Dubrovnik: GOT, The Lot.

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This article originally appeared in Gafencu magazine, August 2015

There are two types of tourist currently flocking to Dubrovnik, the principal city in the Dalmatia region of Croatia. The first are discerning travellers, who appreciate the history, culture, architecture and location of this so-called Pearl of the Adriatic. The second are fans of a TV fantasy show – Game of Thrones (GOT) whose love of culture and architecture must remain a matter of conjecture.

Dubrovnik has been used as a location for the series since 2011, doubling for King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros and one of the programme’s major settings. Despite this influx of Throners, however, both parties can happily discover the beauties of this spellbinding spot quite independently of one another. If you are a discerning traveller and a fan of GOT – and the two are not entirely mutually exclusive – then you’ve got double the number of reasons to make Dubrovnik your next port of call.

Dubrovnik has, in fact, enjoyed considerable popularity as a tourist destination since the mid-19th century. That reputation took somewhat of a dent in the early 1990s, when Croatia was painfully emerging as an independent nation from the smoking debris of the former Yugoslavia. At that time, the television news images of the Old Town being bombarded by both Serbian and Montenegrin forces shocked the world. A quarter of a century on, though, and Dubrovnik, along with Croatia in general, is firmly re-established as a travel favourite, with its visitor numbers climbing steadily.

Every year, Dubrovnik has around one million guests, with a high proportion of these travellers arriving by cruise ship. Sensibly, the liners dock in nearby Gruz Harbour – not the Old Port – but you can expect a heavy influx of new visitors into the Old Town virtually every day in the summer. When you consider that the city’s population is fewer than 45,000, you can imagine how congested it can get, with tourists frequently outnumbering the locals on a daily basis. Aim for May or September if you want to avoid the bigger crowds, while still enjoying the buzz and the very best of the Mediterranean weather.

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One noticeable visual aspect of the Old Town – and you should absolutely stay here if you can – is the lack of uncontrolled external signage that is now such a blemish in so many cities. In Dubrovnik each shop, restaurant or bar is announced through the simple means of regulation green shutters and a uniform-sized lantern, customised by the proprietor, hanging over the entrance. This minimalism is extended to the Old Town’s direction signs with burgundy coloured fabric banners hung at the end of most streets listing the establishments to be found there. Those tourist hotspots blighted by out-of-control signage should take note of this solution.

The Old Town is the inevitable focus for any new arrival – a UNESCO World Heritage site and a stunning labyrinth of narrow streets, Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces and fountains, not to mention the imposing two kilometre mediaeval wall that envelops it all. A stroll around the battlements provides the perfect orientation, offering stunning views over the port and the orange-tiled rooftops.

The battlements are up to six metres thick in places, rising and falling as you negotiate your way around. Built across the 14th and 15th centuries, a hostile army has never breached these defences. Atop the walls, as you peer out from Minceta Tower, Fort Bokar and St John’s Fortress, you begin to easily appreciate why. As if the walls weren’t enough of a deterrent, there are also two imposing detached fortresses on either side – St Lawrence and Revelin – further daunting any would-be aggressors.

After circumnavigating the walls, head over to the Stradun (also known as the Placa), a 300-metre thoroughfare running through the centre of the town, connecting the western Pile Gate and the Ploce Gate in the east. Most explorations of the city end back at the Stradun, where the limestone pavement, polished by more than five hundred years of footsteps, shines like polished marble.

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Despite being small in size, the traffic-free Old Town certainly packs plenty into its tidy circumference. At either end of the Stradun are two fountains, both built by Onofrio della Cava in the 15th century, designed to provide fresh water for the townspeople. You’ll also find the Church of St Blaise (Dubrovnik’s patron saint) off the Stradun, as well as several regular tourist photostops – Orlando’s Column, the impressive clock tower, and Sponza Palace, the former Customs House.

Opposite the larger of the two fountains, you’ll find the 14th century Franciscan Monastery. It houses one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe, exquisite cloisters and some of the most beautiful courtyards you’ll ever see.

 In the square at the eastern end of the Stradun, the sightseeing continues with the Rector’s Palace, now a museum dedicated to the history of Dubrovnik. Museums feature large on any visitor’s Dubrovnik itinerary and, it must be said, the buildings the museums are housed in are often worth the price of admission alone.

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It’s advisable to invest in a modestly priced Dubrovnik card that gives entry onto the walls, as well as the Maritime, Natural History, Ethnographic and Rector’s Palace museums. One, three and seven-day versions of the pass are available. Not included on the card – but an essential “must-do” nevertheless – is a trip up the cable car to Fort Imperial on Mount Srd, sitting 400 metres above the Old Town. Another must is the War Photo Exhibition, dedicated to photojournalism in recent and ongoing global conflicts, with a distinct focus on the Homeland War of 1991–95.

The Stradun is just one of the main attractions of the Old Town – the other is the Old Port. Here you can linger for hours, drinking a coffee or a Spritzer as you watch a variety of boats come and go. Be warned, though, you’ll undoubtedly be assailed by reps trying to sell you trips on glass bottom boats – and to be fair you’d be hard pressed to find clearer waters anywhere.

One trip highly recommended to take from the port is the short 15-minute taxi-boat to the island of Lokrum, overlooking the harbour. Legend has it that Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked there on his way back from the Crusades. Nowadays, although moist mediaeval monarchy is in short supply, you’ll still find a botanical garden, Fort Royal Castle (built by Napoleon), a monastery and a Lazaret (a quarantine station for maritime travellers). You can also take a dip in the island’s Dead Sea, a salt-filled lake linked to the open sea.

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One of the more appealing aspects of a visit to Dubrovnik is that there is virtually no chance of running out of things do. After all, the entire Dalmatian coastline is studded with spectacular beaches, while you can also reach a number of quaint Dubrovnik Riviera towns – notably Cavtat, Ston and Trsteno – with comparative ease. You can also opt for a day at sea, with the most popular excursion being an island hopping jaunt to the Elafiti Islands – Kolopek, Sipan and Lokud. If you’re feeling in the least bit piratical, you can even undertake this cruise by galleon to satisfy your fantasy.

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Even further afield, the more adventurous traveller can sign up for a number of one-day trips to adjacent countries – Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina or a scoot down to Montenegro. Both are easily doable in a single day. As is the city of Sarejevo (capital of B-H), if you set off early enough. Just remember to bring along your passport.

 In truth, though, there is no need to leave the Old Town and its vast choice of cafés and bars if you don’t want to. If all you want to do is people watch and chill out, then it’s tailor-made for relaxation. For such a small area, every second building seems to contain a restaurant or a bar.

Naturally, Adriatic fish and shellfish feature heavily on the menu, but meat eaters are also well catered for. The Defne and Dubrovnik restaurants score well with tourists, as does Poklisar in the harbour, while Kopun Restaurant, in Jesuit Square, is renowned for its Croatian cuisine, especially its capon. Never eaten capon (or kopun)? It’s a rooster or cockerel that’s been castrated as a chick to improve the quality of its flesh. It’s truly delicious.

If that doesn’t appeal, you may equally find yourself enjoying Bosnian cuisine (try the confusingly named Taj Mahal restaurant if you do and order their rolled veal in dough filled with mushrooms and cheese). If you’re feeling especially flush, pick a top-end restaurant, such as 360. Its seven-hour veal risotto is amazing, as is its pink risotto with beetroot and langoustine. Also look out for Pag – salted sheep’s cheese – and Prsut Dalmatian Ham (as good as its Italian equivalent according to the locals).

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Best bar? That would have to be Buza Cold Drinks, an establishment that literally hangs off the cliffs. You will find it by stepping through a hole in the city walls. Precarious, but not perilous.

Living the high life is another of Dubrovnik’s undoubted attractions – it’s currently considerably less expensive to eat out and drink here than in many other popular European tourist destinations. Although a member of the EC (since 2013), Croatia is sticking to its own currency, the Kuna, for the present time and that’s definitely a bonus for holidaymakers.

Dubrovnik’s fame was built on its maritime trade. For centuries, under its original name of Ragusa, it was even said to have rivalled Venice. Strategically positioned with an east-meets-west location, the Ragusans were known for their diplomacy, skilfully managing to stay out of conflicts with both the West and the Ottoman Empire, valuing its freedom as it built its wealth.

 

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Despite its official motto – “Liberty cannot be sold for all the gold in the world,” the elders of the city regularly demonstrated that you could, indeed, buy freedom, courtesy of a succession of well-placed “considerations” to predatory powers. Consequently, the city became a neutral meeting point between conflicting nations, not to mention the espionage hotbed of its day.

Maybe, besides its mediaeval-looking townscape and fortified forts and walls, its former reputation as a nest of intrigue was another reason why the makers of Game of Thrones were attracted to Dubrovnik as a locale. Despite the secrecy the producers wish to maintain around plotlines, the GOT sets aren’t always closed to the public in the city, which makes for some very imaginative shooting in between the town’s daily business.

Be prepared, then, to see GOT aficionados re-enacting scenes from the series (just before they excitedly post them to Instagram) and scratch your head as they exclaim: “This is where the Purple Wedding was” or, more prosaically, “This is where the crowd threw dung at King Joffrey.” No matter if you don’t know Petyr Baelish from Richard the Lionheart or Tyrion Lannister from a capon, you’ll find that Dubrovnik has literally “got” the lot. GOT – Get Over There.