There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say there isn’t.
There was a war. I kept repeating it to myself as I walked around the Old City, head on a swivel, mind saying it like I was singing the Leonard Cohen song. At some point I began inwardly singing that song.
Well I live here with a woman and a child,
the situation makes me kind of nervous.
As I rise up from her arms, she says “I guess you call this love.
I call it service.” – Leonard Cohen
There was a war in Dubrovnik, not so long ago. We entered through the Old Town’s Pile City Gate, no doubt as mesmerized as everyone before us at the three-story, towering wooden doors, existing in the shadow of two enormous forts.
We would wander into amazing meals, from spicy chicken tacos and a charcuterie plate at Azur – a welcome change from the rotation of Adriatic seafood – to Octopus Gnocchi at the rooftop terrace at Priejto Palace Hotel’s Stara Loza.
There was a war in 1991. Nirvana released Nevermind that year. Thelma & Louise hit the theaters. In Dubrovnik, the bombs started falling in earnest.
“We never thought it would come here. And then it did,” one woman offered up.
“I lived in a hotel for five years, bathed only in the sea. There were eight of us in that one room with no water, no electricity.” This from Sandra Milovčević of the Dubrovnik tourism board, as she tore bread off a roll casually, her red manicured nails perfect. The tablecloth beneath our wrists was a fresh one, since the cruise ship tourists before us spilled a droplet of coffee.
Everything here is perfection. This town feels like the movie set that it so often is, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine war, what with the sunshine pouring over your shoulders like warm oil … with something as frivolous as Octopus Gnocchi being offered up on a stark white menu with raised Helvetica font. In fact, Dubrovnik’s perfection might be almost Gwyneth-Paltrow-frustrating, if it weren’t so hard earned.
I can’t go somewhere and not be curious. It’s the reason I’ve come – my curiosity. I posed quiet questions when I felt it was appropriate, and mostly people seemed eager to expound on their experiences in the conflict.
“I was just a kid,” our tour guide Ivan, of Dubrovnik Tourist Guides, offered. “When you’re a kid, it can be scary, but it also just has this strange level of excitement.”
We’d stopped in D’Vino wine bar for our first sips of Dingac – a local red grape we’d drink to hefty hangovers the following morning.
“I would pick up bullet casings and bring them home, and my mother would go nuts,” he laughed, climbing up the charming thin alleyway, flanked with vibrant potted plants. “I can understand it now, of course, but as a kid, it’s just exciting at times and you don’t understand. In Serajevo, it was another story. Out of the 10 kids I knew there, only 3 are left alive.”
He took us to Buza Bar, a not-so-secret watering hole with the best views of Lokrum Island. You reach it just past the large staircase where Game of Thrones filmed the infamous “Shame” scene.
We sat on natural rock outcrops off the city walls and listened to the sea splash against the sides. Two days later, we’d kayak all the way around Lokrum on a very windy day. It would be my first real exertion in a trip built on carbohydrates, rich pasta sauces and the only weight lifting comprised of carrying a Nikon and two extra lenses.
On that afternoon, we rocked gently, holding on to each others kayaks to form a pod for our impromptu history lesson. As the cold sea swirled in around my shorts, licking my legs while my nose soaked up the heat of the cloudless sky, our guide ran through the countless times the city has been invaded as quickly as you’d rail off a grocery list.
“The war was a very complicated thing,” he said. “No one can explain it in a day. Or a week, even,” he laughed casually. “But it’s over now, and you have Serbians, Bosnians, Croatians, Muslims and Christians living side-by-side again. In this city, you’ll see a Serbian restaurant, when maybe that would have seemed impossible just 20 years ago.”
There’s something undeniably impossible and very happy about Dubrovnik. The history here is so rich, it’s like that Octopus Gnocchi I just couldn’t finish, no matter how good it was. No matter how badly I wanted not to leave it.
I didn’t want to leave the town either. I could have stayed and soaked up the olive oil, the sun and the calories for weeks, questioning the conflicts from the safety of two decades in the future over a cold glass of rosé wine.
Where to Stay:
Villa Orsula – Built in 1939 as the home of a noble family, it was converted into a boutique hotel with only 13 rooms in 2012. The hotel’s Royal Apartment Suite is an 800 square-foot, private-access villa within the villa. It offers one of the best views of the Old City thanks to the gorgeous, original stone archway that leads to an expansive stone balcony facing the Old City across the sea. $$$$
Hotel Bellevue – The rooms here are nice, small suites with balconies that look down over a private, rocky sand beach. Really nice price point, especially for families who need some extra space in a hotel room and want to be close to Old Town but also outside enough to be less hectic. The hotel also has great restaurant options, an indoor pool and a hot tub. Sneak a peek of our room view on my Instagram. $$
The Prijeko Palace – I didn’t stay here, but I did eat here twice at their rooftop restaurant called Stara Loza. I peeked into a room and definitely decided if I ever come back, I’m spending at least a night here. The entire hotel is jammed full of art, from crazy chandeliers to bright, colorful rugs to actual art – sculptures and photographs and paintings – hanging from every surface. $$$
Where to Eat/Drink:
Stara Loza – for a rooftop view that wows just as much as the incredible food. I ate here twice in a week. Get the Octopus Gnocchi, the Lamb Rack and the Stracciattela. Come right at sunset too for a floorshow of Dubrovnik’s famous swallows flying kamikaze missions around the tile rooftops.
Azur – al fresco down a quiet side alley in Old Town, and great spicy chicken tacos. It’s particularly welcome if you’ve been eating seafood or pasta for 10 days.
Buza Bar – for an afternoon beer in one of the coolest bar settings on the planet.
Victoria – This is the restaurant at Villa Orsula. Head there before sunset and snag an outdoor table on the stone terrace. You sit beneath grapevines, looking out over the sea back towards Old Town, all lit up at night. The menu is Peruvian-meets-Adriatic and it’s some of the best tuna I’ve ever eaten.
Konoba Dubrava – If you eat anywhere in town, eat here. Order the Lamb Under the Iron Bell. Then order several rounds of Rakia shots. The atmosphere is crazy fun and laid-back. This includes communal tables, rustic charm, cold local beer, singing waitstaff, dancing guests and generally loud pounding of the tables.