Mljet and Dubrovnik: but haven’t you been there before?

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November 10th 2017
Published: November 9th 2017
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Seems that returning to places isn’t such a bad option after all. Especially after ten years when I recognised remarkably little. This realisation is a good thing as it’s getting increasingly tricky, and expensive, to keep going somewhere new.

I’m not one for repeatedly visiting the same place. I know people who return over and over to the same Greek island because they absolutely love it and others who have worked their way along almost every kilometre of the Croatian coast because they love Croatia. It’s not that I’ve never fallen in love with a place, it’s just that I would be concerned that there could be somewhere else I’m going to fall in love with too and by going back somewhere I’ve previously been I may miss out on the new one. So reluctantly I returned to both Mljet and Dubrovnik. “Reluctantly” seems a harsh choice of word given that these two places are quite beautiful.

The choice wasn’t entirely mine; I would be in Dubrovnik for a conference. Well done to the International Association of Hydrogeologists for picking top conference locations. It was Rome in 2016 and will be South Korea in 2018.

Having been on a PhD student’s salary for three years now, it is necessary to attach holidays to field trips and conferences as the flights and accommodation come out of the project budget. Fortunately, these trips have been to some great places: 3x Ethiopia, 2x South Africa, Ivory Coast, India, Croatia and… (drumroll)… Birmingham!

I’d been to Croatia many times after living in Slovenia for a year in 2009/2010. However, there are over 1000 islands so there were still plenty of places I hadn’t been. I’d only been to the far south, Dalmatia, once before but that was over ten years ago in 2006. I looked for a new island to visit and had my heart set on Vis for its mountains, old towns and beaches. However, the ferries run a very reduced service outside the peak July-August season so getting there would be tricky. Then I decided on Brač, again for mountains, old towns and beaches. Ferries would still be running there but it would mean flying to Split from an inconvenient UK airport.

By the way, I wasn’t planning this trip just for me. Mum and Dad have always wanted to go to Croatia but the only way they ever would go would be if I booked and planned it for them (which was the only way I got them to Africa in 2007). Magdalena was coming too, having never been to Croatia and as eager to jump on my conference trips as I am to jump on hers. It was more convenient and cheaper to fly from Newcastle so that meant flying to Dubrovnik. The off-season ferry situation (the conference was at the end of September) meant we would be going to one of the nearby islands. We went for Mljet. I’d been there before and fancied somewhere new but the hiking within the national park and the monastery on the island sold it for the other three.

After the flight, a night in Dubrovnik near the port (that included a very long walk around the harbour to a restaurant; never believe the person who drops off your apartment keys when he recommends a place 10 minutes’ walk away! the fish was very good though), a two-hour ferry journey brought us to Mljet. It was immediately apparent that I should have been in no way disappointed about going back to the place. Mljet is gorgeous. We stayed in Polače, which is essentially just one street next to the sea, a few apartments and restaurants on one side of the road, the clear waters of the long natural harbour on the other, with forested hills on the other side. I remembered Polače being really pretty, thankfully it hadn’t changed. There were a few more restaurants to choose from and they were still pricey, this being a favourite stop for the yachts, but the seafood was still delicious – more so as you eat it with the sounds and smells of the sea just a few metres away.

We were made very welcome at our apartment, communicating in a mix of English, Slovene and Polish (us), and, Croatian and German (him); I think they were just grateful to have guests as the place was really quiet. Apparently, from October there is pretty much no one in Polače and the apartments and restaurants shut up till the following May.

Mljet is a place for being active. There are hiking and cycling trails in thick forest as well as a few lakes, little villages and secluded rocky swimming spots. I remembered trying to hike when I was last there in 2006 and it wasn’t too successful. The path on the map turned out to be just a firebreak between pine trees that was full of sharp limestone boulders and thick spiderwebs strong enough to stop you in your tracks. Thankfully, the paths are now numerous, well-marked and sufficiently hiked to keep the cobwebs at bay. Although, on my favourite day of the whole week and half trip, we managed to hike around the western end of the island seeing not another hiker all day. We even had an idyllic rocky bay to have a lunchtime swim all to ourselves. And September is the perfect month for hiking weather-wise. It was never hot enough to break into a sweat, even up some of the steeper hills, but it was hot enough to always be in shorts and t-shirt and to be able to jump into the sea whenever the fancy took you. Night-time was chilly though. I had trousers and a big hoodie just for getting to the airport in Newcastle but ended up wearing it every evening as all the restaurants are open-air.

I only had one free day in Dubrovnik before the conference started. It was as magical as I remembered. Though busier and a lot more expensive. Game of Thrones has a lot to do with that and it was quite overbearing all the GoT tours, GoT souvenir shops, GoT shows, etc. Having never seen Game of Thrones it all went over my head. Our first trip into the Old Town and I realised why there were calls this summer for restricting tourist numbers that could be within the walls at any one time; at times you literally couldn’t move. As well as the crowds reducing the pleasure for the typical visitor, the city is wearing away from the physical erosion of so many footsteps. I later discovered that we had come on a bad day as it was one of the three days of the week when the cruise ships are in and there were three and they were all huge. Together the floating monstrosities disgorge an additional 10,000 people into the 1 square-kilometre Old Town. I shudder to think what it must be like in the height of summer.

But, wander down the back alleys and up the steep passageways and you can still get away from the crowds. These parts of Dubrovnik are delightful, especially because it is still very much lived in with the little gardens, house cats sat sunning themselves, pot plants and washing strung out of windows.

We took the cable car up Mount Srđ and got a great birds eye view of the lovely villas on the hill on the way up. The castle up there was built by Napoleon and is now partly in ruin from the war in the 90s. However, it is the view back down onto the old city and out to the islands that justifies the cable car ticket price and queue.

The conference had me strolling around the coast to the five-star Hotel Dubrovnik Palace every morning for a day of presentations, meetings, networking, excellent food and usually some sort of event in the evening. It was a very good conference, and thankfully, I was presenting on the first day just after lunch so could relax for the rest of the week knowing that I had got the presentation out of the way but also with people knowing who I was and what I did. Probably the highlight of the conference was the Wednesday field trip. I chose well as my trip (out of the six options) included a wine tasting session (at 09:30am!) a great lunch with lots of varieties of homemade grappa to sample, a visit to the thoroughly unpronounceable vineyard-carpeted Pelješac peninsula, the pretty island of Korčula, the town of Ston with its famous defensive walls that they claim are the second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China (at 5.5 km I’m fairly sure they are not), and best of all, some of the superstar people at the conference who I was hoping to get the chance to speak to about possible future projects happened to be on my bus. A project in the Pacific Islands on the coral atolls that will be submerged in the not too distant future and will run out of freshwater long before that is suddenly less of a distant dream!

Additional photos below
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Veliko Jezero, MljetVeliko Jezero, Mljet
Veliko Jezero, Mljet

Sounds better in Croatian than when translated. (Veliko Jezero = Big Lake)

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