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Whether its architecture or arsenic, you'll find it all in Dubrovnik.
Bernard Shaw said, "Those who wish to see heaven on earth should come to Dubrovnik. " A good 80 years later, when I landed in this hugely popular tourist spot on the Adriatic Coast with a couple of friends, I could understand why the great Irishman left so smitten by this gorgeous port town.
The city, which is on the Dalmatian coast, is always crowded with visitors because it has much to offer to different types of people. For those into water sports, it is said to have the best waters for boating, rowing, swimming and big game fishing. The windsurf area in front of Viganj in the vicinity of Dubrovnik, locals claim, has the best weather conditions in the whole Adriatic region.
For culture and history buffs like me, it is a delight. A Unesco World Heritage site, the old town of Dubrovnik is a living, breathing amalgam of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, custom houses, palaces and monasteries. Juxtapose this with the buzz of a top Italian tourist destination with trendy cafês, shops and street life, and you get a good picture of what the town is all about.
Getting to Dubrovnik by road from Split itself is a minor adventure as you have to go through a nine-km stretch of Bosnia. Our driver told us of American tourists who stop here and get themselves photographed in the "I am Bosnian" tee shirt. The funny thing is, this part of Bosnia sandwiched within Croatia is full of ethnic Croats and not Bosnians. Anyway, the land route is unlikely to stay long as the Croats want to build a bridge that will bypass the current route.
As soon as one enters Dubrovnik, it is a touristy ritual to go up the hillock to get a panoramic view. The sight of magnificent red-tiled buildings snuggling up to each other, bound by the sturdy walls that encircle the old town and seemingly afloat in the deepest blue waters of the Adriatic, lives up to tourist brochure billing.
The old town can be done in two segments - the inside of the town and later, the walls around it. During the tourist season, Dubrovnik buzzes throughout the day. Literally thousands of people descend on it, courtesy the cruise-liners that disgorge their guests at this port to savour the city in the mornings. Along the main street, guides holding forth simultaneously in a dozen languages add to the festive atmosphere. At the entrance is the famous, ancient fountain, still running. There's an amazing sculpture of a man, said to be a depiction of a guy with a toothache! There's also a pharmacy which we were told is the third oldest in Europe and the only one still running. I saw what 'arsenic' looks like for the first time - deceptively like salt.
Further along the main street, past dozens of shops selling souvenirs, is the piazza or the main square where the Church of St Blaise - the patron saint of the city - is located. The day we went in, a wedding had just concluded, so it was beautifully decorated with flowers and candles. In front of the church is an arresting statue of a soldier with a sword which I was told was symbolic of merchant cities.
Dubrovnik, for the longest time, was run by rectors who were elected for a short period of time. A tour of the rector's palace is one of the highlights of the old town. Visitors can move from room to room, viewing paintings, furniture and bric-a-brac and leaning out of windows to catch a glimpse of the bustling street life below.
A delight in the old town, was, of course, the innumerable eating joints along the side lanes. Dubrovnik isn't a cheap place, especially if one wants to shop or eat along the main street. But there are also hole-in-the corner joints selling pizzas by the slice.
The walls around the town are a trip by themselves. The two-kilometre tour takes a good four hours with stops to click pictures, admire the fabulous scenery, a coffee or an ice cream break. It is best done early in the mornings or late evenings to avoid the short summer sun.
The path along the walls is fairly wide and as you circumambulate, you get a bird's eye view of the hustle and bustle in the town centre. You can catch residents cooking meals, children playing football, a manager going through the drill before a cafê opens for business with his employees and, of course, the Adriatic sea gleaming aquamarine till it meets the horizon. The most memorable sight for me was watching teenage boys dive from ledges into the open sea. Most other tourists too watched in fascination as half a dozen kids kept daring one another to jump.
As you walk around the walls, you can take short detours, climb down and will probably end up in an interesting part of the town, far from the touristy track. Where we went down, we saw what looked like an old guillotine - which made for many funny pictures naturally - and a bylane with the most amazing flowers.
Slurping on yet another ice-cream - they are delicious and very affordable - we headed out of Dubrovnik at the end of our holiday and back to the reality of our lives.
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