The delights of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is the undoubted jewel in the Dalmatian crown, an ancient city that has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the years. (File/Shutterstock)
Updated 30 April 2019
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The delights of Dubrovnik

  • In some ways Dubrovnik has become a victim of its own success
  • Croatia’s Dalmatian coast has only been discovered by global tourists relatively recently

While the Italian Adriatic coast has long been a byword for sophisticated holidaying, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast has only been discovered by global tourists relatively recently.

It’s not hard to see why it has become so popular: the Adriatic waters lap up against some of Europe’s most beautiful coastline, punctuated by picture-perfect villages, stark cliffs, and hidden beaches.

Dubrovnik is the undoubted jewel in the Dalmatian crown, an ancient city that has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the years.

Indeed, it has weathered countless wars, multiple occupations (by the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Romans) and survived a seven-month siege during the Balkans War, but still it stands, as beautiful as ever.

The city of 45,000 stretches along the coast, but the focal point is the Old Town, housed inside 1.2 miles of walls, built to protect the inhabitants from the marauding Saracens in the 9th century.

The main function of the walls these days is to provide a backdrop to countless tourists’ photographs, but it’s within the walls that the real beauty of Dubrovnik is revealed. From the cloisters of a Franciscan monastery and the third-oldest pharmacy in the world, to the 19 churches spread around the town, this is a place that wears its past on its sleeve. Most tourists start at the Stradun — the main thoroughfare that cuts the Old City in two — which is dotted with cafes and restaurants.

Head to Luza Square first and marvel at the incredible Gothic-Renaissance architecture of Sponza Palace and The Rector’s Palace.

The white limestone paths are slick from millions of footsteps and we recommend heading to the west side of the Old Town to get a glimpse of how the locals live. It’s filled with narrow alleyways, tiny grocery stores, hole-in-the-wall cafés and lots and lots of steps. Oh, and lots and lots of tourists.

Ah yes, the tourists. In some ways Dubrovnik has become a victim of its own success — its narrow lanes are increasingly thronged by tour groups, multiplied by the countless cruise ships that dock here every year.

Wandering through the Old Town can, at times, be a frustrating experience, particularly when held up by a horde of selfie-stick wielding visitors.

Its popularity has only increased since HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones” first aired (the Old Town being used is the setting for King’s Landing). There are plenty of locals taking advantage of that fact, from Game of Thrones-themed shops (Jon Snow pillowcase anyone?) to Game of Thrones-themed tours. Despite the crowds and the occasional tackiness, the Old Town is undeniably beautiful.

Wander along the city walls just before sunset or take the cable car up to Mount Srdj which overlooks the city, and prepare to be amazed by the views.

There are not many places that combine heritage and beauty quite like Dubrovnik does.

And, if the crowds get too much, it’s not hard to find somewhere slightly more peaceful, whether that be a café tucked down a side street, or a tiny fishing village a few miles away. Cavtat is one such place — a small, seaside town where red-rooved houses slope down towards a pretty harbor. Cafés and restaurants line a small promenade, while pleasure boats bob in the azure waters. It’s hard to think of a better place in which to do nothing.

There are multiple daily sailings from Dubrovnik’s Old Town port, although we recommend staying at least a night.

If you are feeling adventurous, head even further south and cross into Montenegro, which is filled with tiny, picturesque villages, endless wooded hillsides and spectacular fjords.

If you do decide to stay in Dubrovnik however, we recommend Villa Dubrovnik, a five-star hotel that juts out over the Adriatic, each room offering spectacular sea views.

With a minimal design and white color palette, it’s reminiscent of a Miami beach club. It’s about a 20-minute walk south of the Old Town and is a lovely respite from the crowds further north.

It’s easy to overstate the crowds however, and in the early morning, or after dark, you can walk the narrow, silent streets of the Old Town completely alone.

It’s moments like this, with the Adriatic crashing against the shore, the town’s lights twinkling on the hillside, when you realize just how special Dubrovnik is.


The blind empowering the blind

Updated 20 May 2019
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The blind empowering the blind

  • Lebanese-American Sara Minkara refuses to consider her blindness an obstacle
  • Through Empowerment Through Integration she works to empower youth with disabilities

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: “I like to push boundaries,” Sara Minkara told me in the offices of her non-profit, Empowerment Through Integration (ETI), right across the street from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From here, she works to make the visually impaired and disabled feel included in society.

“I’ve hiked and sled down a volcano in Nicaragua and biked through the jungle in Bali,” she added.

Now, all this sounds like a standard travel itinerary for daredevilish adventure groups, but not in this case. 

Minkara, a Muslim Lebanese-American, lost her sight at the age of 7 due to macular degeneration. However, she doesn’t let that stop her from doing what she loves to do.

“My mom never allowed us to stay home and say ‘I cannot do this because I can’t see’ … Never, we were never allowed to say that,” she said, referring to herself and her older sister, who is also blind.

Minkara hopes that ETI can help others to break the social constructs that limit people with disabilities and can give them the confidence to realize their full potential.

“I think the biggest obstacle that surrounds our disabilities is the social construct around us,” Minkara said.

She continued: “When you eliminate that stigma, to be honest, then dealing with your disability itself is not that big a thing. Realizing that these youth have been ingrained with this mindset that there’s something wrong with you — and believing there really is something wrong with you — is really harmful and it prevents you from tapping into your potential.” 

Established in 2011 when Minkara was just a sophomore in college, ETI — through a grant from the Clinton Foundation — organized a summer camp in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, that sought to empower young people with and without disabilities. The camp was such a hit among families and children that Minkara knew this couldn’t be the end of it.

“That camp was so empowering for the youth with and without disabilities, both for the families and the community. I realized that there’s more to this than just that one summer camp,” she said.

“I realized this is my passion, for me from a moral spectral lens, I think God gives us riziq (good fortune) and wealth in different ways, and I know that he gave me the wealth of support and empowerment. I felt it was my duty to share that wealth and that’s why I started ETI to be able to bring that empowerment to other kids with disabilities,” she said. “I never thought in a million years that I would be starting a non-profit — my strength is math, and I’m an introvert and graduated with a math and economics undergrad.”

Sara Minkara

Minkara was close to opting to do a PhD rather than expanding her organization. However, her thesis adviser pushed her to pursue her passion.

“He was, like, ‘Sara, why in the world are you applying to these PhD programs? Go pursue your passion. Your eyes sparkle when you talk about this camp. Go do that’,” Minkara said.

“If he hadn’t pushed me and encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have started it,” she said. “It’s a risky thing.”

One of the workshops that Minkara runs through ETI is the In the Dark experience. Participants are blindfolded before entering the room and are told that they cannot say their names, nationalities, jobs and educational backgrounds, which are the four things “that we attach our value to,” Minkara said.

“So, they go in, they don’t know who they’re sitting next to, they cannot see each other, they don’t know anything. For two hours, without mentioning these four things, we guide them through an experience of getting to know themselves much more in each other and the connection, the bond, the trust they build is beautiful.

“If you meet a person for the first time without seeing them, the majority — 85 percent — of the labels cannot be formed, which means the majority of these assumptions cannot be created. So you’re really forced to get to know that person for who they are and listen to them for who they are.”

Minkara explained that the workshop allows participants to reflect on the way they usually meet people through socially constructed norms and “isms,” which goes back the non-profit’s mission to disrupt judgmental narratives.

The In the Dark experience can be tailored to suit the event based on the audience or setting, be it an office team-building workshop or an after-school program.

Other programs offered by ETI include Life Skills, which train blind and visually impaired youth to use key tools and techniques to navigate the world; Parent and Family Workshops which support families and friends of Life Skills participants; and Social Project Programs, which enable blind and sighted youth to work side-by-side on community service projects.

ETI’s human-centric approach places participants at the center of the workshops, where the program’s framework equips and trains them with tools that allow them to create effective solutions and empower them.

The non-profit operates in regions in where youth with disabilities, including refugees, are marginalized due to social stigma. It offers these groups the chance to build the competence and confidence needed to prosper and grow within their communities and act as agents of change.

“Our overarching mission is disrupting the narrative surrounding disability, moving from a charity-based perspective to a value-based perspective that’s not human rights-value based. Because right now people say, ‘Oh now I guess I have to educate,’ ‘I have to employ,’ ‘I have to integrate,’ ” she said. “We want to get to a point where (they say) ‘I want to’, ‘I see the value of integrating people with disabilities,’ and that narrative needs to be addressed to society at large, communities, families and individuals with disabilities.”