Hello from Dubrovnik. My two main successes in Dubrovnik were buying a bus ticket in Croatian and a kayaking trip. Most of the people I met in Croatia spoke at least some English, so the transaction at the ticket kiosk was mostly for my own sake, but it's all about the small victories. And to be fair, there is quite a bit of crossover between Croatian and Polish, especially with numbers, but I will mark it as a win.
I took the kayaking trip on my last evening in Dubrovnik after a couple of days exploring the Old Town and visiting a local beach near my hotel. I had in fact scheduled the kayaking for the morning but the company asked if I could come later in the day hoping that others might sign up. As asked, I arrived at 5 p.m. and was still the only participant, a sign of the hard times Dubrovnik's tourist economy is now experiencing due to the pandemic and border closures. Earlier in the day, a restaurant owner in the Old Town told me business for him is about 20 percent of what it usually is.
My kayaking guide was a young guy studying history at a university in England, so I didn't bother with the pretense of speaking Croatian. As a history student, he also happily went off script as we paddled out into the harbor and out to an island (pictured below) lined with small coves and rocky beaches.
I learned quite a bit about Dubrovnik's past as an independent republic balancing tricky neutrality with the Ottomans and the Venetians. All of this came to an end when Napoleon wandered through but Dubrovnik had a good run as a city-state, apparently, a 'woke' one as it was one of the first governments to ban slavery back in the Middle Ages.
After we paddled around the supposedly haunted island, we passed through the main channel of the harbor. Typically, the harbor is filled with cruise ships but currently is home to just a couple of mega-yachts. Dubrovnik is a popular stopping point for the uber-wealthy from tech barons to oligarchs to sultans (again leaving me out....sigh). Swinging around the island and into the channel, we had a good view of the Old Town backdropped by the setting sun. With the steep hills above town now in view, my guide discussed how the city had been heavily shelled from those hills during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991. The city also went without power and water for about eight months. The artillery fire destroyed or damaged a number of buildings in the Old Town. In fact, I learned, the red tile roofs so characteristic of the old quarter are recent replacements for those damaged.
After about two hours, we paddled back to our start point, passing the stone city walls as we went. The Adriatic Sea was as smooth and clear as glass, and with the sunset and colorful clouds, it made for a lovely evening. Paddling in with all this beauty around me, I found it hard to imagine that the war was only about 30 years ago, especially given Dubrovnik's cheerful, laid-back ambiance. The city and the Croatian coast generally had the vibe of a California beach town, albeit a beach town with a really complex past. Today, the main invaders are the tourists such as myself, armed with our iPhones, ball caps, and backpacks. But given all that Dubrovnik and Croatia have been through, I am guessing they are scoring that as a win...