August arrived, and with it the realisation I hadn’t had a proper holiday all year.
When I was offered the opportunity to pick a short-haul city-break destination, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I needed clear sunny skies, and even clearer water in which to dip my toes, but more than anything I needed to go somewhere with history and culture and soul.
As I’d been working non-stop all year, breaking only to run the Berlin half marathon in April, I wanted to feel soothed, enchanted and restored, with a few thrills thrown in for good measure. That’s a big ask for a mere four days, but I had an inkling that a spectacularly located UNESCO World Heritage Site in a country I’ve always wanted to visit might just do the trick.
Byron is quoted as describing Dubrovnik as the “pearl of the Adriatic.” I’d presumed this was all poetry and metaphor, but in fact the cobbled streets are so glossy and polished and the stone buildings so creamy, that the city shimmers with refracted pearlescent light when it catches the sun.
If following little alleyways to see where you end up is your idea of heaven, you’ll love getting lost in Dubrovnik. It’s an extremely manageable size, so there’s no chance of you losing your path for too long, but there’s something ornate or interesting around every corner and up each set up of stairs. Be sure to pick up some handmade lace or homemade Croatian sweets (sugared almonds and citrus peel) from one of the market stalls along the way too.
One thing my father taught about travel is to look up just as much as you look around you when exploring new cities, as there’s always plenty going on above eye-level and it often provides a much better insight into how local people live. This is particularly good advice for Dubrovnik, which spreads upwards as it spreads outwards – sort of amphitheatre style — with the Placa, squares, churches and fountains in the centre, all of which are wreathed by quieter, more residential areas. Of course, another popular way to see the city is from above, which you can – and should — do by strolling around the medieval walls for 70 kuna (around £7).
Taking in the full circuit in the blazing mid-morning heat was very thirsty work however, and when I was done I needed to search out some shade and refreshment fast. I first spotted the Buza bars while on the walls, but being a forward-thinking traveller, I’d already heard of them through word-of-mouth, Internet and guidebook recommendations. These two unique watering holes are hidden away, balanced precariously on the cliffs on the outsides of the walls and are not clearly signposted, but I wasn’t exactly going to let that stop me.
With the sun as my compass and luck on my side, I ducked and dived through the backstreets until I found the ‘cold drinks’ sign and little gap in the wall (‘Buza’ translates as ‘hole’) that led down towards a canopy of white umbrellas.
The best thing about the Buza bars is that you can clamber down to the sea and dive off the rocks to swim below the Medieval city walls. I was down to my bikini and splashing about before I’d even taken a sip of my much longed-for beer. I’d recommend Buza 1 during the day, as the swimming area is less busy (although it is slippier and rockier), but Buza 2 won me over as a sundowner spot, with its perfect views, chilled vibe and terraces of tables strewn across the cliffs.
Despite only being there for a few days, I quickly slipped into a discernible holiday rhythm. Mornings were spent being tourists, and were followed by long, lazy afternoons reading by the pool, before returning to the old town in the evening to dine and drink cocktails while watching the city gleam its way through a rich spectrum of sunset hues.
Dubrovnik old town is so small that there are barely any accommodation options within the city walls, so I stayed in a boutique family-run hotel in Port Gruz, a swift ten minute bus ride away. The staff were delightful, rooms were spacious and clean, and the coffee and eggs at breakfast spot-on. By far its best feature though was a decked terrace with a swimming pool, sun loungers, bean bags, an honesty bar and views over the Lapad peninsula.
If you’d like to stay a little closer to the old town and are willing to splash out, I must admit I did take a sneaky turn around the grounds of the magnificent Hilton Imperial, which has a gorgeous dining terrace and is conveniently situated right outside the Pile Gate – the main entrance to the city.
I’m a sucker for cheese and cured meats, so we found ourselves returning several times to Buffet Skola — a tiny little café just off the Placa for the gorgeous lunches. Local prosciutto (prsut) and cheese cured in oil is sandwiched between chunks of the lightest, fluffiest homemade bread. Pair the sandwiches with a Croatian beer or blueberry juice and you’ll be fully revitalised after a morning of sightseeing.
As Dubrovnik is seriously overcrowded in the summer months, it’s advisable to book ahead (earlier the same day will do) if you want to eat in the better restaurants. Avoid the tourist fare on the Placa and the roads around and head just a little further afield for something more refined and interesting.
The Taj Mahal may sound like a generic British curry house, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. A sliver of pavement is filled with candlelit tables where you’ll be served platters of traditional Bosnian cheese, salads and delicately spiced meats.
The culinary highlight of the trip though was Defne, an elegant, canopied rooftop restaurant, which lifts you just high enough above Dubrovnik’s busy narrow streets to afford you privacy and romance, while maintaining all the best bits of the old town’s ambience.
I was tempted by the black cuttlefish risotto, but I have no regrets — the homemade ravioli stuffed with asparagus and cheese I chose instead was utterly to die for. It was served in a creamy truffle sauce and topped with large shavings of black summer truffle. Much like Defne itself, it was elegant, thoughtfully put together and an utter delight.
The same can be said again for dessert, which was rich and sticky hazelnut baklava drenched in honey and offset perfectly by sweet pistachio ice cream.
I find that the best therapy for pretty much anything is to be outside, doing something active, and taking in the fresh air and beautiful surroundings. While this is possible in a city, especially one as quaint and undemanding as Dubrovnik, what I really longed for a dose of Dalmatian wilderness. And so for a morning we escaped by kayak and headed out into the calm jade waters of the Adriatic.
We meandered up the coast and around lush little islands until we reached a sheltered pebble bay where we threw ourselves off cliffs and snorkelled in the shallows, picking up sea worms. I returned a happy and hungry seadog, my eyebrows stiff and white with salt and my stomach demanding a cheese and spinach pastry as a reward for all the paddling I’d done
I took to the seas with Adriatic Kayak Tours, a highly professional outfit that differs dramatically in terms of guiding and equipment standards to the companies touting for business outside Pile Gate.
It filled me with sadness to head home having not had an opportunity to explore the outlying islands or take a trip over to Montengro. Dubrovnik may be small, but I’ve got unfinished business in Croatia and this glimmering city definitely hasn’t seen the last of me.