking the street’s eastern end.
We headed in that direction and toward a restaurant at the edge of the old port.
We wanted a late lunch and something cold to drink. The many Asian tourists we saw — it seemed to be their summer for visiting the Balkans — fanned themselves in the heat. It had gotten so hot that we and other sightseers hugged the edges of the buildings hoping to find some shade.
At the old port small boats bobbed at their moorings, ferries shuttled in and out, and tour boats boarded passengers who wanted to look at Dubrovnik from the water.
We sat down at one of Lokanda Peskarija’s umbrellaed tables and when a waiter came Nick practically begged him for a cold beer.
It was just what the doctor ordered to complement Nick’s octopus salad. Barbara drank water and lots of it since her order of small fried whitebait came in a supersize portion. While we ate, we watched another Asian tour group line up to board a boat. One woman upped the ante in her quest to beat the heat, training a battery-powered fan on her perspiring face. She probably could have sold the breeze by the minute to any passer-by.
A Romanian family sat at the table beside us and ordered a platter of fish. They seemed surprised when we told them we had seen quite a bit of their country. We explained that one of Barbara’s grandfathers came from Romania and we had traveled it from Oradea in the west to Iasi in the east. The grandfather as a boy had sung at the “Great Synagogue” in Iasi, a two-day cart ride from his family’s remote village, which we also visited.
“Did you like our country?” the man asked. And smiled with delight when we said we really did.
Then we joined the other tourists and began to wander around the old city. And yes, some of those “Game of Thrones” locales made our list. The Rector’s Palace — now Dubrovnik’s Cultural History Museum — was a palace in Qarth. That was right near the old port.
We did try to take the streets less traveled and climbed the narrowest ones where people actually lived.
Since we live in Greenwich Village in New York City, we understand what it feels like to live in a place that has tourists wandering around.
We walked through a square to the steps where in “Game of Thrones” the evil Cersei Lannister was forced to make her naked walk of shame.
And then we kept climbing. But we stopped short of the top of the battlements. We told ourselves that we had climbed enough, but the truth is we realized the access points were too far away.
We wandered out to the entrance to the Old City and found a taxi back to the hotel, kicked back on the little terrace outside our room and had the pleasure of watching the sun set over Dubrovnik.
For dinner we chose the J K Orsan — the Yacht Club Orsan — at our end of Dubrovnik across from the cruise ship docks.
A big part of its appeal lay in its open seating next to the water.
This time we decided to keep the bubbly flowing and ordered a bottle of prosecco to wash down the local oysters we started with.
They were small and sweet, giving the lie to the old myth that it’s only safe to order oysters in months with the letter “r” — that is, the generally colder months. But we’ve learned from sites like the University of Georgia’s Safe Oysters that’s a myth. Researchers do warn that people with existing medical conditions should avoid eating raw oysters. But at the moment, that’s not us.
The waiter brought a bonus appetizer of tuna pate adorned with a small shrimp and an anchovy, and then the grilled sea bass filets we’d both ordered. And a dessert of orange chocolate cake was too tempting to resist. If we get back to Dubrovnik to walk the old city’s walls, we’ll revisit this restaurant, too.
In the morning, the Adria’s spacious breakfast room gave us our final view of Dubrovnik’s harbor and its peninsula jutting into the sea.
It also gave us a birds’-eye view of buildings damaged when the Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins attacked Dubrovnik during the 1990s Balkans war because Croatia had declared its independence.
Each of the taxi drivers we rode with talked with bitterness about the siege of Dubrovnik like it was yesterday. “It lasted six months. Six months of hell,” said the driver who took us to restaurant. “Can you imagine? They bombed the old city.”
High rise buildings, here as in Sarajevo and Mostar still show the scars of the bombardment.
After breakfast, we piled into our little red car again and headed along the coast to Split and a ferry to take us to the island of Brac.
This part of the vacation was all about sun, sea and sand.
Our plans for Split had changed inadvertently and, as it turned out, happily. Barbara was locking up her bike one day when two men came down the street and started chatting her up. One was Bob Bozic, who said he lived in Serbia,
and the other,
filmmaker Dusan Sekulovic, said he too was Serbian but lived in New York and was making a documentary about Bozic.
“Oh. We plan to go to the Balkans soon,” Barbara said, and the conversation warmed up.
Bozic, a natural raconteur, explained that he lived in the U.S. for a long time and had worked as a bartender at Fanelli’s Cafe on Prince Street in Soho, but went back to Serbia to reclaim his father’s home in Belgrade. His father, an engineer, had invented the air brake and his 22-room mansion was confiscated by the communists in 1946. The family fled to Canada, where Bob was born. Bob’s story goes on and on in a fascinating way. For example, he was a professional boxer and fought Larry Holmes in 1977. A couple of days after the conversation on the street, her in-box pinged and she found photos Bob sent of him and Larry Holmes and of him and Holmes with Dusan.
We learned more details later, but on the street Bob asked for a rundown of where we planned to go on our trip. When Barbara mentioned Split on the Croatian coast, he said, “Go to the island of Brac. Stay at Dusan’s mother’s cottage on the sea.”
“Really?” Barbara asked.
Dusan, who had been shooting video during the conversation, said enthusiastically, “Yes. my mother rents out a cottage on Brac in Sutivan. It’s beautiful. You’ll love it.”
Then Dusan explained that his father, a Serbian, renounced his Serbian citizenship in the 1990s in order to keep his property on the Croatian island.
So Barbara exchanged emails with them and as we continued to mull over the idea, Dusan wrote, “Split is hot and sticky. Why not stay on Brac?”
His mother’s place was booked, but he said she’d ask around. Pretty soon, we had information about another place on Brac. While it wasn’t on the Adriatic it came with a terrace overlooking the sea.
So from Dubrovnik we headed to Split to drop off our little red rental car at Hertz and board a ferry to Brac.
The coast road north gave us a view of Adriatic islands in the brilliant sun. Suddenly traffic slowed and then stopped and we came upon yet another border crossing.
We hadn’t realized that a tiny patch of Bosnia and Herzegovina divides mainland Croatia at the coast between Dubrovnik and Split. So we crawled through the Croatian exit point and into Bosnia, sped 20 kilometers (12 miles) past the cluster of beachside hotels at Neum,
then slowed again to exit Bosnia and re-enter Croatia.
Soon a smooth four-lane opened up before us, and the speed limits rose to 120 and 130 kph.
At that rate we entered Split in about an hour. We thought we could find the Hertz office and Google Maps indicated it was down at the harbor. It wasn’t, at least near the ferry docks where we were.
But buses, taxis, vans and cars zipped around there dropping off and picking up and it felt like traffic madness. Nick pulled over, while Barbara went to the tourist office.
The representative told Barbara it was on the other side of the harbor, but we couldn’t drive directly there because of a pedestrian walkway. You had to go around and through a tunnel, “You’ll never find it,” he said and that was all Barbara had to hear.
She stood in the street and directed traffic while Nick turned around. It took a couple of wrong turns in the hills around Split, but we found the tunnel and the Hertz office and said goodbye to little red.
If you plan to rent a car in the Balkans, by the way, it’s worth knowing that if you rent in one country and return in another, the drop-off fee might be exorbitant. Renting in Zagreb and returning in Split, both Croatian cities, meant a 100 euro drop-off charge, but if we’d rented in Slovenia and returned in Croatia, Hertz would have added 500 euros to our bill.
Two round-trip tickets on a Jadroliniya ferry to Supetar on Brac cost 122 kuna, the equivalent of less than twenty dollars.
We walked on board and rode an escalator to the lounge deck, where we found seats along with couples and families with small children.
Ferries sailed from Split to several of the offshore islands and even across the Adriatic to Ancona on Italy’s east coast.
Supetar was one of the closer destinations. This Google map gives you a good idea of the coast of Split and its relationship to Brac.
We watched through a salt-stained window as the big ferry closed the distance. It bumped into the dock, the car ramp dropped, and we threaded our way through the cars onto the shore.
Several taxi drivers waited, and we caught Leo Zuvic’s eye. As we rode the eight kilometers from Supetar, the main town, to Sutivan, Leo told us that he drove as a sideline. “I’m lucky. I do something I love,” he said. “I grow olives on my property and sell them.” He proudly explained that most of the olives in Croatia came from Brac. And that we would see olive trees everywhere we went.
We were in Sutivan in less than fifteen minutes, and Leo found our destination on a narrow street leading down toward the town harbor.
We opened the wooden door in the high wall and found Enza Montalbano waiting just inside. She told us almost right away that she had married a Serb. But during the 1990s war the Croatian government, as it had Dusan’s family, made them renounce their Serbian citizenship in order to hold on to their 150-year-old house on Sutivan.
As a widow, she rented out three apartments in the house to friends of the family and connected tourists like us. She was a good friend of Dusan’s mom.
Enza led us up to an apartment that took up the whole top floor, with a kitchen and bathroom at one end and a bedroom and sitting area at the other. An air conditioner hummed on a wall in the middle. Outside on a small awning-shaded terrace, you could see over the rooftops to the water and beyond to Split on the far shore.
We settled in quickly and went out to take a look around. The pre-Greek Illyrians lived on Brac before Christians settled in Sutivan in the 6th century and built a church.
Like many place in the Adriatic, it became coveted territory for the Romans, the Venetians, Napoleon
and the Austrians who all fought over it, conquered it and passed it along.
Italians occupied the island in 1941 and locals formed a resistance. After Italy surrendered, Germans invaded. And then in 1945, as part of Croatia, it folded into Yugoslavia. The 1990s Balkan war barely touched the island but tourism declined.
That’s turning around now. In Sutivan, with fewer than 800 permanent residents, we saw evidence of that with old houses renting rooms
and new homes and rental units going up.
By seven in the evening prosecco topped our to-do list. We walked down the hill, two minutes away, to where the cars stopped in front a small farmer’s market
and walked across a tree-lined pedestrian zone that led to town center and the water.
We came out on one side of Sutivan’s small harbor, a U with small boats rocking at their moorings and, on our side, tables and chairs at the water’s edge. We drank our prosecco and watched children across the harbor do cartwheels and back flips in a trampoline cage.
As darkness fell, a sailing yacht motored in and tied up side-to just inside the harbor mouth.
For dinner, Enza had recommended Restoran Dora right around the corner from her house. So we went back up the hill and entered the restaurant’s outdoor garden.
The menu offered meat and fish but we stuck with seafood. We started with fried calamari and then grilled mackerel for Nick and risotto with mussels for Barbara, accompanied by beautiful ripe tomato slices and the local white wine brought by our waitress Maya.
In the morning we returned to the harbor and passed dockside tables of the five-star Hotel LemonGarden.
We decided to skip their breakfast for 35 euros. Instead, we followed the locals. We bought pastry and rolls at the tiny bakery and brought them almost next door to the Marina Club where they served coffee and didn’t mind if you brought your own breakfast.
Enza’s daughter Ivana had done the emailing with Barbara before our visit and she recommended we see Ivan, who had boats to rent in the harbor.
He also had a larger boat that he or colleagues captained to take you around the island and to smaller spots for lunch and swimming. The 500 euro price made sense for a larger group, but not for just the two of us.
We wanted to rent one of the smaller boats to go out by ourselves. But it was too windy on the two days we tried.
So we put on bathing suits, loaded up a bag with towels and gummy swim shoes, and headed for the beach.
Sutivan has quite a few beaches we could walk to. We went north on a paved road along the water and found a spot with a tree-shaded low wall between the road and the beach where we could spread out. We put on our jelly shoes and teetered over the beach of smooth rocks to the water and slid in. It was clear, cool, and refreshing.
Barbara began chatting two women in the water. Alexa explained, using her fourteen-year-old daughter Nicole as an interpreter, that she was originally from Kyrgyzstan. She left, she said, “because they don’t like Muslims there.” She lived in Germany where Alexa was born. When they came out of the water, it turned out there space on the wall was next to ours.
They said they came to Sutivan every year because a friend had rented an apartment there. They recommended we try a restaurant for lunch that was farther up the road just outside of a forest.
We took their advice and followed the road to an outdoor bar-restaurant with a great view.
We enjoyed a simple lunch of grilled chicken and fries for Barbara and a beer and octopus salad for Nick.
and then walked back.
In the evening, we dipped down to the harbor again to watch the sun fade away.
We looked at other restaurants and the food all seemed the same as Restauran Dora without the pleasant garden. So we went back. We chatted up Maya and learned that most of the customers at the restaurant, a lot in big family groups, were from Northern Europe. “Many come from Scandinavia and the UK too,” she said. “They come back every year.”
The next morning, we followed the locals to the bakery again and sat down at the Marina Club.
Then we rented bikes and rode up past the beach where we went swimming yesterday, past our lunch stop and up the hill on a dirt road into the trees. It was tough pedaling because the ruts were deep.
We passed openings in the forest and rocky seashores with beaches in between. We came to what looked like the last one, locked our bikes to a gate, and went looking for a shady spot close to the water.
The first thing we saw was a fat man reading a book, altogether nude, sprawled on his back on a beach towel. It perturbed him not at all when we walked by.
Two girls — they had clothes on — high up at the back of the beach huddled in the only shade in sight as they wove a hammock. That sent us in another direction, and soon we were picking our way through scattered pine trees above a rocky shore with a few places where you could climb into the water. We found trees a few feet apart and got comfortable.
Then we noticed, in the trees not 100 feet away, a couple lying on beach towels. They were nude, too. We’d blundered into a clothing optional zone.
We walked down along the rocks down to the water and slipped into the cool, refreshing and utterly clear water. After our swim, we scaled the rocky shore and wandered back into the shade of the trees.
The next thing I knew, Barbara had hung both pieces of her bathing suit on a limb and was absorbed in an e-book on her iPad. So I thought, what the hell?
Before long the other nude couple went back in the water and swam out in the direction of a passing kayaker.
We enjoyed the light filtering through the trees, the tranquility of the little haven we found, and lolled until we got hungry for lunch.
On the way back, we stopped at the bar-restaurant again and watched a sailboat idle in water off the rocky beach.
After we returned our bikes, we felt hot and sweaty and thought, Why not take a final swim? We went to the town’s main beach. And although the small pebbled beach and the cement wall weren’t all that pleasant, a swim in the Adriatic blocked it out almost completely.
By now, we felt as if we had visited Sutivan for years. So we followed our pattern and went back down to the harbor for prosecco.
It was Saturday night and Restoran Dora was packed. Even though we didn’t have a reservation, they promised they would hold a table for us in 30 minutes.
That gave us time to move the bags we packed down the stairs at Enza’s so we would have an easy getaway the next morning.
Half-an-hour later we went back to Restoran Dora where we had a prime table and the great service of Maya. We ordered grilled fish, the house wine and when we left, Maya said, “I’ll see you next year.”
Read about the trip to the beautiful Bay of Kotor and Kravice Waterfalls
Read about the trip to Sarajevo and Mostar
Read about the trip to Zagreb
Read about the trip to Slovenia, Ljubjlana and Bled