By Julia Molden
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
The received wisdom of those who think they know what’s what is that you should never return to a place you remember with affection from long ago. They are probably usually correct but how glad I am that I took no notice of them. For those who know me, this will come as no surprise as I am often to be found going in exactly the opposite direction of received wisdom. And why am I telling you this you may ask. Here’s why.
This year is the golden anniversary of my very first visit to Dubrovnik. From the first moment I set foot there in August 1964, I fell under its spell. I don’t have to think too hard to remember exactly how I felt. Walking round the old harbour for the first time, past the then rather uninviting Gradska Kavana and pitching up at what I now know to be called Porporela, I was absolutely captivated. If you are old enough to remember that time, you may recall that prime minister Harold Wilson had recently introduced his scheme to restrict British holidaymakers from taking more than �50 out of the country in any one year. If it is not a contradiction in terms, the then Yugoslavia was firmly if loosely behind the Iron Curtain, requiring a visa to enable a visit, prop planes were still commonplace and flights were expensive. It was a different world and a holiday in Dubrovnik was a big deal.
Never before had I experienced the warmth of a Mediterranean evening. I had never so much as heard of bougainvillea let alone seen it growing almost as luxuriantly as a weed, never heard live music issuing from practically every hotel terrace and street cafe, never seen a city quite so captivating in so many ways. I remember the trams rattling up the hill from Pile Gate towards Gruz and Lapad, a Stradun practically devoid of shops and at times almost empty of people and a maze of mysterious side streets just asking to be explored if you dared.
Several more visits ensued during the remainder of the 1960s, during which time nothing much changed except that the trams disappeared, from Pile at least, to be replaced by buses and the requirement for visas was lifted. I wondered whether I was taking a stupid risk when I joined a queue somewhere near Pile Gate on 21st August 1968 to sign a protest against the crushing of Dub?ek’s Prague Spring, which had happened that very morning. Apart from that, the politics of the time impinged on me not one bit and the spell Dubrovnik had cast over me never wavered for a moment.
Fast forward three decades, during which time I was busy studying, working, marrying, raising a family and all the other joys of adulthood. I watched with despair as in the early 1990s Dubrovnik was bombarded during the Homeland War and I saw familiar haunts going up in flames. Whether it was that or the lingering memories from so long ago or both I am not sure but I resolved I just had to return. But I was scared lest all my happy memories be ruined.
My first return visit was in 2005, when I found the city fuller, shinier and busier, having been lovingly restored as a UNESCO heritage site and now a regular port of call for the cruise ships plying the Mediterranean and Adriatic. But I was thrilled to be back. In 2007 my expedition into the mysteries of the Croatian language began. And with every passing year since then, it has just got better and better.
And this June will find me back there again for a few days, prior to joining this summer’s CLS adventure into the joys of the Croatian language in particular and Croatia in general under Linda’s patient and expert guidance. This time our base will be up the coast a bit in Orebi?, which I also visited in the mid-sixties and am intrigued to be revisiting. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams all those years ago that fifty years on I would be able to return almost at the drop of a hat to a fellow member of a European Union, which was hardly even a pipedream at that time, and that I would be able to move seamlessly between my two favourite countries and, not quite so seamlessly (yet!), between their two oh so different languages. True, Dubrovnik is now well and truly on the world’s tourist map and at times becomes overwhelmed, particularly when the cruise ships are in port. But sitting at a table outside the now far more inviting Gradska Kavana one balmy evening last summer when all the day visitors had returned to their ships, I knew the magic was still well and truly there as far as I was concerned. What more could I ask for than an adventure that I hope will just run and run.
Now that’s something to raise an celebratory glass to when June finally rolls around.
Julia Molden, London, February 2014.