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Thursday 25 September 2014

Dubrovnik; a delightful Adriatic playground

A palatial motor yacht, complete with two helicopters, belonging to Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich was moored just off shore. Sir Roger Moore was in town for a few days and Austrian violin maestro Julian Rachlin was giving a series of concerts.

It was a couple of years ago now, but my memories are still vivid. Dubrovnik is somewhere I can't wait to return to. 

The streets of the Stari Grad (Old Town) were alive; French, German, Russian and Italian being spoken in the cafes and restaurants that dot the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Stradun, and nearby Prijeko.

Just another summer day in the Croatian resort town that in just a decade transformed itself from a war zone to the new Nice or Monte Carlo – a haven for water babes, pleasure seekers and jet-setters.

Dubrovnik, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” and dubs itself the “city of style”.

The entire Dalmatian coast, with its dramatic vistas and untouched outposts, is rapidly becoming the new French Riviera – but for now, at least, it is still the preserve of those in the know.

It is hard to believe that 25 years ago this chic place was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. That until 1995 it was at the heart of bloody fighting as the former Yugoslavia ripped itself apart.

Today many Croat expats have returned, largely from the US and Australia, as they sense huge economic possibilities. Croatia joined the European Union in 2013.

The Old Town of Dubrovnik looks much as it has looked for centuries with its gracious old buildings and winding, narrow streets that are largely barred to traffic.
The climbs can be intimidating for anyone who is not fit – some of the steps are steep and hard work, but the views of the red tile roofs of the old quarter and the Adriatic make a climb well worthwhile.

While you’ll still find old ladies dressed in black dresses and shawls and grizzled old fishermen with three-day growths, young Croatians are very much in tune with their western European counterparts. Internet cafes abound, wine bars are all over the place.

In peak summer season, when the cruise ships disgorge their loads, the Stari Grad throbs with activity. The light is amazing, chamber music can be heard coming from old churches, rock from interlopers; a couple of Irish pubs.

The area within the 800-year-old city walls, which are just 2 kilometres long, is relatively small – and unspoilt. There are two main gates to the centre, Pile and Ploce.

The restoration work after the war has been accomplished effectively – it’s hard to believe there was conflict here so recently.

There’s a distinctly Mediterranean feel and the service is friendly – understandable as Dubrovnik is still a small town with a population of less than 50,000.

Most of the residents do not live within the walls, but rather in the port area of Gruz or the residential sector of Lapad – both of which are easily reached by buses that leave from Pile gate.

If you want to get a feel for Dubrovnik, grab a simple fish meal at Lokanda Peskarija, overlooking the port, or sip a coffee in one of the many pavement cafes on Luza Square.

One of the most chic (and most expensive) places to eat is the Restaurant Club Nautika, on the rocks just outside the Pile gate. The views of the Adriatic, and the Bolkar and Lovrijenac fortresses, are extraordinary, the service superb and multilingual, and the seafood sublime. Reserve a spot on the outdoor terrace.

If you simply want a drink with a view, climb to the top of the southern walls of the Old Town and settle in at the appropriately named Café Buza, which offers dramatic ocean views and the chance to check out all the craft coming in and out of the harbour.

There’s plenty to interest history buffs, too, with the Old Town dotted with Gothic, renaissance and baroque churches, and, tucked away in a quiet corner off Stradun, a 15th-century synagogue.

Even if time is short, it is worth taking a short ferry ride to the fishing village of Cavtat (offered in many excursion packages). So peaceful and charming, it is as if time here has stood still.

The best beach in Dubrovnik is the half pebbles/half sand stretch just outside the Ploce gate.

If you want to pick up a souvenir, Aqua Shop on Stradun sells a wide range of local glassware, or you can pick up some lacework from the local craftswomen sitting on the sea wall overlooking the old harbour.

Dubrovnik is at its busiest in August, during the annual summer festival, but probably at its best in September, when some of the hordes have departed.

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