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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.