I always have a plan. And I used to almost always have a color-coded travel spreadsheet – a beautiful, multi-tabbed document detailing business hours and transportation routes and hotel check-out times. For years I wouldn’t approach a vacation without either; even downtime was scheduled. When trips involved multiple destinations and I’d end up with only one or two days to explore a particular city, my research would turn to those limited-day itineraries, detailing how to pack in everything of importance, often at breakneck speed. I thoroughly believed in maximizing my time in a new place, for who knew when I’d return? It was best to visit the most important attractions the first time around, or so my mantra went.
I’m not nearly as neurotic these days, but maximizing my time in Dubrovnik, the tantalizing walled city resting at the southern tip Croatia’s coastline, was exactly my intent. Lord Byron’s “Pearl of the Adriatic.” A city with roots so deep, there is debate whether it was founded in Roman times, or earlier, by the Greeks. It controlled trade and commerce into the Balkans for almost a century. Built on so many layers, both physically and historically, it would easily take three-plus days to explore everything, and I wanted the trip to be perfect.
But the circumstances of my Dubrovnik visit were unexpected. It turned out to be one stop of many during a weekend excursion, and one that lasted only a day. And I was with two dudes who had no intention of running around to take in this or that museum, cathedral or a walking tour. Which, I came to realize, was just as well – the moment I set foot inside the massive walls the city itself seemed to demand we do anything other than race against a self-imposed clock. Here, it whispered, on a sunny day with practically no crowds and a lovely light breeze blowing through the streets, life is fjaka: blissful and unhurried.
So, we wandered. We didn’t visit a museum, but we did walk the city’s almost thousand-year-old walls. Reaching up to 80 feet high, they provide a spectacular vantage point for forest-covered islands dotting the Mediterranean, adjoining fortresses, and the city they define.
Below us, laughing and shouting children chased soccer balls and each other through the streets, deftly avoiding shoppers and diners and photographers and lollygaggers, all of which appeared visibly taken aback to find themselves in such a beautiful setting.
Orderly, stone buildings rested on gently rising slopes towards the east and west walls and were divided by the main promenade running north-south through the city’s valley.
Bright, orange tiled roofs dominated Dubrovnik’s aerial view, a reminder of the recent renovations done to repair damage inflicted two and a half decades prior by Serbian forces’ unsuccessful – though destructive – shelling attempt to take the city during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The city has been so wholly repaired, it’s easy to forget the war ever reached this part of the region.
White-stone laden and lantern-lit alleyways are lined with shops and cafes and framed by potted plants and hanging laundry.
Instead of communing with God in one of the many (many) cathedrals, we communed with nature on an outdoor terrace overhanging the ocean: sipping hoppy Croatian beer and dry, citrus white wine in plastic, wicker chairs, which had no business being as comfortable as my back and bum perceived them to be.
We filled our lungs with crisp, salt-tinged ocean air and watched a burnt orange sun sink down a purple-hued sky and slip beneath distant white-capped waves.
At some point during the day, I was lulled into that kind of mellow, contemplative state that pairs sublimely with a slow saunter through new streets.
As the sun set, I reflected on my perfect day in Dubrovnik, done without pulling one page from a tourist playbook. I was more relaxed than I’d been in months, yet a low hum of excitement, running just below the surface of my skin, reminded me how crazy fortunate I was to be there. Even if it was just for one (gloriously unplanned, un-spreadsheeted) day.