Discover Croatia and the ‘picture-perfect’ city of Dubrovnik without crowds
In recent years, snap-happy tourists have been drawn to Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town – Byron’s “Pearl of the Adriatic” – like moths to a flame, their numbers bolstered by cruise day trippers and Game of Thrones fans. Numbers were swelling to the point that Unesco threatened to remove Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status unless they were reduced. And then came Covid-19 and the tourists were gone.
It hasn’t taken long for them to return. Last month, there were more than two million arrivals in Croatia, 54 per cent of the number recorded in July last year. British Airways, easyJet and Jet2 have all restored routes between the UK and Dubrovnik, with quarantine-free travel possible and the Foreign Office exempting Croatia from its advice against non-essential travel. While not yet the most visited region, southern Dalmatia has a steady stream of arrivals and those who do visit will have the rare opportunity to enjoy Dubrovnik’s red-roofed Renaissance majesty without the cruise crowds.
Even with the thousands of daily arrivals last year, I found the city hard to resist. With the curtain wall of the World Heritage Site looming above and the medieval Lovrijenac fortress rising out of a rocky crag to my right, a nearby jetty was the perfect spot for a picture.
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I was not alone; a social media influencer wearing a black chiffon dress was doing jump-splits as her “assistant” tapped endlessly at their phone until they found the perfect shot. It turned out that the jetty was where the Stark siblings saw off their sister Arya in the final minutes of the Game of Thrones finale.
Discovering the sites
Dubrovnik – a city of 47,000 residents at the Mediterranean tip of Croatia – swells with armies of tourists, who come to seek out “King’s Landing”. Woven into the Old Town’s Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, palaces, monasteries and squares are merchandise shops, the Game of Cones ice cream parlour, themed walking tours and a life-size Tyrion statue lingering in a doorway.
But just a trebuchet-fling away from the Old Town is Lokrum, an island where – should you desire a more socially-distant experience – you can escape the tourist siege. The nature reserve has its own medieval claim to fame. It was first mentioned in records in 1023 with the founding of a Benedictine abbey and monastery, and Richard the Lionheart reputedly washed ashore there in 1192 on his way home from the Crusades. While legend has it that locals convinced him to raise a cathedral in the city rather than the site of his salvation, several churches were built on Lokrum; of them, only the 15th-century Church of the Annunciation still stands.
A 10-minute boat ride from the Old Town took me to Portoc, a rocky cove roamed by the occasional peacock – a common sight on Lokrum, along with scores of rabbits. From the bay, I headed to the monastery complex and the topiary hedges of the gardens of Maximilian – named after Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg, the island’s 19th-century owner – before chancing on a secluded beach where a couple were sunning themselves on a rock like a pair of lizards.
Medieval city break
Crowning Lokrum’s highest point is Fort Royal, an 18th-century fortress built during the French occupation of Dubrovnik. While many tourists queue for the cable car to the top of Mount Srd on the mainland for panoramic views of the walled Old Town, Fort Royal offers a low-key alternative, even if the scramble up made me feel like a mountain goat.
While Dubrovnik’s tourism focus is on the Old Town, young entrepreneurs are trying to change course. One such trailblazer is Nikolina Šimunović, co-founder of Funky Wheels Experiences, which is modernising the industry by harnessing the past.
“We all live for tourism, so we can’t complain – but the Old Town is overcrowded,” said Pero Grbić, my host, as we drove through the Župa Dubrovacka valley a few minutes outside the city, along the so-called Dubrovnik Riviera. He was driving a Zastava 101, built under the Yugoslavian communist regime in the early 1990s – essentially, the Croatian equivalent of a Morris Minor and internationally regarded as one of the worst cars of all time.
But for Croatians of a certain age it is a trip down memory lane; a trip the duo, who own a small fleet of these commie carbuncles, want to introduce to tourists. Being Župa born and bred, Pero was keen to promote his home region: the sandy beaches in Srebreno and Plat; the three islands Supetar, Mrkan and Bobara, which are the perfect excuse for a boat ride and a picnic; the town of Cavtat, dotted with ancient Illyrian necropolises.
But there was one attraction he had less passion for – the Kupari complex, a coastal hotel resort bombed in the Croatian War of Independence and the ruins of which are now a dark tourism destination. “We should be ashamed of that,” Pero said. “It is 28 years since the war began and it still has not been renovated. It has huge touristic potential.”
He pointed to this as an example of how the capitalist mentality had still not fully seeped into the young democracy, to the detriment of the tourism industry. He said: “The main reasons are the old communist regime and older people’s mindset. They are satisfied with how things are, because it used to be worse.”
Our final destination was Pero’s family home, where we shared an al fresco lunch of bread with home-made cow and sheep cheeses, including a soft cheese called Kajmak, and hand-cured ham, washed down with Turkish coffee, robust red and white wines from the family vineyard and shots of liqueur made from rose leaves and wormwood.
With the sun filtering through a canopy of kiwi plants overhead, I was struck by this markedly different version of “picture-perfect” Dubrovnik, and felt no need to rush back to join the Instagrammers in the Old Town.
How to get there
Jet2.com offers flights to Dubrovnik from several airports, including Manchester, Birmingham and Stansted.
Where to stay
On the tip of the Babin kuk peninsula, the Valamar Collection Dubrovnik President Hotel is surrounded by crystal blue sea and verdant islands. Worth a stay just for the views, let alone the five-star facilities, including a nearby beach, à la carte restaurant and spa. Book hotel stays with Valamar.com or package holidays with Indulgent Escapes by Jet2.com. Prices in September are from €205 (£185) per room per night for one night, with a 10 per cent discount for two nights.
Croatia is exempt from the FCO advice against all non-essential international travel and quarantine is not required on return to the UK, but this could change; stay informed via: