The delights of Dubrovnik

To mark our 60th wedding anniversary, the products thereof – our five children – sent us to Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” in former Yugoslav Croatia.

Within the modern city of Dubrovnik itself, set between the sea and high steep cliffs, is the preserved area referred to as “the Old Town,” which is where we based our stay. The medieval Old Town, a major location for filming the iconic TV series Game of Thrones, has retained its ancient charm and allure. The airport shuttle bus dropped us off just outside the walled town, which we entered with the expansive open sea in full view on one side and the walls on the other. Winding our way down, we suddenly found ourselves among throngs of people on a huge open plaza called Stradun (also known as Placa) , with elegant cafes and shops lining the sides.

From this plaza, which stretches from the Ploce Gate where we entered to the Pile Gate on the other end, about a half a kilometer in all, 15 parallel narrow stone alleyways climb steeply upward in an endless line of stairs toward the protective walls above. One level up from the plaza, crossing like a grid, is a major walkway lined almost end to end on both sides with outdoor seating at beautifully set tables – restaurants and cafes, the one connecting to the next as far as the eye can see.

After dark into the wee hours of the morning, countless millennials from numerous countries socialized as they sat sandwiched in on the steps of each of the many ascending alleyways, filling them upward from the square at the bottom almost like they are sitting in a stadium. Running uphill alongside these stairs is the original residential area, made up of long, low, continuous two-story stone buildings, now the site of many tourist apartments, including our own studio to which we climbed the 75-plus steps a few times a day.

For those wishing to sample local culture, the celebrated Lado National Folk Dance Ensemble of Croatia presents a folklore show. The audience is required to climb up more than 100 steps to the outdoor tower of the 16th century Revelin Fortress. The ensemble, in colorful national costumes, features about 10 males strumming on guitar, violin, bass and others (including an instrument that made a sound similar to Scottish bagpipes) and a score of dynamic dancers at a pace that could vie with the best Russian, Irish or Kurdish troupes.

Jewish Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has always been strongly Roman Catholic. Dominating the Stradun plaza is the Church of St. Blaise, the town’s patron saint. Nevertheless, within a stone’s throw of that church is the oldest extant Sephardi synagogue in Europe, second only to the Ashkenazi Altneuschul in Prague. Sitting on Ulica Zudioska (Jewish Street), the original structure has a magnificent bimah and holy ark still intact after more than half a millennium. The ark houses three Torah scrolls, which are kept under lock and key, except three times a year when they are opened by the regional traveling rabbi. There is also a mikveh underneath and a separate stairway to the original women’s gallery.

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We met Andrea Ferrera, a young woman whose family extends back 500 years in Dubrovnik and who is one of approximately 50 Jews still there. She is in the synagogue every day, even performing tasks like polishing the fine old wood of the built-in chairs that circle the small sanctuary. Our tour guide, Mattiyahu Singer, is a living example of the steady diminution of the Jewish population there. His bar mitzvah, 35 years ago, was the most recent of the local Jewish population. Such celebration will be followed soon by that of his son.

In the 1990s, when the Bosnian War threatened to engulf Dubrovnik, Singer and his family sought refuge with relatives in Israel. While there, he did his three-year army service and then joined the Border Police, serving for more than a decade. Eventually to further his studies in history and sociology, after graduating from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, he returned to Dubrovnik along with his Sabra wife. (He will happily provide guided tours of Dubrovnik including the Jewish aspect – mattija)

There are no kosher restaurants, although almost every year tourist companies kosher the kitchen of a hotel close to the Old Town and offer kosher for Passover accommodations, including charter flights from Tel Aviv, New York and elsewhere.

While there, we did find a strictly vegan restaurant called Nishta, which was luckily at the bottom of our staircase on Prijeko Street, with a creative and delicious menu (offering a different menu every day), even enjoyed by us non-vegans.

Don’t leave Dubrovnik without …

The Old Town with all its attraction is not the only tourist site in the area. No visit can be complete without a day on the Adriatic Sea. We spent a day cruising to three of the eleven Elafiti Islands. It culminated in a long stop at the largest inhabited island, Lopud, preceded by lunch on the boat with a vegetarian option. Lopud is a fishing and resort village stretching along a continuous beachfront. Cafes, shops, lots of ice cream delights and local handmade crafts, along with a luxury hotel, add to the charming stone orange-roofed houses, which nestle in the lower parts of the steep cliffs down to the sea filled with boats of every size. The locals usually own their own as they boat to the mainland, up to an hour away, for everything other than the basics.

Summing up our trip, we got the impression of a proud people who are friendly, accommodating and welcoming to tourists… and trusting: Our landlady instructed us to leave the key in the mailbox and the remaining cash due – €100 – on the table just inside the doorway of the apartment. The mailbox was unlocked!

For us, the sojourn in Dubrovnik, was like being in a global, friendly village.

The writers made aliyah to Jerusalem from New Rochelle, New York in 1983.

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