After the most circuitous route to the airport I’ve ever taken to pick up my friend Kara, we were both safely snuggled into our little Airbnb apartment in Dubrovnik where we would stay for four nights. We were centrally located between the beach and the Old Town, although Old Town was a bit of a schlep, so we took the local bus. While a little pricey at about $2 for the short 15 minute ride, it was a straight shot from our apartment with little chance for error. Parking in the city is almost non-existent so there was no way I’d be circling in our little rental car. Instead we would use it for exploring locally and driving south to Kotor, Montenegro where we would lay our heads for another four nights.
I had heard about the splendors of Dubrovnik, and that it used to be cheap and devoid of tourists. Yeah, we were about 15 years late for that. They are one of the newest members of the EU, joining in 2013, although they still maintain use of their own currency: the kuna. Dubrovnik is among the best-preserved medieval walled cities in the world, and it truly is something to see. You can actually walk around the top of the wall for magnificent views of its famed red roofs, for a fee, of course. While enjoying this top down perspective, Kara and I spotted a restaurant tucked away with only a few people sitting at tables outside. In a city where tourists may outnumber ants, it was exactly what we needed. Grape vines wove their way through the pergolas that covered two outdoor patios. “We have to find that spot!” I announced to Kara, my mouth salivating for a cold glass of white wine.
Shortly thereafter we wound our way off the wall, in search of our hidden restaurant. It was called Lady Pi-Pi and was just as lovely at ground-level so we selected our table and ordered a pitcher of white wine. Then we asked for a mixed grill plate of chicken, pork, beef and lamb cooked on their outdoor grill because our British neighbors ordered it and it smelled too good. It was heaven and we relished in our fantastic find, barely noticing the place filling up. About an hour later we noticed a line forming at the entrance, and when we left there were about 20 people waiting for a table! Clearly we had stumbled across a place that many others had stumbled upon before, who then wrote multiple reviews on Trip Advisor. I guess there aren’t many secret places here.
The Old City is certainly beautiful—we spent several hours on two different days walking around—but it was overrun with restaurant touts hawking overpriced dishes and kitschy souvenir shops. Instead of selling locally-made products, there were Dubrovnik t-shirts, hats, key chains and magnets. Dubrovnik was plastered on anything that didn’t move. I could only imagine what it was like 15 years ago and wished I had packed a time machine in my carry-on. On the one hand I say, “Bravo!” to the Croats for capitalizing on tourism to their spectacular city, but at the same time I wish they hadn’t catered to the lowest common denominator. No one needs a navy sailor’s cap with “Dubrovnik” emblazoned in gold thread. Do I sound like a jaded traveler? Ok, maybe just a little.
One day we walked to the beach where we rented an umbrella and two lounge chairs. In my travels I often marvel at things that are done so much better than in the US, and wonder why those ingenious ideas haven’t hit our shores. Attached to the blue mesh lounge chairs we rented was a sun shade made of the same material. It’s slightly larger than the size of a place mat, and you can move it back and forth or tilt up and down to keep the sun off your face. GENIUS! It’s like a giant visor that you don’t need to wear. Why aren’t these everywhere? Umbrellas are great if you want to hide from the sun entirely, but if you want to catch a few rays while keeping your face and chest covered, this is the contraption you need.
One day we wanted to put our rental car to use, so we headed to Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia’s wine region. It’s only about two hours from Dubrovnik, making it an easy day trip. Plus the drive is along the coast so jaw-dropping views are included at no extra cost. We made a stop at one such vista where a lone wine shop sat at the top of a cliff. Naturally we indulged in a glass while staring at the deep blue Adriatic. Bliss.
We also stopped in Ston, a village whose medieval wall stretches more than 5 km to the neighboring village of Mali Ston, making up the longest fortress system in Europe. Doesn’t it look like a mini version of that behemoth in China? Ston is also known for its salt flats, although they were dried up during our visit in June so there wasn’t much to see. After a light seafood lunch and a little meandering, we were back on the road.
Our main destination for the day was a winery called Vino Spaleta, which we found listed in a guide book as well as on Trip Advisor. For the biggest wine region in Croatia, there is a distinct lack of winery information, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those in search of an intimate experience. Vino Spaleta is located in the small village of Kuna with a population of less than 300 people. Blink and you may drive past the turnoff, like we first did. We followed the map through acres of vineyards towards our destination, on what appeared to be the “main” road.
We parked and walked up to the closed door. “Are they seriously closed?” I asked, feeling defeated as I walked around the back trying to find someone to ask. “I’m gonna knock,” Kara replied. As I was halfway around the back, she yelled at me to come up. A jolly man named Ivo opened the door and welcomed us inside. “Are you open?” we inquired? “Oh yes, yes, come on in. My wife and son are away for the day so I’ve just been working. Come sit down.” Kara and I plopped down at a wooden table, surrounded by the stone walls of what was certainly Ivo’s family home. He poured us some of their homemade brandy and asked if we wanted a wine tasting: three pours and a plate of cheese for about $4USD. I’m sorry, was that a rhetorical question? “We’ll take two,” Kara quickly responded.
With that, Ivo disappeared and produced two plates of cheese with the most divine olive oil drizzled on top, then proceeded to pour us some rose as he talked about his family’s history. The Spaleta family has been growing grapes and producing wine in that same spot for a whopping 15 generations. Ivo and his wife both work the land, along with their young son, already a winemaker-in-training. I thought to myself, “Good thing they had a kid!” And I sure hope that kid enjoys making wine because breaking the family tradition after 15 generations is probably not an option. Although I guess if you grow up in a town as small as Kuna and all of your neighbors are winemakers, you probably don’t know much differently. We spent about an hour drinking and chatting with Ivo as if he were a long lost uncle. His English was better than I would’ve expected. We tasted one rose and two reds- all made with the local Plavac Mali grape (literally translated as “small blue,” referring to the grape’s size and color). When we felt we had exhausted our welcome, we bought a bottle of wine along with a jar of his wife’s homemade orange jam, said our good-byes and headed back to Dubrovnik. I never expected such an intimate experience from a Trip Advisor listing. Clearly not many people are venturing into the surrounding areas, although they definitely should be. I’m sure glad we knocked.
Montenegro… you’re up next and we’re ready to be wowed!