Magdalena and Antonia wear dresses by Equipment and collars from Tilda, a shop in Dubrovnik.
Left, Magdalena and Antonia wear jumpers by Nike x Sacai, trousers by Hilfiger Collection, tights by Falke and shoes by Dorateymur; Magdalena wears a top by COS under her jumper. Right, Antonia wears a shirt and a skirt by Giada, while Magdalena wears a jacket, a shirt and a skirt by Gucci. Both are wearing tights by Falke and shoes by Dorateymur.
Magdalena and Antonia wear jumpers and skirts by Pringle of Scotland, bras by Dilara Findikoglu, trousers by Paul Smith Black and shoes by Dorateymur.
Left, Magdalena wears a coat, boots and a hat by Moncler Gamme Rouge. Antonia wears a coat and a jacket by Joseph, and boots and a hat by Moncler Gamme Rouge. Right, above, Magdalena and Antonia wear dresses by Equipment and collars from Tilda Dubrovnik. Right, bottom, Magdalena wears a jumper by Nike x Sacai and a top by COS under her jumper.
Magdalena wears a vest and a shirt by MM6, a skirt by COS and tights by Falke. Antonia wears a top by Miu Miu, a shirt by Redemption Choppers, a skirt by COS and tights by Falke.
Antonia and Magdalena wear jumpers by Simone Rocha, shirts by COS and neckpieces by Gareth Pugh.
Left, Magdalena and Antonia wear jumpers by Pringle of Scotland and bras by Dilara Findikoglu. Right, Magdalena wears shirts by MM6, trousers by Iceberg and tights by Falke. Antonia wears a shirt by MM6 and trousers by G-Star RAW; both their shoes are by Dorateymur.
Antonia wears a jacket and trousers by Dior; Magdalena wears a dress and shorts also by Dior.
Cats overlook the islet of Lokrum, which is also home to a large population of peacocks. Left, Antonia and Magdalena wear jumpers and skirts by J.Crew, hats by Moncler Gamme Rouge, tights by Falke and shoes by Dorateymur. Right, Magdalena wears a vest and a shirt by MM6, a skirt by COS and tights by Falke. Antonia wears a top by Miu Miu, a shirt by Redemption Choppers, a skirt by COS and tights by Falke. Right, Magdalena wears a vest and a shirt by MM6. Antonia wears a top by Miu Miu and a shirt by Redemption Choppers.
Left, above the old port, Antonia and Magdalena wear tops and skirts from Danielle Romeril, shoes by Keds and socks by Topshop. Right, Magdalena and Antonia are both wearing Céline.
I miss my flight to Croatia. So I buy a new ticket and a bottle of wine and, with an icy voice so as to imply disaster, call a friend. I’m supposed to be there to write this article, potentially help out on a photo shoot (carry a tripod), be charming at a work lunch and generally be a responsible adult. It’s cold, I’m angry, and I decide to spend the night at the airport to avoid missing my early-morning flight, too. I drink my wine and read Croatian poetry on a deceptively cosy-looking mock-diner bench at one of those airport joints that are supposed to create the illusion of al fresco dining in Italy or France, but actually sell limp, packaged Caesar salad for £9. This one also has Turkish books. Is it supposed to be international or just confusing? I try to imagine what the empty hotel bed looks like, neatly dressed and waiting, like a new lover; the view from my room in the morning, how it would feel to wake up there and not under fluorescent airport-light glare.
The Croatian five-kuna coin has a bear on it, which I immediately like and deem as modestly ambitious, realistic, yet heroic enough. I grew up in Bulgaria, a place that, despite acutely lacking lions, named its currency after them. It is a very Balkan thing, the flashy, self-sustained claim to greatness. We are very much like a crew of unsuccessful rappers, the poor Kanye Wests of the world. Closer to the Adriatic, it seems to be different.
I get a taxi from the airport to the hotel, because I really want to talk to someone new without being totally creepy. Also, coming from London, I feel like I have a lot more money than I actually do with the kuna. I guess being tired and being drunk manifest themselves in similar ways: unusual behaviour, lack of self-control, generous reward system. The driver is lovely and quiet, diligently answers all my questions and is amused by my note-taking. He asks why I’m writing down what he says – he’s not important. I almost write him a poem, a little taxi ode. On the radio: early Madonna, local pop, Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers”, some Eros Ramazzotti. As the sea unrolls before us, the driver points proudly as if introducing me to an old friend. And that happens with nearly every Croat I meet in Dubrovnik. It almost seems rehearsed, intentionally sentimental. But in a place that has sustained invasion, almost incessantly, from the seventh century onwards, and has had no choice but to adapt to perpetual change, the Adriatic has been the only constant.
The first settlers of Dubrovnik were Greco-Roman refugees. They took up residence near the now Old Town, then a small island called Laus, later Ragusa (now a popular name for restaurants). The Slavs favoured the mainland area and called it Dubrovnik. Over time, a unique, peaceful co-operation between Latin and Slavic cultures was formed. Although the majority of the population has remained ethnically Slav, the influence of the ambitious passers-by – first the Byzantines, then the Venetians, Hungarians and, later, the Ottomans, French and Austrians – is ostensible. Architectural styles blend elegantly, medieval in sync with Baroque, the same way that ingredients do on a great plate of pasta. Better pasta, in fact, than I had when last in Italy, with the freshest local fish, and Croatian truffles grown in Istria, a little less refined and pungent than their French relatives. Then there is the Balkan and Turkish influence in the burek (feta-, spinach- or mince-filled filo pastry), widely available in every local bakery (I know, because I went to almost all of them), and the Viennese heritage reinterpreted in the Croatian cheese strudel, which tastes as questionable as it sounds.
Dubrovnik is such a good mix of everything, but I still can’t decide if that robs it of having its own identity. It looks like the Amalfi coast, but less glamorous, with holidaying habits remaining from Croatia’s communist past. Homely, but drab signs advertising “Rooms/Sobe/Zimmer”, which I have only seen in lacklustre Bulgarian seaside towns, make all this truffle business seem a little out of context, or is it the other way round? Despite the slight identity struggle between a luxury destination and a place where you can rent a room for £20 a night, the overall atmosphere in Dubrovnik is one of charming cultural and historical layering. Still, I would love to know why in the Old Town there are more than five Italian restaurants selling “Authentic Italian pizza” and just one Croatian bakery. Not even Italians eat as much pizza as tourists. What I can say for sure is that this cultural hodgepodge has produced people who are proud, open and refreshingly honest. The servility and fake kindness of resort-town inhabitants can make some places insufferable. Dubrovcani are genuinely accommodating, without being overly polite, and that gives the place a certain lightness. This translates well in their language – Croatian sounds so honest. It’s relatively similar to my native Bulgarian, mostly resembling Serbian, but curling the tongue differently than other Slavic languages, with soft couplings of consonants intercepted by lofty, generous vowels. Even words consisting entirely of consonants don’t sound harsh, but instead seem to mirror the flapping of sea against stone.
I feel lucky to be here in October. The high season is over and everything is slow. There are tourists still, but mostly groups of the elderly from Japan and the US. Past their prime, but handsome and calm, like the city itself. I join the rest of the group (Tank’s fashion editor, a photographer and a driver-guide called Miro) and we wait for two models to arrive. I have decided to accompany them, and potentially make myself useful, to a shoot on the nearby islet of Lokrum, 10 minutes by taxi-boat from the Old Town. When Miro sees the models, lanky, delicate Croatian beauties in their teens, he laughs and laughs: “They’re so tall!” They laugh with him, because it really doesn’t sound rude, but rather endearing. This is the atmosphere of the city. With a population of a little under 50,000, everyone knows everyone. But, Miro says, it’s not only because of the compact size of the place. It’s just that no one tends to leave. Even during the more economically unstable years of communism, when Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia, through the turbulent transition into a free-market economy, the Yugoslav war and the crisis of 2008 that plunged Croatia into a recession from which it is only now beginning to emerge, Dubrovnik has remained a place where a stable income can be made. Most locals work seasonal jobs in the tourist industry from May to November, earning enough to provide for the winter months, when the city begins its true life. The locals like it best here in January, when Dubrovnik is at its calmest. I ask Miro what he does after the season is over and he says, “Nothing! I sit at home and talk to my wife. Because the rest of the year I only talk to tourists.” Nearly 814,000 foreign and 50,000 domestic visitors came to Dubrovnik in 2014 alone. While it has always attracted many tourists, the city’s fame skyrocketed a few years ago when its whitewashed city walls and narrow, ancient streets became one of the main filming locations for Game of Thrones. The locals are happy, because it happened just as the rest of the country plunged into economic despair. Now everyone can take a Game of Thrones walking tour.
We get the last boat to Lokrum. It is 4pm, the water is calm; the crew are unhurried in their white uniforms. They finish their coffees, smoke their cigarettes, and only then we sail. The islet itself is magic, with peacocks, black rabbits and other animals roaming free on a carpet of pine needles and moist leaves, with strikingly coloured mushrooms. It smells like an ancient temple from the warm, aromatic resin of the perennials. It is hard to believe that a place like this really exists outside of someone’s drug-enhanced imagination.
Dubrovnik looks different in the rain. After the weather settles, it is still cloudy and cool. There is just one narrow opening in the clouds for a little sunlight, which falls like spilled silver on the blue water.
I go to the top of nearby Mount Srd, which supposedly has the best views of the city, to see a fortress from the Napoleonic Wars. What would have felt like an unstoppable invasion of selfie sticks in summer is now an eerie, almost haunted-looking expanse of lush vegetation and noble, ancient stone. It is a bit dead, so I decide to rejoin the living down in the city. Circumstances (wind, the cable car not working, inherent bad judgement on my part) force me to descend the mountain in brogues, which makes me feel as if I’ve been badly Photoshopped into this perfect landscape. Miro tries to find a less rough path that will take me all the way down to the city. We get lost briefly and end up in a small, littered pine forest, with a gaping concrete structure in the middle. “When there was war, this was bunker,” he says, then continues telling me about how this path we’re trying to find was also featured on Game of Thrones. One of the main battles of the Croatian War of Independence, as part of the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s, took place here, on Mount Srd. For seven months, between 1991-92, Dubrovnik was besieged by the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) and suffered considerable damage and the loss of around 100 local lives and nearly 200 Croatian soldiers. There was a confused logic behind the attack on the city – a small Serbian population, questionable strategic importance – that was aimed mostly at weakening the Croats’ morale. Belgrade also saw it as an opportunity to engage the ethnic Serbs and Montenegrins of Eastern Herzegovina in the war, while making questionable historical claims over Dubrovnik having formed part of Serbia’s wide-spanning medieval cultural milieu. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city was quickly restored after the war, with only new roofing on some buildings and the occasional shrapnel hole on the city walls serving as reminders of the conflict. There are photography books and personal accounts of Dubrovnik at war being sold in local bookshops now, alongside the latest biography of Tito, cookery books and the Croatian edition of Fifty Shades of Grey. Living history, I suppose.
Perhaps it is only true for Dubrovnik, but locals don’t seem to linger in the past. Over lunch the previous day, I brought up the war with Sandra, Dubrovnik born and bred, and now working for the tourist board. She says it’s time to move on, that the war has been over for many years, and the only way is forward. For her it’s a matter of how one is raised, and defusing conflict starts in the family. The current political and economic climate certainly does not favour friendships between the former Yugoslav republics, with extra pressure coming from the migration crisis unfolding in Europe. There are border closures between Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, insults being exchanged on high diplomatic level, old conflicts revived.
Back in the city, when one ventures out of the more touristy parts (mostly centred around the Old Town), a different rhythm can be observed. Unassuming little cafes fill with locals. Teenagers sneak after-school cigarettes in one of Dubrovnik’s many terrace parks, which nestle behind Mediterranean-style houses with ink-green shutters. Quiet streets, people going about their day, tending to plants, cleaning, cooking. It’s easy to forget that this is also a place where people go to school, get ill, have children, buy groceries. I walk around for miles, have too much coffee, and love it so much. I even manage to dip my feet in the sea and it is still warm. It gives a sense of achievement to stand in the water and look up at the towering Mount Srd after walking all the way down. Tired, I catch the number 4 bus to Lapad, the nearby peninsula where our hotel is located, and it’s like a half-hour tour of the mundane for just 12 kuna (£1.15). Perhaps the best way to really see a new city is to observe the daily lives of locals with the same attention that is lavished on the walls and castles that their ancestors built. Back at the hotel, a slow cigarette on the balcony, room service for the exact amount of local currency I have left (80 kuna, £7.50: chicken consommé and a fruit platter; what a delightfully ceremonial way to serve glorified chicken stock and cut-up fruit) and Croatian news on the TV. Migrants at the Croatia-Hungary border, upcoming parliamentary elections, dubbed Merkel speaking yet another language I do not understand. I listen to the uneasy sea as I fall asleep.
On the plane back to London, which I don’t miss, I leaf through the on-board magazine to find an article titled “Who are the greatest Croatian greats?” The author argues that per capita and in relation to its smallish territory, Croatia has given the world an impressive number of them, spanning “scientists, cultural workers, educators, inventors, warriors, holy men, talented athletes and creators in other areas of life”. I suppose it is the privilege of countries on a geographical crossroads, stampeded by every expansive empire or regime known to history, to make a case for their greatness in such ways. The Macedonians built an overly indulgent tasting menu of world monuments smack bang in the middle of Skopje (as a result, it is now described by the Guardian as “Europe’s new capital of kitsch”) and claimed ownership over all of it, and of the origins of culture altogether. The Bulgarians have their lion currency and no lions; the Serbs, well, they have themselves. While all the European cities I have visited recently, previously under one arm of communism or another, seem somewhat lost – ideologically, aesthetically, culturally – in Dubrovnik the sea seems to change everything. §
Casting: Elodie Yelmani at Creartvt / Models: Magdalena and Antonia at New Madison Paris / Special thanks to Courtney Smith, Sara Sabadin, Darija Reic, Sandra Milovcevic, Michael Mumford, Ana Orlović, Milo Maric, Croatia Airlines and the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel
Neda Neynska is writer based in London.
Estelle Hanania is a photographer based in Paris.
Dubrovnik is a city on the Adriatic Sea in southern Croatia. Known for its well-preserved Old Town, it has become famous as a filming location for Game of Thrones, a dubious honour that has transformed the once sleepy Balkan port into a premier tourist destination. Still, the city’s stunning architecture and dramatic position above the sea make it an ideal destination for an off-season holiday.
Area: 21.35 km2 (8.24 sq mi)
Time zone: GMT +1
Tank stayed at the five-star Palace Hotel Dubrovnik overlooking the sea, 2.5km from the Old Town. It has a wellness spa and restaurants.