Friday 14 September 2012

Dobar Dun (Hello) from Croatia

Sleeping under the stars - deck passage
on our return to Italy after amost a month
in Croatia.
Current Location: Bari, Italy having crossed by ferry from Dubrovnik, Croatia

She was short, stout and shrewd. In her hand she clutched a card that said “apartment”. She saw us hesitating in the crowd emerging from a coastal ferry – we couldn’t decide whether to camp or try to find a roof over our heads. As we dithered, she cast her line calling “apartment” in our direction. With perfect timing she looked at the loaded tandem, then at us and planted the hook,” no steps, walking distance.”

This was accommodation Dubrovnik style – Croatia’s most expensive city has a thriving private rental market in which residents with a spare room or two tout for customers among the thousands of tourists not prepared to pay stiff hotel prices.

On the fortified wall of Dubrovnik's old city.
 The city was  without water and electricity for three months
during the fighting in 1991/2. It was badly damaged,
 but the restoration is almost complete.


Stray cat emerges from the rubble of a derelict building.
Summer evening sun and the residents of Dubrovnik
look a bit like seals on a rocky headland.


 Within moments we’d struck a deal –the cost was the same as we knew we’d have to pay at the local campground, but we wouldn’t have to erect our tent and could sleep in the luxury of a double bed. And Dubrovnik’s famous old walled city was within walking distance, we were promised.


In several European cities we've spotted
these padlocks on fences. Maybe we're
slow on the uptake, but here in
 Dubrovnik the lovers have added their
names as well- a public declaration
 of their affections.

Mrs Plenkovic (the introductions came later) led the way to the family home – up a steep street that climbed away from the port. Arriving at the house was a bit like a lottery – we weren’t sure whether we were onto a winner and if we were not, how we would get out of the deal. But Judy took a quick look at the apartment with its terrace, big double bed and separate bathroom and gave it the ok.   
What cyclists do on a day off. Mljet Island.
What cyclists do every day.

We’d barely unloaded the bike before Mrs Plenkovic reappeared full of good spirits and with her husband in tow. She was carrying a silver tray on which were four small glasses and a bottle of Rakija – a clear, homemade alcohol that packs a punch.

Camped under an olive tree - Mljet Is.
We toasted each other, drank a round and then another as the evening drew in. Mr Plenkovic picked several bunches of grapes and presented them to us, and showed us where we could reach from the terrace to collect figs from a large tree for our breakfast the next morning. Their English wasn’t good, and our Croatian was zilch but we felt we were being given a particularly warm welcome which couldn’t all be attributed to the alcohol. Afterwards we put it down to being New Zealanders, and that despite the language difficulties we’d talked about the early Dalmatian settlers who’d arrived and found work digging out kauri gum and had begun New Zealand’s wine industry.

Judy's "39 Steps" as in the John Buchan novel. They led to
a rocky cove near our campsite on Mljet Is. The cove was
not the most attractive spot, it had a few tired fishing dinghies
and the occasional topless German sun worshipper - and a hint
of mystery.
 Our reception in the Plenkovic home was in marked contrast to some of our other encounters in Croatia. On occasion people have been abrupt to the point of rudeness, and even Judy’s winning ways have been unable to thaw the grumpy checkout operators in the supermarkets.

Overlooked by most of the tourists in Dubrovnik is
War Photo Limited, which as the name suggests exhibits
photos by renowned war photographers. When we visited
there was an exhibition by Emmanuel Ortiz, who covered
the fighting that followed the death of Tito and the break
up of Yugoslavia. The pictures are stunning - especially
his use of light and sense of timing. And there is nothing
sensationalist about his work - along with the battleground
scenes he captures quieter moments - a Bosniak soldier
crying, refugees washing their clothes in a river in no-man's
land, a man powering his radio with a bicycle dynamo and
Mostar's destroyed old bridge with a wild-eyed dog peering
into the lens. Check out Ortiz's work at:

But then a travel guide*reminded us that Croatia is still living in turbulent times. It struggled under years of Communism, then less than two decades ago was involved in a war in which as many as 20,000 people died.  Now it’s under siege again – this time from tourists who have made it one of the Adriatic’s hot spots and have forgotten (or don’t know) about its past. No wonder those shop assistants give the “Croatian shrug” (don’t know, don’t care) occasionally.

We’ve spent almost four weeks in Croatia, and the good news is that we’ve discovered that those same checkout operators do thaw after a while – a familiar face (even a foreign one) and a friendly smile can break down the barriers.

But it hasn’t been easy, and while we’ve enjoyed our time in Croatia it feels very much like a young country finding its way in the wider world. It’s on the verge of joining the European Union – forming a closer relationship with some of its much bigger and more economically powerful neighbours.
Many Croatians are unhappy at the prospect, which is hardly surprising given the rifts in the EU at present. It’s a country which has had a tragic past, and we can only hope that its future is a lot brighter for people like Mr and Mrs Plenkovic.

*Rick Steves’ Croatia and Slovenia


  1. Outstanding :-)

    Please, we insist, have a glass of Rakija on behalf of myself, Libby, Darryn and Dan, raise a toast and enjoy the sunshine, the view, the experience.


  2. We saw padlocks on beautiful old bridges whilst travelling through the Baltic countries and were told they're put there by newly engaged/wed couples to signify their everlasting love. In this day of short term love, we wondered how many would be filed off in a few years.

    Chris L.

  3. Gus, Ali and I (the weekend crew) had a chuckle at how on earth you could explain digging out Kauri gum to Mr and Mrs Plenkovic.
    Fabulous photos as ever; we have the one of you on the fortified wall now gracing our unfortified newsroom wall. It's received plenty of envious sighs from passing rain-soaked and weary journos (remember spring-time in Auckland?).

    Jane x

  4. Great pictures and so interesting information. Never have been in Croatia. Seems to us, we have to go there.


Express a view here.