Seven days in Dubrovnik
The perfect introduction to Dubrovnik is to walk around its City Walls, accessed by the main entrance by the Pile Gate. Admission allows you to stroll high up over the Old Town at your own pace, getting your bearings and admiring both the stunning views and the skill with which the great architects of the 1400s and 1500s created these historic fortifications. Much of the Old Town crumbled after the terrible earthquake of 1667 – but not the City Walls. Within them, the intricate jewel of Dubrovnik lies before you, its landmarks and its terracotta rooftops, bisected by the main street of Stradun. Beyond on one side rise the slopes of Mount Srđ, the City Walls between four and six metres thick for fear of a land invasion – on the other stretches the infinite azure of the Adriatic.
Mljet is the nearest thing to having your own island. For complete silence, rest and relaxation, take the catamaran or ferry from Dubrovnik and leave the world behind. Mljet is Dalmatia’s most southern, most verdant and, some would argue, most beautiful island. More than 70 per cent of this thin, 37-kilometre long one-road idyll is covered in pine forest. A third of it is national park, where the 12th-century Monastery of St Mary sits in the middle of an isolated salt-water lake. The rest of Mljet is undeveloped and unspoiled.
The gateway to Pelješac, a peninsula of fertile vineyards, long shingle beaches and oyster farms, Ston and Mali Ston still contain stretches of the 14th-century walls that once defended the saltpans here. Each of these twin traditional settlements, a short drive north of Dubrovnik, provides the ideal introduction to the natural bounty of the area. In spring, the annual Oyster Festival, celebrating the Feast of St Joseph, brings hundreds of visitors from Dubrovnik. Music and folklore shows accompany the sampling of award-winning wines and world-class oysters, mussels and shellfish. The rest of the year, Ston restaurants such as the famed Bota Šare and Kapetanova kuća offer these local specialities. Even if you’re just driving along the peninsula, oysters will be sold at the side of the road, to be quickly consumed with a squeeze of lemon and the exchange of a few coins.
South of Dubrovnik, fringing Croatia’s border with Montenegro, the steep hills and deep valleys of Konavle offer the perfect first step in discovering Dubrovnik-Neretva County. Perfect and panoramic – at various intervals, sweeping vistas of Dubrovnik come into view, giving you an idea of just how precious the historic city is, squeezed in between the sea and this relatively barren landscape. Occasional traditional stone houses dot the terrain, some, such as Konavoski Komin in Velji Do, surrounded by uninterrupted nature. Veal is the speciality, slow-cooked under a bell-shaped cover heated by hot-coals, the so-called peka method. In spring, a newly opened cycle and hiking path comes into its own, lined with signposts and information boards, part of an area-wide project to promote sustainable tourism.
Spring is the best time to visit the Arboretum in Trsteno, just outside Dubrovnik. One of the many locations used in and around the city for the hit TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ – the Arboretum doubling up as the palace gardens of the Red Keep – this historic and natural attraction dates back to 1492 at least. Set around the villa that once belonged to the Gozze family, the graceful arboretum is the product of the Renaissance era, when sea captains would bring back rare and exotic seeds and plants from their travels during the Age of Discoveries. The grounds run down to the sea, encompassing a grotto and a Baroque fountain.
Just as Dubrovnik is easier visited out of the high season, so the nearby island of Korčula is best explored before the tourists flood in. A Dubrovnik in miniature, Korčula isone ofthe most relaxing getaways on the Adriatic coast and contains one of the best-preserved medieval centres in Croatia. Said to be the home of medieval explorer Marco Polo – and the basis for a number of historic attractions, including a museum – Korčula was laid out by the ruling Venetians. A herring-bone pattern of streets protect locals from the chilly Bura wind before the burning sun of summer. Don’t miss a visit to St Mark’s Cathedral, one of the finest examples of Dalmatian ecclesiastical architecture, with its treasury of medieval rarities.
Fin-de-siècle painter Vlaho Bukovac was born and raised in Cavtat, near Dubrovnik. The southernmost resort in Croatia, an old Greek and Roman settlement, Cavtat sits a short drive south of town, close to Dubrovnik airport. Right on its seafront promenade or Riva, the Bukovac gallery once belonged to the painter’s father. Today it contains a lifetime of Bukovac works in the Impressionist and pointillist styles he learned in Paris in the 1880s, techniques he later taught to a new generation of painters in Zagreb. Cavtat is easily accessible by city bus or boat from Dubrovnik’s Old Town Harbour.