It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, much of Dubrovnik's Old Town was in ruins. These days, after massive restoration, it's the perfect place for a lazy city break
You can’t beat a brass-band welcome when you arrive somewhere new. It wasn’t laid on especially for us, of course, but we couldn’t resist following the drum majorettes and local oompah ensemble as they marched purposefully through the medieval centre of Dubrovnik.
All ages, shapes and sizes, the musicians looked a picture striding out in their military-style red jackets, navy trousers and peaked caps. And as they came to halt outside St Blaise Church there was a bonus – another three bands strode around the corner, saxophones, trombones and tubas blasting away. They were versatile, too, taking it in turns to perform and moving seamlessly from Beethoven’s Fifth to that Dixieland belter, Tiger Rag.
As we stood in the sunshine enjoying our unexpected free concert, it was hard to conceive that, having survived earthquakes, the Hapsburgs and Napoleon in previous centuries, Croatia’s most beautiful city was again in flames only 17 years ago.
Walking the wall
Thankfully, Dubrovnik survived Serb shelling during the Balkans conflict and has now emerged from massive restoration. The buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage city have been restored to their former glory, and a good way to start any visit is to man the ramparts and take the mile-long walk around the ancient stone fortifications encircling the Old Town.
We wandered for an hour on top of the wall, passing forts, bastions and towers and gazing across the terracotta rooftops, old churches and harbour to the glorious coastline, the wooded island of Lokrum and mountains beyond. It’s a great way to get your bearings and enjoy fabulous views – though I suspect that vertigo sufferers might not agree.
Dubrovnik is ideal for a city break, or a longer stay if you want to explore the coast and islands. It’s easy to reach, with easyJet offering return fares from about £100. Our hotel was the Hilton Imperial, built in 1897 and reopened four years ago as a stylish five-star after being almost destroyed by the bombardment of winter 1991/92. It has a perfect location, with views out to sea from the front and just a short stroll from Pile Gate, the main entrance to the compact and traffic-free Old Town. A double room in July costs around £230 per night.
There are splendid buildings off Stradun, Dubrovnik’s polished limestone main street. We checked out the Cathedral and the Rector’s Palace, a Renaissance mansion. The Franciscan monastery has peaceful 15th-century Romanesque cloisters and one of Europe’s oldest functioning pharmacies. It dates back to 1317, and amongst all the ancient jars and bottles, mortars and laboratory instruments, are people still dispensing aspirin and cough mixture.
We wandered through narrow cobbled streets and stopped for coffee among the pigeons swooping across Gundulic Square, where market stalls were selling fruit and veg, sweet-scented lavender and an eye-watering firewater produced on local farms. Called travarica, it is flavoured with herbs and chillis and tastes… suitably scorching!
There are plenty of pavement cafes and bars and a thriving cultural life. One of the biggest events is the annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival, which in 2009 (the 60th year) features six weeks of theatre, concerts and opera staged between July 10 and August 25.
During our brief visit, rain prevented us stopping off at the pretty little pebble beaches that dot the Dalmatian coast or taking a boat trip to explore the islands. Lokrum, just opposite the Old Town, is the best place to enjoy a quiet day on the beach.
My wife regretted the lack of good shopping opportunities, so we settled for unhurried lunches instead. We enjoyed delicious fresh fish and dishes such as clam risotto and seafood linguine, but for the more adventurous there are restaurants serving the regional specialities of eels and frogs. The wine is surprisingly good, too, with Poslip, from the nearby island of Korcula, a local favourite.
We particularly liked Lokanda Peskarija, a bustling and modestly-priced restaurant by the attractive old harbour where we had a memorable seafood platter. But the best place to eat is on the terrace at Nautika, a classy place where you can listen to the waves breaking on the rocks below and enjoy stunning views of the castle and out to sea. Nautika regularly hosts celebs and VIPs. Pope John dined there a few years back and it certainly gets my blessing too.
Where to stay
If your budget won't run to the Hilton Imperial, hotels are more affordable just a short bus ride from the Old Town. The Neptun and Lapad overlook the sea and win good reviews. Summer prices are from around £168 and £150 a night respectively for a double room with breakfast.