Stir awake to a drunken chill breeze veering wildly across the top deck.
Wafting up the live, sharp tang of sea salt.
Salt scoured from the surf swell repeatedly slapping against the M/V Dubrovnik’s hull.
Wake up to the reverberating hollow hum of sheer marine engine power driving the props.
Churning up the slipstream slicing across the water’s surface.
Ship metal work, polished to a golden lustre, awash with a dazzling white surge of froth.
Raking rays of surf dappled light reflected off galvanised metal sheet decks aglow with early sunlight’s radiant sheen.
And the M/V Dubrovnik steaming on towards the silhouetted Croatian coastline at the break of dawn.
The ten hour Adriatic crossing from Bari to Dubrovnik is over and I do my best to focus my addled mind after one hell of a wide awake night – snatching sleep in step with the rise and fall of holiday school kids’ frenetic chatter.
The airline seat lounge is overrun by school groups of hyperactive Italian and Bosnian ten-year-olds all steamed up for zero sleep and thronging seats, corridors, bathrooms.
Teachers, guardians, parents, utterly defeated, shrug off the maddening chaos with knowing smiles and bobbing pigeon-like nods.
And the kids’ soaring frenzy verging on the hysterical as the ship slides into Dubrovnik harbour at 7 a.m.
You see the A-shaped pylon first.
Shooting one hundred and fifty metres vertically upwards, straight out of the limpid sapphire Adriatic Sea, the pylon lifts the Franjo Tudman bridge fifty metres clear of the water level, suspending the half a kilometre length concrete roadway slab by thirty-eight steel cables swooping down from up high to either side of the carriageway.
Trucks and buses thunder past.
Overhead cables sway to left and right in the crisp evening air.
The concrete road judders and oscillates sharply as I see myself racing across the bridge in the direction of Dubrovnik –
Arms steeled and steady.
Clamped fists gripping the handlebar drops tight.
High cadence pedalling.
Spanking out the pace at thirty kilometres per hour hitting the bridge and holding my tempo with the traffic zooming past, striking off the last few kilometres of the day’s 155 kilometre marathon ride from Medjugorje –
Two years ago and just one year before my melanoma struck.
But now I’m back again.
I wander back in time to a December day some twenty years ago –
To slashing rain and a biting, frigid Maestrale.
Sky – contiguous, thick blanket of horizonless grey, merging imperceptibly with the angered pitch black sea swelling up, slamming its sheer volume against the rock.
So you couldn’t help wondering at the mighty resilience of rock and the man-made barriers and buttresses bolstering up the city walls of Dubrovnik’s old town against such violent winter storms.
I had just arrived with the overnight bus from Zagreb. Twelve hours and only two stops at empty, featureless bus stations along the way.
And throughout the night I remember not being bothered at all to know where I was until the bus finally veered into Dubrovnik bus station.
A sluggish dawn was slowly breaking as night reluctantly succumbed to dreary early morning grey and gloom.
Dubrovnik – so depressing at first sight!
That’s how it felt like, but still, I was overawed and excited about being there.
My first time ever in Dubrovnik.
Plodding and splashing through puddles, tugging down hard on my rain jacket hood cords, holding the hood firmly in place and stopping it from flinging back and flapping against my shoulders.
Forcing my step and struggling forward against the wind, trudging up the stone stairway leading on to the old city walls.
Limestone battlements and ramparts holding out against the wrath of the Adriatic.
Sea whipped up into one swirling mass of white froth and foam lunging violently against rock and stone.
Yet repulsed yet once more.
Enthralled by the monstrous majesty of the winter storm and by the crisp, sharp taste of salt spray spattered by the wind and by the dizzying aroma of seagrass and seaweed.
Mourning screech of gulls wheeling inland on stretched out wingspans, alternately beating and fluttering their wings into the wind or gliding smoothly away out of the storm, and alighting gracefully on the sheltered quays of Dubrovnik harbour.
Puny, toy-like fishing boats bobbing dutifully at their moorings, their bright and gaudy hand-painted wooden planks of summer transmuted to dull, drab winter tones of brown and grey.
I was the only person walking those city walls that day. No one else was around and it sure felt good striding back to an empty hostel and deserted canteen for a late breakfast of hot chocolate and cappucino plus a jam croissant.
Dubrovnik in the off-season was the Dubrovnik I had imagined her to be.
The way I wished her –
Freed from the noise and silly chatter of invading tourist hordes.
Ponderous. Solitary. Redoubtable. Resisting the storm.
All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2016