“Isn’t it a shame to see so many shops and restaurants boarded up and closed,” said my wife as we walked the cobbled side streets of the Old City. Indeed, it was. A global pandemic and the end of the summer season, if indeed you can call it a season at all, have combined to turn the streets away from Stradun into a ghost town.
Can you be a tourist in your own town, or rather city? There’s the first dilemma. For me Dubrovnik is a city and not a town. But reading the sign posts you’ll see a mixture of town and city. City just sounds more important, more grand. Towns are basically larger villages. That’s the hierarchy. Hamlet, village, town and then city and metropolis.
The origin of the word town comes, in English anyway, from tun or sometimes ton, (that’s how you get towns like Brighton) which meant an enclosed area. So does that make Dubrovnik a town? It is enclosed after all. But then in English one of the definitions of a city is that it is the place of the bishop’s seat, meaning it has a cathedral. And the last time I checked there was a whooping great cathedral dominating the landscape. The internet can’t decide, on Wikipedia Dubrovnik is a city and on TripAdvisor a town!?!
In my opinion it’s a city and I’m sticking to that. We have organisations spelling it with a capital C, which I have nothing against, similar to The City which is in the very heart of London. But to spell town with a capital T, well that just doesn’t work. “It isn’t stari grad it’s just Grad,” if I had a penny for every time I was told that a couple of decades ago I would be living right on Stradun.
But, and I’m sorry to break the news, but those days are behind us. Whilst there are still a hard-core of citizens who just call it Grad they are certainly in the minority for sure. As the city has become less and less important for everyday life so its name has changed, or rather expanded to include old. When I first came here there were still practical reasons to visit the Old City, either to go to an office, the bank, some institution or in my case the British consulate. Unless you really fancy a good ice-cream or are in need of a Game of Thrones T-shirt you can pretty much avoid the stone city today.
The change happened relatively quickly, from Grad to Stari Grad. A combination of events, such as selling of real estate, impossible parking, shops and institutions moving outside the walls and the rise of tourism, all significantly sped up the process. Were these events stoppable? Possibly. But it would have taken a strong and continual leadership with a big dose of creativity and foresight. Unfortunately, all of these characteristics were missing at crucial times.
I’m often asked if the city was a victim of it’s own success. The answer is always - no. It was a victim of passivity. A victim of exploitation. And a victim of short-term personal gain. “Obliti privatorvm pvblica cvrate,” was throw to the wind. It is a shame, the magic may have gone, but you can’t stop time and rewind, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
So yes, we were tourists in our own city. And it was lovely. It made a change to see more pigeons than people. The handful of tourists, easy to spot as they were still wearing shorts and flip-flops, were having a unique experience that no money in the world could ever buy. And the only downside was that they had to wear a 2 Kuna face mask. I am glad that the city had a timeout, a chance to breathe again.
And more importantly to rebuild, pretty much from square one. The city planners and tourist institutions have a blank canvas to work with. And now we will see if they are great artists or amateur painters. The pressure is on. As the American author Jackson Brown once wrote “Nothing is more expensive that a missed opportunity.”