Always beguiling, Croatia's historic fortified city on the Adriatic is even better during its summer festival. Harriet O'Brien braves the crowds for our insider's guide
Saturday 26 July 2008
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Why go now?
Byron's "Pearl of the Adriatic", Dubrovnik has been beautifully restored after the war damage inflicted in the early 1990s. In summer light, its streets of travertine stone gleam majestically, and look at their best in the early morning and evening. The Dubrovnik Festival is now under way (to 25 August; www.dubrovnik-festival.hr), making Croatia's finest city even more vibrant than usual. To make the most of a short break, contact the Croatian National Tourist Office (020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr) before you set off.
Zracna Luka airport is around 20km north of Dubrovnik. It is served by Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0022; www.croatiaairlines.hr) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) from Exeter and Birmingham; and Thomsonfly (0870 0190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com) from Gatwick and Manchester.
Buses into Dubrovnik connect with Croatia Airlines flights, stopping at Pile (1), the western gate of the walled old town (about 25 minutes away), before reaching the main bus terminal (2) around 5km further west (about 35 minutes). Return buses to the airport start out from this terminal two hours before Croatia Airlines departures. The one-way fare is 35 kuna (£3.80). A taxi to the old town costs around 230 kuna (£25).
Get your bearings
Squeezed between hills and sea, Dubrovnik stretches along a dramatically rocky and indented shoreline. To the east is the spectacular old town. To the west, the Lapad Peninsula is where the majority of hotels are located, and there are a number of cove-like pebble beaches. The modern harbour of Gruz lies just above the peninsula.
The old town is the main tourist focus. This small pedestrian-only zone is encircled by about 2km of ancient walls, a substantial part of these fortifications running along the seafront. Pile gate (1), to the west, is the busiest entrance. It gives on to the old town's central thoroughfare – known as both Placa and Stradun – which leads to the ancient little harbour. Above this is Ploce (3), the east gate.
The main tourist office (4) is just outside the walls, beside the Pile gate, at Branitelja Dubrovnika 7 (00 385 20 427 591; www.tzdubrovnik.hr). Two small tourist offices lie within the walls: one is close to Pile at Siroka 1 (5) (00 385 20 323 587); the other is near Ploce at Sv Dominika 7 (6) (00 385 20 323 887). The tourist offices are open daily, 8am-8pm.
For luxury and a superb position just outside the Pile gate (1), head for the Hilton Imperial (7) at Marijana Blazica 2 (00 385 20 320 320; www.hilton.com). This striking Art Nouveau building has recently been restored and refurbished, its 147 rooms furnished in subtly Croatian style. Doubles from €286 (£238), including breakfast.
On the edge of the Lapad Peninsula, contemporary chic style comes with great sea views at Dubrovnik Palace (8) at Masarykov put 20 (00 385 20 430 000; www.dubrovnikpalace.hr). With 308 rooms, three restaurants, four swimming pools and a spa said to be the best in Croatia, this is a lavish world unto itself. Doubles from €382 (£318), including breakfast.
Nearby, good value is offered at the Hotel Komodor (9) at Masarykov put 5 (00 385 20 433 500; www.hotelimaestral.com), with 63 simply decorated rooms set beside a central swimming pool. Doubles from €108 (£90), including breakfast.
Take a hike
A walk along the top of old Dubrovnik's walls is the highlight of a visit. These splendid fortifications date back to the 10th Century in parts, the 13th Century in others. They reach 25m in height and are liberally punctuated with battlements and bastions.
The main entrance is just inside Pile (1), and opens daily 8am-5.30pm; admission 50 kuna (£5.50). As you amble around, you soak up the atmosphere, perhaps stopping for a coffee at one of several cafés along the sea-facing wall before finding yourself at eye-level with church bells. There are frequent panoramas out to Dubrovnik's islands, or over the old town's terracotta rooftops. Perhaps the best is at the top of Fort Minceta (10), on the north-western extremity, sweeping across the old town and out to sea.
A tour of the entire length of the encircling walls takes a good 90 minutes, longer if the narrow passageways are crowded, but there are several marked exit points.
Ignore the host of souvenir stores lining Placa and head for the morning market (daily except Sunday) at Gundliceva square (11), where Croatian specialities of olive oil, candied-orange peel and lavender oil are sold alongside fruit and vegetables. Local embroidery is offered at Dubrovnik's craft shops such as Casa Croatia (12) at Vetraniceva 6, and Dubrovacka Kuca (13) at Svetog Dominika 2 (00 385 20 322 092; www.dubrovacka-kuca.com).
Lunch on the run
The tiny alleyways leading north off Placa have numerous cafés and pizza restaurants. For a takeway option, head to Pizzeria don Corleone (14) at Ulica Boskoviceva, where you can pick up a slice of Dalmatian smoked-ham pizza for 10 kuna (£1.10).
Of the dozen or so museums and galleries to explore in Dubrovnik, four should be high on your list. Just by Pile is the 14th-century Franciscan Monastery (15), whose cloisters are now a museum area (daily 9am-6pm; admission 25 kuna/£2.75). Here you stroll around the monks' ancient courtyard gazing at the intriguing capitals of fantastical animals and human faces, and taking in a display of ancient manuscripts as well as a charming working pharmacy dating from 1317.
There are more cloisters at the Dominican Monastery (16), just off the old harbour and near the eastern gate. Dating from the 15th Century, this tranquil, palm-filled courtyard is also now a museum area (daily 9am-6pm; 20 kuna/£2.20) displaying a collection of illuminated manuscripts and impressive Renaissance paintings, most notably by the Croatian artist Nikola Bozidarevic.
For an insight into the golden age of 15th- and 16th-century Dubrovnik, stop by the Rector's Palace (17) on Pred Dvorom (daily 9am-6pm; admission 35 kuna/£3.85). This was the seat of government and functioned as a residence, state office, prison and more. Today, you walk through its elegant loggia and up its sweeping staircase to visit the city museum in the former state rooms.
Perhaps the most striking of Dubrovnik's museums is the little War Photo Limited gallery (18) at Antuninska 5 (daily 9am-9pm, admission 30 kuna/£3.30), with its changing exhibitions of images by the world's top war photographers. By implication, it's also a sobering reminder of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Next door to the gallery you can mingle with the arty set at the Talir café/bar at Antuninska 6 – where a tall glass of Ozujsko beer will set you back 15 kuna (£1.65).
Dine with the locals
Proto (19), at Siroka 1 (00 385 20 323 234), serves some of the classiest seafood in town. Make for the elegant upstairs terrace, where you can enjoy sea bass on Mediterranean vegetables (168 kuna/£18.50), for example, or lamb osso buco with dumplings (172 kuna/£19) in a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere.
Sunday morning: go to church
St Blaise's church (20), celebrating the patron saint of Dubrovnik, is a domed baroque building adjacent to the Rector's Palace. The façade is currently obscured by scaffolding, but the graceful early 18th-century interior remains open, its elaborate altarpiece glinting with statuary. Sunday Mass is at 8am and noon.
Out to brunch
Among the many eateries lining Prijeko, Konoba Moskar (21) (00 385 20 321 581) is a cheerful outfit for omelettes (39 kuna/£4.30), pancakes (22 kuna/£2.40) and more from 9.30am until noon daily.
A walk on the beach
Dubrovnik's beaches are not long, but offer good swimming from calm shoreswith a great outlook. The small shingle beaches and clear waters of Lapad Bay can be reached on Bus 4 from Pile (1).
Take a ride
Leave the crowds and head along the coast to the pretty seaside town of Cavtat. Boats leave every half-hour from Dubrovnik's old harbour (22), and tickets cost 80kuna (£8.80) return for a 40-minute journey. Cavtat is wonderfully laid-back, with a colourful café-lined promenade along the town's old harbour, and little cobbled streets radiating back from there.
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