Dubrovnik: Pearl of the Adriatic

Croatia | Europe | RTW #2: From the Thin Air up There to the Wonders Down Under
City Walls Dubrovnik Croatia

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I couldn’t get all the way from Peru to Dubrovnik on Skyteam, just as far as Zagreb (the capital), so I had to book an additional flight on Croatia Airlines – it was dirt cheap, even for business class, so of course that’s what I booked.

Unfortunately, since it’s not high season, the flight times were few and far between so I was faced with a little time to kill in the Zagreb airport. This turned out to be harder than it sounds.

The airport was tiny – the kind of tiny where you can just pull right up to the front door and leave your car for as long as you feel like it and no one cares. There was no business class lounge (ouch) and only one food place boasting minimal options. The worst part was that everyone in the darn place was smoking. It was like walking into a really smoky nightclub. Even though it was cold, I found a place to sit outside for a while just to get away from the smoke.

The flight was a quick 30 minutes and as we approached Dubrovnik the views out my window were amazing.

Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik Croatia
The Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik

The nice thing about flying into Dubrovnik on Croatia Airlines is that they have a shuttle bus that takes everyone on the flight from the airport into downtown as soon as all the bags are retrieved. It was a very scenic bus ride into town and I got to the hotel just in time for sunset (which, sadly, happens at 4:30pm this time of year).

Built in 1895 just outside the city walls, the Imperial Hotel entertained visiting royalty and celebrities for nearly a hundred years. Then, following the Serbian shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991, it abruptly became a refugee shelter and remained so for a decade.

Last may it reopened as the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik after a complete renovation. It is a spectacular property and my room had a great view of Old Town Dubrovnik. After a full day of traveling, I grabbed dinner in the hotel and went to bed fairly early.

I was excited to get an early start the next day.

Exploring Old Town

I got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise and it was totally worth the lack of sleep.

My plan for the day was to explore the Old Town. Dubrovnik dates back to the 7th century and the walls that enclose the city to this day were built near the 9th century to resist barbarian invasions from the sea. By the end of the 12th century, Dubrovnik had become an important trading center on the coast, providing a much-needed link between the Mediterranean and Balkan states.

Dubrovnik continued to prosper until 1667 when an earthquake wiped out much of the city. It eventually became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 and then developed on its own after that; thanks, in part, to a growing tourism industry.

In December 1991, Serbian artillery launched an attack on Dubrovnik. The city was pounded with over 200 shells in 1991 and 1992. It is only in the past few years that tourism has begun to rebound to pre-war levels.

City Walls Dubrovnik Croatia
The city walls of Dubrovnik

As you enter the Pile Gate on the West side of Old Town, the first thing you see is the white stone-embossed Stradun.

The Stradun has been Dubrovnik’s main street for festivals, shopping and strolling for centuries. It was created in the 11th century when a channel that separated an islet from the mainland was filled in with brick and later recovered with white stones. The shelling of 1991 blasted holes in much of the Stradun but it has since been patched up with white stone quarried from the nearby islands. The stones give the street sort of a warm, white glow.

As I walk thru Old Town, it reminds me a little of a combination of Mykonos, Greece and the Italian Amalfi Coast.  (Or, at least what Mykonos would be like if you went there in the winter.) The streets are narrow, winding and mostly empty but I can tell that this town would be BIG FUN in the summertime. The walls that surround the city give it an ancient feel and the architecture is very old-world.

Dubrovnik’s City Walls

In the afternoon, I took a tour of the city walls.

City Walls Dubrovnik Croatia
A walk along the city walls

For about 8 bucks you can buy a ticket to walk around the tops of the Old Town walls. The 2-mile long walls are definitely the city’s most striking feature. The walls have endured nearly unchanged for five centuries but came under serious rocket attack in 1991, suffering 111 direct hits. All the damage has since been repaired and visitors can once again get a panoramic view of the town from atop the walls.

Something else that becomes obvious as you look down from the city walls is the post-1991 repair job on the rooftops. When the smoke cleared in 1992, one of the most urgent problems was repairing the city’s tiled roofs to prevent water damage from rainfall.

The rosy terracotta tiles that top all of Dubrovnik’s buildings were originally produced in a nearby tile factory that had long since closed. Replacements of the same color proved impossible to find.

Eventually, the government ordered new tiles from France and northern Croatia and scattered them randomly to make the color difference less obvious. A walk around the walls reveals a patchwork of colors that should someday (hopefully) blend into one.

On the Beach in Dubrovnik

When I left the hotel on day 2 in Dubrovnik, I decided to take a walk to the other side of Old Town and up along the coast.

I walked most of the morning and then spent a little time on a great beach (Banje Beach) that looked like it would be a lot of fun in the summer. It had the beautiful greenish-blue clear water that Greece does and a spectacular view of the city.

Of course, since it was only about 60 degrees, the beach was deserted except for me, but I didn’t mind one bit. After lunch in Old Town, I spent a little time shopping and then headed back to the hotel.

I needed to pack since I’ve got a 6:40am flight back to Zagreb in the morning and then FIVE hours to kill at that dinky little smoke-filled airport before my flight to Paris. Good times.

Alpaca Peru
“Al” the Alpaca and “Jerome” the gnome

In-Transit in Paris

The gnome has a name! I have named him Jerome. Jerome the Travelin’ Gnome. Or “Romy” for short. He also has a new friend from Peru, the stuffed alpaca that I just had to buy at the airport. So, of course, if the gnome needs a name, so does the alpaca. I have decided to keep it simple and call him Al…last name, Paca. They are getting along famously and drinking all the wine.

Well, someone’s drinking all the wine and I’m just SURE it’s not me.

So, after killing a few hours in the smoky haze of the Zagreb airport, I was happy to land back in Paris around 3pm that afternoon. Since my flight to Cape Town didn’t leave until 11:15pm that night, I had made plans to go into town and have dinner with my friend Derek at McBride’s. He and Ian are in the process of opening a new Irish bar in another Paris neighborhood so most of the evening’s conversation revolved around that and my stories from Dubrovnik.

Since this is my last Paris layover long enough to go into town on this trip, I said a final goodbye to those guys and headed back to the airport around around 9pm.

AF 990 – Paris to Johannesburg

This was going to be my first long flight back on Air France where I had enjoyed the many comforts of First Class on last years’ trip to Cape Town and I was a little worried about how their Business Class would compare on the 10 hour flight. (I know, cry me a river, right? She’s in Business Class, God forbid – but after all I am an admitted airline snob – what are you gonna do?)

I have flown AF in Business a couple of times from Atlanta in past years and have never been particularly impressed – on the same route, Delta’s Business Elite service is far superior.

Air France Business Class
Air France Business Class Seats

So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the plane flying us to Johannesburg had recently be re-fitted with the brand new Air France Business and First Class seats. Though I admit I was a little wistful as I walked past the super-fancy First Class seats on my way to my seat, the Business Class seats were excellent.

Definitely better than KLM’s on the flight from Peru and even better than Delta’s. Each seat had its own on-demand video screen, laptop ports, and the ability to recline to almost 180 degrees. Excellent!

After a delicious meal with great wine (one thing Air France does do well and hey, Jerome was thirsty), I put my seat in the “sleep” position and actually slept for about 6 hours.

Unfortunately, we landed in Johannesburg almost an hour late after a mechanical delay departing Paris the night before. This left me with less than 30 minutes to catch my connection to Cape Town which I, of course, missed.

My own fault really, the AF flight is supposed to land at 10:50am and South African Airways operates a Jo’burg – Cape Town shuttle departing every hour on the hour. Last year,  I booked the 1:00pm flight not knowing how long it would take to clear customs, transfer to the domestic terminal, etc.

Because my flight was on time last year, I ended up with more than an hour to kill in the airport – which just reeks of inefficiency! So this year, being the over-confident world traveler that I am these days, I booked the noon flight and of course, my Paris flight was delayed.

So, when I finally got to the South African check-in counter at 10 ’til noon and the agent (not surprisingly) informed me that there was no way I was making my flight, she then told me that because I was flying on a “restricted economy (i.e. cheap web fare)” ticket, she was unable to re-booked me on the 1:00pm flight until I paid the re-booking fee at the ticket counter. Uh-oh, I thought, this is the part where my $150 cheap web fare doubles in price. But, the fee turned out to be only 175 rand (about $28) and there were still plenty of seats on the flight so all was well.

Lesson learned, though, about tight connections after a long international flight. Next stop, Cape Town!