Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dubrovnik (Crotia)

Dubrovnik as viewed from Mount Srd 

We got off to an early start for a day that combined wine touring with a move to Dubrovnik.

Backing up for a moment, initially we had expected to have a car only for a couple days on Hvar and then to take a passenger ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik. It turns out renting a car on Hvar was so expensive that keeping the car that we picked up in Dubrovnik for the full two weeks (including 3 ferry crossings with the car) was significantly less expensive and gave us a chance to visit the wine country in between.

The trip from Hvar to Dubrovnik encompassed a 30 mile drive from Vrboska to Scuraj along narrow serpentine roads. (Fortunately Pat must have been asleep because she managed not to notice the steep drop-offs along the way.) There is frequent (maybe 7 trips per day) ferry service from Scuraj to the Drvenjic on the mainland.  Easy.

But it turns out that the wine country is on the skinny, mountainous 55-mile-long Pelješac (PEHL-yeh-shahts) Peninsula, that parallels Hvar Island. There are two options for getting there. One is to drive down through Bosnia Herzegovina. Yep, Dubrovnik is on the mainland but it is not contiguous to the rest of Croatia. In order to drive to Dubrovnik you need to cross the coast of Bosnia Herzegovina, requiring dealing with two border crossings. To visit wine country enroute, you then need to drive out the Peninsula and back again. Or you can choose option #2: take a ferry to midway out the peninsula and then drive back through wine country…much more practical, especially if you want to taste a few wines enroute. Hence we needed to coordinate two ferry schedules and allow for the 25 km drive between the ports.

Should this statue at the Scuraj Ferry Terminal and the view of our destination (mountains rising directly out of the sea), have warned us of dangers beyond?
All went well and by 11:30 am we were ready to find a winery. Some of the best red wines in Croatia are from Plavic grapes (genetically related to Zinfandel). The best of these wines are  produced in the Postup and Dingac regions of the peninsula  We had good notes from our web research and after negotiating the climb to 3000 feet (or so), we homed right in on Matusko Winery. Interestingly, the tasting experience felt quite "American", i.e. you could arrive unscheduled, you could explore the winery if you wanted, and you could taste from a range of wines with no fee. Actually the no-fee part seems to be less common these days in the US but we are OK with harking back to the "old" days if it means "no fees".  Other European tasting experiences have entailed having yet another tour of a winery, having a long discussion (or lecture) about the winery and finally tasting the wine. This takes about 2 hours (minimum) and means you can only do 2 or 3 such tastings in a day.  We are all for tasting as many wines as possible (and we even manage not to drink all they will pour for us so that we can taste more), so we prefer efficient in-and-out tastings. Glad to see this is possible in Europe (or at least in Croatia.).

Tasting room number one. Easy access.
You can taste any of about a dozen wines. Off to a good start.
What happened next? Pat had learned about a one-lane tunnel (through a mountain) that connected the two wine regions. And Grgic was on the other side of the mountain.  So off we went through the tunnel. After all in Croatia Grgic is renowned, even more renowned than Michael's Girgich Winery in Napa (the extra "h" on the end is to help we English speaking folk get the pronunciation correct).  His Croatian wines are certainly excellent…but we get ahead of ourselves.

Once you go through the tunnel you are suddenly on two-way roads that are barely wide enough for one car. And you are now driving steep mountainous roads. Think serpentine. Think steep drop-offs on one side, if not both.  Think how terrified Pat was.  Then think about Bill having to drive this. We don't have photos. We didn't have the courage to stop. But it was beautiful..when we could look.  Anyway, we finally reached the winery and enjoyed the wines immensely. Phew! As we continued on we almost immediately reached the highway. Only then did we realize that all the terror could have been avoided (if some writeup, somewhere had shared the information.) Oh what we wine lovers will do for a fine wine...

See the point of land on the top left of this photo?  Imagine driving that hillside road on through the cute little town in that bay in the center and out to the next point (highlighted with a yellow pointer). Then imagine driving on to that highway in the righthand side of the photo. Live & learn. (Photo is a copy of a postcard from the Grgic Winery.)

Following the wine tasting we continued on to Ston. Ston & neighboring Mali Ston are famous since the Middle Ages for their local saltworks and the tall walls that connect the towns and protect the saltworks (approx 3.5 miles of wall remain). They continue to produce salt in Mali but today they are more known for the oysters & mussels that they produce.  Pat found the oysters to be small and sweet.  She later had equally fine mussels.

The Saltworks

The City Walls of Ston

Sign in 10 languages.  Later we saw a menu in 15 languages! We usually abhor translated menus, 
but: 1. we have no idea how to read the Croatian menu and 2. we found the translations unusually clear and accurate.

After lunch and a brief tour of Mali Ston, we continued on to Dubrovnik. The origins of Dubrovnik are still unclear. There was a thriving settlement in the area in Roman times (but maybe not in Dubrovnik per se). Since 8C AD, the Republic of Ragusa, centered in Dubrovnik has been under the rule of or allied with: the Byzantine Empire (until after the Crusades), Venetian Empire (for about 150 years), the Kingdom of Hungary (briefly), the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for roughly 400 years.  Over time the Republic of Ragusa apparently rivaled Venice.

During the walking tour of Dubrovnik we were told the long history of the area  including that the Ragusan Empire made its fortune using the salt from Ston. They retained the fortune through diplomacy, always focusing on building good relations with countries large & small. An earthquake in the 17th century destroyed much of the city. It was rebuilt over the ages but was again destroyed in the early 90's.  It was rebuilt once more and may or may not be as glorious, but it certainly is lovely.

Whatever the history, the facts are:
- the walls extend 6,360 feet around the Old Town and reach a maximum height of 82 feet.
- were constructed during the Middle Ages and have been reinforced & extended over time as needed to protect against the Turks & the Venetians.
- the walls more or less withstood the 1667 earthquake that devastated the town within.
- the walls and the Old Town are very impressive today. They attract thousands of visitors each day during the summer. During midday, crowds from Cruise ships make negotiating the narrow streets challenging but touring early or late in the day is quite enjoyable. The town is basically dead from January through March.

We were up early and out for photos before the crowds on our second day and got some views with fewer people, After the photo shoot we walked the walls for about 2 hours.They surround the city and provide views over the city, water and rugged mountains.

View of the 12-sided fountain - fountains in Europe typically still work and deliver fine, safe water.

The brightest roof tiles are ones replaced in the recent reconstruction of the city.
The darker tiles are roofs that survived... 

The many narrow walks & stairways make it wise to start the wall tour early and
make one grateful that they maintain a one-way traffic rule. No need to meet someone.
This is especially good on the narrowest, steepest walls where many people do best
to remain in the very center and avoid looking down...

We enjoyed an impressive one day small-group tour to the nearby country of Montenegro. We had considered making the tour by car with Bill driving. We were both thrilled that we opted to let someone else drive, let alone figure out how to best hit the highlights. The main highlights of the tour were:
- the impressive views of the bays and rugged mountains during the drive around the bay
- the city of Kotor with the fortress walls and narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants
- the views over Kotor and the bay from the highway above the city
Shot of Bay on approach to Kotor

Kotor Bay & surrounding mountains
- the city of Budva with its beaches and harbor (it seems there is a lot of wealth in Budva, especially from Russian and Mid-eastern interests.
- the return trip was shortened by about 1 hour by taking a 15 min ferry across the neck of the bay

Map of Kotor Bay showing heights/depths in meters
It was in Budva that we saw the menu in 15 languages. It was alo on this little tour that we saw a telescope that accepted 3 different currencies (HR-Croatian, Euros-Montenegran, km-Bosnia Herzegovinan ) 
Ready to accept whatever currency you have to offer...

Dubrovnik is a city for wandering.  The walls with views over the city, islands, and bays and the alleyways, shops and local markets. Actually even after exploring the city over the course of a few days we were still finding new areas just by deciding to enter what seemed like a minor, unused alley. In fact that's when we came upon the local "beach" hangout pictured below.
The "Beach" in Dubrovnik

There are many islands that are a short boat ride away. We chose to visit Lokrum where we walked to the fort and old port (both with views of Dubrovnik), explored the botanic garden, checked out the "beaches" ...never quite finding the famous nudist beach there.  We also enjoyed the families of peacocks that freely wander the island.  

We woke up on our last day in Dubrovnik worried that we had made a strategic error.  We had not yet taken the cable car up nearby Mount Srd for the sunset view of the city mountain.  There had been major rain overnight and the sky was grey. We wondered how two experienced travelers could have failed to realize the risk in leaving any highlight activity to the last minute, especially if it were weather dependent and if you had so much free time earlier in the visit. Anyway, phew. We learned our lesson and were rewarded by a lovely sunny evening with a fine sunset.

And to end on a food note...

Pat anticipating the mussels (at Gusta Me Restaurant)
Cevapcici - a slavic treat.

A devine antipasto at De Vino Wine Bar.  Those garlic are amazing.
The semi-dried tomatoes were a treat as well.

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