Friday, February 22, 2008

Dubrovnik: where history bares itself

Wanderlust interrupted


Every ski season, two coinciding events manage to drag my thoughts away from powder-covered slopes and make me yearn for a moment's respite in warmer climes: the mercury inching towards 40 and the arrival of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Together, they induce a Pavlovian response that sends my mind wandering to turquoise water, sandy beaches and cold drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of them. Well, that and an old man fishing naked.

Perhaps this last image is somewhat incongruous with the traditional idea of a spring holiday, but before you accuse me of having a perverse penchant for nudist anglers, understand that this remarkable sight, forever burned into my retinas, was just another regular day in the 15th-century walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Perched atop a rock outcropping in the Adriatic Sea, this medieval remnant at the southern tip of Croatia is one part art history lesson and one part Mediterranean paradise. Kind of like Miami, except if Miami was founded a millennium ago with an economy based on seafaring merchants rather than silicone implants, hair gel and Will Smith.

But while there is a good chance Miami will find itself under several feet of water before that transformation can take place, Dubrovnik has shown a spectacular resilience, recovering from a deadly earthquake in 1667, a surrender to the French in 1806 and, almost as devastating, significant damage during the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 1990s.

Walking around the massive stone walls that encircle the Old City, it's amazing to see that despite all the tribulations over the many years, residents go on hanging their laundry outside the windows of homes that, if transported to the United States, would be considered archeological treasures, on which no one would be allowed to tread. It's as if you went to visit Paul Revere's home in Boston's historic North End and walked in on someone coming out of the bathroom with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

Sitting on a beach just east of the walls, I began speaking to a small group of Americans who invited me to accompany them to the nearby island of Lokrum, famous, at least in those parts, for its nude beach.

Neither an exhibitionist by trade, nor remotely drunk enough to pretend, I hesitantly consented after realizing this was going to be more of a humorous anthropological mission than an attempt to be part of a "Girls Gone Wild" spring break video. Besides, after many months abroad, I was absolutely hankering to hear a proliferation of the word "dude" in a single sentence.

Lokrum's geological formation of layered rock slabs led not only to an interesting formation of sunbathers, but also presented some fantastic cliff diving opportunities that made me thankful I was still attired in my board shorts.

Still, the 30-foot drop was daunting, as the crystal-clear water belied the true depth of the sand and rocks below.

Even more disconcerting was the presence of the aforementioned septuagenarian, standing in a small rowboat and adorned with nothing but a fishing rod.

This ignited hearty debate among my compatriots about what was clearly one of the most challenging questions ever faced by mankind: Was he naked because of the location of his fishing hole or did he fish there to be naked?

Sadly, our collective lack of linguistic skill kept us from solving the mystery, but there's still hope.

If you've been enticed to visit Dubrovnik, head out to Lokrum and be sure to query the old fisherman. Just take care to steer clear of his pole.

Jon Duval is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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