by David Farley, The Guardian, December 07, 2015
On my first day in Dubrovnik, the stunning walled city on the southern Dalmatian coast, I sat down at an outdoor café on the Stradun, the main limestone-clad pedestrian street in the old town, and ordered a beer. It hit the spot, the crisp pilsner washing away the memories of a long flight. But then I got the bill: £5. This wouldn’t have been outrageous if I’d been in, say, Oslo, but here in Croatia, it seemed particularly expensive.
As I contemplated how I’d be able to eat and drink my way through the town, my usual travel proclivity, I had an idea: a Dubrovnik friend had told me about a few very local places within the walls of the old town – bars that most tourists either don’t know about or do not dare enter. I was going to find them, not just in the name of affordable libations but also to imbibe among the gospari – literally “nobles” – the word for the denizens of Dubrovnik.
Not that there’s anything wrong with going to the tourist hotspots. Lively Troubadour (Buniceva Poljana 2, 385 20 323 476), right next to the cathedral, is a fun place for live music. Buža (Crijeviceva ulica 9, 385 98 361 934), the outdoor bar with a stunning ocean view right on the cliffs, is an essential place for any first-time visitor. I’d been to those spots many years ago. This time I wanted to try something different.
Night on the tiles: roofs of Dubrovnik’s old town. Photograph: Alamy
I had my work cut out. Twenty years ago, there were about 5,000 gospari living within the walls of the old town. Today, there are just 1,500, most of whom now rent out their apartments on Airbnb while living on the periphery of town.
So I put word out with a few friends who live here. The first person to respond was Zrinka, who works for Adriatic Luxury Hotels, a small chain of upscale hotels in and around the city. I loved the irony of a lifelong Dubrovnik resident who also works in the luxury travel business telling me about the local spots where tourists don’t go. “On Stradun, a few streets after Sponza Palace, take a left and you should find Libertina” (Zlatarska Ulica 3, +385 203 21 526).
A few strides later I was there, standing in front of Luci, the ancient owner of the place. “Dobar vecer,” I said (good evening). Instead of responding, he walked out of the diminutive bar to clean up an outdoor table. Maybe they don’t serve my type – ahem, tourists – here. Just then, another text from Zrinka came in: “If that fails, go back to Stradun and walk until you see a sign for the restaurant Barba. Go up the alleyway until you find a bar with no sign on it. It’s where all the local people hang out.”
It wasn’t easy to find, but eventually, I made it to Primo (Bosikoviceva 3, +385 20 321 075). And I even got a beer this time. At 15 kuna (£1.50), practically a steal. Unlike all the tourist-packed bars 30ft away on Stradun, Primo was empty save for a couple of guys who seemed so intoxicated I was wondering which one would fall off their bar stool first. This was the bargain: exchanging overpriced beer next to fellow tourists for libations priced for locals and a (very) quiet atmosphere.
Sea walls: a view of the harbour. Photograph: Alamy
The next day I went back to Libertina. The owner was there and this time it only took him five minutes to acknowledge me. I nursed a beer among a few guys arguing over Hajduk and Dinamo, the football teams from Split and Zagreb respectively, an age-old rivalry that will never die down. Like Primo, the place felt a bit too sedate for my liking.
After asking a few more people about where they go in the old town, a name began to pop up again and again: Fontana (Izmedju Polaca 5). Located smack in the centre, it exploded with energy: locals chatted gregariously and the bartender, a man in his mid-20s, was accepting arm-wrestling challenges among regulars, as plumes of cigarette smoke wafted heavenward. I ordered half a litre of Laško, a good brew from Slovenia, for 20 kuna (£2) and snuggled up to the bar.
In my quest I wasn’t necessarily looking for an “authentic” experience, that holy grail of travel. We often travel to see how another culture interprets daily life. At least I do. And while I could have easily ventured beyond the walls to find such a place, I was particularly intrigued about the challenges the locals face, the compromise they might have agreed to between their quotidian lives in the old town and the promise of making money in the tourism industry.
A tour-guide friend, Aljoša Lecic, gave me a bit of local perspective when we met up for coffee one day. “Every bar that opens up in the old town has intentions to be different, to be a place for locals,” he said. “Then the reality sets in and the owners realise they have to give in to tourism.”
The places I visited, Fontana, Primo, even Libertina, were staunch in their loyalty to locals and eschewed the temptation to make a lot of money, as their Irish-pub neighbours were doing.
The next night I sidled up to the bar at Libertina. There was Luci, the grumpy owner. When he saw me, he smiled, poured me a glass of beer, and said, “Here you go, gospar,” greeting me as a local. I was far from that, but it was certainly a start.
A double room at the Hotel Excelsior costs from £140 in high season and £75 in low season per night (alh.hr). Places to drink include Libertina Zlatarska ulica 3 (+385 203 21 526), Primo, Bosikoviceva 3 (+385 20 321 075) and Fontana, Izmedju Polaca 5
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by David Farley from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.