Dubrovnik - a rival to Venice
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I felt a little guilty about arriving in Dubrovnik without a necktie. But the country that invented the cravat and gave rise to that international symbol of respectability wasn’t bothered. Unlike much of the Balkan region Croatia is surprisingly laid back and never really bought in to the regimented and illiberal communist mentality.
It has shrugged off its brief communist past as an insignificant blip in its long history. In its maritime heyday the Republic of Dubrovnik rivalled Venice as a great trading power in the Mediterranean. It was an intellectual and cultural hub, a refuge for international dissidents and typically banned slavery 400 years before Britain.
Perched on the western edge of the volatile Balkan region Dubrovnik has successfully fought, negotiated, bribed and withstood sieges on its way from its 7th to the 21st century.
Dubrovnik is the jewel of Croatia located on the southern tip of the Dalmatian coast across the Adriatic from Italy. It has always been popular, either with marauding Saracens, invading Turks or intransient Napoleonic troops and it was one of the key Mediterranean destinations on nineteenth century ‘Grand Tours’. Beloved by royalty and celebrities it was Lord Byron’s “Pearl of the Adriatic” and George Bernard Shaw’s “… paradise on earth”.
Briefly re-emerging as a tourist hotspot in the 1980’s Dubrovnik flourished until the death of president Tito and the fall of the Soviet Union. The ensuing post-communist vacuum allowed Yugoslavia to implode, resulting in old Balkan conflicts resurfacing and bringing tourism to a grinding halt.
In October 1991 the Serbian led Yugoslav army besieged Dubrovnik, cutting off water and electricity supplies and bombarded the city. People survived thanks to the 15th century Onofrio fountain and its secret underground springs.
Today even young people remember December 6th 1991 when 5,000 shells rained down on the city from land, sea and air. In the cafes people still talk about snipers shooting civilians as they walked the streets. During the siege 200 defenders and 100 civilians were killed and 70% of buildings sustained some damage.
The Balkans are still a politically volatile region but Croatia will join the EU in 1913 and the euro is widely accepted (but the official currency is still the Kuna) so its as peaceful as its ever been. Restoration work has been on a magnificent scale so that shrapnel and shell damage now have to be pointed out to visitors.
Tourists are returning in significant numbers and fabulous 5 star hotels have emerged from the war torn ruins. British Airways and Croatia Airlines fly from London or if you’re in Italy an 8-hour overnight ferry from Bari will drop you at the gates.
The old city walls look formidable from every angle and when you cross the drawbridge and pass through the 18-foot high Pila Gate you enter one of the worlds most spectacular and well-preserved medieval walled cities. The city’s patron St. Blaise stands guard over the gates as he does all around the city.
Emerging from the deep shade of the city gateway the dazzling white marble Stradun or Placa is like suddenly stepping into a sunlit glade within a dark forest. It is Dubrovnik’s main street and running the length of the city and it is the place to perambulate. Being completely traffic free Dubrovnik rivals Venice as a vehicular-phobes dream but without the crushing crowds except during the Summer Festival (10th July – 25th August).
It’s a small city defined and constrained by its iconic fortress walls. The 2 km long battlements encircling the city were originally for its protection but are now a star attraction. They provide spectacular views across the city to the sea, allowing visitors a bird’s-eye introduction to the city’s layout. From the formidable watchtowers it is easy to imagine medieval guards raising the alarm after spying a Saracen fleet sailing across the unchanged seascape. The walls are 25m high and 12m thick in places and the additional Renaissance and Napoleonic fortresses that stand guard around the city seem a belt and braces approach to defence.
It’s pure joy to wander the quiet fume free streets and alleyways, chock full of little shops, bars and restaurants. The several Irish bars are not the garish theme pubs seen in so many cities but cosy back street rendezvous’.
The Stradun was originally a defensive marshy channel dividing the ancient Latin settlement of Ragusa to the south from a Croatian settlement on the northern side. These two parts of the city can still be discerned, the old Ragusa has all the grand public buildings and open squares whereas the old Croatian side is all alleyways and steps.
For a city of such antiquity Dubrovnik is surprisingly modest with little ostentation; it makes no attempt to have the biggest, the most lavish or the most famous monument. The 1667 earthquake destroyed many of the city’s great buildings so most are an eclectic mix of architectural styles, primarily Baroque but with traces of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance themes. It’s a city confident in itself with no need to ape the pomp and vainglory of its rivals.
The modest cathedral has the most dazzling and macabre relic filled Treasury. The head of St. Blaise sits in an ornate silver box beside his gold covered right arm and a gold and jewel encrusted leg. They are reanimated every year on St. Blaise’s day (3rd February) and paraded around the city. In all there are 100 religious relics but the most prized is a piece of the true cross, authenticated as matching the piece at Santa Croce in Rome. But the miraculous ‘nappy of Jesus’ in its 16th century silver chest seemed to stretch credibility a step too far.
There are beautiful Dominican and Franciscan monasteries within the city walls, which are peaceful and cool havens with orange and lemon tree filled courtyards and some impressive artwork. There are Titian’s, renaissance libraries and votive gold but the Franciscan monastery’s greatest claim to fame is the world’s first public pharmacy. Created in 1416 it’s still open today for anyone with a headache or stomach upset.
Local Dalmatian cuisine is typically Mediterranean in style and there is a surfeit of places to eat from the seriously upmarket Nautika just outside the Pila gate to Mr Vica an impressive cook to order takeaway just off the Stradun.
In the summer the back street Prijeko is lined from end to end with small restaurants and tavenas. They spill out onto the tiny street providing a perfect opportunity to peek at what’s on offer and opt for the most tempting.
My favourite restaurant is the Locanda Peskarija directly on the harbour front. Its table’s smoother the quayside in the summer but in the winter it contracts into a cosy downstairs bar with a small restaurant upstairs. Very popular with the locals and it is renown for its ‘black risotto’ – rice and cuttlefish flavoured and coloured with its own ink. Served straight from the pot, one portion is plenty for two people and its fabulous flavour seems to conjure every taste from the sea.
There are just two small hotels inside the city walls. The expensive and very grand 5 star Pucic Palace is beside the cathedral and the modest but attractive 3 star Stari Grad is just off the Standun.
Most tourist accommodation is beyond the city walls, I stayed at the excellent Hilton Imperial (from $223 euro) just outside the Pila gate. Other spectacular hotels such as the Argentina and Excelsior are within a 10-15 minute walk. These bigger hotels have pools, gym facilities, spa treatments and all the luxuries of top class hotels.
Cheaper accommodation is a bit further away on the Lapad and Babin Kuk peninsula, where an off-season room can be had for 50euro/night. Nowhere in the greater Dubrovnik area is more than a 15-minute (10 kuna or 1.3 euro) bus ride from the old town.
Croatia is a beautiful country and the Dalmatian coast is studded with gem like islands but Dubrovnik is its prized jewel. One of those rare places where you can genuinely chill out without having to be on the beach and where all the conveniences and culture of city life are immediately to hand.
Calling somewhere ‘the most beautiful city in the world’ is one of the most overused travel clichés. Most cities have some part that is worthy or wonderful but few are genuinely beautiful citywide. The entire city of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and free from all the unpleasant and ugly aspects of modern cities. It is one of the ‘must see’ cities of Europe, unique in so many ways, not least the welcome and friendliness of its people.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.