Split and Dubrovnik

Wednesday 9th May 2007, Stobrec near Split, Croatia

General view of Split from the harbour

It has been a hot and exhausting day around Split which, to our immense disappointment is not, as we always fondly imagined, included on the Unesco list of World Heritage sites as the place where ice cream, bananas and chocolate were combined to form a delicious desert. More prosaically, it was at Split that the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a Dalmatian by birth, built his splendid palace to which he retired after his abdication. It was constructed from 296AD on an impressive site looking out across the sea with the rugged, barren mountains behind. Today it forms the heart of the old town and is swarming with tourists. The remains of the palace have been completely integrated into the present day life of the city with restaurants and bars built into the lower arches and the walls themselves frequently forming part of the structure of the present day housing.

Peristil with vestibule to Diocletian's quarters and entrance to the Cathedral, Split

Diocletian was the last Emperor to oppose Christianity and despite his own wife and daughter becoming Christians, he had thousands tortured and killed. These included the bishop of Salona who, after the death of Diocletian, came to be recognised as the patron saint of Split, Sv. Duje. It was his bones that we missed seeing paraded through the streets a couple of days ago. However, as they are on display all week we have now seen them in a reliquary laid on the altar in the Cathedral.

At the centre of the palace complex is an octagonal mausoleum where the body of Diocletian was entombed following his death in 316AD. Later though, in fitting revenge for their persecution, the Christians turned the mausoleum into their Cathedral and threw out the tomb of the Emperor. The resulting building makes a rather small cathedral and it is strange to look up and see the classical sculptures around the top, including a portrait of the Emperor. The Cathedral treasury contained a collection of silver chalices, saintly remains of skulls and old bones, several 13th century icons, massive illuminated vellum service books and a late 6th century gospel book in half uncial script used by bishops to write official acts.

Diocletian's mausoleum, now the Cathedral, Split

The Scottish architect, Robert Adam spent some time in Split during the 18th century drawing and recording the Roman remains, visiting people's homes so that he could trace the lines of the palace walls as they passed through, and eventually published his work Architecture of Diocletian's Palace at Spalato. His studies formed the basis for much of his later architectural designs.

Alongside the palace walls the daily street market takes place with country ladies dressed in black and wearing headscarves, selling their garden produce, honey, cheeses and dead chickens or sitting in the shade making lace table cloths. There is also a fish market where shrimps, cuttlefish, sardines and assorted Mediterranean fish are sold by the wives of individual fishermen. The smell from this mixes quite pungently with the sulphur coming from the thermal springs close by housed in a strangely elaborate building of 1913 reflecting the Austrian Secessionist style.

Vegetable seller in the market, Split

Market lady making lace, Split

Thermal baths, Split

The palace faces out across the sea. Along the seafront below, beautiful gardens with palm trees and lavender bushes have been laid out. Much work is being undertaken to make the area worthy of its Unesco status with smart white paving and shining metal seats under the trees. From here we sat watching as the international ferry arrived from Bari in Italy.

Waterfront with present day houses built into the walls of the palace, Split

The streets of the mediaeval town surrounding the palace are narrow, cool and shady with little bars and pizza shops tucked into every corner. We bought slices of the best pizza we've tasted for years for 70 kuna each (about 60 pence) which we ate in the park opposite the Golden Gate entrance to the Roman city. Nearby was a gigantic statue of the ninth century bishop Grgur Ninski, the sunlight gleaming from his toe. Like Juliet's boob in Verona, it is considered to bring good luck when rubbed.

Statue of Grgur Ninski, Split

There is only so much culture one can absorb on a scorching hot day and we were starting to feel very weary as we sank gratefully into comfortable chairs on a shady terrace in Narodni Trg, the main town square, with a couple of chilled beers.

Narodni Trg, Split

Ian's enthusiasm for all things Roman finally exhausted us and we decided to head back to the cool of the trees by the water's edge at the campsite. Even at 4pm the buses were tight packed. Impossible to get seats so we clung to the rails as we were swept around the city suburbs at an alarming speed on a long articulated bus. Eventually we were out of the city and heading towards Dubrovnik. Just to finish us off we accidentally got off a stop too soon and were obliged to walk a kilometre alongside a busy four lane highway in the glaring hot sunshine. Fortunately iced water from Modestine's fridge and a rest in the cool soon had us recovered and we set off in search of some shopping. We discovered that we are on the edge of a little seaside town built along the side of the bay, full of restaurants for visitors but with a shady seaside park for the children and a pitch where we watched an animated game of Croatian petanque that looked as if it would end in blows as the old men of the town, playing or watching, gesticulated and shouted at each other.

The campsite is near the local football stadium and a match was underway as we returned with our shopping. The campsite lady is charming and loves to practice her English on real English people. She rushed out of her office to ask if we'd like her to get us some complimentary tickets for the game. Sitting in the sun watching football was just about the last thing we fancied and gingerly made our excuses so as not to offend. She didn't mind at all and told us she thought it was a rotten game herself but thought we may be interested.

She went on to tell us that the campsite, which is still very much under construction, was used as a refugee camp for displaced Bosnians during the civil war here. They lived in the camp for four years and when they finally left, gipsies moved in, also living there as stateless persons. Now, as the only campsite near Split, the managers are hoping the site will develop into a major camping resort.

Thursday 10th May 2007, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Well we are at last in Dubrovnik and it's the end of the road for Modestine! We can go no further. Down the road lie Serbia and Albania while inland is Bosnia. There are a couple of English motorhomes on the campsite here, the first we've seen since we left Italy. They have spent considerable time today phoning their motor insurance companies as they discovered their policies do not cover them to travel through Bosnia Herzegovina as it is still classified as a war zone! We've been happily assuming we could travel north from here through Bosnia, visiting Mostar and Sarajevo as we head towards Hungary or possibly even Romania as we rather fancied Transylvania. A check of our policy however has shown us that we are not covered for any of these places and as the other English here had no joy, there is little point in us wasting time phoning to check. We'll just have to think again. Actually we have already driven through the coastal strip of Bosnia to get here! It's pretty well the only way unless you cross from Bari in Southern Italy or manage a complicated route travelling on ferries from island to island. There is just a 10 mile strip of coastline that is Bosnia and only one route through. So we will have to travel through it again on our return journey, driving with our fingers crossed. It's a pity to have to retrace our route as it was far from pleasant driving today. There are heavy, slow moving vehicles and endless road works. The road will be excellent when it's done but in the meantime the surface is sometimes no more than white rock and clouds of dust as drills, diggers and road rollers hold up queues of traffic while they manoeuvre pipes into position or cut culverts. As we waited in the hot sun for one set of temporary traffic lights to change, they were loaded onto a steam roller and driven several kilometres further down the road at a walking pace, the traffic following behind. They were then placed on the road in front of us again, still set at red, and the steam roller trundled off leaving the tailback of traffic to wait a further five minutes for the lights to go green!

Throughout the day we have travelled through beautiful coastal scenery, the clear blue sea lapping the continuous chain of islands off shore. Most are uninhabited but some of the larger ones have settlements and are served by ferries. They all look very empty though and frequently rather barren, though some are covered in green woodland. On the mainland the mountains seemed to become taller and even more barren as we moved south. The mountainous Croatian landscape with its many islands is a mixture of southern Italy and Greece. Only south of Ploce, where the river Neretje meets the sea, did we see a contrasting landscape. Here wide alluvial plains, known as the Magistrala, support vegetable gardens and orchards. The impressive view from the mountains as we drove up out of it was of a dense patchwork of crops stretching to the sea.

Pretty spot for a coffee on the Dalmatian coast

Inland view of lakes near Ploce, Dalmatia

We reached Dubrovnik around mid afternoon and found the only campsite within the city quite easily. It's very full, a contrast to most of the other sites we've used. It's also expensive and doesn't provide most of what it's supposed to - such as free wireless internet and a swimming pool. We were told we had the right to use these facilities at a nearby, rather smart hotel. When we arrived they were charming to us but insisted we needed to pay £5 an hour for the internet and £4 each for the pool. So we abandoned that plan and went for a paddle on the beach instead. The English people here say they are a little disappointed to find Croatia has jumped on the tourist bandwagon and is charging high prices for everything. They were particularly peeved to have been stopped by the police as they moved out of the picnic area they'd been using and fined 300 kuna for forgetting to turn their headlights on at 3pm this afternoon in bright sunlight! We are always forgetting to turn ours on! It's the same in Italy, Hungary and Austria, though we've never really fathomed out why! It is true though that prices in Croatia are almost on a par with Italy, one of the most expensive countries we've visited, but what it has to offer is top rate, in terms of both culture and scenery. Considering how war torn its recent history has been it has adapted well to its new role as a host to tourism, it has a relaxed feel and its battle scars are not obvious.

Approaching Dubrovnik

The national taste in music is dreadful. You hear it in supermarkets, cafés and on car radios. We assume it's not just the one same tune all the time but they all sound very similar and they all sound exactly like Croatia's entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest! No doubt music in Slovenia and Bosnia sounds much the same!

Friday 11th May 2007, Dubrovnik, Croatia

The old harbour, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is a fantastic city and a fitting place to end our travels south. Although we are frustrated at not being able to continue into Bosnia and Serbia, it was definitely worth travelling the length of Croatia to visit this stunning yet modest city set between the clear waters of the Adriatic and the imposing, grey mountains behind.

Already at 7am the heat was beginning to penetrate Modestine's flanks so we were up, showered and on our way down into the city on the local bus by 8.30 this morning. Even the suburbs of Dubrovnik are attractive and the bus took us past pleasant residential areas, parks and gardens filled with fruiting orange trees, oleanders and bright bougainvillea. We passed alongside the harbour, overlooked by the city's impressive suspension bridge, and were deposited immediately outside the main gate to the city.

Main city gate, Dubrovnik

During what is referred to here as the "Homeland war" Dubrovnik suffered terrible bombardment from land, air and sea by the Yugoslav army, Serbia and Montenegro. During 1991 and 1992 in particular the city was devastated by shells and mortar fire. Hardly a building survived undamaged. What the massive earthquake of 1667 left intact was ruthlessly destroyed by the civil war. Fighting continued spasmodically until 1995 but to look at the city today there are few obvious signs of the war that left this beautiful city with hardly a wall or roof unscathed. The most obvious signs are the pockmarked flagstones, damaged plaster and stonework on the facades of buildings and the new red tiled roofs covering the entire city, clearly seen from the ramparts.

Roofscape, seen from the ramparts, Dubrovnik

In the town is a memorial room to those who died defending the city. Photographs of over 200 young men killed in 1991 and 1992 are on display. Particularly sobering for us is that so many of them were born around 1971 to 1974, making them much the same age as our own son – and they died fourteen years ago while many were still in their teens.

Photos of some of those who died defending their city, Dubrovnik

Map showing where bombs hit the city between 1991 and 1992, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is now justifiably recognised as a world heritage site. It is surrounded by huge defensive ramparts that sweep around in front to protect it from attacks by sea, and rise up, following the contours of the hilly terrain, to protect it from behind. Aware of the midday heat, a walk around the ramparts was the first and most spectacular thing on our agenda. There was a slight breeze off the sea and a number of points on the walls offering shade but it took two hours to complete the walk along the ramparts, stopping to take photographs as different vistas opened up. The main city is crowded in within the walls but later developments have spread beyond. On the walls we passed frequently very close to the homes of residents, where the big stone houses and flats spread up the steep hillside back from the sea. Many of the facades were festooned with washing or had window boxes filled with flowers and from time to time we glimpsed vegetable gardens, courtyards or monastery cloisters where fountains played, orange trees offered shade and rose bushes displayed bright splashes of colour.

Western ramparts, Dubrovnik

Seaward ramparts, Dubrovnik

Cloisters and garden of the Franciscan monastery seen from the ramparts, Dubrovnik

Outside the maritime museum, Dubrovnik

The welcome shade of the cool streets awaited us when we eventually came down from the walls to join the main thoroughfare, Placa. This separates the two parts of the old town and was originally a shallow channel between the land and a small island. It was filled in during the 11th century. The nobility occupied the island side while on the landward side fourteen narrow, parallel streets struggle steeply up the hillside. Within the old city there is no motorised transport other than electric carts. Tourists from around the world were enjoying the sights and never have we seen a city with so many bars and restaurants, all offering chilled drinks, ice cream or seafood menus served under bright, shady umbrellas.

Placa, Dubrovnik

Onofrio Fountain and Church of Our Saviour (1520) just inside the city walls, Placa, Dubrovnik

One of the steep residential streets leading up from Placa, Dubrovnik

Rector's Palace 1739 (right) and Sponza Palace, one of the only medieval buildings to survive the 1667 earthquake, Dubrovnik

Shady corner with orange trees and well. Formerly the convent of St. Claire, Dubrovnik

We visited the Franciscan monastery with the wonderful cloister we'd noted from the walls. It also contains a reliquary museum and a pharmacy dating back to at least the 16th century and it is still in business today! Examples of incunables (books printed before 1501) and herbals from the monastery library were also on display. During the Homeland War the monastery acted as a hospital run by the Geneva Red Cross. It seemed to have been deliberately targeted by the hostile forces and suffered 52 direct hits during the fighting.

Garden in the Franciscan cloisters, Dubrovnik

The patron saint of Dubrovnik is St. Blaise. His statue stands over the entrance gates to the city. His church is in process of restoration so we did not visit.

St. Blaise over the Ploce Gate, Dubrovnik

During the afternoon it became so unbearably hot we headed for an air conditioned internet café we'd discovered earlier in a narrow old street just above the main pedestrianised route through the centre of the town. It was run by a couple of friendly young men who served us chilled beers as we worked. Another young man who ran a restaurant opposite lamented to us in halting English that the city was now regularly visited by cruise ships and everyone ate on board, just coming ashore to look around. He told us he'll be bankrupt by next year if he doesn't get some customers soon. We feel so sorry for him we are thinking of going back tomorrow so he can cook us lunch! He eventually shut up his konoba (Croatian bar) and joined us in the internet shop where he sat watching video clips from U-Tube about cats, calling us and the internet shop staff over from time to time to watch a cat doing cute things like playing the piano or using its owner's toilet!

We'd survived six hours of heat around the town but feel there remains much to see. We have decided to stay here a little longer and return to the city again tomorrow. So we caught the bus home to Modestine where we are delighted to say we have invented an awning to protect us from the sun. Romahome told us her shape meant an awning would not be possible, but with a charity shop shower curtain, a couple of collapsible poles, some plastic suckers and a few yards of string we've proved them wrong! Other campers are almost as delighted with it as we are, especially as they ended up helping us fix it up!

Our £2 awning! Dubrovnik

Saturday 12th May 2007, Dubrovnik, Croatia
We are still here but will definitely be moving on tomorrow. It's getting far too hot for us wimps and we are keen to gradually be making our way north again.

We returned on the bus to Dubrovnik this morning and spent the day finding some of the corners we missed yesterday. It's not an enormous area within the city walls but it was crammed full with people today as at least a couple of enormous cruise ships were in the harbour. Tour guides led crowds around the city. What the large groups got out of it all is questionable as they milled around in the hot sun listening to the guide's frequently laboured explanations of the buildings and history. We got talking later with some American people who were on a cruise visiting 17 different ports around the Mediterranean. When we asked them where they had visited they said they couldn't remember the names of all the places but had started from Munich! They were eating an impressive seafood lunch that cost them 135 dollars, but didn't think they'd have time to go onto the city walls before returning to their ship. Not necessarily surprisingly, they didn't know what we were talking about when we mentioned the Balkan wars and Dubrovnik's recent history. They were off to do some shopping for souvenirs.

Crowds from the cruise ships flood into Placa, Dubrovnik

This morning we visited a fort outside the city which enabled us to get some good photos of the ramparts of the town. We also visited the synagogue, very different from the mediaeval one we visited last year in Sopron, Hungary. Later we explored the back streets just inside the ramparts to the south of the town. Here we found an area we had presumed to be a rubble tip from the 1990s bombardments. In fact it dated from the earthquake of 1667 and was only now being cleared.

Fort Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik

Ramparts seen from Fort Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik

List of Jews from Dubrovnik who died in the Holocaust

At the tourist office we asked whether it was known if we could purchase car insurance at the border between Croatia and Bosnia. The young lady was really helpful, phoning to try to find out. All we know is that we cannot get it at the nearest frontier point but it may be possible on the route up towards Mostar. So tomorrow we travel 10 miles through Bosnia along the coastal strip hoping everything will be okay until we cross back into Croatia again. We then turn inland to the next border post and if we are lucky purchase temporary insurance so we can continue. If not we need to return to the coast and follow the route back through Croatia right around Bosnia via Zagreb. Either way, we hope to end up in Hungary.

We decided to give ourselves a treat today and dine out at one of the street restaurants under a shady umbrella. Where better than the restaurant near the internet shop where the owner was so dejected yesterday he had to cheer himself up with cat videos? He recognised us and gave us chilled aperitifs on the house while our meal was prepared. We opted for a seafood platter as we rarely eat fish and we get told off for not doing so by all of you who say it's the best part of your Mediterranean holidays. As you see, it looked quite impressive with squid, octopus, mussels, prawns and fried fish accompanied by a bowl of salad. We still feel though that it is overrated. Tentacles and molluscs cooked with too much salt. Even the salad seemed salty. The chilled beer was good though and the restaurant owner was delighted we'd returned. He was a lot busier today and told us he'd probably not have time for looking at cat videos this afternoon.

Food for thought, Dubrovnik

The streets here are full of cats. They all look clean and healthy and are generally very small. They lie sunning themselves on doorsteps so people obviously look after them all. From what we've seen today in some of the side alleys, the cats are putting lots of effort into ensuring there is a plentiful supply of cats for the foreseeable future.

By mid afternoon we'd exhausted Dubrovnik and it had certainly exhausted us. So we caught the bus back to Modestine, bought a bottle of chilled wine from the campsite shop and caught up on some of our correspondence protected from the sun under our brilliant Maxted awning.

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