I love being back in Dubrovnik. I’m lucky enough to come here regularly, to update my Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook. And after twenty-some visits, even as I’ve watched the city has blossomed into a world-famous destination, it’s good to see that its essence has remained intact.
One of my favorite routines is getting a morning coffee at Dubrava Bistro. It sits at the bottom end of the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main pedestrian drag, just in front of the town bell tower. If I’m in Dubrovnik, you’ll find me here each morning.
Today, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed from the long trip in from Seattle, I roll out of bed and show up a bit late — around 10:15. I’m warmly greeted by two guys named Pero and a couple of their friends, who invite me to pull up a chair and join them. The gang used to call this café — where they catch up each morning — “The Sitting Room.” But a few years back, they rechristened it with an even more fitting nickname: “Facebook.”
As I sip my bijela kava (“white coffee,” as a latte is poetically called here), we look out at the promenade. The daily onslaught of visitors has not yet fully begun. And when it’s empty, the Stradun’s surface is a mirror — polished to a high gloss by centuries of spice traders and cruise passengers. The yellow of the stone, the green of the window frames, the orange of the roof tiles, the blue of the sky, and the white of the puffy clouds are all reflected in the shiny street.
It’s a minor miracle that this Croatian coffee klatsch tradition has survived. Sitting on what may be the best people-watching real estate in Europe, surveying a steady stream of tourists heading out for a day in the sun, here’s a table full of true-blue native-born locals. They grew up playing in Dubrovnik’s skinny streets before the town was famous. They lived through the 1991-1992 siege that devastated Dubrovnik (some of them huddled in the medieval walls for protection, others shooting back from the hillsides above). And in recent years, they’ve stoically weathered their hometown’s transformation into a tourism superstar.
The two Peros both run B&Bs in the steep and narrow lanes that climb up the hill from Dubrovnik’s main drag. I met the first Pero about 10 years ago. I had just co-authored the first edition of the Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook. For the second edition, I was determined to sniff out some great family-run B&Bs as an alternative to the characterless communist resort hotels on the outskirts. Back then — in an age before TripAdvisor or Booking.com — these mom-and-pop places were hard to find. It was mostly word-of-mouth: I had to ask around…anybody and everybody. The tourist office isn’t allowed to recommend businesses. But when I described what I was looking for, the guy at the desk sensed my desperation and took pity on me. Glancing around surreptitiously — as if about to sell me pure heroin — he whispered, “I know a guy. I’ll call him.”
When I showed up at Pero’s place that first time, he didn’t know what to make of me. But he kindly showed me around his beautifully restored townhouse, which was exactly what I was looking for: comfortable, affordable, and perfectly located. I put it straight in the book. And by the time I came back the next year, Pero practically jumped through the phone when I called him. He’d gotten a huge boost in business…and I had a friend for life.
Over time, Pero simply couldn’t handle the demand. So one year, he introduced me to his neighbor across the lane: Pero. This new Pero had his own stable of great rooms. So he, too, went in the book. For simplicity, they’ve dubbed themselves “Pero #1” and “Pero #2,” after the order in which they were added to the book. (I call Pero #2 “The Deuce,” but I don’t think he gets it.) There are at least three other Peros in my book. Apparently if you want in the Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, it really helps to be named Pero.
This morning at breakfast, the two Peros are recovering from a long, busy, and unusually hot summer. By mid-September, the end is in sight — things should quiet down in a month or so. Their friend Željko — one of the rare Dubrovnik residents who doesn’t work directly in tourism — tells me he just retired after more than 40 years as an air-traffic controller. Sipping his coffee, he jokes, “Now I work with the Peros: publicity and public relations.”
I love the Peros’ “Facebook” tradition. And it’s insightful. In a town so mobbed by tourists that locals become invisible, sitting with the Peros is a good way to feel the pulse of the real community that keeps Dubrovnik pumping. Every few passersby, the Peros nod or give a little wave, revealing a fellow native. Here are a few tips: Men carrying cameras are tourists. Men carrying purses are locals. Men wearing shorts are tourists. Men wearing long pants in the hot sun are locals. Men wearing capri pants are probably Germans.
The “Facebook” café is one of several eateries in Dubrovnik that offers a (semi-secret) 30% discount to local residents, who otherwise might steer clear of the tourist-clogged Old Town entirely. In recent years, I sense a nostalgia in the Peros, who tell me that fewer and fewer locals actually live in the Old Town — most people have converted their former houses into tourist apartments. In one of those petty scandals that rock small towns, parking rates near the Old Town have skyrocketed — even for residents, who now must pay $6 an hour to visit their own hometown. And increasingly, many Dubrovnik natives don’t even bother coming here at all. The “Facebook” crew has gradually shed members, and these days they’re lucky if a quorum shows up for morning coffee.
And yet, I try to see Dubrovnik’s recent popularity as one more fascinating chapter in the story of a small town that opens its doors to the world. Dubrovnik has always been a trading town — a global crossroads. Even if today’s travelers are seeking out Kings Landing landmarks or the hottest discotheque, rather than exotic spices from the Far East, they’re still part of the same tapestry.
By the time breakfast is over, the Stradun is getting crowded. As the sun intensifies, the neighboring shop cranks open their awning. I gather my things, head out for a day’s work, and wave goodbye to the Peros. I’ll be back tomorrow. And so will they.