Dreamy Dubrovnik, both a city and province, offers adventure, beauty, stark contrasts and much, much more, as David Whitley discovers.
All the scene needs is a donkey, nonchalantly lumbering its way up the sun-baked stone track.
The cutely simple stone buildings are there, as are the olive groves, lemon trees and the peaceful ruins of an old church.
It’s a perfect Mediterranean time warp, plucked from the pages of a rose-tinted romance novel and somehow burned into our collective imagination.
From the top, forested valleys give way to the waters of the Adriatic Sea. They’re almost unnaturally blue, with glass-like clarity and freeze-frame stillness.
The island just so happens to be Lopud, but it could easily be Sipan. Or Kolocep. Or Lastovo. Such tranquil specks in the sea are not in short supply – Croatia has more than 1,000 islands along its coastline.
Many are a short boat ride away from Dubrovnik. Charter yachts and day cruises flit between them, ferries drop off independent adventurers and glorified tinnies bring picnic-clutching locals across to their favourite hideaways on the weekend.
The islands are places for unhurried exploration, a perfect counterpoint to the often crowded pavements of Dubrovnik herself. Those pavements are busy for a reason. Dubrovnik’s beauty has bowled over everyone from Lord Byron to Jay Z and Beyonce.
If human, other cities would want to put chewing gum in her hair out of spite.
It is partly down to the setting. Dubrovnik is squeezed onto a narrow strip of coastline by the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula.
They loom overhead, majestically stark and parched after a rainless summer. Roads quickly break into climbing zigzags from the coast. Seemingly endless steps creep between the walls of houses to connect streets that may as well be running on top of each other. It makes a mockery of two dimensional maps.
Bays cut curves into the coastline, some dainty, some voluptuous. And teetering on the side of the limestone cliffs are thousands of rooms with a view.
Many of Dubrovnik’s hotels are built into the rock face, stumbling precariously downwards towards a sun drenched bed-adorned platform. From there, a dive into the sea is a temptation too great to exist.
Then there is the Old Town. Hugged by city walls that date back to Dubrovnik’s past as an independent republic, it is a supremely picturesque warren of convents, baroque churches and seamlessly integrated palaces.
Vehicles have long been banished and Stradun, the main street, feels made for peacock-style strutting. Flanked by buildings of unfussily regal grandeur, the limestone paving stones gleam as if they’re polished marble.
At right angles, narrow alleyways dive off, restaurant terraces squeezing in between hat-makers’ shops and souvenir stores.
The Old Town is hardly undiscovered.
Every day, thousands pour in to mooch around, poke their head into the cathedral and consume their bodyweight in gelato. The soul can feel stripped out at times, but it can easily be rediscovered by clambering up the shabbier-looking steps and nosying around in unpromising alleyways.
It’s a maze of dead ends, but these often contain the most charming finds. Wooden doors lead to small gardens that double as artists’ studios or have handmade jewellery spread out on display.
An archway in the city walls brings you to a steep staircase carved into the cliff. It inches down toward Buza II, a bar that is little more than a smoothed platform with a cane roof. A more marvellous place to watch the sun go down you couldn’t possibly ask for.
The Old Town is not a museum piece however. People still live there, and the hidden life is best seen on a walk around the city walls. Save it for after 5pm, when most of the crowds have gone, and it’s far less hurried.
The circuit is just under two kilometres in length, but that doesn’t count the towers and forts that can be ducked into on the way.
The views out over the sea are predictably gasp-worthy but voyeuristic peeping across the rooftops provides the insights. Washing lines are ingeniously stretched across unlikely gaps and nuns can be spotted watering flowers in hidden courtyards.
The signs of life pop up repeatedly – basketball courts squeezed into rare flat space, glorified balconies adorned with sun lounges, rugs hanging from windows to get an airing.
Many of the rooftops have a patchwork of deep terracotta and brighter orange tiles. It’s one of the few hints of the shelling that ravaged the city during the Balkan Wars in 1991 and 1992.
The clean-up and the meticulous repairs using traditional stone-working methods are arguably one of the most impressive things about Dubrovnik.
Just to the north of the Old Town is the cable car station, from where a wobbling, mildly terrifying glass box soars up to the top of Mount Srd. It’s a trip that’s unquestionably worth taking.
The 19th century fort at the top has mesmerising views out over the city and islands. The Old Town looks like a jewel being daintily clutched between the fingers of a sinuous arm.
The real surprise comes from looking the other way, however. A valley, scarcely marked by human habitation, unfolds, backed by even higher mountains on the horizon.
Despite their love of seafood and island outings, the people of Dubrovnik are mountain folk at heart. Ask a local for a restaurant tip, and the answer will usually be: “Have you got a car?”
Everyone seems to have their favourite joint in the mountains, where lamb will be slow-cooked in an iron bell, covered in the ashes of a roaring fire. Konavoski Dvori is a prime example. Its big outdoor terrace is cooled by the icy stream running through it, past the wooden water wheel that now serves a decorative, rather than industrial, purpose.
While a car is a hindrance in Dubrovnik itself, it’s worth hiring one for a couple of days to explore the hinterland. And if it feels like a different country, that’s because it probably is.
Dubrovnik’s narrow patch of coast is sandwiched between Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Montenegrin side, the crumpled mountain landscape gives way to the fjord-like Bay of Kotor. In many ways, Kotor – with its city walls climbing up the steep incline behind the bay – is even more spectacular than Dubrovnik.
Montenegro has been a tourist honeypot for a few years, but it tends to be Herzegovina that gets the Croatians licking their lips.
With the drought in full kick, the land takes on a post-apocalyptic beauty. Villages are scattered and ooze backwater rusticity. But every now and then, there’s something special. The town of Blagaj has a crisp blue-green river pouring out of the towering cave that hides its source. Next to it is a 16th century Muslim tekke (roughly translated as a monastery), made of creaking wood and Turkish-style carpets.
Pocitelj is another heart-stopper. The village looks like a film set, perfectly clasped by the hill it’s built onto. East and west are brought together in a bite-sized architectural masterclass of mosques and citadels. It’s equal parts Austrian and Ottoman empires.
The mountains look good, but the other treasured escape tastes good. The Peljesac peninsula just to the north of Dubrovnik is quietly developing a reputation for its food and wine. The salt pans in Ston are a nod to a lucrative history. The salt trade was so valuable to the Dubrovnik Republic that a 5.5 kilometre protective wall was built around Ston to keep intruders out. Only the Great Wall of China is bigger, the locals proudly – if marginally inaccurately – boast.
These days, the money comes from the water rather than the land. In the placid blue bays are strings of little black buoys. In spring, they’re oyster farms. In late summer and autumn, it’s mussels down there.
The main road crossing the peninsula runs along the ridge lines, flipping between northerly and southerly views of the Adriatic.
It’s a seriously sexy drive, and one frequently punctuated by ramshackle vineyards cut onto otherwise forested slopes. Cellar doors pop up frequently at the roadside, and there’s a bumbling authentic charm to the tasting sessions conducted within them.
Amateurish spirit is noticeable by its absence at Korta Katarina (Bana J. Jelacica 3, Orebic), however.
Set in a gleaming white clifftop villa complex near the end of the peninsula, the state-of-the-art technology used inside the winery has put more than a few noses out of joint amongst the traditional winemakers.
Tours of Korta Katarina go beyond the sampling, delving deep into rows of Bond lair-esque fermentation tanks and oak barrels.
The investment has come from the US, and the aim is to put the local Plavac Mali grape on the worldwide wine map. It’s an offshoot of the far more famous Zinfandel, but it doesn’t yet have the marketing machine behind it. If Korta Katarina’s take is anything to go by, it’s a feisty fella that makes for deliciously potent balcony drinking.
The final unsung hero of the region, largely ignored by day trippers yet adored by Dubrovnik’s more savvy residents, is Mljet. It’s a long, thin island with a peculiar microclimate that makes it much greener than the others.
Deciphering the ferry timetable brings rich rewards when you arrive at the staggeringly cute harbour village of Polace. Wooden café terraces overhanging the water, fishing boats bob, and enterprising locals rent out bikes and kayaks.
But it’s what’s in the middle of the island that’s special. An uphill but not terribly demanding hike, accompanied by the intense rattle of a cicada symphony, leads to two interlocking saltwater lakes.
They are quite heavenly, framed by rocky beaches and a lush bowl of ancient hillsides. On a tiny islet in the middle, a monastery stands calm and unflustered, waiting for a strong swimmer or a rowboat to bring news from the outside world.
Once there, as with so many of these special spots along the Croatian coast, time suddenly seems a complete irrelevance.
How to get there
A two-stop job via Singapore and Frankfurt is quickest. Lufthansa (1300 655 727, lufthansa.com), codesharing with Singapore Airlines and Croatian Airlines, offers returns from around $2,260.
For advance bookings, there’s little difference between high and low season flight costs.
When to go
July to mid-September is peak season. Temperatures can be stifling, crowds infuriating and hotel prices extortionate.
It’s much more pleasant on all three counts in May, June, late September or early October.
Where to stay
The kitchenettes, antique furniture and relative lack of steps to tackle put the Amoret Apartments in a league above most of their Old Town private accommodation rivals.
Studios from $92, multiple locations.
+385 20 324 005; dubrovnik-amoret.com
A smart refurb at the Hotel Lapad has made it the best value four-star in town. The rooms use technology well, while the pool area is a sprawling suntrap.
Doubles from $200.
Lapadska obala 37; 00 385 20 455 555; hotel-lapad.hr
With speedboats to the Old Town, private jacuzzis and luxurious decks overlooking the Adriatic, Villa Dubrovnik is the top dog.
Executive rooms cost from $615.
Vlaha Bukovca 6; 00 385 20 500 300; villa-dubrovnik.hr
Where to eat
Ask for the off-menu lunchtime ‘marenda’ at Orsan, where the dirt cheap but excellent chicken or fish meals comes with supreme yacht club views.
Vana Zajca ; +385 20 436 822; restaurant-orsan-dubrovnik.com
Rozario is cosy and family run, but puts inventive pan-Mediterranean twists on local produce.
It’s an oasis in a sea of cynically mediocre Old Town restaurants aimed at customers who won’t come back.
Dubrovnik’s culinary strength is its seafood, and Proto does it best. Book a table upstairs on the atmospheric Old Town roof terrace.
Široka ulica 1; +385 20 323 234; esculaprestaurants.com
You can’t leave without…
Best thing about Dubrovnik
The instant visual appeal of the city is handsomely supported by a setting that rewards exploration.
Worst thing about Dubrovnik
The city has effectively sold itself to the cruise industry. Big ships spill thousands of passengers into the Old Town every day, turning it into a giant rugby scrum.
You should know