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How to make the most of delightful Dubrovnik

How to make the most of delightful Dubrovnik

A paradise between mountains and sea, Dubrovnik has seen more than its share of calamities—but it has never lost its appealing spirit

Standing on my hotel balcony on my first morning in Dubrovnik, I can see that the city hit the jackpot interms of physical appeal. To my left is the green nub of Lokrum Island; to my right, a surging mountainside; and, straight ahead, the craggy coastline of the Adriatic Sea, culminating in the fortified walls of Old Town.

That physical appeal perhaps explains why, in spite of all manner of historical calamities—a 17th-century earthquake, Cold War Communist oppression, the Croatian War of Independence of the 1990s—the 40,000 people who live in this Croatian city burst with good humour, hope and resilience, and a sense of belonging. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once described it as “paradise on Earth.”

Not just the King's Landing

I descend the tree-shaded terraces and plop into the sea, enjoying the sense of seclusion before the scurry that lies ahead. Today, I’m exploring Old Town, a concentration of churches, palaces, fortifications and family homes hemmed in by the battlements and turrets of the city walls. Even before I got here, I had a mental image of all this thanks to Game of Thrones (Dubrovnik was one of its major filming locations). But there’s more to Old Town than what was presented in the TV blockbuster.

I enter the walled section via the medieval Ploče Gate, overseen by a statue of Sveti Vlaho, the city’s patron saint, also known as St Blaise. The real story of Dubrovnik (formerly Ragusa) begins in the seventh century, the plot line threading through years as an independent republic and thriving trading hub, occupations by foreign powers, plagues and palace intrigues. For all the seeming might of its fortifications, Old Town (a Unesco World Heritage Site) has seen its share of devastation: a 1667 earthquake levelled the ancient city, and artillery fire rained down in the 1991–92 Siege of Dubrovnik.

"Old Town's walls seem to be suspended between sea and sky, like something out of a fairytale"

The blocky limestone used in the post-quake rebuild is both sturdy and lovely to look at—luminous in the daytime, sepia-toned at night. But be warned: the stones on the main street, Stradun, are slippery when wet. At one point, I catch the eye of a pigeon as it slips and falls on a damp patch; it’s an awkward moment for both of us.

Old Town’s historical hodgepodge comes to a head in Luža Square, which is skirted by Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque structures. Two of the city’s most dazzling churches are here—the Church of St Blaise and Dubrovnik Cathedral—along with the grand Marin Držić Theatre, whose namesake author sits outside, cast in bronze, his nose shiny from generations of rubbing.

At the entrance to the 15th-century Rector’s Palace, one of the few buildings to have survived the quake, I make my way past a profusion of cherubs and vaulted arches. Beyond the colonnaded courtyard is a crypt containing an exhibition of photographs of the Siege: burning houses, kids playing in the rubble, boarded-up shopfronts daubed with images of angels, boats and birds.

Stradun, Dubrovnik Old Town

Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik's Old Town

Crisscrossed by narrow alleys, which invariably lead to a precipitous flight of steps or a cockeyed square, Old Town is not easy to navigate—which is fine when you’re having a stroll, but not so great when you’re late for lunch. Finally, I find Taj Mahal, a cosy Bosnian eatery known for its hearty traditional fare, and order buredžike, meat-filled pastries topped with sour cream, followed by hadžijski ćevap, a beef and veggie stew.

At the end of Stradun, near the 15th-century Pile Gate, is the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, whose ornate spigots have trickled since 1438. I take a sip and cross Stradun to the Franciscan monastery, which is home to an order that dates back to the 1300s, along with an apothecary museum that displays the scales, pipettes and cauldrons the friars used while dabbling in medicine.

I could use a restorative tonic myself, so I head for Buža Bar. Hewn into cliffs below the city walls, it invites guests to perch on tiny vertiginous terraces, suggesting a lax approach to health and safety but a staunch dedication to social media accounts like Instagram. I totter onto one and order an Aperol spritz with a splash of vertigo. “People sometimes jump in,” the waiter tells me, nodding at the frothy waves below, “but not everybody likes that.” You don’t say.

Dubrovnik's Old Town walls

The cliffs below Dubrovnik's Old Town walls

I later put Google Maps to the test as I search for my dinner destination among the alleys, some lined with gift shops and bars, others draped with laundry and potted plants. Eventually I find the Jesuit Stairs, which were modelled on Rome’s Spanish Steps. At the top stands the wildly ornate St Ignatius Church; beside this is Kopun, whose menu puts a modern spin on Croatian standards.

Ana Bitanga, Kopun’s affable manager, waves away the idea that I try something light. “Carbs,” she says, delivering ašporki makaruli (pasta in beef sauce). “We also serve it with croquettes—because if you can fry carbs, even better.” Then comes capon stewed in a porcini mushroom sauce and served with forest berries, a platter of baked peppers and a refined peasant-food dessert of egg custard, oranges and biscuits.

“People here have a love of comfort,” Bitanga notes. “Thank God for all the stairs.”

Back at the hotel, I take in the view from the terrace. Old Town’s glowing walls seem to be suspended between sea and sky, like something straight out of a fairytale.

Popping over to Lokrum

The next morning, I take the 15-minute ferry ride to Lokrum. There are dozens of islands around Dubrovnik, but Lokrum is especially popular—partly because of its proximity to the city, partly because of its staggering beauty. Half a mile long, the island bristles with a continent’s worth of plant species. It also has fantastic beaches, a salty lake known as the Dead Sea (not to be confused with the one by the same name in the Middle East) and a lush botanical garden.

A cruise boat

One of the cruise boats that ply the coast around Dubrovnik

Bands of assertive peacocks, descendants of birds brought here in the 1850s by Austria’s Archduke Maximilian, roam the ruins of an 11th-century Benedictine monastery. A bracing climb up a nearby hill leads to the stocky turret of Fort Royal, from where Napoleon’s occupying troops trained their sights on Old Town’s terracotta roofs.

After returning to Old Town, I take a half-hour drive up the coast to Brsečine Harbour, where I board a motorboat and hurtle toward Šipan, the largest of the Elaphiti Islands. The boat docks at BOWA, a family-run restaurant set on a secluded, wooded beach. At this cluster of stilted cabanas and a dinky old stone building that doubles as the kitchen, I tuck into platters of seared tuna belly, swordfish ceviche and grilled octopus. Even the salt is diligently curated, crystallised from local pools.

"Slurping oysters right out of the sea and sipping white wine, it’s a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon"

My extended lunch continues up the coast in Mali Ston, a medieval town known for defensive walls that snake into the hills behind it. I join a small group aboard another boat and head out to a floating platform, where a crew member hauls up a rope festooned with shellfish. Bobbing on the bay, slurping oysters right out of the sea and sipping white wine, it’s a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon.

That said, I have another historic coastal town to visit: Cavtat, about eight miles south-east of Old Town. We dock beside a pretty promenade bracketed by 15th-century landmarks: Our Lady of the Snows Monastery and the Church of St Nicholas. Inside the latter is a painting of Christ ascending over the town, which is equally inspiring and panoramic.

Food, culture and the best view in town

I head out the next morning to Gruž, a hip industrial neighbourhood a few minutes north of Old Town. My first stop is Urban & Veggie, a snazzy vegan restaurant across from Luka Gruž harbour. “This is a city of meat lovers,” says owner Ivo Dadić, seated on the vine-draped back terrace, watching as I devour a splendid vegan kebab. “People thought I was mad when I opened, but we are changing minds.”

It’s a short walk to TUP, a complex that’s the centrepiece of the neighbourhood’s revival. Among the enterprises that have set up in a former carbon graphite factory are a music studio, a brewery and a ceramics workshop.

There’s also the Red History Museum, which houses a beguiling clutter of artefacts from the city’s decades under Communist rule, including a vintage Yugo car and a series of rooms set up like a typical 1970s Croatian household. Visitors are encouraged to nose through the cabinets, listen to a Beatles coverband on headphones or tap messages on a clunky typewriter. At one point, I thumb through a magazine that has American actress Linda Evans on the cover. Apparently socialist workers watched Dynasty.

"The Red History Museum houses a beguiling clutter of artefacts from the city's time under communist rule"

After lunch, I take a quick detour to the waterfront Cave Bar More, where you can sip fancy cocktails in a troglodytic setting. I can’t help but try the Game of Thrones cocktail, made with pink gin, golden falernum, blue Curaçao, tonic and something called “magic mix.”

On my way back to Old Town, I catch the Dubrovnik cable car, which trundles to the peak of Mount Srd, 412 metres above sea level. The journey up is a nail-biter, but it’s a small price to pay for what has to be the best view in town.

The cable car to Mount Srd - Dubrovnik

The cable car to the peak of Mount Srd

Later that afternoon, I meet Ivica Vlašić, who drives me to his family’s vineyard six miles east of the city. Nestled in the foothills of Malaštica mountain, Vardia is not the largest vineyard around, but that’s part of its charm. “We do everything ourselves,” Vlašić says, leading a small group along a steep trail. “At harvest time, friends help—each chooses a row to pick, and at the end we have a big barbecue for everyone.”

The wine—a crisp, citrusy white—is fantastic, as is the spot where we’re drinking it, surrounded by olive, fig and cherry trees, overlooking mountains and sea. “The birds enjoy the vines, too,” Vlašić tells us. “My father says that the only reason they eat the grapes is because they’ve never tried the wine.”

Back at Old Town, I take a final sightseeing foray: a walk atop the incredible city walls, over a mile looped walk that provides an intimate perspective of the historic quarter. At one point, I turn my attention away from Fort Lovrijenac and lock eyes with a man standing at his kitchen window. The moment serves as a reminder that Dubrovnik is more than just a conglomeration of domes or a postcard-pretty sprawl of red roofs. As a talented local artist had told me earlier: “This is home.I belong here.”

Dinner is at Restaurant 360 Dubrovnik, a Michelin-starred standout built into the city walls, and I take my seat overlooking the old port as the bell tower clangs. The food is wonderful, as is the wine, not to mention the view. I can’t recall the last time I felt so thoroughly happy. I say this to the guy clearing my table.

He smiles, and says, “Dubrovnikwill do that to you.”

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