by David Allan-Petale
A common predicament of travel, especially in Europe, is where to draw the line between sightseeing and just having some fun. I can recall many a time when I have suffered from ABC Syndrome, as in ‘Another Bloody Cathedral’. I love history and always make sure to take in as much of a place’s past as I can. But it’s also important to appreciate the present and look beyond the stones and monuments.
In the history-saturated streets of Dubrovnik we stumbled on a great way to appreciate the city’s character as well as meet some locals and escape the cruise ship tour crowds. We signed up to an Adventure Dubrovnik kayaking expedition; a twilight tour in which we’d paddle around six miles of the stunning waterways surrounding the old city.
After a quick instruction lesson on the pebble beach beneath the great battlements we took to the water in our two-person kayak. As we paddled out, our hearts raced with excitement as the cool waters slid us past the city walls where we could see the true size and scale of Dubrovnik. The terracotta roofs and church towers shimmered in the afternoon sun, a great reward for a little bit of muscle power!
Our tour leader, a local fellow, guided us along the city walls and pointed out landmarks on the shore. We saw a hotel that cost €7,000 a night to stay in and we were told one Russian oligarch hired the place for three months! The view of Dubrovnik just got better and better but the hot sun on our backs was making warm work of the paddling. So our guide led us to a cave that opens onto the ocean, forming a beach protected from the wind and the waves. We dumped the kayaks on the shore and went swimming for the better part of an hour, using snorkel masks to dive deep down into the mirror-clear water where thousands of fish swarmed among the boulders on the bottom.
After a quick refuel with some sandwiches and fruit, our group set off again into the sea, heading for the island of Lokrum that sits in front of Dubrovnik like a natural sentinel. Our guide told us the island is considered to be haunted because the Benedictine Monks who used to live there circled the place three times, chanting with their prayer candles turned upside down as a curse to the city official’s who were making them leave. We had a great view of this damned paradise from our kayaks as we bobbed along, passing scores of local fishermen bringing in a late catch from the abundant waters.
The sun’s burning disc was plunging fast and our group formed up for the long paddle home. We came at Dubrovnik front on now, and could see how intimidating the city walls would have been to an invader. But we had a friendly welcome on the beach as our guide cracked open a few excellent bottles of Croatian wine and we all toasted the sunset.
Speaking of wine, we got to talking with the guides about a mountain biking tour they offered of a local wine region. We wanted to go the next day, a Sunday, our last in Croatia. Unfortunately the tour didn’t usually go that day but one of the guides, Alecksander, managed to convince the owner of the winery to open up for us. Alecksander would take Carmen and I for a special tour, so the next day we met by the city gates and hopped into a van that drove us further south down the coast and then deep inland near the border with Montenegro. We chatted away and got to know our guide, who regaled us with stories about growing up during the Bosnian war that leeched into this beautiful part of Croatia.
We picked up our bikes and set off at a good pace, working up a fine sweat in the 35 degree heat. The country was stunning, with the best parts of Italy and the south of France echoing in my mind as we ambled along the country roads.
After a steep climb up the route’s only hill we rested at a monastery under the shade of a huge plane tree that was more than 600 years old. When we’d got our wind back it was time to go off road! Low gears and partly deflated tyres helped us navigate a twisty, rocky path through fields of vines, fruit trees and vegetable patches. The sound of running water came through the trees and suddenly we were at a bubbling river.
Alecksander dared us to ford the waters on our bikes. ‘Keep your speed up!’ he urged, but it was no good. We all laughed as Carmen and I failed abysmally to get across to the other side with our feet relatively dry. No matter though, the hot sun dried out our clothes in no time and we only needed our bathers anyway! Alecksander said the water was very cold and warned us to go in slowly as the shock of the cold could harm us. I put a toe in, then a foot, then my legs. When I couldn’t feel those anymore I splashed the rest of my body and took the plunge. The heat of the day was blown away by the arctic water coming directly from an underground aquifer. It was so fresh we bottled the stuff and drank it down sweet and clear.
We explored the river for a while then got back on the bikes for the ride to the vineyard. Dubrovacki Podrumi is a family owned wine label that’s scooped a few major awards in London recently and is exporting more and more to the US and Britain. We met the winemaker and tried his delicious wares, settling on two bottles of his high end stuff and a form to order many more! What better way to end our trip to Croatia than to go off the beaten track, meet some great locals and take away something that can be appreciated now, or with good cellaring in 10 years time. I think that’s far better than a dusty old monument.