Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Dubrovnik, Croatia: The Journey Within

Text by Morelle Smith | Photographs by and Morelle Smith   
Like Jonny Bealby in his book Silk Dreams, Troubled Road, Morelle Smith takes us on a journey to and through Dubrovnik that is as much physical as it is inner. In her lyrical, poetic and dreamy account, she visits some of the city’s traditional attractions, but also – and more significantly, examines the details that surface only when one stands still quietly: the shadows and lights of the steep, yellow-golden marble streets; the shimmering blue of the sea; the comforting feeling of stroking the soft back of a pigeon; the intimidation of the church of Ignatius Loyola; the smell of burning leaves and the scents of dried and roasted pine needles and coconut. And, all the while, perhaps like all visitors to Dubrovnik, she wonders how people would try to destroy such beauty.

I travelled overland to Dubrovnik and when I finally arrived at the bus station, three or four people pressed forward to offer rooms to stay. I spied a very small old lady at the back, and chose her. Her name was Roza, and she lived very close by, she said, just a short walk up a hill from the bus station. But, as the hill was quite steep, we should take a bus, she said. She indicated that she had a coin to pay my fare. But as were waiting at the bus stop, someone who knew her stopped and offered us a lift. Roza is a very good person, he said, and you will like your room. And I did. It was spacious, with a large balcony overlooking houses and hills and further away, the sea. It was also incredibly cheap, 120 kroner (around 16 euro). I showered and changed and set off in the direction of the old town.

Roza told me that it was easy to reach, and not far away. When I exited her house, I turned right and continued walking along the road. After about twenty minutes I could see the roofs of the old town below me.

You reached it by walking down several flights of steps and arrived at the Pile gate. It was early evening and the yellow-golden marble streets were half covered in shadow.

The sunlit stones gleamed as if they'd been polished. In the narrow streets off the main thoroughfare restaurant tables were laid out, ready for the evening customers. I walked through these streets, absorbing the sunlight and the air still warm on my skin, and the reflected golden glow from the marble and the buildings. It was dusk by the time I got home, and I sat out on the balcony watching the first few stars appear, then went to bed, falling into an exhausted sleep.


From the Pile gate to the old city, I climb up to the top of the flight of steps, cross the road and climb more steps, arranged in narrow flights bordered by walls which must have gardens on the other side, as sheaves of blossoming branches lean over the top. This charming lane of steps is called Ulica Bernarda Shawa! Right at the top is a busy highway and no more buildings. I go back down a little way, to a level path, Gornji Kono, and walk along, then cross over another main road – this time with houses on each side, via a striped pedestrian crossing, to another short flight of steps, which leads onto Od Kriza. I wonder if this is like ‘kisha’ - the Albanian word for church or chapel, as there is indeed a very old church, which perhaps stood once on its own, but is now surrounded by other buildings.

I have to go off the narrow path of steps, through a tiny strip of green. There’s an earthen path to follow but there are thick weeds on either side and the path is overgrown. The ancient church has a peeling blue door, which is locked, and a stone cross on top. I return to the narrow band of steps and when I reach the top there is another road, with woods on the other side. On the edge of the road there's a sign - Bosanka syrd turdeva Imperjal – and I follow the path that leads into the woods. It's marked on the map as a series of zigzags.

Way up at the top of the hill there's a building of some kind, and a satellite tower or mobile phone mast. The path seems to lead up there. It goes about 100 meters in one direction, then turns for about the same distance in the opposite direction, always going slightly uphill. After about three turns, the lovely pine wood ends and the hillside is stony, with tufts of spiny grass and a few spiky-leaved flowers. At one turn, there's a large wooden cross, with VI on it, the next VII, and I wonder if these are marking the Stations of the Cross. But there are 13 of them, and the last two turns have no marking crosses. I don't really know what it is I'm heading for. It seems a long way, but I decide I'm going to get to the top. My flimsy sandals are not the best footwear and my feet hurt, on the sharp and uneven loose stones. A young man strides along, in strong boots, and soon overtakes me. And in fact, he comes down again before I reach the top.

When I do, there's a long stonewall that I follow. There's an entranceway built into the wall, with graffiti on it – BEDUINS WERE HEARE, it says, in neat capitals.

I turn the corner and a wild and freezing wind springs up. The view out over the mountains is stupendous, but the feeling of the place could not be more different from the sunny and silent path uphill, with stunning views of the old town and the sea, a deep, clear blue.

It feels shocking. The wind whips at me like a wild creature. On one outcrop is a shelled concrete building, part collapsed and blackened. A few meters away is an enormous cross made of cream stone, clearly newly-built. I go round to the front of this monument, but I don’t go near the edge, for I feel the wind could easily throw me off.

Just as I reach the cross, a taxi drives up and I realise that there is a road that comes up from the other side of the mountain. A group of Japanese tourists pile out, all laughing. It's bizarre, after the long ascent, which has taken me almost an hour, to find people who’ve simply driven up in a car. The place is sombre and terrifying, yet they’re laughing as if it was great fun. The mountains are stark, bare, mesmerizing. I leave immediately, I can’t wait to get back to the quiet peaceful path. There are butterflies and a few dragonflies. I hear some crickets. The descent, though easier than walking up, still takes me a while. My feet ache unbelievably.


I walked from the bus station where I bought the ticket for Trieste, along the road that overlooks the sea. Palm trees overlook the clear blue and turquoise water and the rock plunges down steeply into it.

Because the town is built up from the sea and the streets are in layers, there are many little streets of steps, taking you from one level to the next. In that way, it's like Saranda in Albania.

In the old city, I decided to go into the church of Ignatius Loyola. It was so highly ornate that I found it difficult to feel very much sense of kinship. It was so clearly a statement of immense temporal power that one felt intimidated. Or I did, anyway.

Imagine a pilgrim with dust on his feet, blisters and calluses, clothes ripped by spiky bushes, arriving there, faced with the gilt and the crowded curled carving, the ornate serenity - no, he wouldn’t be welcomed. It makes the soaring baroque seem rapturously empty, clear and uncluttered. This is menacing, didactic, an architectural frenzy.

In the Icon Museum, there's a Greek icon of the Resurrection, eighteenth century. Jesus is in the centre, with spiralling blue puffs, like smoke, around him. In the foreground, one soldier in the middle is flat on his back, the one on the right holds up his shield as if to protect himself. The one on the left sleeps.

I take a boat trip to a nearby small island and walk around it. The water is dark, not indigo, but with a slate-grey quality verging on deep blue. On the island, there is just the sound of the sea and a faint, faint whispering of wind in the pine needles.

When I return home and go to pay Roza, she announces a price reduction for the third night – 100 kuna (around 14 euro) instead of 120. I refuse to accept this and give her 110 (around 15 euro), but she still wants to give me change. I insist and she says thank you, thank you – but it's me who should be thanking her for the reduction! She says she has a daughter who's a doctor and lives in Lapad. She has a grandson, who's a student and very tall. I ask her because she says 'daughter' to me when I insist on giving her the 'extra' 10 kuna.

I sit out on the balcony, listening to the evening sounds - car horns, a few brisk bursts of birdsong, as the sky turns yellow-pink on the horizon and a little way up, a lilac colour. Most of the traffic noise seems to come from the other side of the hill, over in Lapad.

The garden below the balcony is being watered with a hose. A smoky scent, like burning leaves, drifts up from somewhere. It reminds me that every moment is the present, and full of possibilities and never doomed to be this or that or anything at all I might project onto it. Projection too, is our creation - our vision that then imposes on ‘the world’, on our lives, what we’ve decided it will be. I remember the soft back of the pigeon that I stroked, as it pecked at the byrek crumbs as I sat on the step by the statue in the old town. The slap and gurgle of water, of the sea, under a fissure in the rock sides, on the island.

All the communication is there, if we can just hear it, listen to it. And at that moment, a small bird alights on the edge of the balcony. And a star is visible, just above the horizon. I don’t see any smoke, but there are crackling sounds from somewhere - as leaves and branches are being burnt - and the scent is lovely.

Overhead, there are two other stars. The horizon star is lower now and it's about to disappear altogether, I didn’t realize they moved so quickly, stars. It's touching the thick tree line above the houses - sinking - and now it trembles on the treetops - and it's gone.


I'm reading Silk Dreams, Troubled Road by Jonny Bealby, an account of travelling along the Silk Road in the company of someone he did not know well. As everybody knows, travelling with someone, even someone you know well, can uncover such previously unrevealed aspects of people, as if we were layered as deeply as soil, and travel crumbles into fragments our seeming-solid table of topsoil, so that something raw and vulnerable can no longer be hidden. It can feel intoxicating or unsavoury, depending on many things, these oh-so-uncontrollable circumstances. This, of course, along with the excitement of all the new things to see – all these new sensuous experiences, is the great gift of travel, this uncovering of layers of oneself, and possibly of others.

Travel is not just the movement through different places and all that we see and hear and the interactions with others. It is also the books we read, ones we bring with us or that we acquire along the way. It is the effect of these books, the effects of our memories, and the dreams produced by all the impressions, including what we read. Travel seems to stimulate the relationship between our waking world and our dreaming one.

Earlier in the day, I'd checked my emails and there was one from B. And this evening I felt a touch of that kind of lonesomeness that can reach you anywhere, no matter how wonderful a place you're in. But I also knew that I wasn’t going to go on down that road. Instead I took the bag of rubbish out. I walked down one of the walled alleyways of steps, lit in parts - the path was made of small rounded cobbles, all shiny and slippery, not easy to walk on, in my sandals, but lovely to look at. I walked down to the road beside the water. An enormous ship was in, with tiers of lit decks, throwing ribbons of lights on the water. I walked along to the alleyway where there were several big garbage bins and dropped it in. An old woman was walking two tiny dogs. I walked back, into the supermarket car park, walked around it and linked up with another cobbled stairway, partially lit, with huge shadows of trees plunging parts of it into darkness. A metal gate led into a garden - someone went in. The garden was full of trees and plants and trailing vines. The soft dim lights shining through the foliage gave it a fairytale look. Imagine living there, I thought.

That night I had a dream, where I was in a bath, which was very full, so full in fact that I felt it might overflow. Although I was alone in the bath, I also knew that there was someone with me and this made me feel very happy. It felt like a new beginning, a new level, a new chapter.

I woke up with a feeling of excitement and an insight into the negative giving me the feeling of a dawning understanding, a penny dropping, an embracing.

The negative – where life has 'gone wrong', hasn't matched our ideals or wishes, has 'let us down' – is a gift I realise, if I can accept it as it is. In every moment, there is a feeling, a response, and this tells me about myself. When that feeling is accepted, something happens, so it seems to me.

In Silk Dreams, Troubled Road, Jonny Bealby told the story of the physical journey and the story of his inner journey, to a very different place in himself. He told his story as well as the outer story. He was very honest, admitting to his difficulties and shortcomings. He didn't just change his point of view, something deep inside him shifted. The journey changed him.

Another sun-soaked morning in this coastal landscape that feels so welcoming to me. I leave today, buy my last byrek from the bakery across the street, and head for the old city for the last time. I walk down several short flights of steps to the street that borders the sea and walk along with the sea on my right and its border of pine trees with heavy heads, and a few magnificent cacti. There are scents of dried and roasted pine needles and of coconut, from some blossoms. At one point the sun throws a straight light path on the sea surface. It sparkles and shivers in constant movement. At the edges, there are fewer twinkling lights, constantly appearing and vanishing.

I have my last coffee on the terrace of a café just outside the old city. An American tour group files towards the balustrade overlooking the sea. The happy, loud-voiced guide gathers everyone together for a group photograph. Then it's the turn of a Japanese group. Their leader walks forward, holding up a little lollipop so everyone knows where he is. He talks much more quietly. His group is much younger than the Americans, who are almost all grey-haired. Now it's a group of Germans – their tour guide has a microphone!

In the old city, I go into the 'remembrance room' of an enormous, imposing building. On the walls there are the names and photos of all those killed in the siege of 1991-2. Though it was mostly soldiers who were killed, there were also some civilians. Images are played on a screen. There are flames, shelled roofs, walls, whole buildings, in the old town. Sandbags are piled around the Onufri fountain. As I walk back along the main precinct, I notice the tops of buildings that are clearly newer than the rest. And perhaps that's why the very ornate church at the end of the main street has scaffolding round it. It seems hardly credible that people would try to destroy such beauty.

In the afternoon I begin the journey home and board a bus that will take me to Trieste. It follows the coast road, with the spectacular mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina on our right. After the sun goes down the sky behind the mountains turns pearly pink and the scent of pine fills the air.

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