Wondering the streets of Dubrovnik, it's easy to forget you're not in the middle of a fairytale
At 7.30 in the morning, the hazy streets of Dubrovnik look remarkably like the opening scene of a musical. From a café table I watched as barrows piled perilously high with apples and lavender squeaked across the square to the market place. A nun ambled out of St Blaise’s Church to sweep away the rainwater that had formed puddles overnight in the sunken limestone steps, unthinkingly brushing in time with the bells chiming above her. Just as I expected a Croatian Eliza Doolittle to come sauntering round the corner and burst into song, an orchestra piped up. A few buildings away, the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing for a concert being held that evening as part of the Summer Festival. Coffee breaks don’t get much better than this.
In fact, cities don’t get much better than this. With gleaming marble thoroughfares, grand Renaissance and Gothic buildings, narrow alleys lined with laundry bunting and an instantly noticeable absence of cars, Dubrovnik crams every perfect-city requirement within its fortified walls. And beyond this stony perimeter you have the blue lustre of the sea and a generous scattering of captivating islands to explore. The ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, indeed.
Fortunately, the locals are keen to keep it that way. Reminders of the city’s more affluent past – it once owned the third-largest merchant fleet in the world – have been proudly restored, along with the handsome palaces of an expired aristocracy. It seems no coincidence that one of the most beautiful buildings I saw in the city, the Sponza Palace, was originally the treasury and the mint. The robust city walls, up to six metres thick and punctuated by imposing fortresses, are another sign of a deep-rooted civic pride. Walking along the top of the walls, around a vibrant patchwork of burnt umber and honey-coloured roofs, Renaissance domes and secluded green terraces, it’s pretty clear why Dubrovnikers have been so protective of their home.
So when 2,000 shells rained down on the city in 1991, they weren’t going to be beaten. Today, only a handful of physical reminders of the war remain – the replaced orange roof tiles that don’t quite match the weathered originals, or the simple frame on a wall inside the Franciscan monastery poignantly circling a hole caused by a falling shell. The war is far from forgotten, but the anger has been replaced by a steadfast determination to restore the city to its former glory – and to keep it that way.
As a result the tourists are returning, and before long the calm main street that I had been sitting in that morning was filled with a steady drove of ambling visitors and the open-air cafés were buzzing with requests for cappuccino and bruschetta. But with more serene monasteries, churches and palaces than you can shake a guidebook at, it is easy enough to avoid the hubbub. Diving into the Cathedral, I found myself in a cool parade of white arches, with silver incense lamps stretching up to a sun-filled baroque dome. Slightly more bemusing was the Cathedral’s Treasury, a bizarre but beautiful display of saint’s reliquaries, including the precious golden head of St Blaise, the city’s patron saint. A huge array of bejewelled leg and arm reliquaries from various saints lined the walls, some complete with small mesh windows in the gold, through which you could just make out a dry brown bone. The whole effect was disturbingly like that of a glitzy prosthetic-limb clinic.
The next morning I decided to follow the flower carts to the market place in Gundulic´ Square. With no sign of plastic-keyring sellers, or even a single postcard on display, it was clear that this cluster of wooden trestle tables was a market for Dubrovnikers. Deep green olive oil, baskets of fresh figs and crates of pale yellow peppers were on sale next to a small row of wrinkled women busy chatting under a large parasol and tying together bunches of pink cyclamen with raffia string.
Behind them, among the green-shuttered houses that lined the square, it was hard to ignore Dubrovnik’s most recent restoration project, the Pucic´ Palace, the new – indeed the only – hotel in the old town. Fifteen months of dedicated work has seen a crumbling, boarded-up shell of a building transformed into a classic and beautiful hotel in the heart of the city, leaving the rest of Dubrovnik’s hotels to sulk outside the walls.
As midday approached, the market tables were cleared away and a swarm of uniformed waiters hurriedly assembled a calm island of white parasols and wrought iron chairs outside the hotel doors. A few vases of fresh flowers later, and a new stage was set. Time for another coffee, I think.
When to go: Summer in Dubrovnik is usually a sunny and warm affair, with an average daily temperature of 26°C. The city is inevitably busier during July and August when the climate is at its warmest and the festival is on. June and September are cooler and less crowded.
Festivals: The Dubrovnik Summer Festival runs from 10 July to 25 August each year, featuring world-class musicians, actors and dancers (www.dubrovnik-festival.hr). Performances take place each evening in the open air at such scenic venues as the elegant atrium of the Rector’s Palace or one of the many fortresses on the city walls. A perennial favourite is Hamlet (in Croatian of course) performed on top of the imposing Lovrjenac Fort.
Day trips: Just an hour’s drive down the coast from Dubrovnik, you can cross the border into the captivating country of Montenegro. Explore the twisting roads that curl around the azure Bay of Kotor and the unforgettable island-citadel of Sveti Stefan. Organised trips are available or you can hire your own car.
The peaceful Croatian island of Mljet lies just a hydrofoil trip away. With a dense covering of aromatic pines and wild lavender, and two desperately beautiful lakes, you could be forgiven for staying longer than a day. To escape any other day-trippers, head for the ‘Little Lake’.