My plan was to get to Dubrovnik before the end of May, to avoid the droves of tourists that flood it every summer, and time lost waiting in lines. It would be my first time there, but Dubrovnik had been on my bucket list for many years.
After two days in Zagreb – to recover from jet lag following my flight from New York that connected in Paris – I took a bus from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. People had advised me to fly, but I wanted to see the Croatian countryside, even if that meant sitting on a bus for eight hours. Besides, I was sick of planes.
It was a comfortable ride on Arriva Lines (their buses go all over Croatia), that included glimpses of the scenic Adriatic Coast. I arrived in Dubrovnik at the end of the day, just in time to watch a spectacular sunset on the sea from my room at Hotel Leros, a fifteen minute walk from the Old Town.
Old Dubrovnik is one of the finest and best-preserved medieval locations in Europe, with spectacular stone walls surrounding it. Within, steep cobblestone alleyways, Renaissance fountains, elegant palaces, elaborate Baroque churches, old stone monasteries and mind-blowing views of the Adriatic Coast mesh together. This is a pedestrian zone where not even bikes are allowed, and in 2017 alone it welcomed 1.2 million tourists, which explains why it is the most popular travel destination in Croatia. People come for the right reasons.
First of all, Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning! English dramatist George Bernard Shaw once said that, “Those who seek paradise on Earth must come to Dubrovnik,” and he was not exaggerating. This UNESCO World Heritage site – known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ – sits on a rocky promontory at the southernmost end of Croatia, basking serenely in the warm Mediterranean climate. It is possible to see the mountains of Montenegro at a distance, as the border between the two countries lies only a few miles away. Dubrovnik is a very green place – groves of lemon, orange and tangerine trees mingle with palm trees and agaves, and flower gardens perfume the air. The Adriatic Sea – of a deep blue color not seen elsewhere – embraces the town on three sides, giving it its maritime character. The sea has been the most significant factor shaping the history of this city-state for over a thousand years.
And what a fascinating history! Founded in the seventh century by fugitives from a nearby Roman colony called Cavtat, Dubrovnik was under Byzantine and Venetian rule before getting its independence in 1382, under the name tof Republic of Ragusa. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was at the center of a prosperous trade route and rivaled even the power of Venice, a famous trading force of the time. Dubrovnik’s local merchants had close – and lucrative – relations with the main cities of the Mediterranean, and the wealth brought by commerce made the town flourish commercially and culturally. It became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, something that has survived the times – Dubrovnik is still a hub for those seeking inspiration.
In 1667, a major earthquake destroyed most of the town’s architectural and artistic treasures. Over time, the Old Town was rebuilt, only to come under attack again very recently, during the Homeland War of 1991-95, when Croatia fought for its independence from former Yugoslavia. As part of a siege by the enemy – the neighboring countries of Serbia and Montenegro – about two thousand bombs and guided missiles were deployed against the town, destroying some of the most magnificent symbols of its millenar culture. There was an international outcry after that senseless act of violence.
Due to Dubrovnik’s significance, UNESCO and the European Union set up a special commission for its reconstruction after 1995, repairing most of the damage in a short time. With things more or less back to normal – after some of the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted for travelers in Europe – in May of 2021 tourists and filmmakers had started to return. Before the pandemic, the town was becoming very popular with movie producers, after being the location for the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Scenes of the famous King’s Landing were shot at the historic Pile Gate, one of the main entrances to the town.
A friend who fell in love with Dubrovnik advised me to start exploring it by walking along the walls that surround the Old Town. Due to its strategic seafront location, in the past Dubrovnik was vulnerable to pirate attacks and maritime skirmishes for control of the Adriatic Sea and its trade routes. The solution found, in the tenth century, was to build a two kilometer long wall around the town, a formidable structure that measures six meters high by six meters wide at some points. It has never been breached by a hostile army.
Walking along the scenic path on the walls for over an hour, I had the sensation of being suspended in the air. To my right, I could see the Adriatic sea and the nearby Island of Lokrun shining under the beaming sun; to my left, I was eye-level with the ochre-colored roofs of the town’s houses. To take a break from the heat, I made a stop at the imposing Minceta Tower, the highest point in the walls. Built in 1319 at the height of the Ottoman Turkish threat to Dubrovnik, the fortress has become the symbol of “the unconquerable city of Dubrovnik.” I was short of breath after climbing its narrow staircase to the top, but was rewarded with a most magnificent view to take pictures.
After walking on the walls I thought of taking the “Game of Thrones Walking Tour,” to visit the key locations used in the filming of the series. The midday temperature of 82 degrees made me give up the idea, though; I was more interested in having a cold drink on the Stradun, and soon got a table at a bar that had huge umbrellas to protect customers from the sun.
Also known in Dubrovnik as Placa, the Stradun is the main street of the Old Town. It is a wide and delightful pedestrian thoroughfare – lined with cafes and shops – that crosses the Old Town from east to west. It is the heart of town and a popular place for socializing, especially in the evening, when the bars and restaurants fill up quickly for dinner. Paved with white limestone blocks, the Stradun dates back to 1468, but the buildings currently on both sides were rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667.
At the end of the Stradun is the church of St Blaise, which houses a statue of the city’s patron saint holding a model of Dubrovnik in the Middle Ages. The pretty church was my first introduction to Croatia’s deeply-ingrained Catholicism: when I visited it, it was completely packed with people of all ages for Sunday mass. After the mass, locals gathered in front of the church to chat in animated groups where everyone seemed to be familiar with each other.
St. Blaise church faces the Loggia Square, once a market square and now the central part of Dubrovnik, featuring some of its most celebrated monuments. One of them is the Loggia of the Bells, a tall tower built in 1480 to warn residents of upcoming invasions. It is one of the most photographed sites in Dubrovnik.
After Loggia Square the Stradun veers to the left to face the superb Dubrovnik Cathedral, standing on the same site as a sixth century temple that was destroyed in the earthquake. Also called the Assumption Cathedral, the imposing Baroque building has a lavish interior decor and a great number of important paintings by Italian and Dalmatian artists, including the precious ‘Virgin of the Chair,’ by Raphael. The cathedral’s museum is a must-see for its relics, including the head, leg and arm of city patron St. Blaise, dating from the thirteenth century.
Old Dubrovnik is not big, and standing on the Stradun, one is never far away from its famous gates. Of them, Pile Gate is the most interesting: once surrounded by a moat and drawbridge that were built in 1537, it was the main entrance to the town and the last of the defenses to be built. It was also the place where the city treasures were brought for safety in dangerous times. After the Pile I walked a few minutes to the other side of town to Ploce Gate, which leads to the port. In the past, it was the lifeblood of Dubrovnik, where goods were imported and exported to every port in the Mediterranean. Watching the boats come and go at the end of the day became one of my favorite pastimes.
I enjoyed the rest of my days at a leisurely pace, discovering hidden corners and new marvels everyday. The city has grown outside the limits of the Old Town, and there is a lot to see. I visited historic sites, museums, art galleries and ancient monasteries emanating the scent of centuries-old candle wax. I climbed towers to admire the Adriatic Sea, and was delighted by the local ice cream – something everyone in Dubrovnik seems to enjoy – and had the best seafood I can remember. For dinner I was always at Orhan, a restaurant by the water that I fell in love with (you can find a video of it on my Instagram page @thewriterontheroad). On my last day, in the first week of June, I noticed a greater number of tourists arriving. It was time to leave.
I then took a day tour of Kotor, in Montenegro, a country that really surprised me for the beauty of its people and sites.
To be continued…