DubrovnikWords Kate Guest
Photography David Loftus
There are worst places to be lost than in the backstreets of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. I’m looking for a cafe I spotted from the city walls – just a few concrete slabs clinging to the sea-facing side, so close to the drink that one wrong step would land you in it – but I’m hopelessly disoriented. The narrow lanes leave little room for a breeze, and the heat of the midday sun bounces off the white stone buildings like a pinball. I’m getting more and more fed up with myself with every step, but at last I see a sign – “cold drinks and the most beautiful views” – that sounds about right.
An old woman sits beneath it, her spread of hand-stitched lace before her. “Hello girl,” she says. I trundle on, up the endless steps, until I turn a corner and hear a woman singing. Wondering if there’s an outdoor concert going on somewhere, I change direction and am soon caught up in a crowd of tourists. With our ears to the wind, left and right and on we go until we’re all standing, slack-jawed, below a second-storey window, lost to the voice that’s filtering through the closed green shutters and out across the orange roofs. Perhaps she is a soprano rehearsing for that evening’s concert, I think – there’s one every night during summer – but then the singer stops, as if she has sensed her crowd of freeloading listeners. We wake from our daze, stare dumbly at each other for a moment then drift apart again. I finally find Buza, the cliffhanging cafe, and it lives up to its promise – the drinks are cold and the views spectacular.
These kinds of beautiful moments are everywhere in Dubrovnik, and they start the minute you arrive. Airports, I don’t think they’ll mind me saying, are not generally known for their looks. It’s rare to step off a plane and think, “Wow, I need to get a photo of that.” But if it’s sunset and the plane has just landed in the Croatian city Lord Byron called the pearl of the Adriatic, the phones and cameras will be out and clicking within seconds. Granted, they’re not pointed at the pokey little terminal itself but to the west, where the runway seems to lead straight into the sinking sun.
The beauty keeps coming during the half-hour drive into town. Every bend in the coastal road reveals another frame of glittering sea, towering cypress pines and terracotta-roofed houses, all bathed in falling light. But the greatest view is the last, when the Old Town appears.
Dubrovnik’s medieval walled city is one of the finest in Europe. Built and rebuilt over centuries, most notably following an earthquake in 1667 and again after former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic invaded in 1991, its palaces, monasteries, churches and fountains are a hotch-potch of styles, from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque. It feels like an open-air museum, albeit one with boutiques and souvenir shops squeezed in between the exhibits.
Writer George Bernard Shaw said those who want to see paradise should come to Dubrovnik, and last year more than 600,000 people took his advice. With picture-perfect looks, clement weather and Europe’s cleanest sea water lapping at its plentiful beaches, Dubrovnik has long appealed to wealthy and glamorous types, and everyone from Edward VII and Wallis Simpson to Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor has holidayed here.
Dubrovnik is one of the most popular stop-offs for the many cruise ships and backpacker-filled gulets that plough along this stretch of the Dalmation coast for much of the year. In summer the streets of the Old Town are thick with day-trippers who are dropped off by their boats in the morning and gone again by late afternoon. The best times for exploring are early morning and evening, when both the heat and the crowds have dissipated, and the best place to start is at the city walls.
At 1.94 kilometres long, up to six metres thick and 700 years old, the walls are well worth a leisurely lap. They offer views of hidden squares and private gardens, and you could spend hours up there just freaking out about the local daredevils jumping off rocks into the sea below.
Besides the walls, Dubrovnik has three forts, the largest and most impressive of which is the 15th-century Fort Minceta. Remarkably, however, the city’s defence capabilities weren’t tested until the 1991 siege. Dubrovnik was demilitarised in the 1970s to help protect its many historic buildings, and given UNESCO heritage status in 1979, yet 563 of the 824 buildings in the Old Town were damaged during the siege, and nine were completely destroyed. Residents were left without water and electricity for months. The human toll was far greater, with more than 100 people killed and 300 injured. The fallen are known as the Dubrovnik Defenders, and are commemorated in a small room at the Sponza Palace.
Before the siege there were about 6,000 people living in the Old Town, but today the population is far smaller – anywhere between 900 and 2,400, depending on who you’re talking to. Step off the main tourist drags and signs of domestic life are still visible, whether it’s rows of cabbages in an allotment or bed sheets billowing from a washing line, but for the residents that remained after the war, life must be a little like living in the Selfridges windows. Many former homes are now holiday lets, and mostly the Old Town feels as if it belongs to its visitors. The limestone paving in Stradun, the main street, has been buffed and polished by so many millions of feet over the years that it gleams in the sun. Still, once you step into the lanes on either side, things start feeling distinctly less discovered. They’re not, of course, but the narrow, shaded lanes feel more intimate.
Abandon the map to just stroll and you’ll find calm churches that offer respite from the crowds, and tiny shops selling Croatia’s signature silver and coral jewellery, lace and striped sailor tops (Dubrovnik could challenge Brittany for naming rights to these).
You can wander the Old Town until your feet fall off but to best appreciate the ingenuity of its medieval planners, take the cable car to the top of Srd Hill. From here the city walls resemble a lasso that’s been thrown around the buildings and pulled tight; not an inch of space is wasted.
Built in 1969 but destroyed during the siege, the cable car only reopened in 2010. You can see the extent of the damage it received in a series of photos displayed at the summit. One picture, hung right by the spot where passengers queue for the return journey, shows a cable car lying on its side halfway down the hill. So that’s nice.
From the top of Srd Hill you’ll glimpse some of the thousand-plus islands that are scattered along the Croatian coast. Any number of these can make for a fantastic day trip, whether you’re into swimming, hiking, eating or just lolling about on the beach. Peaceful Lokrum is the closest, about 15 minutes away, and has a beautiful Benedictine monastery founded in 1023, glorious botanic gardens and a nudist beach! Another of the loveliest islands is Mljet, about a 90-minute boat ride away. Legend has it that Odysseus was so enchanted by Mljet he stayed for seven years. More than half of the island is national park, and there are two saltwater lakes in the centre that are perfect for cooling off after a bike ride through the forest (you can hire bikes when you get off the boat).
If you’re staying in an apartment and plan to cook, the market at Gruz ferry terminal, from where many of the island trips depart, is the best place to stock up on fresh produce. Depending on the season you might find great piles of broad beans, courgettes and their flowers, glossy purple aubergines, bouquets of garlic and lavender (a Croatian speciality), or oranges from the island of Lopud. There’s a fish market at Gruz too, but you’ll need to arrive early to get the best of the catch before the local chefs snap it up.
When it’s time for an apéritif head to D’vino, an intimate wine bar on Palmoticeva, third lane on the left of Placa Stradun as you enter from Pile Gate. They have more than 100 Croatian wines, the majority of which are available by the glass, and staff will happily guide you through them. A flight of three wines starts at about Ł5. The fruity white malvazija from Istria goes down particularly well after a hot day. They also do plates of local cheeses and charcuterie.
As with any holiday town, some of the best meals are a cab ride away from the tourist haunts. If you’re near the Gruz ferry terminal (or even if you’re not), don’t miss Amfora. This low-key place offers some of the city’s best cooking, at its best prices. The flavours are distinctly Mediterranean, with lots of fish and seafood and simply dressed salads – the food you feel like eating when on holiday, basically. The best seats are on the upstairs terrace and look out onto grape vines and apricot trees.
Konoba Dubrava, in nearby Bosanska, is another place worth the taxi ride. Here it’s all about traditional Dalmatian food, such as spit-roasted lamb and flat bread cooked over hot stones.
If you want to push the boat out then it’s got to be Nautika, back in town by Pile Gate. The prices are steep, but for me the fish broth – cheap! – was the standout.
Wherever you eat, don’t miss the seafood, whether it’s fish, lobster or the city’s speciality, cold octopus salad. Dessert-wise, rozata – the local version of crčme caramel – is delicious, but licking a gelato while strolling down Stradun is good too.
In the evenings you can usually take your pick of entertainment. The famous summer festival has a crammed programme of theatre and concerts, in spring there’s the Shakespeare festival, and various other events take place throughout the year. Dubrovnik has no shortage of suitably atmospheric venues, whether it’s a fort, a town square, a seaside cliff, or perhaps the atrium of the Rector’s Palace, where I see the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra. With stone arches and columns on all sides, it’s hard to imagine a better venue for an intimate classical concert than this small, open-roofed room (but space is limited so get your tickets before dinner). As the musicians lift their instruments and the strains of Mozart begin to drift into the sky, backpackers in the cheap seats on the balcony lean over for a better view and everyone starts smiling. It’s magical.
Even away from tourist haunts like this, there’s no forgetting Dubrovnik is a holiday town – it’s written all over its pretty face, from the crumbling villas covered in sprays of pink bougainvillea, to the fact that whenever I ask taxi drivers for a receipt, every single one has to enquire what day it is, and one young buck in aviators and a silver Mercedes even says, “The month? June, yes?” Everyone’s got that holiday vibe, and no one gets cross at the tourists who clog up the streets. To witness the happiness-inducing powers of beauty and sunshine, just come to Dubrovnik.
Amfora Obala Stjepana Radica 26; +385 20 419 419. This small restaurant by the Gruz ferry terminal is one of Dubrovnik’s best. Charming staff and simple cooking that focuses on light, fresh flavours. Don’t miss it.
Art Bar Branitelja Dubrovnika 25; Open till late, has bath tubs for seats, does cheap meals and fig rakia shots and draws an arty, studenty, local crowd. What more do you need?
Bota Sare Oyster & Sushi Od Pustijerne, Old Town; +385 20 324 034. You don’t come to Dubrovnik for sushi, but if you need a break from Med food, this is the place for it. And the local Mali Ston oysters – smaller than most but full of flavour – are a must-try.
Café Buza Crijeviceva 9, Dubrovnik; +385 98 361 934. Low-key bar with high-octane views, crammed between the city walls and the Adriatic.
Defne, Pucic Palace Hotel Ulic od Puca 1; +385 20 326 222. Fancy open-air restaurant on the roof, which is rather romantic in the evenings, and a cosy wine bar, Razonoda, with a good range downstairs.
D’vino Palmoticeva 4a, Old Town; +385 20 321 130. With more than 100 local wines to choose from, and winery tours on offer too, this is the best place in town for learning about Croatian vino.
Gradska Kavana Luža Square, Old Town; +385 20 324 747. Handily located next to the Rector’s Palace, this cafe and bar has a terrace that’s perfect for pre-concert drinks and people watching.
Kasar Na Batu, Zaton Veliki; +385 20 891 226. Set in a 15th-century summer house on a pretty harbour, 10 minutes from town. Try the anchovies with capers, lemon juice and olive oil, and the black risotto with mussels.
Konoba Dubrava Bosanka, Dubrovnik; +385 20 416 405. Traditional Dalmation food, whether it’s spit-roasted lamb or flat breads cooked on the stone oven, a 20-minute drive from town.
Lokanda Peskarija Na Ponti bb; +385 20 324 750. Overlooking the old harbour, this seafood restaurant is known for its octopus salad. Join the throngs on the waterside terrace watching the boats come and go over lunch.
Nautika Brsalje 3, Dubrovnik; +385 20 442 526. The poshest restaurant in town has prices to make London blush, but if you feel like treating yourself, this is the place to do it – right on the waterfront by Pile Gate where everyone can see you.
Nishta Prijeko bb; +385 20 322 088. This fantastic vegetarian restaurant is one of the Old Town’s strongest offerings, taste- and wallet-wise.
Oliva Pizzeria Lucarica 5, Old Town; +385 20 324 594. Dubrovnik is big on Italian-inspired food, but not pizza. This is the place to get it.
Otto Taverna Nikole Tesle 8; +385 20 358 633. Simple, honest fare, popular with locals, by Gruz ferry terminal.
Restaurant Dubrovnik Marojice Kaboge 5, Old Town; +385 20 000 803. The decor is reminiscent of a wedding venue, and it’s hidden down a laneway and upstairs, but this one’s worth seeking out for the salt-baked sea bass alone.
Sesame Dante Alighieria; +385 20 412 910. Neighbourhood place with a pleasant shaded terrace and classic Med food.
Taj Mahal Nikole Gucetica 2; +385 20 323 221. A Bosnian restaurant, despite the name, doing classics such as cevapi (minced meat kebabs in bread).
Villa Ruza Donje Celo, Kolocep; +385 98 443 382. The food is great (fish straight off the boat), but mostly it’s about the views – possibly the best sunset you’ll ever see. On an island, so jump on a ferry at lunch, or fork out for a water taxi at night.
Rector’s Palace Old Town. Once the seat of government, now houses the Cultural History Museum and hosts summer concerts in its pretty atrium.
City Walls Old Town. An impressive feat of engineering, but also unmissable for its views into hidden parts of the overrun Old Town.
Franciscan Monastery Old Town. Serenely beautiful, and contains one of the world’s oldest functioning pharmacies, in business since 1317.
Hotel Excelsior Ulica Frana Supila 12; +385 20 430 830. Stylish, chic hotel far enough away from the madding crowds.
Bellevue Hotel Ulica Pera Cingrije 7; +385 20 430 830. Has a lift that goes directly from the hotel to a pebble beach. Enough said.