A day in the life of Dubrovnik
Young people dive straight into the Mediterranean from sun-drenched pontoons. They vainly try to attract attention, fixing their hair before taking the plunge. We’re watching all this from a promontory overlooking Banje Beach, the go-to place for Dubrovnik’s sun-seeking in crowd. In a few short hours, the beach will be transformed into a nightclub where people will dance with the sand between their toes.
Languishing under shady pine trees, Banje is part of an unbroken beauty stretch that runs from Ploce Gate on the east side of Dubrovnik to a cluster of legendary hotels that weave their way enticingly up steep slopes, proudly overlooking the tiny walled city of Dubrovnik.
Behind us, we can see and hear young people racing from the school gates to the sea and beach. Many local people spent much of their youth at this beach, including Jadran Gamulin, who grew up just down the street. From his childhood home’s balcony he could see the family boat moored in the old marina.
Gamulin’s father was a renowned marine researcher, from the island of Hvar in the Croatian archipelago. He founded the Institute of Marine Biology in Dubrovnik. When Gamulin was seven, before he had learned to swim, his father taught him to sail. And when he grew up, Gamulin studied to become a skipper and a boat builder, a common career path for many young men in Dubrovnik.
Now aged 72, Gamulin says that he has two hobbies: competitive sailing and sailing traditional old fishing boats. “I love both equally as much, but racing is in my DNA. Before engines arrived, people had to learn how to sail quickly.”
Gamulin’s tanned and weather-beaten face indicates that he has spent much of his life at sea. He still takes part regularly in the many regattas held in Dubrovnik throughout the summer. And he is clearly proud of the sailing heritage in this part of the world.
“It’s like a journey through different cultures,” he says. “For centuries, sailors throughout the Mediterranean, from Greece to Portugal, spoke a shared lingua franca in order to communicate with each other. There are still around 1,000 words in common use today.”
Sailing is now extremely important for the tourist economy of Dubrovnik. Along the 100-km coastline running north from the city, an estimated 6,000 people earn their living from sailing.
“That figure is slowly falling,” says Gamulin. “Today, many local kids go off traveling in Europe and never come back. But the sea still plays an important part in our lives. Over 700 huge cruise ships dock here each year.”
We are wandering through the picturesque winding streets of the old city of Dubrovnik, which became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. Gamulin is a well-known face here, which is clear from the numer of people who say hello.
Fewer and fewer local people can afford to live in the old part of the city now. Barely 1,000 of the city’s total population of 27,000 in fact. And many of the locals who do live here now find themselves surrounded by tourists and feel they’re living in a large outdoor museum. Most of the daily commerce takes place outside of the city gates.
Inside the gates, the city is car free, just like in Venice, the city that ruled Dubrovnik for 150 years. Instead of engine noise, the chatter of pedestrians and their heels clicking on the ancient stone pavements form the soundtrack here. High above, swifts wheel and swoop over the terracotta roofs.
The buildings and churches of Dubrovnik are all made from stone brought from Korcula, an island in the Dalmatian archipelago said to be the birthplace of Marco Polo who lived there before moving to Venice and becoming a world explorer.
Gamulin points to the jetty where his family boat was moored when he was a child. Tourists from all parts of the world meander round the harbor where excursion boats ply their trade.
Fifteen minutes later, Gamulin stands on deck, surveying the emerald sea. We disembark at Lokrum, the first island in the Dalmatian archipelago, and he tells us about the tropical gardens here that were created by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. In the summer, the bays around the island are a big attraction for swimmers.
Back at the jetty in the old city, Gamulin strides towards Gradska Kavana, a coffee bar housed in a building where Dubrovnik’s mighty ships were once built. The coffee bar opened in 1895, during the time of the Hapsburg Empire. Unsurprisingly, the coffee is made from fresh ground beans from the historic Viennese coffee house, Julius Meinl.
Next door to Gradska Kavana is the Dubrovnik Maritime Museum, which houses Greek ships and amphoras – homage to Dubrovnik’s historic seafaring traditions. Next door is the Dubrovnik Aquarium, opened in the 1950s by Gamulin’s father, Professor Tomo Gamulin.
Behind the Azur seafood restaurant, Gamulin shows us a gap in the wall that leads down to a romantic beach called Buza, which is a popular spot for young lovers at dusk.
We walk along the city’s main street, Stradun, and out through the western gate where modern Dubrovnik greets us with growling buses and honking cars.
Gamulin drives us along the coast road past the ferries departing for Italy and past Tudjman Bridge to Aci Marina, voted the best Adriatic marina from 2010-2012.
Gamulin proudly points to Our Lady of the Sea, a 30-foot fishing boat that he has been renovating for many years and now often sails. When he bought the boat, it had not been sailed for over 70 years.
“This type of boat is called a Bracera,” he says. “The name comes from the island of Brac and the boats were used to ship wine, olives, and livestock. It took me five years to get her back into shape.”
Gamulin never seems to sit still. He has countless projects on the go at any one time, even though he is starting to feel his age. He points to his next challenge, lying in the garden of the family’s house.
“This boat is hundreds of years old and was almost destroyed during the Balkan War. I bought it very cheaply. It’s over 50 feet and needs a great deal of work,” he says with a huge smile.
Text: Lars Collin