Our first glimpse of Dubrovnik caught us by surprise as we rounded a curve on Croatia’s RT 8. Its thick limestone walls and brilliant red tile roofs, saturated with color, reflected brilliantly on cobalt blue Adriatic Sea. Its nickname “pearl of the Adriatic” rightly earned.
Fortunately, mid-October was considered off-season and we were able to find a wonderful apartment, Old Town Sunrise Apartments just steps away from the Babic’ Bakery and the 14th century Vrata od Ploča or East Gate with its ancient drawbridge. The agony of lugging our bags up three flights of stairs was rewarded with gorgeous views from our roof windows, since the studio apartment was directly across the harbor from Fort St. Ivana.
We couldn’t have asked for a better location. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular over the Adriatic and the citadel. A brilliant Hunters’ Moon one night was an added bonus, as was watching a group of elderly friends take an early morning swim, their daily ritual.
Fort St. Ivana today houses an interesting maritime museum and aquarium, but when it was built in the 16th century its canons protected the city-state’s merchant fleet from the Venetians and Ottomans. Over the centuries Dubrovnik’s maritime merchants rivaled Venice’s with trade representatives in Goa, India and the Cape Verde Islands off Africa’s Atlantic coast. Its merchant fleet even traded during the Middle Ages with the English court of Elizabeth the First.
Blame it on Drogon! Since the medieval fantasy Game of Thrones was filmed in Dubrovnik the city has lost its previous reputation as an under-visited and affordable destination on the sunny shores of the Adriatic. Ever since the TV show’s premiere in 2011 the city has become a mecca, big time, for fans eager to visit the show’s filming locations. Thankfully, it hasn’t risen to placards of “Jon Snow slept here” or “Rhaegal roasted a nobleman on our roof” level yet.
We had been on our journey fifteen months now and aside from a brief stay in London, Dubrovnik was by far the most expensive destination. I think this explains why we saw so many people walking down Stradun, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, eating slices of pizza. The impact of these high prices was especially acute since the affordability of Kotor, Montenegro (only a short drive away) was still fresh in our minds. It was actually easier to find an affordable restaurant in London. It was captive pricing for sure within the fortress walls that encircle Old Town and the only reprieve was to eat in the new town portion of Dubrovnik, outside the citadel.
Stradum, aka Placa (Stradone or Corso) is the city’s pedestrian-only main boulevard, running 300 yards east to west, connecting both ancient gates and harbors on either side of town. For us it was too pristine. An unfair comment, as this resulted when Dubrovnik was rebuilt after the 1991 Balkans War, when the city was shelled for seven months from the top of the mountain above town. Two hundred eighty civilians and soldiers were killed during that prolonged bombardment. Today an aerial tram takes you there for panoramic views. Shrapnel scars, signs of the conflict, remain etched into the stone walls on some buildings. But the newness of the polished limestone boulevard running past upscale shopping reminded us of an amusement park.
We were drawn into the narrow, arched alleys with steep stairs that climbed the hills and weaved through older neighborhoods on either side of Stradum. The farther away from Stradum we got, the more the crowds diminished.
Our other alternative was to walk along the fortress walls that encircle the city for slightly over a mile. Thirteen to twenty feet thick and towering eighty feet high in some sections, the walls once held 120 cannons to protect the city from land or sea attack. This walk is a popular activity with fast moving tour groups, but we found if we just let them pass there would be a tranquil void until the next group which allowed us to linger in one spot for a while.
Standing above the West Gate and looking down the Stradum was a prime view that included the circular Large Onofrio’s Fountain built in 1438 and which still supplies fresh spring water, from mountains miles away, to carved faces that spurt water. Farther down the Franciscan Church and Monastery houses the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in the world dating to 1317 in its muraled cloister. Farther along the wall there were several small cafes and stairs that lead to roped off swimming areas at the sea’s edge.
At the far end of Stradum the city’s 100 ft tall clock and belltower zooms skyward over an area that was once the city market in the 1400s. Famously the belltower has two bronze figures named Maro and Baro, zelenci (green) twins that strike the bell on the quarter, half and full hour. Interestingly, several generations of the same family have maintained the clockworks for over 100 years. Next door the 14th-century Gothic-Renaissance style Rector’s Palace exhibits vestiges of Dubrovnik’s history. Especially noteworthy were the intricately carved exterior columns.
Across the street the statue of golden statue of Saint Blaise cradling a model Dubrovnik on his arm crowns his church.
The city’s 16th century granary and mill has undergone a beautiful and innovative renovation and now houses the Etnografic Museum Rupe. It has a prominent collection of Croatian Cultural items, particularly traditional attire from the regions surrounding Dubrovnik.
Weddings are a boisterous affair in Dubrovnik, with the bride and groom following a flag waving entourage parading through the pedestrian-only streets on the way to their church ceremony.
Walking east one morning away from the city, along Ul Frana Supila, a quiet road that hugs the water, a small village ambiance prevailed with colorful homes, flowering plants and wild pomegranate trees set into the hillside.
Villas for the well to do, many built on the ruins of previous civilizations, line the road, beautiful none the less. Bored? There was a rainbow-colored selection of wheels for rent at the exotic car dealer to satisfy that zoom, zoom craving.
Eventually the road narrowed and a chain across it prevented cars from going farther along a treacherous, serpentine stretch that hugs the cliff face. The road used to connect back to the highway near one of the scenic overlooks. But it was determined to be too dangerous when its guardrails tumbled down the cliff into the sea. Now only walkers and bicyclists use it to traverse a dramatic section of the coast.
A memorial, Spomen ploča žrtvama komunističkog terora, to victims of the communist terror, stands on a curve in the road. It commemorates the lives of five young Yugoslavian partisans thrown from the cliff to their deaths by communist “liberation forces” loyal to Marshal Tito at the end of WWII.
Across from Dubrovnik’s West Gate and harbor, the 11th century Fort Lovrijenac, the “Gibraltar of the Adriatic,” sits atop a towering rock monolith 121 feet above the sea. Climbing to the top of the citadel along well-worn footpaths and stairs satisfied us with great views back across the harbor of walled Dubrovnik and kayakers paddling along in the cove below.
Many kayaking tours leave from West Harbor. Today Lovrijenac’s walls, some reaching a thickness of 39 feet, support theater and music productions during the summer months. The dramatic setting is also the backdrop for Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series and Knightfall, a historical fiction TV drama about the Knights Templar.
Behind the fortress, wandering the narrow lanes along the water’s edge felt like we were in a quaint seaside village.
We thought the Three-Day Dubrovnik Card was a good value for us, since it offered free entrance to six museums, two galleries and the city walls, as well as six free rides on the local buses. Staying just outside the fortress walls permitted us to avoid a premium room rate yet allowed us easy entry into the citadel early in the mornings and to find those quiet vignettes and ancient architectural details hidden amidst dramatic shadows.
For moments we felt like we had this beautiful medieval city all to ourselves.
Till next time, Craig & Donna