The True Essence of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Summer was coming to a close and I couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in a final week of sunshine and al fresco dining. Destination? The beautiful city of Dubrovnik.
This was not my first time in Dubrovnik, but my previous visit had been fleeting and blurred by a raucous, girls night out and an early morning ferry departure. This time, I would spend three days exploring the walled city to discover what it is that makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe.
Perched at the very tip of Croatia’s southern coast, tourists flock in their thousands to admire Dubrovnik’s Baroque churches and fine stone buildings capped with rust-red tiles. Once a wealthy maritime city, Dubrovnik flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries rising to become a major rival to Venice. Now, centuries on, it continues to rival the city of canals, not for its maritime status, but rather, its tourist appeal.
There is no doubt that the city is overrun with tourists strolling the marble-slab lined streets, slurping on ice-creams, getting lost in the labyrinth of the cobbled alley-ways, heads craned so as not to miss the beautiful architecture. There are so many that one would be forgiven for thinking that the only locals are those working in the many restaurants and cafes.
I will let you in to a secret. Dubrovnik is best visited in the evening. Wait until the crowds disperse and the sun begins its descent and then enter the arched entrance of the old city. Make your way down the main strip, lined with cafes, ice-cream parlours and souvenir shops and when you can go no further, veer left. Follow the road uphill, where you will find steps leading to the city wall.
Dubrovnik is best seen from the towering walls that surround it and it is from here the true essence of the city is revealed. At first glance, it is but a sea of red roofs and towers, with a dramatic and breathtaking backdrop of the Adriatic Sea. However, on closer inspection, there are clues to the life that pulses through the city.
Clothes dry on pieces of rope strung between buildings, iron balconies are decorated with overflowing hanging baskets and terracotta pots, children kick a soccer ball around a small courtyard and an old couple sit quietly in their neat, colorful garden concealed by a high wall. This birds-eye view offers a glimpse into the lives of those that inhabit this historic city.
Moving around the wall, the view changes and another side of Dubrovnik is revealed. The new city, a mix of modern buildings and old villas, sprawls out beyond the walls, enhancing the beauty of the old city. The wall then wraps around, so that the city lies to one side and the sea to the other. Sea kayaks move like a trail of ants from the wooded island of Lokrum and the sun drops, casting an orange glow over the city and those that stand watching its departure.
The beauty of Dubrovnik is that you can get lost and emerge in a square decked out with streamers and seats preparing for an open-air opera, stumble upon a crumbling, ancient church or discover a bar built into the rocks (follow the sign for Cold Drinks and beautiful views from St Ignatius’ Church) where you can enjoy a drink and spectacular sunset views. It is a small city, but one best discovered with time, so you can appreciate the palaces, churches, monuments and stark beauty.
Accommodation in the old city tends to be in rental apartments with small rooms and high price-tags, but there are plenty of hotels outside the city walls. If you’re planning on spending more than a few days, the green peninsula, Lapad, offers a perfect combination of sunshine and city break. The peninsula juts out into the Adriatic Sea and hotels catering for all budgets line the coast. Most have small beaches and pools where you can unwind and escape the intense heat of the summer, while still being only 10-minutes away from the centre.
We stayed at the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel, a five-star establishment with a stunning sea front location and excellent facilities. The spa occupied the 10th floor and loungers looked out through the floor to ceiling glass with uninterrupted views over the ocean, islands dotting the horizon. Divers can sign up for some dives in the on-site diving school – Blue Planet, while sun worshippers can grab a lounger and bake in the sunshine, dipping into the outdoor pool or diving off the rocks into the clear sea. Friendly staff, comfortable rooms, stunning views and great facilities made it the perfect stay.
A short walk from the hotel is a small promenade with restaurants and cafes, or the local bus outside the hotel can whisk you into town in 10 minutes (runs every 15 minutes). If you’re feeling lazy, there are several restaurants to eat at in the hotel itself, all serving tasty dishes worthy of a five-star hotel.
It would be easy to spend a week here, passing evenings in the city, days by the water, day-trips out to the islands or visit to the nearby Montenegro. We moved north along the coast, the road hugging the cliffside making it one of the most scenic routes I’ve seen in this area. Many people will spend time in Dubrovnik and then head to the islands, the most popular being Korcula and Hvar, both of which I’ve visited and loved. However, increasingly, dual centre holidays are becoming more popular, with visitors spending time in Dubrovnik and then moving up the coast to spend time in some of the coastal towns and cities.
We didn’t make it very far, but Slano is a small fishing port, tucked into the coastline and the perfect quiet retreat for couples. We stayed at the Admiral Grand Hotel a spanking new hotel with excellent bedrooms, spa and a beachside location. We weren’t too disappointed when the dark clouds rolled in, cracks of thunder broke the peace and lightening lit up the skies. For two days we watched the torrential rain and spectacular light show. Storms are different on the Continent. They are loud and dramatic and fun to watch.
When the rain finally stopped for a few hours, we jumped on the local bus to Ston, a beautiful town tucked in behind Mali Ston Bay. Tourists go to hike up the steps of the 5km fortified wall that stretches from Ston across the mountain to Mali Ston. The hike is painful, but the views spectacular. Bring your camera and plenty of water.
I wished I had more time to jump in a car and continue up the coast as I knew the views would continue to impress and further exploration would unearth hidden gems. However, as I always say, there is something to return for, although the magic and beauty of Dubrovnik itself is enough incentive and I look forward to my next trip.
NOTE: I travelled to Croatia with Croatia Tours who have excellent value packages to Dubrovnik, including the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel and also arrange packages to the islands and other centres in Croatia. Thanks to them, we had a wonderful final week of sunshine!