Getting Fresh in Croatia

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Dubrovnik Old Town at sunset

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The first thing that struck me was the smell when the taxi dropped me off at my hostel in Dubrovnik. It wasn’t a fowl smell – quite the contrary – it was a beautiful spring flower smell – completely stunning. I went for a brisk morning run along the water – the air was cool but perfect for running. While I was running someone was out cutting grass…and it smelled so fresh – flooding my brain with memories of spring! It’s a weird feeling to experience spring when you never had a winter – I felt like I was cheating in a way…but it was a welcome feeling as spring and fall are my favorite times of year in the states.

stairsThe television in Croatia includes about 5 channels or programming – 2 of the 5 are in English – airing some old, American sitcoms – Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Home Improvement, Full House – definitely stale TV. I hope that the people in Croatia really don’t think that those shows represent the US…they are about 15 years behind! My first two days in Croatia were spent on my own going on runs, doing a ton of walking, exploring Dubrovnik and watching crappy television. After that, the real fun began – my friend David showed up from NYC to join me for the next 10 days. David is one of my dearest friends from NY. We met through our mutual friend Miles (see Greece post) and became close friends through running. I know this is a bad analogy – but in my head David, Miles and I represent my Will and Grace lifestyle…they are my Will and Jack. David absolutely hates this analogy, only because I told him that he would represent Jack and he had a hissy fit…which just solidified the ‘Jack’ character even more. I have no idea why he felt that the analogy was so terrible – he is the only person I know that breaks out into show tunes in the middle of a run or in public, he dances by jumping up and down, he shops more than I do, and he owns lime sherbet colored underwear…I mean really – do you blame me? He spent 10 days trying to convince me that he wasn’t like the Jack character…but the 10 days just solidified my thoughts more – especially when he broke out into the Footloose song in Venice (more to come on that in the Venice post!)

david and i

All joking aside, David is a fabulous runner, a crazy partier, a wonderful listener, and spending time with him is like drinking pure caffeine. He has more energy and enthusiasm than I can normally take…kind of like a little puppy that just never stops playing. Regardless of how perky he is in the morning – I love him to death. We became friends through the normal channels of socializing and partying in NYC – however, he’s a bit different because we’ve spent more sober hours together than partying hours. When you have a running partner, that means that you are talking to this person uninterrupted for hours and hours during a week. I seldom had this experience with my other friends, I spent about 5 solid hours of solitude with David a week – completely sober and normally half awake. You really get to know people when you are forced to talk to them for miles and miles – you know their family, every bit of their work life, their strengths, their fears, their bowel movements, their sex life – you name it – nothing is off limits. So –I consider David one of my very closest friends – as we got to know each other I found that we had a ton in common – except for our attitudes in the morning. We would talk about past relationships, views on people, our own control-freak personalities – I often thought he was the exact gay, male version of me when it came to relationships…or does that mean that I’m really a gay male…who knows…I’ve been called worse. If I could run as swift as him I would be happy regardless. So when David showed up with his blonde faux-hawked hair in Dubrovnik – I was overjoyed to see him. Plus – the fact that I had worked out all of my transition issues the two weeks before with Miles in Greece, made my meeting with David even that more carefree. Poor Miles, he really got the short end of the stick! David and I had much to catch up on. We were staying in an adorable apartment in the Old Town Dubrovnik. The apartment was filled with antiques and even had a little patio that we could sit on for afternoons of wine and cheese. The Old Town was enclosed by thick ancient walls, it is one of the best preserved walled cities in all of Europe. There were no cars inside the walls, and the narrow little street ways were enchanting every where you turned. Even though I had been in Dubrovnik for 2 days already I hadn’t yet explored the Old Town at all. I decided to save that for when David came as we were planning to stay 4 days within the Old Town walls of Dubrovnik.

view from wall
I had never really seen a walled city like this before. Sure – there are tons of little walled towns in Tuscany – but Dubrovnik Old Town was the largest I had seen. It was also built into a steep hill on one side and bordered the Adriatic on the other side. The hill side wall was steep – but well worth the climb as it gave you amazing views of the city and the Adriatic as a backdrop. We walked around the whole wall stopping for a beer at a little bar on top of the wall. I’m sure the bar wasn’t from ancient times – but I wasn’t complaining as it was probably one of the most unusual places that I’ve ever had a drink! Later that day David took the plunge – into the chilly Adriatic. When we were up on top of the wall, we noticed that there was a number or people laying out and swimming along a very rocky area outside the city walls. Since David was fresh off the plane from experiencing winter in NY – he wanted to experience some summer. There were actually quite a few people at the little ‘swimming hole’…mainly Germans in speedos…and then David…he fit in just fine. I was cold just watching him, but I was happy just sitting there reading up on all of the celebrity gossip that I had been missing as David brought me trashy magazines from the US…and Twizzlers of course!

clothespins We walked all over the town exploring every little nook, and stopping for the occasional gelato. Everywhere you walked there were clothes hanging between the old buildings out on lines above. I really don’t think anyone in the town owned a dryer – I’ve determined that dryers must mainly be an American thing as the majority of the world doesn’t have one. My parents will be very happy to hear that. The other thing that struck me about Dubrovnik was the terrain; the town was built into a hillside and was nestled between the Adriatic and the hill. Directly over the hill was Bosnia. Croatia was the first place that I saw pine trees and palm trees growing side by side (that sounds like it should be a Jimmy Buffet song!). The fresh smell of the pine trees was wonderful – it has been a long time since I had even seen a pine tree! We were blessed with perfect weather. April is actually still considered off-season for the Adriatic coastal towns. They are normally brimming with tourists during the summer, in fact – as many as 8 cruise ships come to Dubrovnik during one day in the summer months. circle windowLocals told us that there is a line outside the walls of the city to get in. We thought it was crowded already with cruisers – but once we heard this we were feeling pretty lucky to be here in April! So – if you are planning a trip to Dubrovnik – come in April…it was lovely.

I had picked up a flyer for a bar named Fresh at a tourist information office and we decided to go check out their happy hour specials and see if we could find some nightlife in the Old Town. As we turned the corner down the narrow little cobblestone path, we immediately realized that Fresh was the nightlife…at least for tourists like us. There was loud music and people everywhere in the little alleyway. The bar was only about 200 sq ft. so everyone got their drinks and just spilled outside into the streets. The bar’s motto was “Eat, Travel, Drink”…my favorite things to do – of course I fell in love with this place! We met the owner of the bar – a young Canadian guy who went to university in Dubrovnik, met a local woman and decided to stay. He somehow pulled strings and opened up a bar geared towards students and backpackers. Ok – so David or I didn’t really fit either one of these groups, but as an Around the World traveler and a Gay male – it met our needs…basically, they had cheap beer and music.

tilesWhile at the bar we met a bunch of other travelers – but one really stuck out. There was a 37 year old man there from Japan who had been riding a bike around the world for the last 6 years. He biked through Nepal and met some people there that convinced him to climb Everest (with no real prior climbing experience). After 6 months of training and learning how to climb – he summitted Everest. After he accomplished that, he got back on the bike and kept going. I was absolutely enthralled with this crazy man. Seriously…who does that? This was made even more unbelievable when I saw his bike. Single gear, old bike with everything he owned stacked on the back about 3 feet high. I sat and had a beer with him and had thousands of questions, trying to figure out if he was for real – or just simply crazy beyond belief. Granted – I like crazy – but really mental…no thank you. He’s making his way over to the Americas eventually – however that may take years…so don’t hold your breath. He had a little portfolio of newspaper clippings with him to show people (and probably to prove that he was telling the truth!). Fresh bar was raising money for him that night so all tips went to him…a pretty cool thing to do. I think his only source of income was telling his story and having people ‘take him in’ and doing magic tricks on the street. That could be my new fall back plan!

We asked around to find out if there was any place to dance and we were told that there was one place near Old Town…so of course we moved there for some late night cocktails and booty shakin’. The only downside to going out in Dubrovnik (besides that there was only one nightclub), was that everyone smoked. Whenever I could I welcomed the fresh air and tried to stay outside. I had to air out my clothes ever day to try to keep my entire suitcase from smelling like an ashtray. To top it off, David – the guy that runs a 3:18 marathon also decided to join in with the smoky Europeans. Don’t worry – I did give him a lecture on how his lungs were dying and I made him promise to go look at the black lungs at the Bodies exhibit in NYC…seriously – it’s gross.

david on the ledge Every night we met more and more people at Fresh – more travelers, some locals, and tons of students….even a gay couple…which was quite an oddity in Dubrovnik! Sure – David did actually try to hit on some cute boys – but with lines like “So, do you come here often?” as well as his effeminate smoking style…well – he didn’t get very far. When he used that sad little pick up line…I think the whole bar went silent and one of the Irish women we were hanging out with said “You did NOT just say that – did you?” It’s amazing that we made any friends at all! We also found a great little jazz bar that had a bunch of signage/ads for T-mobile Hot Spot. I was so excited as I desperately wanted to find a wireless connection to check email and upload pictures. There were a number of internet cafes in Dubrovnik Old Town…but they were expensive, and I was cheap (no snickering). So – when we found this place I was over-joyed. However upon asking the waiter about it, he said “No, No internet” – I pointed to the hundreds of signs saying ‘hotspot’ and he just shook his head. I was furious…how could T-mobile advertise something that wasn’t there?! The waiter did try to direct us to an internet cafe…but nothing he could say or do would make me happy. I dubbed the bar “Hot spot not”.

We did a day excursion to Mljet Island. We took a ferry to the island and spent he day exploring. The island is mainly covered by forest and national park and is dotted with little villages. It’s a very popular destination in the summer, but I have to admit – it was pretty dead when we go there. One of the main sites that our tour book mentioned was a monastery on a small island on a fresh water lake. david with cross We made our way to the dock at the lake and waited for the little boat to arrive. There were only about 2 other people around with us waiting – it was very remote. It was that moment that I finally laid down and really relaxed. This environment was stunning – it felt as if I were in Minnesota on a lake, the smell of pine trees, the lake water lapping up making that peaceful sound, the sun beating down on me at the perfect temperature…I just napped there – it was like a ‘natural’ spa experience – I was sad to see the boat arrive. The monastery is only open on Sundays and we were excited to see what it was all about. Unfortunately it was a huge disappointment. It had been closed years ago so it was wasting away into rubble. There was nothing really open except for one chapel. The island was small and could be explored in about 30 minutes – but the boats in the off season only ran about every 2 hours…so we were now stuck on the island for two hours. However – we made the most of it by simply hiking around, talking, and having beer at the only thing that was open on the monastery island. I guess beer is not off limits at the monastery!. As we sat there soaking up the sun, drinking our beer a couple monks, or priests (I honestly just know that they were associated with a church due to their long robes) came by and they sat and had cigars and drank scotch…maybe this secluded island thing was a great place to live after all! We spent the rest of the day hiking around the island of Mljet, getting our exercise and enjoying the vistas – it was a good, chill afternoon.

croatia landscape
Photo: Coast line of Croatia
We left Dubrovnik via bus and headed toward another coastal town, Split. It was a 4 hour bus trip that was gut wrenching…it felt like we were hanging off the side of the coastal cliffs most of the time! It was beautiful as the road was carved out of the rocky cliffs. However – after 3 hours on the bus with the sun pouring in the windows, the bus started getting ripe. There was not enough deodorant to take the stank away! Split was yet another walled city – but it had a completely different vibe…it was larger than Dubrovnik and more modern even though it had the same stone walls enclosing the city center. Even though it was larger, it failed to have a night life. But we made the best of it and played cards and drank martinis. We woke up the next morning and went on our first run together in 8 months. As expected – I was slow and crabby – but I made it! It was a beautiful morning and I was with David – so all was good. Later that afternoon, for the first time in 7 days of traveling together – it finally rained. It didn’t just rain…it poured. Hell, it even hailed! I’m not joking…it really did hail. We took shelter at a little bar that also made pizza.

golden sunWe were in Split because it had a large port and we were taking a ferry to Italy. That night we were left via the sea to continue our adventure in Italy…bring on the wine!! However, it was sad to leave Croatia…it was a great time. Croatia was like a giant scratch-n-sniff sticker to me that I would label “Fresh”. The flowers, the pine trees, the cut grass, the sea air…it was great smell therapy! My expectations of Croatia were exceeded.
Photo: The sun glowed after the rainfall in Split…a great way to leave Croatia!

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