After our time around the Mediterranean and up in Sweden, we’re off to Eastern Europe. First stop, Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia and a city we last visited in 2013 near the start of this adventure. Back then we stayed a bit away from the center of the city so we could stay at a resort on the beach; we would spend the day at the beach then walk into the city for dinner and some night life. This time was completely different. We stayed right in the center of the city, right in the old town … and spent the day at the beach, coming in for lunch and dinner.
First, though, we had to leave Stockholm. Two things stood out for me. First, it was a rare event when we had to exchange our currency. Usually we use the last of any currency (except euros, since we’re always coming back to Europe) either on the hotel bill or at a Duty Free shop in the airport. Our hotel was pre-paid, but we didn’t think that was a problem: if we’re leaving a country and need to get rid of the local currency we can always buy a bottle of booze at the airport. Not so this time, though. Because Sweden and Croatia are both in the European Union we couldn’t buy duty-free stuff. So we had to pay those outrageous fees – about 20 percent in this case – to get rid of our Swedish Krona. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened but you’d be surprised how rarely we have to do that.And then there’s the strange case of the train from downtown Sweden to the airport. It’s surprisingly expensive, even in a country where everything is surprisingly expensive; the round-trip ticket runs about $67, so $134 for the two of us. At the same time it’s wonderfully fast and comfortable; it runs on dedicated tracks so there are no delays. What’s weird though is that for all the cost that went into building the system, the process of validating tickets is amusing: the ticket person comes by, looks at your ticket, and marks a big X on it in ink. If it’s a round-trip ticket, he or she just X’s it out a second time. Just strange. It all worked fine and quickly we were on a Norwegian Airlines flight (great airline!) to Dubrovnik.
This was just a quick stop before we head inland to explore some of the former Yugoslav Republics along with (probably) Romania and perhaps even Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. It was going to be a two-day stop but thankfully we added a third day when our friends Marc & David decided to join us for the start of this Eastern European swing.
A couple things about Dubrovnik stand out. One, it’s expensive. I remember back in the mid-1990s maybe, after the war with Serbia, adventurous friends would go to Croatia and come back just agog at how beautiful and cheap it was. Well, it’s still beautiful but 20 or 25 years of tourist activity sure ended that cheap part.
A quick aside about the war. After the Yugoslavian strong-man Marshal Tito died in 1980, smart observers of the Balkans suspected that Yugoslavia – a federation of Slavic states – was not long for the world. And sure enough in 1991, after a decade of tension and as the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, Croatia and Slovenia both declared independence. Serbia, the biggest player in what was then still Yugoslavia, attacked.
I won’t detail the whole war here – there’ll be plenty of time for that in Bosnia and Serbia – but one part stands out. Back in the 1970s the old town of Dubrovnik, the pride of all Croatians, was de-militarized so that it would never becoming a casualty of war. How do you think that worked? Yup, Serbia saw an undefended city and attacked it. The new Croatian government quickly sent in troops and Serbia was left with an ultimately failed – though still destructive and deadly – seven-month siege.
The moral of the story here is that unilateral disarmament didn’t, in fact, protect Dubrovnik as many of us naive peace-types in the 1970s might have hoped. Of course, Muammar Gaddafi could tell you how well his decision to give up his nuclear weapons program worked, except he was executed after he did that. Or we could ask the Ukrainians how it worked when they voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons – nearly half of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was in Ukraine – when they became independent. They ceded the weapons to Russia with a guarantee – a guarantee mind you – that the U.K., the U.S., and Russia would defend them if anyone ever attacked. That didn’t work out so well, either, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded southern Ukraine and we (probably wisely) just stood by. Kind of explains why Kim Jong-un seems unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons in North Korea, huh?
OK, back to Dubrovnik. Expensive, crowded, and still beautiful. The old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may be the most amazingly preserved old city in all of Europe. The old walls and some of the stairways are so wonderfully preserved that they are favored filming sites for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Amusingly, when we checked into our hotel the woman at the registration desk was going to highlight for us the most important filming locations. Because we’ve never seen Game of Thrones we told her not to bother. But that got us thinking: everybody else does; maybe we should watch it. So Mark bought a short-term HBO plan and we’ve watched the first two episodes. We’re a few years behind everyone else, but so far we’re enjoying it. Maybe.
I keep getting side tracked. Dubrovnik. What did we do? Pretty much went to the beach, came in for meals, visited with Marc & David. The city is beautiful, but it’s crazy crowded and I just don’t like fighting my way through those crowds. On top of that it was crazy hot, up around 100 degrees by mid-day. The beach was crowded, too, but our hotel either owns or has a licensing agreement with the company that rents out chairs and umbrellas so we got those for free. And since I’m an early bird I’d get to the beach early, stake out some nice chairs, and settle in for the day. Eventually Mark & Marc & David would come down and we’d swim and read and go eat and come back and swim and read. And then get cleaned up for dinner.
That was it: a short stay in a beautiful city with a close beach on the Adriatic coast. Now off to real adventure in Bosnia!