I had no expectation of Dubrovnik. I find it astonishing that I am visiting an ex-Communist country on holiday and that they were fighting around 20 years ago – this very City was being shelled. Above that… nothing. No whys, whats or even wheres. Everyone who has been says it is beautiful. They add very little to this and so I am still confused. I’ve been to many beautiful a places but for some reason people struggle to elucidate why Dubrovnik is such a jewel.
We had a great flight. Out of Manchester at 6:40 and landing at 10:25. First points to Dubrovnik for having such a lovely little airport – well staffed so that passport control and baggage collection was so quick we were picking a taxi up before 11 am. Points too for the taxi drivers. Andros welcomed us in good English and talked us through the sites. Within 5 miles of the airport he had recommended Cavtat, two restaurants and pointed out Tito’s summer residence (“he wasn’t so bad”). He’d showed the Bosnian border less than four miles away. The landscape suggested Spain or perhaps Southern Italy. The mountains were from Spanish Islands but everything is just a tad more green. The journey from the airport was around half an hour and showed us the old City from above before taking us to Lapad. Along the way he warned not to visit the City walls unless before 8am or after 5pm due to the heat and the cruise ship visitors.
The hotel was part of a complex on the far side of Lapad – a business hotel welcoming Croatians but also Russians, French, Chinese, Italians, Scandinavians and Germans as well as the Brits. The atmosphere was very cosmopolitan throughout and it demonstrated my inadequacy at guessing nationalities from first impressions – why don’t the French always shrug and the Germans wear lederhosen? According to Andros to the hotel which occupied the site was destroyed in the war (which explains some of the old features in the surrounding grounds) and the replacement was only built three years ago. Our hotel was incredibly modern and chic. Lots of rooms and people but laid out over many floors on a hillside and plenty of glass and concrete. Immaculately clean and expensively furnished but in a minimalist style. If the Communists did do a modern hotel I am pretty sure this would be it but it could just as easily be modern design. There were echoes of Mussolini’s Eur on the outskirts of Rome. Now I’ve seen the hotel in detail I am tending towards Southern California as my reference point – either La Jolla or up in the hills – Guggenheim meets corporate headquarters.
The Valamar Lacroma and the Valamar President are part of a complex on a peninsular to the West of the old city. The greeting at reception was equally warm. Perfect English spoken by people who want to make you feel welcome. On day one we relaxed at the pool – we were on a lounger by 11am. Although this is a big hotel there were enough parasols and umbrellas for everyone – a big thing for me as I don’t like to be in the direct sunshine all day long. The loungers are of a great design that had a little adjustable part which offered shade just for the head – a great idea. The pool was at a great temperature and long enough for a proper swim and at an even depth – why do hotel pools have a deep end anyway?
We were warned of high prices in the hotels compared to street prices but this didn’t seem to be the case here. We had a lunch by the pool which was cooked on the barbecue. A good salad with chicken was around £8 which is reasonable (or at least comparable with modern British pub grub). Local beer was around £3 for half a litre. We also heard that hotels wouldn’t let you bring your own water into the building but we had no problem with this.
In the evening we went into the local town of Lapad. This was a ten minute walk downhill and then one street leading through to the seafront which was full of bars and restaurants. There is a steep hill on one side and the little staircases have signs indicating more restaurants. On a warm Adriatic night you need to be sure of where you are going before you set off. At the end of the street is a small bay with a pebbly beach which is typical of this place. We chose a restaurant set down in a garden alongside the Main Street and ate to the sounds of a jazz trio doing interpretations of I Just Called To Say I Love You alongside a jazz/reggae medley of Stand By Me. The fish was cooked on a barbecue and the local wine was acceptable. Croatian wine if quite weak for some reason – typically 12.5% which makes it quaffable.
In the morning the sun always shines and is always hot. We ventured to breakfast and considered, briefly, sitting outside before being beaten back in by the heat. The buffet breakfast was exceptionally good. The guests are from all over the world and the buffet, set around a number of islands, reflects this. It combines some local food along with the expected favourites. The meat loaves and roasted fennel were new to me. The omelette bar was good as was the fresh fruit juice station. We loaded up and then headed down to the President. Guests can share facilities and the President was only five minutes walk further downhill. Here there are soft loungers and cabanas – quite honestly another step up in comfort (subsequent note: this is not an option! You can share the beach facilities but not the pool area – cue embarrassing retreat after four days of enjoying). It is quieter too and has an access point down to a small pebbly beach and an area for sea swimming. The sea is a good temperature and crystal clear. There are some glamorous guests from across Europe – lots of jewellery and designer sunglasses on display. There are children but the pool isn’t full of inflatables and if you want to just swim there is room. The regular waiter service keeps you hydrated too.
In the evening we ventured in to Old Town Dubrovnik. The bus service is very regular and the Number 6 from Babin Kuk to Pile costs 60 Kuna (around £7 for the four of us but 20% cheaper if bought from a proper ticket booth). You have the joy of passing the small Lapad football ground complete with the Ultra graffiti which shows the ugly side of the town. The bus takes you to just outside the Pile Gate on the City Walls. And what a sight the old town is. It is a large Mediaeval city with entire walls. Inside the walls is a hilly maze of little streets. To the landward side it rises steeply up staircases with houses and little restaurants either side. On the seaward side there are shallower hills as well as churches and little squares. The Main Street runs straight through from Pile Gate to the Marina on the far side of the city. The broad main thoroughfare is worn shiny by millions of feet and overhead swifts scream as they hawk for insects. The full sequence of nature appears to be feral pigeons in daytime, swifts as the light fades and the the night is for cats. From here on it is improvisation as you can’t get lost. We veer into the alleys and find a good cocktail bar to sit down and do some people watching. In the early evening as the sun is setting there is a warm buzz about the place and the light casts a lovely colour and pattern of shadow on the buildings. The architecture is Italianate and away from the Main Street everything is very close together. The photo opportunities are many as you also get views up to the fort on the hill above and the cable car running up. We ate at a tourist fish restaurant on the Marina. It was adequate but no more. On the way back the street entertainers were starting and a festival was underway so there was folk dancing in one of the squares. The bus home is perhaps less appealing. The bus stop looks quite relaxed until a bus appears and then it is like a big game of British bulldogs. Elbows are sharpened, small pets concealed, little old ladies sidle to the front with no sideward glance and somehow, by the time you get on the bus, all seats are taken and you spend the 20 minute journey inhaling the armpit of someone who must do severe manual work miles from running water. The charm of this ritual soon fades and those people you spend the journey glaring at are your neighbours at the pool the following day.
This formula continued for most of the holiday. We kept returning to the Valdara President during the daytime and tried the cabanas as well as the sunbeds (look, we really are sorry). In the evening we visited the City and just went off the beaten track a little to see what we
found. One of the highlights was on a lovely warm evening heading round the edge of the Marina onto a little pier and then just sitting on a bench watching swimmers and the lights on distant ships getting brighter as the sun set. After that we found the marvellous Buza I. This would not be allowed in Britain as it is set
against the base of the outside of the bastille walls, on uneven rocky steps. Entrance is through a little gate in the walls marked openly with a painted sign saying No Topless Bathing. The bar plays music and lights the stone walls and has an amazing setting for a late night drink.
On the rare occasion that we did venture further we joined Captain Surjan on the SV Ribica to do a tour of the Elafiti Islands. The coach driver just about held his temper as he collected passengers from hotels down little roads and we were grateful to board the little boat. We were even more grateful when the Captain uncorked the grappa as a welcome. We made our way to Sipan where we just had time for a drink and a small breather before having lunch aboard. It became obvious that a flotilla of boats were making the same journey. The food was ample and accompanied by Croatian wine. All good for putting us in fine spirits for Lopud, the second island. Here we had three hours and so we decided to take the journey over to Sunj beach. There was a small sign on the seafront advertising the “taxi” station. This was 200 yards uphill and then consisted of swarthy locals driving golf buggies along a very narrow track. It was much needed as the walk was very hilly in hot weather to a small sandy beach in a bay. It was packed and not particularly clean but there were sunbeds to hire and beautiful clear sea to swim in so we were happy. The final stop was a short hop to Kolocep which had little but a cafe and a hotel destroyed by shellfire in the war and never reopened. Although there are a few signs around the area of pockmarks on buildings this was one of the few definitive examples. We then made our way back to Dubrovnik in evening light accompanied by dolphins and folk music.
We stayed for a week and that is probably plenty. We did some sightseeing but the heat is very sapping – it is intense and the stone seems to soak it up and then spit it back at you. In the evening you touch stone walls and steps and they are like little hot water bottles. We did go up on the walls one evening at around 6pm it was still warm then and there are plenty of steep sections with steps to climb. There are some great photographic opportunities but we only did about half of the full circuit. As well as being too hot, the daytime is also given over to the cruise passengers who regularly flood into the city from the nearby port. Even in the evening you find the occasional bestickered individual isolated from the pack.
Overall Dubrovnik is a marvellous place to visit – an intact walled Mediaeval city with narrow alleyways everywhere. It has more in that it is a former Communist state and a very recent violent history. Fascinating.