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The living room stories

The living room stories
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First Published: Sat, Aug 01 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Brick lane: An outdoor café on Stradun. Kristin Vukovic
Brick lane: An outdoor café on Stradun. Kristin Vukovic
Updated: Thu, Aug 06 2009. 09 48 PM IST
Arriving in the Old Town always takes my breath away. Stari Grad, the old town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a medieval city constructed entirely of white stone. Great walls envelop the town, clinging to the rock like barnacles, the Adriatic Sea crashing against them. Inside, houses of white stone with orange-tiled roofs are set closer than New York City apartment buildings, and laundry hangs on wires strung between them, flapping and billowing in the Mediterranean wind like ghosts.
Brick lane: An outdoor café on Stradun. Kristin Vukovic
Pero Carevic navigates the snaking roads leading to the Old Town, only occasionally glancing at the road because his hands know the way from his many trips to and from the airport. He chats with my friend Senka in the local language, eyeing us in the rearview mirror. Senka is a Bosnian from Sarajevo, and although the Croatian coastal dialect differs, they understand each other perfectly. Carevic had offered to pick us up from the airport at no charge since there was some miscommunication about our lodging. We had reserved rooms at Carevic and his wife Valerija’s 600-year-old family home, which the couple has turned into a bed-and-breakfast. It’s called Villa Ragusa, after Ragusa, the name for Dubrovnik when it was founded in the seventh century. But as Villa Ragusa was full, Carevic had set us up with his neighbour Pero Paviša, who also rents rooms in a renovated old house.
Carevic and Senka speak fast, with sentences too complex for me to follow, so I tune out and let their conversation wash over my ears. The language is both familiar and foreign, and every time I return to Croatia, I wrestle with the words, the way the sounds make my mouth contort in unusual ways.
My grandparents didn’t teach my father the language when they migrated to the US; they didn’t want him to speak English with an accent. After my grandparents died, my father started researching his roots, and that is when I developed a desire to learn Croatian. I was lucky enough to attend one of a handful of US universities that taught “Serbo-Croatian”. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, New York, I had taken a year of basic language classes, and studied in Dubrovnik one summer. I grew to know the city intimately, and made friends with some locals.
The word vjencanje (marriage) interrupts my thoughts.
“So you are getting married here?” Carevic asks me in English.
“Yes. This is where he proposed. We are here to plan our wedding,” I say.
“He is Croatian?”
“No. He is from India.”
Carevic pulls into the parking lot near the side entrance to the walled city. There are two main drawbridge entrances, Pile and Ploce, located at opposite ends of Old Town, but entering through the side gate is much easier, he tells us, unless we want to walk up the steep side-street stairs. After he has helped us manoeuvre our luggage down the uneven stone steps, we drag ourselves upstairs and fall into our beds.
The following morning, we go down to Stradun, the main street in the Old Town, lined with outdoor cafés. Carevic waves at us from one nearby. As we order coffee, locals stop by to say hello. “This is like my living room,” he says. “Everyone stops by to say hello to me here.”
On Stradun, one can sip bijela kava (white coffee) while watching the world pass by. Tourists from cruise ships and foreigners of all kinds pass through the Old Town, marvelling at the architecture and pure white stone. Many are unaware that during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, the city was bombed and in flames, that many of the old orange-tiled roofs were destroyed. Some of the white stone is still pockmarked by grenades. Only if you look very closely can you see the scars, where new marble has been fused with the old almost seamlessly, the orange tiles replaced. The city hides its wounds well.
The interior of Sponza. Kristin Vukovic
Carevic tells Senka that he was shot in the hip during the war. Unable to follow what he is saying, I watch the human traffic on Stradun. My ears recognize the word “rat”, and I figure Senka is telling Carevic about her experiences during the war.
As a teenager, she survived one of the longest sieges in history, the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s. Senka later tells me that Carevic was a soldier in the war, fighting for the Croatian side when Serbs from Montenegro bombed Dubrovnik.
During our stay, it becomes a ritual for us to meet for morning coffee in Carevic’s “living room”, where he tells us how the city has changed since it was named a Unesco-protected site in 1979. Tourism is just getting back to where it was before the war; because real estate became so expensive in the Old Town, many locals have been forced to sell their homes or rent them out to tourists. Many young people who were students or trained in other professions work as tour guides or real estate agents in summer because the tourist industry has become so lucrative.
Waterfront city: The Old Town along the coast. Kristin Vukovic
We see sights in the Old Town that I have seen before but never known the history of. The most memorable for me is Sponza Palace. A mixture of late Gothic, Venetian and Renaissance styles, the building, formerly a customs house where merchants from all over the world brought taxable goods, is now a museum commemorating the Yugoslav war and the Croatians from Dubrovnik and elsewhere who died fighting there. Concerts and weddings are also held in the beautiful open-air space and Carevic suggests we have our wedding ceremony there.
We will be married in Sponza this September; the building represents a mix of cultures, the international meeting place of this port town. It is the perfect venue for an American of Croatian descent and an Indian from Punjab, both New Yorkers now, to find union, a virtual midpoint between New York and India.
Stay: We ended up staying one night at Pero Carevic’s charming family home in Stari Grad ( http://villaragusa.netfirms.com , +385-20-453834). Room rates are usually around €80 (around Rs5,400) per night. Pero Paviša’s apartments next door are around the same price, with AC, TV and a kitchenette in each unit ( www.apartmentspavisa.com , +385-98-427399). The night my fiancé proposed, we stayed in the Pucic Palace, a 17th century Baroque manor which has been turned into a five-star luxury boutique hotel with 19 suites, quite pricey at €350-900 per night, but worth it for a splurge ( www.thepucicpalace.com , +385-20-326222).
Eat: Seafood is a staple of the Dalmatian diet. Fish and squid are simply grilled and served with boiled potatoes mixed with a green kale-like vegetable. Cevapcici (grilled minced meat sausages) is another popular local dish, and is often prepared in a flatbread sandwich with chopped onions. Great seafood at reasonable prices can be found at Dundo Maroje on Kovacka, a street just off Stradun. Gradska Kavana has a front terrace overlooking Stradun for coffee, fresh pastries and people-watching, and a back harbour terrace for lunch or dinner (www.mea-culpa.hr). For haute international fare with a spectacular harbour view, visit Gil’s Cuisine & Pop Lounge ( www.gilsdubrovnik.com ).
Do: To orient yourself to the city, take a walk on the walls which enclose the Old Town. There is a small entry fee and some steep climbs, but it is well worth it for the panoramic views. Ask around for the Hole in the Wall bar—get there early to watch the sunset on the cliffs. For a small fee (€8 round trip), you can take a ferry to Lokrum Island, just a few minutes offshore, where you can watch peacocks strut through the nature reserve. Visit East-West beach ( www.ew-dubrovnik.com ), just outside the Ploce gates, and let sun-tanned waiters and waitresses serve you on private beach chairs
For information on visa requirements, visit www.mvpei.hr . British Airways ( www.ba.com ) offers the most convenient connections from Mumbai and Delhi to Dubrovnik, with a stop in London; round-trip fares for around Rs60,000.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Aug 01 2009. 01 15 AM IST