Seaside Croatian city of Dubrovnik deserves its glowing reputation

Tourists in Dubrovnik, Croatia, often walk along the ramparts of the series of ancient walls that ring its Old City for 1.3 miles.
Tourists in Dubrovnik, Croatia, often walk along the ramparts of the series of ancient walls that ring its Old City for 1.3 miles. ASSOCIATED PRESS

DUBROVNIK, Croatia — My first view of Dubrovnik was by moonlight, and it was enough to convince me that magical places exist other than in fairy tales. After a flight from Zagreb, I arrived to see the medieval walls of this old city burnished to a golden sheen by the light of the full moon, which hung so low it appeared to be resting on the rooftops.

When I awoke the next morning, those walls, in a sort of reverse alchemy, had been changed from gold to silver under the glare of a harsh sun, and the waters of the Adriatic lapping at them shimmered like jade-colored silk.

By sunset, the palette had changed again — the water turning from jade to turquoise, and the sky painted in ribbons of pink, coral and pale blue.

When all's said and done, it's Dubrovnik's colors that I will remember most.

There was a time when I thought I would never have an opportunity to see this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage city, located at the southern tip of Croatia and dubbed the Pearl of the Adriatic.

After managing to stay independent during the Middle Ages by appeasing the Ottoman Empire and Venetian Republic — both of which viewed it with the predatory gusto of a lion stalking a wildebeest — Dubrovnik became a casualty during the breakup of Yugoslavia six centuries later.

At the height of the crisis, for seven months in 1991 and 1992, the city was besieged by Serbian and Montenegran forces, which subjected it to relentless shelling. Some 2,000 shells fell on the Old City, severely damaging buildings and roofs but somehow leaving the walls unscathed. Reconstruction began almost immediately after the hostilities ceased, following UNESCO guidelines.

Contemporary visitors would be unaware of the punishment inflicted on Dubrovnik unless they looked closely at the building facades, with their patchwork of old and new stone, or the vivid red- orange roof tiles that replaced damaged ones. Or perhaps by studying the map near the city gate, which pinpoints all the places artillery shells hit during the siege.

Old City's allure

Today, a completely reconstructed Dubrovnik lures travelers from around the world with its beauty and majesty. Its crowning glory is the Old City, completely surrounded by its famous walls.

The compact Old City is a rabbit warren of streets. I found myself on more than one occasion retracing my steps to get back to the main thoroughfare. Known as the Stradun, that street is lined with Baroque buildings and is a popular meeting place.

Every Saturday night, in a ritual known as dir, locals and tourists promenade along the Stradun, greeting friends and strangers, before drifting off to one of the street's many cafés.

Sadly, most of Dubrovnik's Renaissance buildings were destroyed during a catastrophic earthquake in 1667, which was responsible for the deaths of one-third of the population. Fortunately, several of the most important buildings were spared.

Sponza Palace, which now houses the city's archives, was once used as the Customs Office, where, in medieval times, trade with ports throughout the Mediterranean was conducted under stringent laws. A carved inscription in Latin warns: "Do not cheat or falsify the measures while I am weighing the goods as God is weighing me."

The Renaissance Rector's Palace was the seat of state authority during Dubrovnik's Golden Age, and within the cloister of the Franciscan Monastery one can find Europe's oldest pharmacy, dating to the 14th century.

St. Blaise, an Armenian martyr, is to Dubrovnik what St. Mark is to Venice. Statues of Blaise, the city's patron saint, are everywhere, with the main statue towering over the church of the same name.

Other sights worth a look are Orlando's Column, dedicated to the famous knight and a symbol of Dubrovnik's status as a city-state rivaling Venice in power and wealth, and the Old Port with the fort of St. John, which prevented pirates and enemy ships from entering the Old City.

By all means, enjoy your history lesson, but temper it with relaxation — and a cold drink — at one of several al fresco bars carved out of the rock cliffs above the sea, or take the cable car to Srdj Hill for a panoramic view of the city and surrounding islands. Most definitely stroll along the ramparts of the 1.3-mile city walls.

Beyond the city

Most associate Dubrovnik with its location on the Adriatic, but it has an interior that makes for an interesting excursion. For a study in contrasts, head to the Konavle region, the most southerly part of Croatia, with its mountains, valleys, vineyards and olive groves.

Here, just before Croatia meets the mountainous terrain of Montenegro, visit the old water mill at Konavoski Dvori on the Ljuta River, where the mill owner will offer you a glass of travarica, a local brandy said to have healing powers.

Or opt for an excursion to the lovely seaside village of Cilipi. If you're there on Sunday, head to the square outside the Church of St. Nicholas to watch folk dancing performed by adults and children in native costumes.

Take a cruise around the Elaphiti Islands with their numerous secluded coves where you can stop for a quick dip. Detour to the small coastal town of Orebic for a visit to Korta Katarina Winery. You may arrange for a private tour and tasting among the vineyards overlooking the sea, but it's necessary to book in advance.

Another must-see is the island of Korcula, one of the most beautiful on the Dalmatian Coast, and its walled city of the same name. Often referred to as "Little Dubrovnik" because of its city walls and narrow, cobbled streets, Korcula has managed to pull off a major PR coup. Although no proof exists, the island claims to be the birthplace (in 1254) of Marco Polo, intrepid explorer of China and Mongolia.

The small house in the city center might have been his home once, but there is no doubting the authenticity of the Cathedral of St. Marco and the Bishop's Palace, with its rich collections of Croatian and Italian art and manuscripts, and the 11th-century Church of St. Peter, the oldest preserved church in the town.

On my last night in Dubrovnik, I sat on the cliff-top terrace of the luxurious Villa Agave, sipping a glass of wine and again watching a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors create a sunset that progressed from palest rose to deepest lilac.

Many writers have waxed poetic about the charms of Dubrovnik, but perhaps none so eloquently as 19th- century Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: "Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it."


Dubrovnik, Croatia

Where to stay: Hotel Excelsior. Overlooking the Adriatic Sea and a 15-minute walk from the Old City, this five-star hotel is celebrating its centenary this year, having been a Dubrovnik landmark since 1913. The hotel has played host to dignitaries ranging from Queen Elizabeth II to Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis to Ted Kennedy. The hotel's 158 luxurious rooms and suites have terraces with views ranging from the Old City to the island of Lokrum. The Excelsior has an arrangement with the exclusive Calvados Club, which can arrange guest experiences from private sunset yacht cruises of the islands to candlelit dinners in exotic locations. The Excelsior's sister properties include the nearby private Villa Agave and the Hotel Dubrovnik Palace, boasting panoramic views of the Elaphiti Islands.

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