Sunday, October 24, 2004

Sleepless in Dubrovnik

(July 2000)

Trust a bus load of Israelis to cause a traffic jam in a foreign city…well, it wasn’t really our fault; you see this truck pulled out in front of us and the bus driver just couldn’t resist trying to impress us by ignoring it. Sound familiar? So without doing anything, our group of 40 high-tech personnel and their spouses, significant others, lovers and friends, caused the biggest traffic jam ever seen in Dubrovnik. At least five cars were backed-up behind us and the locals came out to gawk.

But this wasn’t the only sensation we had caused that morning.

Our Israir jet’s arrival was the most significant event of the day at Dubrovnik airport an hour earlier. The only other aircraft parked on the airport apron were two aging prop jobs – looking suspiciously like surplus WWII Stuka dive bombers camoflagued in bright orange to resemble crop sprayers. Was this the Croatian airforce…?

And then one of our party had the audacity to loose her passport. In her frantic search for that valuable document, she tore apart her entire travel kit – it looked like three suitcases, two back packs, four carry bags, a handbag and her make-up bag: well, that’s what it looked like, strewn all around the arrivals hall. So all things considered, our arrival for three days of company “bonding” was off to an auspicious start. Thanks to an alert Israeli security guard, Barbara ‘s passport was found on the plane and the customs hall was returned to its stark splendour.

Back to the accident: with the crunch of a tourist bus hitting the back of a delivery van came the our inveitable expectation of a street fight between the drivrs – but… our driver, Drago, just sat in his seat, not moving, not blinking, hardly breathing, or so it seemed. The driver of the delivery van stood next his vehicle – no shouting, no threats or cursing each others’ grandmothers for seven generations. All we could hear was him muttering in broken English: “This bad – this very bad….” as he waited for the police to arrive.

One of our group decided that he was a frustrated traffic cop and got out to direct the traffic. He needn’t have bothered. A municipal bus, wishing to maintain its schedule squeezed around the corner between our tourist bus and the pavement, demonstrating that Croatian busses bend in the middle (we were to learn more about this amazing feat later in our tour). Not the articulated “autobusim arochim” which you can see snaking around Tel Aviv streets, with concertina-style middle bits. No, this was just a regular 30-year-old 40-seater with a very determined driver. He succeeded in his quest and went on his way.

Eventually the police arrived, presumably from Zagreb (some 2000 kms to the north), judging by the length of time it took and we were allowed to proceed to our hotel in a substitute bus. We never learnt what happened to Drago. Of course, the days of communism are over, so persumably he is not serving time in the Gulag…perhaps he was demoted to baggage carrier.

Our hotel was the grandest in Dubrovnik. A four star beauty by Croatian standards. Very clean, very flash…marble floor, glass entrance doors – a big banner welcoming us (it didn’t really matter that they had the name of our division wrong, it’s the thought that counts), a welcoming drink of canned orange juice. No, let’s not be cynical. They were very pleased to see us. And very polite, and very helpful. In fact the hotel was rather nice all round, except…well, there was something just slightly out-of-kilter about the whole place. Sort of: “What’s wrong with this picture?” The rooms were spacious and nicely appointed – except there was no mirror above the dressing table. Rather, the mirror stretched from the corner to the beginning of the dressing table – and just above head height. The bathroom was large and well appointed – everything you could desire – with mirrors everywhere. You could view yourself from seven different angles; but it was almosty impossible to get in and out of the bath without a ladder or stretchng your difference to climb into the tub. No expense spared in the fittings – gold and oppulant – but the screw-type bath stopper didn’t work. The cupboard had only two doors, when it needed four – and no shelves…ah well.

The hotel boasted CNN – but you had to struggle through a snow storm to see it: so we spent the weekend in blissful ignorance of what was going on at Camp David and watched the European athletic championships on Eurosport instead. Perhaps this was a blessing – we were supposed to be on a break, and any respite from news about Israel is a holiday. OK, hotel management,.score 10 for that. In deference to their Israeli guests, breakfast was an attempt at recreating the type of breakfasts for which Israeli hotels have become famous. Salads, peppers, tomatoes, boiled eggs, cheese – a brave attempt which has a long way to go – but, no complaints. In fact, there were no real complaints about the hotel at all. It just seemed that they were trying so hard to impress us and like an eager child were just falling short of the high standards they tried to attain. Yet there was something quite refreshing in all of this- something unspoiled and naïve and, yes, charming. I hope it never changes, but I have my doubts…

After checking in, leaving our luggage in a side room while our rooms were being prepared, we went on our famililiarization tour of Dubrovnik. And this is where the magic started.
For Dubrovnik is quite enchanting. Not much more than a square mile of ancient buildings, many of which were badly damaged during the eight-month siege by Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrans in the recent war, it is designated as a world heritage site by the United Nations. This status was conferred on it after a devastating earthquake in 1979, but totally ignored by Croatia’s enemies, who continued shelling the city even while UN flags flew from its parapets. Just inside the city walls is a plaque with a map of city, marking every building and every piece of masonry hit by artillery – a mass of tiny red triangles bearing testimony to the bitterness which raged between neighboring states.

But – Croatia wreaked its own share of havoc as well: the Bosnian town of Mostar was bombed unmercifully and the ornate medieaval bridge crossing the river was totally destroyed by the Croats. If there is one thing we learned about this most recent, acrimonious war in the Balkans, it was that nobody was innocent – except those civilians on all sides caught in the crossfire. And more pointless was the fact that nobody really gained anything.
But that was at least five years ago and this part of the world seems to be mending old wounds and trying to find some sort of modus vivendi. This was of great comfort to us, as the Bosnian border is just on top of that hill over there, about five kilometres away, affording any trigger-happy gunner a perfect vista of potential targets along the southern Croatian coast. Mind you, as Israelis, we are used to living on a narrow strip of beach …

Back to the cobbled streets of old Dubrovnik. This walled city which is home to some 3000 lucky inhabitants, demonstrates its Venetian heritage in the style of the buildings and in its life-style. It is lively, bouncy, vibrant, boisterous even, especially in the way restraunteurs tout for business. They literally grab you as you pass by, some even speaking a smattering of Hebrew - they spotted us from a mile off – shoving poorly translated English menues into your hand, beckoning you to sit and have a meal in their “very cleanest, best ever restaurant in Dubrovnik!” The claim wasn’t idle either – because all the restaurants seemed to offer good, wholesome fare (if you consider smoked ham and cheese in oil wholesome!).

There was a wide range of other dishes as well, notably fish, lamb skewers, loads of pasta (the best outside Italy) and thick farm-style bread. And all of it very, very reasonably priced. But again, there was that slightly “out of focus” feeling to the whole enterprise: like not being able to get a Capucino in a jazz bar after 11.00 pm because the machine was shut down…

Best of all however, was the willingness of one restaurant to cater to the needs of a some of the more observant members of our group, who requested that their fish be grilled in aluminum foil. The restaurant complied without any fuss, served what appeared to be a delicious meal, and won the hearts – and future custom – of a section of the community who often find it impossible to enjoy local fare because of their convictions.
Part of our Dubrovnik familiarization took in the small, ornate, 17th century synagogue, tucked away in an alley known as Jews Street. There are Hebrew inscriptions on the outside walls of the houses and a distinct Jewish flavor to the names of the shops in the streets: like the one called Ima and Aba. The synagogue itself is small, cozy almost, with hard upright wooden benches and a beautifully carved “bimah” and ark. Set into the wall are old “donation boxes” bearing name plates of towns and villages in Israel – Hebron, Tiberias, Safed. Members of the once prosperous community could deposit money into the box of whichever settlement they wished to support. Today, the Dubrovnik community numbers some 45 mainly elderly people. It is ironic that communities in Israel are now helping to support them.

Our next stop was a ferry ride to the island of Lokrum – no more than a few hundred meters out of the harbour. This island is famous for three things: its botanical gardens, founded by Benedictine monks; it’s curse – also courtesy of the Benedictine monks, and its nudist beach (no monks involved here). Quite a few members of our group - no names, no pack-drill - came back with all-over tans. The curse is another story altogether. Apparently, sometime in the 15th or 16th century, the City of Dubrovnik decided to sell the island to raise much needed capital. The monks, whose livlihood was ensured by tending the island, placed a curse on it - and the first person to buy it was drowned on his way across the narrow stretch water from the harbour. Another famous owner, Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, whose house lies in ruins just next to the quay, was assasinated, and the last owner of the island was none other than…Archduke Ferdinand, assasinated in Sarajevo…in fact every single person who ever owned the island since it was first put up for sale, has died….

Our second day dawned with strange sounds in the air. Was it gunfire? An artillery attack - no – it was thunder…and then, wonder of wonder for Israelis escaping from the especially oppresive Tel Aviv heat, rain. It poured for nearly three glorious hours – buckets of wet stuff coming out of the sky, cooling everything down. In fact the weather was glorious from the moment we arrived. Clean and fresh, totally unpolluted.

There is virtually no industry in this part of Croatia. They live on agriculture, the sea and tourism. The air is clean, the sea is cleaner – you can see right down to the bottom and one hopes that it remains like this forever.
Those of us who had opted for a Saturday tour boarded the bus and set off for a trip around three villages close to Dubrovnik and the promise of a very special lunch at a much vaunted restaurant in the beautiful Konavle valley, some 25 kilometres south of the city.

Our first stop was at a farm house on the way to the town of Cavtat, a beautiful seaside resort, which prides itself on being the home of both the Croatian champion water polo team, and the best ice cream on this stretch of Adriatic coast. The farm house, owned by the Gujic family is typical of those in the area: a large central stone house, owned by the patriach, with the smaller houses of his sons and daughters and their families clustered around, forming a family compound, the center of the family’s enterprises. In this case, the distilled liquor of grape husks and skins, known as grappa, good as a digestive after meals, also useful as paint remover or tractor fuel; and a rough red wine, which can only be designated as “plonk”; not really suitable for drinking but which might add quite a kick – as in “mule” – to a winter stew.

After visiting the villages, we made our way through the Konavle valley to a quaint restaurant set deep in the woods, in lush vegitation, beside a swiftly running stream, with water wheels and little wooden bridges. The sort of place from which you expect to see Hansel an Gretl emerge with their mouths stuffed with goodies. Our own mouths were soon stuffed with goodies – and at prices to make you drool. A full, delicious meal, glasses of white wine, dessert and coffee cost about NIS100.00 for two – less than a third what you would pay in a “reasonable” restaurant in Tel Aviv. But hey, why am I telling you this – it just means the area will be flooded by Israelis and the prices will go up, and they’ll start selling Magen Davids in their jewellery shops…

Sunday’s wake-up call came early, for this was the day we were to head south, across the border, into the mountaineous country of Montenegro. The border has only been open for a short time, as Montenegro and Croatia were enemies in the war and Montenegro, now one of only two states in the “New” Yugoslvia which they share with Serbia, occupied the entire southern coastal region of Croatia. But in Montenegro’s quest to be considered a western democracy, they have apologized to Croatia, signalled that they wish to reconcile the differences which tore them apart, and have indicated that they will probably seek independence from Serbia. This carries its own dangers, as it was the desire of the disparate Balkan states for independence from Yugoslavia, which brought war and devastation on the region. Part of Montenegro – Kosovo – is still in a state of turmoil, but this was a long way from our tour route on this cool Sunday morning.

Montenegro is well named – the name means “Black Mountains” in Italian - and mountains are the dominant feature of this rugged land. Not just rather large hills, which we in Israel are used to calling mountains, but great, big, enormous, bulging extremely high geological formations. The difference between Croatia and Montenegro is evident from the moment one crosses the border. The border post is on a narrow winding mountain road, about 45 minutes south of Dubrovnik. There is a stark and sudden contrast between Croatia and Montenegro and I don’t mean just in the landscape.

Montenegro is decidedly less well off than its northern neighbour. Not that Croatia is that affluent, but this makes the contrast even more marked. The buildings in the town of Herceg-Novi, shortly after the border, are duller, darker, older, in much worse repair than those in Croatia – and they didn’t even suffer war damage.
The cars are older, there are still ancient Soviet-style diesel trucks parked on some of the small farms and many of the buildings still carry Cyrillic script with a red star emblazoned on the plinth, testimony to an inglorious communist past.

Did I say the cars were older? There is at least one place in Montenegro where the cars are as new and shiny as anything you would find in Savyon or Herzlia Pituach – the seaside city of Budva. And its not because this city has a magic formula for wealth: it’s just that it’s known as the car theft capital of Europe! Now I can’t swear to it, but it seems somewhat incongrous that a young Montenegran who maybe earns $200.00 a month, can afford a $70 000 BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes – or how about a spanking new Porsche? They’re all there, parked along the quay of the Budva Marina. Are they really stolen property? Only the police know for sure but they don’t seem to be doing much about it...

There is a story doing the rounds about a German couple who were planning a motoring holiday in Montenegro. When their friends asked why they chose this destination, they replied: “…because our car’s already there….”
Budva itself is the most developed and cosmopolitan place we visited in Montenegro. It’s old walled city, completely destroyed in the 1979 earthquake and a ghost town for nearly 10 years, has been revived, rebuilt, and re-inhabited. It is lively, full of coffee houses, restaurants, novelty shops and bars. The Marina is packed with luxury yachts, launches and pleasure craft, many from far-away ports.

It’s a delightful city, and the prices are reasonable. Talking of prices, although Montenegro is a part of Yugoslavia which uses the dinar as its currency, Montenegro, in its striving for western acceptance, refuses to use this coinage. Instead, the “official” currency of Montenegro is the deutschmark, which makes it much less confusing for foreign tourists.

But before you get the impression that Montenegro is all depression and “third world”, let me hasten to assure you that this day-trip was one of the highlights of our tour. The scenery is absolutely magnificent. The mountains are stark and majestic and the Kotor fjord which creeps inland for many kilometres is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The ancient city of Kotor lies at the very end of this shimmering body of water, set amidst imposing mountains. The city itself, again walled and dating back many centuries has – like the rest of Montenegro – withstood seige and invasion and has a proud tradition of independence. Kotor is the gateway to the hinterland, for from this city, one begins the climb up to the central plateau, some 1600 meters (nearly 5000 ft) above sea level.
And this is were we confirmed our suspiscion that Croatian busses (our bus was from Dubrovnik) were able to bend in the middle. The very narrow road from Kotor to the little village of Nagoci twists up the mountain in a series of 26 hairpin bends and turns that defy description – with a sheer drop of increasing altitude on one side and the face of the mountian on the other. It didn’t seem possible that the bus could negotiate each bend in the road without a three-point turn, and yet our driver Nico – remember Drago was probably incarcerated in some Dubrovnik dungeon – was as skillful as any Le Mans racing driver.

He folded the bus around those bends as if it was made of rubber. Fortunately there was no traffic coming down the mountain. To put us at our ease, we were assured that no trucks or busses ever come down that road. But our spirits were high and getting higher with every meter we climbed: the truth was, there was so much mist and cloud cover that we actually couldn’t see just how high we were. Until we reached about bend number 22 – and Nico stopped by the side of the road for us to experience the view. We clambered out, scarcely able to see each other in the cloud, wondering what we were supposed to look at. Just then, as if on command, the mist cleared and spread out before us was an absolutely breathtaking view of the fjord, the mountains, the coastal plane away to our left and the Adriatic Sea beyond that.

When we got our breath back, and finished oohing and aahing at the panorama, we climbed back into our bus and trundled on to Nagoci where we were assured we would stop for a snack. Although Nagoci didn’t actually experience any hostilities, it is typical of the sort of village we’ve all seen in television coverage of the Balkan war. It is bucolic, seemingly tranquil, a few houses on each side of a meandering road; small, neat fields with a cow and a goat or two…some chickens running around the yard. We stopped at the Nagoci Inn – or whatever it is called in the local dialect. A small pub, pretending to be a restaurant, pretending to be a hotel. Rather pleasant with wooden floors, ceilings and beams; wooden tables and benches. At one end of the room, was a table bearing our “snacks” – some very smelly hard cheese on some harder bread accompanied by a glass of the locally-brewed honey wine – medovino. This had a taste and texture closer to beer than wine and left the drinkers with a warm, fuzzy feeling – not exactly intoxicated, just pleasantly buzzing. It apparently had quite an effect on Doron, who decided to give the Nagocians a display of Israeli folk dancing in the middle of the village high street.

Pretty soon there was a whole group of us on the road, dancing in a circle and singing “Maim Maim…” in the Montenegran mountain air. A couple of locals, who had obviously been involved with a bottle or two of medovino for some time before we got there, joined in bellowing out their own version of Hava Nagila at the top of their out of tune voices and waving happily to us as we boarded the bus.

And so we went on our merry way through Montenegro, making our way back to the coastal plane, visiting Budva, crossing the border and returning to Dubrovnik early that evening after a memorable tour to a place which had only ever conjured up images of mountain bandit princes and which we never ever dreamed we would actually visit.
Monday morning dawned with another early wake-up call, summoning us to the airport and the relatively short flight home to the crowds, bustle and heat of Tel Aviv.

Our three-day stay in Croatia was so filled with experiences and new sites, sounds and tastes that it felt like we’d been away for a week. The clock seemed to stop and indeed it was almost like entering a time warp – floating back to an era of less commercialism, less pressure, less sophistiction, an altogether slower pace with more time to enjoy the good things life has to offer: clean air, crystal clear seas, enticing islands, concealed beaches. Like I said, when it comes to the provision of glitzier, faster, trendier, more efficient services and facilities for tourists, the Croatians may still have a lot to learn – but I for one hope they never do...

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