Dubrovnik is the new Prague. It’s that hidden gem that North Americans are just finding out about. It’s historic and preserved and absolutely gorgeous. In the warmer months, people can island-hop all the way down the coast, go kayaking for a week from island to island. There is a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain or you can hike it if you are ambitious. The patios are spacious and ubiquitous, almost everyone in the tourist trade speaks English well enough and the warm sea breeze, along with the Croatian sense of time (or lack thereof) seeps into your bones. I would imagine it would seem like a resort town in many ways. But we didn’t go in the summer. We went at Christmas.
“Christmas time in Dubrovnik is totally different than the summer season but it’s really special,” wrote Mirna, our Air Bnb host in Dubrovnik. And she was right. Croatia is a mostly Catholic country so Christmas is a big deal. In fact, it’s the biggest holiday here. So you won’t see many sights but you’ll definitely get a rare glimpse into the real life of Croatia.
When we arrived on the 23rd, after a very unhappy bus ride (more on that later!), it was around 5 pm and after settling into our lovely little studio apartment, and having a glass of wine on our lovely, tiny balcony in the Old City, we decided to wander the streets and get our bearings.
We left our apartment and descended about 100 rough stone steps to the Stradun (also know as the Placa), the main street of the Old City. It was bustling with people of all ages, sitting at small tables in front of kiosks selling hot wine, beer, sausages, donuts and fried fish, much like the kiosks that were along the promenade in Split. The city walls were festooned with lights, the doorways were decorated with beautiful garlands of leaves with clementines tied in them and the energy was high.
We found the tourist info centre and because we had questions about hours of business over the Christmas holidays, we went to see what we could do in terms of sightseeing and to find a decent grocery store (since we’d have to have enough food for Christmas Day). We were greeted with a lovely smile and a “Hello” and when we asked about what we could do over the next three days, the young lady chuckled and said, quite plainly, “Nothing.” The cable car was shut down for the season, the walking tours were no longer being offered, the sea kayaking adventures were closed for winter, the ferries to the nearby island weren’t running and all the shops would be closed by 3 pm on Christmas Eve.
This left us in an interesting predicament. While we enjoyed the fact that Christmas is such a big event here and we could feel it was going to be an experience unlike any other, we were a little worried about how we were going to spend the days. I mean, we didn’t fly across the world to sit in the apartment and drink wine on the balcony. (Though that doesn’t seem like a terrible idea.)
As it was fairly late at this point (about 7 pm) and the only thing to do at this point was eat, drink and be merry, so that’s exactly what we did! We walked around, had some hot wine, enjoyed the medieval beauty of the stone walls and storefront lanterns and suddenly heard beautiful acapella music. We followed the sound, turned the corner into one of the Old City squares and happened across a lovely Nativity production set up in front of one of the cathedrals.
After walking around aimlessly enjoying the atmosphere, we were approached by a gentleman from a nearby restaurant, who was trying to drum up business from the foreigners (probably because only tourists were actually eating in restaurants instead of having drinks and snacks at the kiosks). We sat down to a dinner of fresh fish, locally grown vegetables and a glass of Croatian red wine. When the bill came, we were floored. We had asked for “a glass of red wine” from our server, when she asked what kind, we asked her to choose since we’d had no experience with Croatian wine. Well, she chose the most expensive one for us. So each glass was a whopping 70 HRK! This is actually only $14 a glass, which sounds expensive but not unreasonable in Canadian dollars. But things are a whole lot cheaper in Croatia and we had paid, on average, around 12 HRK a glass (about $3). Plus there was a “tax” added. Interesting, considering their menu actually has written in English “taxes are included but gratuity is not”. Not impressed. However, this was the only place that we were taken advantage of in any way throughout our entire trip.
After that, filled with food and warmed with wine, we headed back up those hundred steps to our tiny apartment and fell into bed.
The next morning was Christmas Eve. Our plan for the day was to buy groceries for Christmas Day, to walk along the city walls, to buy one Christmas gift for each other before the stores closed, to have dinner, to come home to rest and then finally head out again in the evening for Midnight Mass at the Cathedral.
We were finally ready to start our day at around 10 am and we again descended the hundred steps to the Stradun. We found a quiet café and had a coffee. As we sat outside at our table, not needing the blankets they put on every chair since it was already around 15 degrees, we noticed that everyone that passed us was really dressed up. Like, REALLY dressed up. All the ladies were in excruciatingly high heels, the men in suits and crisp white shirts, shoes polished and even children had their Sunday best on. There was much laughing and loving hellos, kisses on both cheeks, small children wrapped in big hugs. We asked someone, “What’s going on today?” She looked at us, with a questioning look and said, “It’ Christmas Eve.” And then, after seeing our blank stares, added, “We celebrate that too.”
Christmas Eve at home can be pretty frantic. Most people work, last minute gift-shopping, lots of food prep. But here, there was a feeling of total and complete energetic excitement and joy. Tonight was going to be big, I could feel it.
But before then, we had to do a quick grocery shop to stock up for the next day and a half and some gift shopping before the stores closed.
Then, we headed to the City Walls. Dubrovnik was built on cliffs in order to make it impenetrable as a fortress city. But thankfully, it’s never really needed the walls because due to savvy diplomatic relations, it was never invaded. The walls, however, did nothing to prevent mortar fire and incendiary bombs being launched into the Old City from the hills above during the Balkans War, 1991-1995. The excellent condition of the buildings and the Walls is due in great part to the love the residents have for their city and how well they’ve restored it and preserved it.
For 100HRK (about $20), you can walk along the entire perimeter of these stone walls. The entrance is on the right-hand side just before you exit the Old City through the Pile Gate. There are a total of 4 343 steps that you must ascend or descend in the circuit and I’d like to mention just how proud I am that Bob (with the gimpy ankle) did it with no complaining! The views were spectacular and every once in awhile, we would come across a little kiosk that sold cold drinks or souvenirs. It took us about an hour and a half, though it could take you much less if you don’t take photos or if you have two good ankles. You spend a great deal of time quite high so if you are really afraid of heights, and you find you are not enjoying the adventure, there are a couple of spots you can exit. Also, bring water because the sun can be pretty powerful on those walls.
When we finally came down off the walls, we wandered around some more. We found the Buza Bar (buza means “hole in the wall”) and quite literally, the entrance to this bar was indeed a small doorway through the City Walls to the cliffs on the outside. It was a spectacularly sunny day. We had been lucky with the weather; it was even warmer than usual for Dubrovnik. The thermometer said something like 15 degrees but with the full sun beating down, it must have been 20 or higher. There are several levels of platforms with tables and chairs on them and then stairs leading down to the lowest platform, from which you can swim. In the summer, I’m sure this bar is a tourist magnet. But the thing about Dubrovnik is that all of these gems are obvious enough that they can be found if you are looking for them but hidden well enough that when you do find them, you feel like you’ve just discovered a secret. Stairwells hewn in the naturally rocky terrain that lead elsewhere, a lone door that passes through the fortified walls, a ledge that encircles the walls that leads to a beach, a door in the middle of a rocky ledge that seems only accessible when the water is high. If you enjoy tales of castles and magic wardrobes, small abodes in trees or beanstalks that grow to reach kingdoms, you will be forever enchanted by Dubrovnik.
After dinner, we killed some time before heading out to Midnight Mass. It seemed like Midnight Mass was the only Mass said on Christmas Eve. The festivities along the main street had not stopped all day. People had been sitting at the kiosks, drinking wine and beer and laughing and hugging each other all day long. And it just got louder in the evening. The church bells started ringing, children were running from house to house singing carols, people were playing instruments. I have never felt such excitement on Christmas Eve before and it made me really wonder what we, in North America, were doing wrong.
At 11 pm, we headed back to the centre again, this time dressed in our travelling best. Not that it mattered because we never took our coats off. We didn’t really know where to go for Mass because there were several churches in the Old City. But when the 11:30 bells started ringing, everyone started moving towards one in particular so we followed to St. Dominic’s. It was richly decorated and the people poured into the nave until, by 11:45, there was absolutely no way to move. People were overflowing out onto the steps so we decided to follow people around to the side door. As we entered through the monastery doors, we noticed that we were actually going through the cloisters and even though it was quite dark, we saw trees and flowers in the cloister garth (the open green space in a cloister) and people sitting on the benches there, waiting for Mass. There were speakers placed outside the doors so all could hear the Mass. We found a bench and sat. Catholic Mass is the same everywhere in the world so I was able to at least respond in English, even if I couldn’t understand what was being said.
After Mass, everyone returned to the street festivities with even more gusto. We stayed until 1:30 am, took some silly Christmas photos and then called it a night. I don’t know what time the locals went to bed but probably not until the wee hours.
It was a pretty late morning for us. No need to set an alarm or jump out of bed wondering what we’d do today. It was Christmas Day! We had one gift each to open, we were going to have a leisurely breakfast and then we had a plan to walk and see where we ended up. Everything was closed so there were no deadlines or appointments.
Croatia is known for lacework and embroidery so for Christmas, I wanted a piece of traditional work. The day before, we found the embroidery in a shop run by an eccentric, older gentleman who joked about his wife being the slave-driver of this shop while boasting that all the pieces were created by her using the five geometric designs that could be found in a traditional Croatian dress. This type of clothing is obviously not worn anymore but there was one that once belonged to his wife’s grandmother on display in the shop, alongside black and white photos of his wife and her mother at the doorway of the shop, and closest to the cash (which is really just a laptop and lockbox), a photo of his wife and their daughter at the doorway of the shop. It is embroidered with cotton thread and in the centre, embroidered with silk. Lace is at the edges and it is approximately 8″x 10″.
Bob wanted a Game of Thrones T-shirt since many scenes of this favourite show of ours are filmed in Dubrovnik. There was one shop that seemed devoted to Game of Thrones but unfortunately it was closed. But a few doors down, we found a shop that made custom T-shirts. And, of course, the owner had a kabillion Game of Thrones prints. (If you are also a Game of Thrones fan, check back later for a post about the filming locations!)
We set off for another day of walking. We decided to walk over to Lovrijenac Fortress and climb to the door just for the view. We knew it wouldn’t be open to go into but it looks amazingly high and we weren’t disappointed. From there, we took another path that led us under an arched tunnel and down some steps to a public beach. The “beaches” here aren’t what you might normally consider a beach. They consist of rocks that have had concrete poured into the crevices to make a flat platform in some places. The swimming space is made up mostly of areas from which you can jump into the water. At this beach, there was a very small standard beach but it was covered with small pebbles, not sand. We continued on, following another path to a lookout that we had seem from a different lookout. We found a worn trail and followed it. (This was the theme of the day – find a trail/path/stairway and see where it leads.) After about five minutes, and losing our footing several times on extremely loose rocks, we found ourselves at the coast, at another beach. This one was bigger and had a tikki-style bar to go with it. (Closed obviously because no one in their right mind would be swimming in this water in winter.) Again, just rocky outcroppings into the water that had a platform of concrete flattening the top. (Everything here is rocky. Just so you know.) Only jumping in at this “beach”, no wading. And today the waves were crashing against the platforms, getting everything within a few feet of the edges wet.
Here are some scenes from the day.
What can I say, after wandering around, following trails, seeing beaches, having a picnic lunch in the sun, taking photos of beautiful doors, stopping for a drink at the Irish pub that was open and then stopping for another at the Indian restaurant that was open and then another at one of the kiosks in the Strada, we headed up those one hundred steps to the apartment to make a late Christmas dinner and to pack. We were leaving at 9 am the next day to head to Kotor, Montenegro.
Because we were here over the Christmas holidays, we were not able to do all of the things we wanted. But in return, we could always find a seat in any restaurant, the people we met had time to chat with us and give us information they might not have had time to do in busier times, we were given deals and hints on what to do. We experienced amazing Christmas traditions and saw a part of Dubrovnik that many people won’t see because they travel in summer. We were given a Christmas that seemed to embody everything that the holiday is meant to – happiness, joy, hope for the coming year, love, peace and laughter. We will come again to Dubrovnik but in the warmer months, amidst the growing crowds of tourists so that we can enjoy all the other exciting things this beautiful city has to offer.