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Eastern Europe Europe

Digging Dubrvonik’s Alternative Side – Port Gruz

I recently went abroad for the first time in 20 months to film. I had both my jabs back in April, so I was itching to use my get out of jail- I mean, get out of the USA, free card, and Croatia was welcoming vaccinated US travelers. I’d never been. This seemed an opportune time to hit up this over-touristed travel darling before the crowds bounce entirely back. I’m glad I did.

Dubrovnik’s Old Town

I began my trip in Dubrovnik, staying in the Old Town, which seemed crowded to me. But I was told the crowds were like 40% of 2019 levels. Dubrovnik has been struggling with over-tourism the past decade or so, culminating and untenable crowds in 2019, so 40% is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, the locals catering to tourists would like to make more money, I get that. But the reality on the ground is many of the more touristic local establishments cater to same-day in-and-out cruise crowds. Hence, quality control is not a big deal in many places. It was also expensive. While Dubrovnik tourism is working to come back smarter, not bigger, the Old City is charming and will always be a draw for travelers, pushing locals out. Thus it didn’t feel very punk rock.

Ivo of Urban and Veggies
Urban and Veggies – Delish! 

But I was told to head over to the Port Gruz area, and indeed I got a much different vibe. Port towns always seem a bit more bohemian, and I’m not 100% sure why, but probably back in the day they were a little rough around the edges, while also being welcoming point for travelers (unlike the Old Town which had only two entrances and required foreign visitors to quarantine centuries ago… well before Covid). 

Port Gruz felt more real, if not exactly punk rock, at least DIY. After stopping in a new vegetarian restaurant I’d heard about called Urban and Veggies, I had one of the most amazing vegetarian meals of my life. Scratch that, one of the most amazing meals ever, vegan or not. Ivo, the talented proprietor, wasn’t expecting me, yet he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a feast fit for King whatever-his-name was from Game of Thrones (GOT was famously filmed on location in Dubrovnik). I was hungry but there was no way I could eat that entire spread myself. 

Dubrovnik Beer Company

After stuffing myself, I waddled my way to the Dubrovnik Beer Company, where I met the proprietor Dario and his merry band of craft beer mates. The beer was excellent, but the conversation was even better. These smart fellas are doing everything they can to showcase another more authentic side of Dubrovnik away from the tourists-laden old town, and it’s working… or at least it worked for me.

Kreso of Red History Museum

After the sun went down, Dario escorted me down a dark side street to meet Kreso, owner of the Red History Museum. Kreso refused to talk shop until we’d had a few shots of Rakia and no arguments from me. After three or four shots of Rakia, I was ready to relive some communist history.

The Original “Yugo” from Yugoslavia

The Red History Museum is a highly entertaining way to see what the former Yugoslavia was like during communism. For those who don’t know, Yugoslavia had a much different history than the rest of the Soviet Union, thanks to Tito, the enigmatic, Dictator who held the territory together through his reign. Ask a Croatian today about Tito, and you’ll get decidedly mixed reviews. Still, there is no denying he kept the place together as shortly after his death, a power struggle ensued, war broke out. Some of the worst crimes against humanity and mass murder in recent history occurred.

Head to Port Gruz in Dubrovnik, Croatia to avoid crowds


But all that seems blissfully behind Croatia now. You can still see the wounds of war, but not so much on the Dalmation coast where Dubrovnik is located. Though I did stop by the Museum of Martyrs to get an idea of what the town went through. I’d find much more damage and destruction as I wound my way inward toward the Serbian border town of Osijek. However, I still had a few days left on the Dalmatian coast. Next stop, Split. You guessed it, it was time to split for Split but not before bidding a regretful goodbye to the friendly folks of Dubrovnik and especially my new pals in the Port Gruz area.

Categories
Eastern Europe

Why Serbia Gets My Vote For Friendliest Place in Europe

I love Europe, both Western & Eastern. But let’s face it, compared to much of the world it’s not the friendliest continent. I mean there are pockets of Spain (in my limited Spain experience, pretty much the whole pocket outside of Catalan) that are very hospitable… and many other great destinations I’ve yet to hit such as Portugal, Italy, Greece, etc. so granted this judgement is a bit premature.

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And like all sweeping generalizations, it is inaccurate on it’s face because of the relative¬† nature of the question and the fact that the answer¬† very much depends on the individual experience.

But both of my experiences in Serbia were absolute treasures in my memory bank. I enjoyed Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic… Bulgaria is awesome, Poland was super and I made great lifelong friends in each of these places, but Serbia.. well Serbia is gritty and full of life and if you are a solo traveler, well, you are in for a treat.

My first time in Serbia I was that solo traveler and upon arrival by train from Budapest, a local but trustworthy looking and semi fluent English speaking gentleman grabbed my too large bag off the arrival platform, jumped on the bus with me and then took a good 1/2 hour of his time to assist me in finding the flat I had rented up a very steep hill.

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Of course, I tipped him but I really had the feeling he wasn’t in it for the money. I’ve been hustled all over the world so I know a thing or two about getting hustled and this man was simply super friendly and eager to help this rare American visitor any way he could.

On my last trip in the summer of 2014 with my film crew taping for Raw Travel, I had a rare few moments to myself and I decided to go out and jog the streets of Belgrade. I was lost, winded and had slowed my running to a leisurely stroll to just take the city and it’s people in.

I could viscerally see the struggle on the faces of the Serbian people I met along the way. The families in the parks with young toddlers…. the grandmas and grandpas…It was a surreal but uneventful moment that probably shouldn’t have but brought tears to my eyes nonetheless. I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

When the 3rd Balkan War was going on in the 1990s, I was the blissfully ignorant, largely unaware American caught up in my own world of establishing my career and other, largely selfish pursuits like making as much money as I thought I deserved. Oh the folly of youth.

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Visiting Serbia several years later made me more aware of the tragedy and long lasting repercussions of this and all tragic wars. Not just for Serbia but for all involved of course, all because a relatively few morally bankrupt, senseless, shameful “leaders” are out to save their sorry asses. What’s a few thousand crimes against humanity compared to that?

Serbia has yet to join the European Union and the economy leaves much to be desired. But its not the economy or even it’s history that defines a people or at least it shouldn’t be. When it comes to the friendliest spot in Europe, Serbia gets my vote. And I can’t wait to return.