Inking up the blogosphere. And no, I don't glow in the dark. But thanks for asking.

September 16, 2009

Rock 'n Roll in Dalmatia

I thought I’d stray again today away from serious issues and share another story of one of my travels. If I had to list a favorite city among all I got to visit, Dubrovnik, Croatia is probably tied for first place.

If you don’t know of it or haven’t been there, Dubrovnik is an extraordinarily beautiful old city situated on the Adriatic and has been a popular vacation destination for European travelers for years, with good reason. The city itself is in sort of two parts: the old city and the new. Old Dubrovnik sits right on the water and is surrounded by a 2km wall. In the Middle Ages, it was one of five Maritime Republics and was said to rival Venice. Aside from historical preservation and rebuilding due to combat damage, the structures in the old city all date to about the 17th century or before. It has existed under the Greeks, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Venetians (who called it Ragusa), Napoleon, the Hapsburgs, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, and finally the Kingdom of Croatia. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic declared that Dubrovnik could not remain part of Croatia and his Serbian forces (remains of the Yugoslav People’s Army) attacked the city. When I visited in 2000, most of the old city had been repaired and restored, but outside the walls in the new city there was still a lot of visible damage from shelling and bullet holes in concrete walls.

The Croatian people in Dubrovnik couldn’t have been more friendly—some of the most polite and hospitable people I’ve ever met. They are also physically lovely; the average male height seemed to be around 6’2”, females about 5’8”, and they all were strikingly attractive. The exchange rate for the Croatian kuna was quite favorable to the dollar, but wasn’t so overinflated as to be ridiculous (like it was in say, Turkey). Speaking of Turkey, which was one of my least favorite places to visit, I don’t think we engendered a whole lot of local enthusiasm when my friends and I doubled over in a fit of hysterical laughter after I asked to borrow a million lira from one of my buddies (which was like $1). I seriously almost peed my pants. But anyhoo, I digress. I was travelling as usual with my two good friends. In sketchier ports, they pulled double-duty as big brothers/bodyguards for which I’m eternally grateful, but was unnecessary in friendly Dubrovnik. They were fantastic people to travel with.

We walked the entire circumference of the old city wall, and saw most of the famous tourist sights. There were some indescribably beautiful cathedrals and medieval buildings, as well as a multitude of local art shops. The city rises from the sea up the hill, and all the streets are too narrow for any cars, so it’s foot traffic only, mainly. We spent the day walking until our legs felt like lead, ducking into pubs along the way to quench our thirst. When we stopped for dinner the wait staff treated us like celebrities at a 5-star restaurant, delivering plate after plate of complimentary hors d’oeuvres and shots of firewater. I ate the best steak I’ve ever tasted outside the US.

At that point, after dinner, we were way off the beaten path. We’d managed to get ourselves deep in the old city away from the main streets. It was getting dark and we were trying to make our way back to the center plaza, but kept running into dead-end alleys. There weren’t any signs, and those that were there weren’t anything we could read. So we just kept going over, down, dead-end, turn around again, up, over, down. Needless to say, it got to the point where I always seem to find myself when I travel: I’m never lost, I just don’t know exactly where I am. We were tired, thirsty, and getting cranky. I knew if we could just keep headed down towards the sea we’d run into either a main road or people. We started down yet another narrow cobblestone street when we heard something remarkable, something so out of place it stopped all three of us dead in our tracks: the ringing strains of Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama”—you know, that opening guitar riff? I thought I was hallucinating. Our three brains coalesced into a single unit and we immediately started chasing the sound. We wound around in circles, the music coming from first above us, then behind us, then to our right. Eventually I looked up and saw a shining beacon in the dark, a pink neon sign up in the air that said, “BAR”. We dashed up three flights of rickety wooden stairs attached to this impossibly narrow stone building and stopped at a thick door, where there was a hand-lettered sign attached that said, “American Classic Rock Bar”. My grin was so big I’m pretty sure you could have seen it from space.

Inside it was just a large room bordered by tables, decorated in medieval kitsch, with the bar in the center. When we went up to order our drinks, the bartender started hopping up and down, shouting and laughing. Apparently, the only thing the American Classic Rock Bar was missing was Americans. He ushered us to a round table and shooed out the occupants. He came back with t-shirts for us all that he insisted we put on right then with the bar’s logo on it, and in short order there were so many bottles of Heineken on the table there wasn’t room for our elbows. This is no shit: we didn’t buy a single drink the remainder of the evening.

Within a few minutes, we were joined by the 4 people sitting at a table next to ours. There were three men and a woman, all serving with the UN, down on furlough from Sarajevo. Two of the men were retired Dutch military, one man was active duty Brit, and the woman (for some reason I still remember her name—Marie) was a French Canadian. She adopted me so fast I’m still not sure how it happened, but it was something like, “Hallo, Je suis Marie. Oh, you are American? Le Marin? Mon Dieu! You are now my sister. We will not be separated this evening!” She was fabulous as only French Canadian women can be. The seven of us shared a truly enjoyable evening, trading stories, getting soused, and laughing like fools.

In hindsight, that bar likely could have been a clever setup, designed specifically because the owner knew there was a US carrier coming into port, figuring that no sailor could resist the double bait of rock and roll and booze. And once we left it maybe transformed back into whatever pub it was before we got there. Well, no matter. I am an American Sailor. I took a formal oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. But I also took an informal oath: I am an American Sailor: I will work hard and play harder. Where there is beer and bullshit there is esprit de corps. I recharge my fighting spirit with sauce and sea stories.

I absolutely loved Dubrovnik. I would return again in a heartbeat. Good sights, good food, good drink, good people, good times.