I am writing this on the ferry away from Dubrovnik and onto the island of Mljet, national park and lakes. The visit to this departure point in the Adriatic was something that initially I thought I would leave unwritten, unsaid. The twelve hour journey from Virpasar, although initially exciting with train and buses through Montenegro, was wearisome by the fall of darkness and the fully laden climb up ridiculous numbers of steps to our new home. The view from the balcony there was ultimately rewarding but it did not feel enough after that torture of what we later came to know where named the twelve stations of the cross. I can well believe it, and my Catholic upbringing forbids any further flippant comparison between crucifix and rucksack, but I was finished by the summit.
Maybe this start, the exertion and the paltry reward of water and a packet of cheese and onion, was part of my initial sense of underwhelm in our new city. It felt new, soulless and interspersed with old buildings amidst the new port development and the suburban crawl up the hillside. Functional, clean but nothing to bring that greater love I know others have for this place. I was also aware of an impending interview online, that had lain like a dust cloud on the horizon, calling me into emails and documents that felt deader and drier than ever in this odyssey of rekindling life.
I met old friends for a virgin Mojito after a visit to the Red Museum, saw the creation of Yugoslavia and the disintegration. Learned why the new port area is this new and how disintegration claims many victims, of lives, families, time etched into buildings and fabric ripped apart in violent fragmentation. Amongst this the clear love and pride for achievements made and the power of people to shape and reshape their spaces, envious of the peoples and their power, and angered by deception and cruelty. Histories familiar to all our worlds but more clearly felt when at a short distance and one step away.
The toys called out the most, their anarchy and weirdness made more so by unfamiliarity. So used to the cutesy, wide eyed simpleton depictions of childhood in England, these ugly darkspace fairytale characters screamed from another version. A doll that really looked in need of a child’s intensity of care to sooth the anguish and anger in its face, a clear indication of not romanticising motherhood, of babies, these are humans that plastic face warns, they demand things. An edgy museum of the uncanny, of track-suited families manufactured in the factory in the nearby city. I heard the light-hearted mockery of those nearby in their own western designer sports gear. The tracksuits in polaroid echoing another past resonant with their factory unions part of the governing of their lives, with their involvement, at least in principle. I wondered if reversed, what they would make of the empty symbolism of the globalised trainers and tracksuits of those viewing them today. Maybe it is not empty, maybe silenced voices and distant labour is what they celebrate. Great museums make us walk the steps of those that have gone before in ways that remind us we are just a few steps behind. Just in different shoes, maybe.
We met old friends and drank a virgin Mojito, walked the journey back and took the crucifying steps home, one last time, unladen. Still outrageous. Silently thanked the old friends for their gift of bus tickets and knew we would never climb those steps again. We swam in the Adriatic the following morning, checked ferry tickets and returned home for the interview. Sat in sight of the bustling port, the flow of traffic and people and the perfect symmetry of peopled architecture at work, this was enough. The interruption of an interview was a mistake, the presentation and me ill-prepared. What seemed invigorating use of Henri Bergson’s philosophies on this Balkan odyssey proved silk slippers in a boggy marsh of regulation, employability, resilience and compliance. Another clash of cultures, This one in real time, no polaroids. Other worlds sometimes shed light through the darkness they inhabit and we are elevated through simply by not being there. Ideologies are fought out in many ways and wear many disguises. Curating our own present as a museum of the future is a good way to spend an hour of walking. Ultimately, the interview proved a dust fleck on a crystal orb, and the relief of its ending a wipe with a chamois.
To celebrate, the old town of Dubrovnik. Lighter in spirit now, the illumination of my whole self was intensified by the visit here. THIS is why people love Dubrovnik! The old town area is perhaps the most beautiful and visually outstanding place (outside natural creation) that I have ever seen. Stone and marble, perfect warm architecture of sultry smooth lines and a welcome to that part of the self that knows it is in built space, but one crafted to for natural instincts. Centuries of design and rebuilding, of violence and trade and mortars, still those skills and imaginations of earlier minds and hands hold us from those times when nature lapped more closely over our steps.
This whole walled city has so little green but vibrates with the senses of a forest that has been partially ordered and made in small part human, solid and less fluid. Lighting in this place, like the old town in Kotor, is magical. Simple, Not spectacular. No hideous illumination where what is to be seen fiercely exposed by phosphorous beams, Lamp lit, warmth and shadow that reveal bit not fully, allowing spaces to dream in those miniature dusks between lamps and the darker boundaries between them. The designers returning here for the rebuild of the destruction of only thirty years ago have completed an amazing reconstruction. Electrified but with a nod through many ages, to oil burning and candles before that. The most recent attacks of invading armies now come with other polaroids that do not merely echo a past but remind us we are still part of turbulence, destruction, violence, war. Nothing has been fixed. The beauty of a walk around this old town is that life is pulsating here and like the angry and desperate doll, our nature to love and care for each other comes with simultaneous awareness of our desire to blast, burn and destroy.
The charms of my own visit mean I come in a time of peace and ice cream, glowing flesh and sultry ambles. Sat with a pistachio cornet on marble steps listening to a jazz musician busker barely bothering to hide the careful curation of his impromptu performance. The people strolling by are often magnificent, moving as a languid and resplendent stream. Lolling slow strides of a nonchalant catwalk in which the audience is only rarely glanced and disdainfully even then. Like a forest, the perfume of the air alters at times of day and through distinct periods of the night, wafting down the grand thoroughfare and more cutting zephyrs in adjoining alleys. Darker streets draw me soft gusts of salt and fresh wildness, then through metres thick stone gateways to leave the enclaves and find the moonlit sea lapping this incredible stone boundary. People on the outside, like the cats within, lay in moonlight on rocks, steps, plinths, bar stools.
The city remembers the loss, an artist pictured after carrying his 90 year old mother to safety as his life work of drawings, canvases, notes and film is engulfed behind him. This single personal loss still stinging amidst the centuries of creation also blasted away as ages of change crash against each other. I remembered too the beautiful Montenegrin beekeepers and those kind and gentle dwellers by the lake in Virpasar. The enemy of the artist, or he theirs, seemed difficult to piece together in this balmy bliss.
Leaving here, I realised we had spent four hours doing nothing but buy and eat an ice cream. Like forest walks, the adventure of being around and in discovery mode means having anything else to do is superfluous nonsense. There are cathedrals within this cathedral, magnificent interior spaces that are more obvious renditions of being crafted, designed, made beautiful. Some tiny, others huge and golden. For me, the town itself was enough.
Before the forests and lakes of the island of Mljet tomorrow, this space showed a past in which the natural and the architectural shared a pulse. Built in those times before we destroyed more deeply and offering, like the museums beyond its walls, a vision of other worlds and paths we have built and forgotten. Rebuilt with care and skill in a new order of European and global tourism and City pride. Outside the city walls we passed again restaurants with white gloved waiters and red carpet dressed diners on our way to the bus stop. Our 11pm transport was filled with youth in this beautiful and zesty city, many returning home from work in restaurants, a teenage violinist, chatter high and joyful. As we disembarked in the high hill suburbs, long skinny brown limbs carried these slender ones around the steps and alleyways in bounces and skips, still singing their goodbyes and jokes as they traversed the hillside around our own plodding, breathy ascent. The ancient old city below is beautiful and draws in the world in its thousands. It is up here in the apartments and steep stepped hinterland that the future of this city is being crafted. If you get the chance come and visit them for a renewal of hope of what is possible after the darkest of times.