Dubrovnik – Undeniably Beautiful

Dubrovnik is beautiful.

That’s evident from the moment you step over the drawbridge across the (now dry) moat and through the Pile gate watched over by a benevolent Saint Blaise, onto the gleaming promenade: the Stradun. It’s 16th century limestone paving worn so smooth, it could be mistaken for marble.

Along the length of the main thoroughfare that was once a water channel bisecting mainland Dubrovnik from the Roman island of Ragusium, an eclectic array of religious structures ranging from the Baroque to the Neoclassical, vie for attention with bustling, touristy cafes.

An orderly grid of narrow alleys, tightly packed with three storey stone buildings, slopes down towards the Adriatic in one direction and climbs steeply up the hillside on the other. Forming a most picturesque cluster of terracotta roofs that makes for breathtaking panoramas from high ground.

Dubrovnik - View from Srd hill
Dubrovnik: Birds eye view
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The Stradun after dark
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The church of Saint Blaise. The Rector’s palace on the left was closed for restoration. At the far end is the Roman Catholic Assumption Cathedral

But the beauty feels strangely unreal.

The onus of catapulting this once obscure Dalmatian port onto the world tourist map, and in the process, transforming its character and demographics, lies fully with the location scouts for Star Wars and Game of Thrones. With more than 80% of its residential buildings converted to tourist rentals and with just about 300 permanent residents within the walls, it now has the feel of a museum rather than a living city. A movie set awaiting a call to action. Nearly every single business (within the old town walls) caters to visitors.

So should you go? Of course you should. Dubrovnik is Croatia’s star destination for a reason. And once you get over the feeling of having stepped into a fantasy set and learn to sidestep the cruise ship surge (even in early May!) there is a lot more to do than click selfies at key Game of Thrones locations.

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Saint Blaise also watches over the Ploce gate.
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As local as it can get in Dubrovnik. Children gather in Luza square late evening. Sponza Palace is beyond and the arched opening at right leads to Ploce gate.

The architecture – most reconstructed post a 1667 earthquake – reflects Dubrovnik’s importance as a trading port rivalling those of Venice and Genoa, during its time as the Republic of Ragusa. And the wily diplomatic skills that helped thwart seiges and maintain relative independence for four whole centuries, even while it changed hands from Byzantine, to Ottoman, to Austro Hungarian and to the Venetian republic, before its eventual fall in the early nineteenth century to victorious French forces.

Nearly half of those historic buildings suffered serious damage when Dubrovnik’s capacity to withstand sieges was put to the test once again in 1991 – despite the fact that it was already designated a UNESCO Heritage site – by the (mostly Serbian) Yugoslav People’s Army, opposing Croatia’s secession from erstwhile Yugoslavia. Dubrovnik prevailed yet again.

The physical scars of what is now termed the ‘Homeland War’, have been patched up to strict UNESCO guidelines. The loss to life is commemorated in a moving audio visual display within the Sponza Palace at one end of the Stradun, and in the museum up on Srd hill.

The sight of a young girl shedding quiet tears before a movie clip of the shelling is a startling reminder of that all too recent conflict, whose emotional scars are yet to be relegated to the dim realm of history.

Dubrovnik: War damage
A post war image of the Stradun by Romano Cagnoni (Photo credit: romanocagnoni.com/gallery/darkness/
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The restored Stradun today
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Restored rooftops and Lokrum island beyond.

The Franciscan monastery is a stand out among the many wonderful religious structures, with its well preserved cloister and the adjacent pharmacy said to be the third oldest functioning pharmacy in the world.

If you like art, Vlaho Bukovac’s exquisite paintings in the Museum of Moden Art are unmissable. (I cannot imagine why I hadn’t heard of him or of Ivan Meštrović, another renowned Croatian sculptor/architect, or seen any of their work before!) Then there is the Judean history in the city’s lone synagogue, as poignant as the story of the Jews of Calcutta or the Armenians of Madras.

Beach buffs can hop across on a ferry to Lokrum, the little islet just off the coast or to any of the other larger outlying islands. We ditch our plans to visit Korcula because the logistics are complicated, and we in our slow(er) travel mode, are too lazy to make the effort.

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From the terrace of the Museum of Modern Art!
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We chance upon the fabulous “Lake Collection of Picasso Ceramics” at the Saint Clare Monastery.

We do however cross the border to spend a night in Kotor. An easy detour that is somewhat marred by bad weather, but is still an enchanting teaser for a future visit to Montenegro*. A whole afternoon of incessant rain on our return, clears the streets of tour groups, giving us a glimpse of what Dubrovnik must have been like a decade ago.

It helps to have a ‘home’ within the walls that one can escape to easily when the crowds got too unbearable or the weather too wet. And to toddle down those magically claustrophobic alleys anytime we please, looking for yet another fresh plate of seafood. Strangely though, our food highlights are both vegetarian: a vegan starter named Twister (meatballs made of eggplant and rice served with zucchini spaghetti and date sauce!) in Nishta, around the corner from our apartment, and a pricier, pizza-like truffle and burrata in Gil’s, just off the Stradun.

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My favourite of a hundred shots of these steep alleys

To truly appreciate the city and its renaissance planners, you need to go above and beyond the city walls. Walk the entire length of the massive fortification on a sunny afternoon. Drink in the birds eye view from the cafe on top of Srd hill. Or enjoy a late picnic on the rocks bordering a deserted Baja beach (beyond the Ploce gate at the far end of the Stradun), watching darkness descend over that magical skyline in utter, unexpected silence, save for the rhythmic lap of waves at your feet.

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View from the wall
Dubrovnik cable car
Panorama from Srd hill accessed by cable car or by foot. It is possible to drive up as well.
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Lovrijenac fort viewed from Srd hill.
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View from our picnic spot on our final evening.

 

*Indian citizens considering a visit to Montenegro from Croatia need to apply for separate Montenegro visas unless you hold valid US visas. Bosnia Herzegovina on the other hand does not recognise US papers (for Indians), but will allow short stays on multiple-entry Croatian visas. The embassy took its own sweet time to respond to my query, or we would have fitted in a night in Mostar enroute to Split.

Disclaimer: Our stay in Dubrovnik was hosted by Airbnb.

 

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

49 thoughts on “Dubrovnik – Undeniably Beautiful

  1. Thank you for posting the after war photos, Madhu. I think you made a good choice by coming in May. This summer the crowds were impossible to manage. Beautifully written and illustrated. Thank you!

  2. Wonderful post -I’m sold! Your photos and prose were eaually compellibg. This city is definitely on my bucket list.

  3. Dubrovnik has always been the biggest pull for me to visit Croatia – I am not at all surprised that it has been taken over by tourism but it still looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous in your photos. The deliberate bombardment by the Yugoslav People’s Army created a major international outcry; I read that they reneged on an earlier promise not to shell the old town. Thank goodness the World Heritage Site was painstakingly restored to its former condition!

  4. Fabulous post and pictures, Madhu! My parents went to Croatia 2 years ago and they sang praises of Dubrovnik. Do you know when is their off-peak season? And by the way, I’m probably one of the very few travel writers/bloggers who have not seen a single episode of Games of Throne 🙂

  5. You even captured the waning (waxing?) moon, and the Lode Star, in your photograph,”The Stradun After Dark!” The best image………I now want to visit Montenegro Madhu…..

  6. As always, the combination of your words and pictures are inspirational. Another location added to my places to visit before I die or am to old to move under my own steam.

  7. Fabulous pictures! A friend recently sent me door pictures from Croatia! They looked so vibrant!
    Love the views from the top, the cobbled alleys and the architecture of the houses! 🙂 Thanks for sharing Madhu! 🙂

  8. Gorgeous post Madhu! I admit I was astounded to learn that there are so few permanent residents and the town has been taken over by tourism. I think that is a high price to pay as you loose so much cultural heritage. I still would love to see it. Gorgeous photos!

  9. A fascinating journey and through your narrative I felt as though I was walking through time. The night photographs are beautiful, the shine on those centuries old lime stone walkways is amazing, as is the architecture. Your images show off the beauty of Croatia Madhu!

  10. Fabulous account on Dubrovnik, Madhu! I felt like reading an article straight out of a National Geographic Traveler or Condé Nast Traveler. As much as we want a place to be as ‘authentic’ as possible, there is a reason why places like Dubrovnik is packed with visitors, driving the locals away to nearby cities or villages where living cost is cheaper. It looks like you couldn’t ask for a better weather when you were there. Marvelous photos!

  11. You are so right that Dubrovnik feels almost fake, almost Disney-esque, almost not a real living city at all, and YET it is worth every minute one spends in it! We simply marveled at its beauty and history and quaintness and just ignored the fact that we were timing our walks to avoid the cruise ship hordes. (As an aside, we loved Nishta! I’m a vegetarian, but my daughter is not, and she loved it as much as I did.)

  12. Such lovely architecture, Madhu. What an amazing restoration. Love the view down over the narrow alleyway. I would love to visit Croatia one day.

    1. It is picture perfect Niranjan. We came across many roof top views across Croatia, but nothing else came quite as close to these iconic views. Thanks for stopping by:)

  13. I get just as much enjoyment out of your reports as I do out of National Geographic, Wonderful pictures and descriptions. We feel like we are walking the streets with you.

    1. Aww, what a lovely compliment Ian! Glad you enjoyed this virtual journey with me. Thank you very much for your company 🙂

    1. The architecture is beautiful, but Croatia is more about stunning panoramas Sha. The pristine coastline coupled with medieval cities against mountain backdrops make for some major visual spectacles.

      1. I see…shall have to make sure I get there to have a look around then…thanks for the photos 🙂

  14. Wonderful photos Madhu, especially the one of the steep alley – fabulous shot! I think Dubrovnik just made our endless list, even if it is a museum city. It looks thoroughly captivating.
    Alison

    1. Ha, that endless list! Just to stretch it a bit more, Zadar was our favourite of the Dalmatian cities we visited, although it was far less striking visually. Post coming up…hopefully soon 🙂 Thank you very much for your visit and lovely comment Alison.

  15. Your photos are beautiful as always, Madhu, but I especially love the night shots. We were there so many years ago (pre-war) and so a much quieter place. Cruise ships. Sacrilege! I can still see the glint of sunlight on the Stradun and feel the heat on those city walls if I close my eyes. 🙂

    1. Thanks muchly dear Jo. I imagine there were more local people as well. Pre-war is about the time I visited London! 🙂

  16. The stradun after dark was my fav of the pics – but all so nice and five a feel for this place – would love to visit Croatia some year – hope u have a nice well m- peace

    1. Thank you Yvette! These touristy cities are so much quieter and more enjoyable after dark.

    1. The entire country is visually stunning Sue and considerably cheaper than the rest of Europe.Hope you get there soon 🙂

  17. I love the views over the rooftops and the steep alley image is fabulous. I don’t think I’d want to climb up or go down either though. It seems a pity that hardly any locals live there, the world has gone crazy hasn’t it? How does Croatia rank in all the places you’ve been Madhu?

    1. That alley shot is my favourite too Gilly. Our apartment was thankfully located closer to the flat part of town. But you should know that none of the rentals within the walls have elevators, so if you do go, you will need to confirm your apartment is housed in a lower floor.

      Croatia – even without having visited the Istrian coast – ranks very high on visual appeal. But as a package, I much preferred the Basque region in Europe and find more inspiration (as a blogger) in gritty Asian destinations! Myanmar and even just four days in our dirty, smoggy capital have each inspired over half a dozen posts while I struggle to churn out one for each of these gorgeous cities! 🙂

  18. We had a day in Dubrovnik via cruise ship. A spectacular place – but your stay was better because yours was longer … plus you’ve captured it so well in this post. Love the night pics … after all, I didn’t get to see that.

    1. Thank you dear Frank! Staying the night does gives one a better perspective of a place than rushing in and out on a daytrip. But it also involves more juggling of time and logistics as opposed to the freedom of a cruise/tour.

      1. We governed out time there, but it was still too short … .then again, that’s a downside of cruising … Nonetheless, we’re glad to visit this gem.

  19. What a delight to revisit Dubrovnik through your eyes and your lens: those terra cotta roofs and the blue sea. I particularly love the night time shot of the Stradun and the perfect shot of the steep alley. You also brought back lovely memories of a ramble round Lokrum. Can I ask how much you plan before you visit a place, and how much you just nose out once you arrive? I’m trying to develop the perfect strategy for a four-day stay in a totally unknown place, so I don’t leave regretting what I miss!

    1. Thank you Meg. Glad this brought back fond memories.

      Normally, I plan down to the minutest detail! This trip was unplanned and I hastily put together an itinerary based on our daughter’s from a few years earlier. Looking back we feel we could have fitted in a lot more than we did in our 13 days in Croatia – an average tourist itinerary covers the entire Balkan region in less time – but we are beginning to enjoy the slower pace, with a lot more eating and drinking and lingering 🙂

      1. Thanks. I’m finding summer’s good. I can be out for a few hours early, return for breakfast, go out again and then doze before a third adventure. I packed. A heap into four days in Gdańsk, but still have a list a mile long of things I wish I’d done. In Dubrovnik I was a bit away from the city centre and that used up valuable time.

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