Hello Dubrovnik, whose massive walls have repelled invaders for centuries but are now just another attraction for the millions of annual visitors. Put on the map by a starring role in Game of Thrones, this beautiful city is at its best in winter when the cruise ships stop calling and peace descends again.
“Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik,” said George Bernard Shaw. His literary forbear Lord Byron was equally effusive, calling this enchanting Dalmatian town “The Pearl of the Adriatic”. For those who live here, however, this pearl often feels like an albatross around their necks.
“The problem is the giant cruise ships,” says my amiable taxi driver, Leo, as we speed along the scenic coastal highway from where I can see one of the massive vessels out at sea. “In summer there can be three in port at the same time, and thousands of passengers head to the Old Town in a convoy of coaches. They all arrive together and at Pile Gate, the main entrance, and you often have to wait for half an hour just to get in.”
We veer around a steep promontory and, far below the twisting road, I see Dubrovnik’s fabled walls jutting out into the sparkling Adriatic Sea. It’s an awe-inspiring sight but one that makes the problem immediately obvious. These handsome walls have remained virtually intact since the Middle Ages but the handful of narrow portals that pierce them can barely cope with the onslaught of up to one million visitors every year.
“Oh, and don’t forget Game of Thrones,” says Leo. “Pile Gate is used to film the King’s Landing scenes and when the film crew is shooting, they close it completely.”
Dubrovnik might be a classic case of Paradise Lost – a city sinking under the juggernaut of mass tourism. After checking into my hotel I steel myself for tour group hell but, as I walk down Pile Gate’s weathered marble staircase, a landmark so familiar to Game of Thrones fans, I’m surprised to find that this iconic film set is completely deserted. On the other side of the gate, on the main thoroughfare, Stradun, the throngs of tourists I was expecting are conspicuously absent, and the only people around are a group of elegantly attired local women sitting on a café terrace enjoying a relaxing chat in the warm sunshine.
It’s a wonderful time of year
Down a narrow side street in the rustic-style Dalmatino Restaurant, I meet Maja Milovcevic, a retired tourism professional and lifelong resident of Dubrovnik. She explains where all the missing tourists are.
“The tourist season finishes on November 1,” she says. “All the charter flights and budget airlines stop flying here for the winter, most of the hotels shut down and only a handful of restaurants remain open. For us locals it’s a wonderful time of year. We feel the streets belong to us again, and we can finally have a decent night’s sleep.”
On a stroll around the Jewish Quarter, we pause at the Prijeko Palace, one of a handful of Gothic buildings that survived a huge earthquake that flattened Dubrovnik in 1667. Recently renovated, the palace is now home to a stylish hotel priding itself on exhibitions of local artists. Manager Nenad Bračun invites us in to have a look round. He takes us up to the top floor balcony where a winsome sculpture of a young girl sits staring over the terracotta rooftops. I ask him what life is like here for the locals in summer.
“You can’t believe how hard we work,” he says, shaking his head. “We often work 15 or 16 hours a day. My first job was working in a restaurant and I didn’t even have time to eat. In one month I lost 12.5 kilos. I love the winters here. We have time to relax and we can enjoy our beautiful city in peace.”
The sun is beginning to set and as we gaze out at the skyline of domes and campaniles silhouetted against a salmon pink sky, Maja nods her head in agreement.
Later, I take a stroll around Luža Square, Dubrovnik’s ancient administrative core which is flanked by imposing Gothic palaces and ornate Baroque churches. In the height of summer this is a noisy maelstrom of tour groups, buskers and folklore ensembles, but in the fresh November twilight a relaxed buzz pervades this beautiful space. Some local lads are playing football but, to their great annoyance, their little sisters are whizzing around on pedal scooters disrupting play. Their parents are chatting with friends over early evening drinks in Cafe Libertina, Dubrovnik’s most famous terrace café. During the summer, they would never manage to get a seat here and look pleased to be able to enjoy the wonderful view at the heart of their city.
A fishing line in one hand
I walk under an archway and enter Dubrovnik’s picturesque Old Port which is dominated by St John’s Fortress, an imposing semi-circular bastion that protrudes into the harbor from Dubrovnik’s mighty walls. I spot a man walking along a jetty with a fishing line in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I ask him what he’s fishing for.
“Squid,” he says, flicking cigarette ash into the water. “It’s the best time of year to catch them because there are no boats around to disturb them.” After dinner I go back to check on his progress and, with a thumbs up, he points to a bucket. I peer in and can just make out a squid’s tentacles shrouded in a cloud of black ink.
Fishing is one of the most popular recreations in Dubrovnik during the relaxing winter months. The next morning I join Ante Maršić, a local business owner and keen fisherman, on a drive up the coast to Ston, the seafood capital of southern Dalmatia. A mild drizzle is blowing in from the sea but Ante seems in good spirits.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “It always rains when the Jugo wind blows from the south but this afternoon it will switch to the Bura, a colder northerly wind. We love the Bura. By the time it reaches Dubrovnik it is bone dry and the days become crystal clear. When it blows we feel full of energy and it’s the perfect wind for fishing.
“It causes the sea water to circulate and brings small fish to the surface. The big ones like tuna and blue fish follow them and it’s also a great time of year to catch squid. All you need to do is drop a line in the water with a sardine attached and before you know it you’ve caught 20 or 30 of them. By the time the night is through, your arms and clothes are covered in black ink.”
True to his word, as we approach Ston, the clouds begin to clear and the landscape is flooded with golden autumnal sunlight. I’m struck by the town’s medieval walls that zig zag over the hills like a miniature Great Wall of China. Ston was one of the most important towns of the Ragusan Republic, a maritime state centered on Dubrovnik which in its 16th century heyday rivaled Venice in wealth. Ston was a major salt-producing town and the 5.5-kilometer walls, unique in Europe, were built to protect this precious commodity. I set out on an exhilarating hike along the walls and from the top have sweeping views of the long finger-shaped Pelješac Peninsula, sheltering a tranquil bay dotted with neat rows of oyster cages.
Back in the village I join Ante for a seafood lunch in Villa Koruna, a cheerfully decorated seafront restaurant. “You’re in for a treat”, he tells me. “The oysters in Ston are so good that people travel from as far away as Sarajevo, a good four-hour drive, just to have lunch. The secret is the freshwater springs that bubble up from the bay’s floor. These create a constant circulation of water which gives the oysters an incredibly fresh taste.”
On cue, the waitress arrives with a plate of oysters arranged on a bed of sparkling ice. “Koruna has its own oyster beds just in front of the restaurant,” says Ante. “These will be no more than two hours old.”
He pops one in his mouth and I soon follow suit. Effervescent zings of delicate salty flavour dance over my taste buds. They seem to capture the very essence of the sea and the tender buttery squid risotto that we have to follow is no less delicious.
Gold let Dubrovnik govern itself
Back in Dubrovnik I catch up with Maja who is keen to introduce me to Mladen Kraljevic, one of the town’s dwindling number of traditional goldsmiths.
“Gold and silver was the key to Dubrovnik’s success,” says Maja. “There are rich deposits in nearby Kosovo and Dubrovnik’s goldsmiths were famous throughout the Mediterranean. It was gold that enabled the city to remain independent during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire which swallowed up all the surrounding lands. As long as Dubrovnik paid the Sultan generous tributes of gold, the Sultan was happy to turn a blind eye and let Dubrovnik govern itself.”
We walk down a narrow alleyway and into Mladen’s tiny shop. I feel as if we’ve stepped back in time. Mladen sits hunched over an antique wooden desk and is peering into an eyeglass. A lone candle burns on the table as he deftly fashions a strand of filigree gold with a pair of tweezers. He greets me with a warm handshake and I ask him how business is going.
“Very well. There is a growing interest in old customs and folklore,” he says. “See these gold buttons? They were once used as status symbols and were sewn on to the lapels of men’s jackets and also worn as pendants by the women. They are now popular presents for baptisms and weddings.”
Taking a golden thread he coils it into a beautiful shape of swirling patterns .The process takes seconds and is sheer artistry but, sadly, it’s a dying art form.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years,” he says. “There are now only a handful of us, mostly retired, who still know the technique. My children don’t have much interest in carrying on the tradition but my grandson… Now, he definitely has a feel for gold.”
Rummaging through a drawer he pulls out a Norwegian newspaper dating from 1984. A grainy photo shows his fingers holding a button. “At least my fingers are immortalized,” he says with a chuckle.
I think of the Sultan and his glittering tributes of Dubrovnik gold and feel a pang of sadness at a disappearing tradition that might soon be consigned to the pages of a faded newspaper.
Plenty of hard work and plenty of fresh ai
No visit to Dubrovnik is complete without a visit to the nearby islands and the following day I hop on a car ferry to Mljet, one of the most beautiful. The Bura wind is still blowing strongly and the atmosphere is so clear that the blue of the sea is magnified into an almost Caribbean intensity. In an olive grove perched high above the poetically named Odysseus’ Cave I stop to have a chat with Antun Market, an octogenarian olive oil producer who looks 60 and is the very embodiment of a healthy Mediterranean diet. I can’t help remarking on his youthful looks and ask him the secret of his good health.
“Plenty of hard work and plenty of fresh air,” he says. “The harvest is now over and I have to cut the trees back for next year. I have 160 and each one takes two hours. It’s been a terrible harvest. It rained all summer and the olives couldn’t ripen”.
I commiserate with him but he soon cheers up. “On the other hand, it’s a fantastic year for citrus and we’re going to have a bumper harvest,” he says, pointing to some nearby trees laden with fat tangerines and lemons.
A neighboring farmer, Vicko Strazicic, has converted one of his barns into a museum of local history using many of his family heirlooms. I notice a table inside the museum with a display of interesting-looking liquors.
“We make them here at the farm,” says Vicko. “Come up to the house and try some.” We walk through an olive grove to an old stone villa and sit down on a terrace overlooking the sea. The sun has just set and I choose a walnut flavor. The rich warming liquor warms me up against the chilly twilight and Vicko starts telling how his family survived World War II.
“The Italians and Germans confiscated everything and my grandparents had to hide jars of olive oil in the forest,” he says. “We discovered one quite recently that they’d forgotten about. The Partisan resistance fighters were very active on the island and we suffered lengthy sea bombardments from German battleships. One landed just over there in the middle of the olive grove and killed my aunt while she was working.”
We chat for half an hour and when I get up to leave, Vicko insists that I take a bottle of the delicious walnut liquor with me.
An ancient form of a cappella music
In the fishing village of Sobra, I have an hour before the evening ferry back to the mainland, so I make my way to a small seafront restaurant that doubles up as the local café and bar. Next to my table a small group of local men are jovially drinking beer and to my astonishment suddenly break out into a resounding chorus of perfect harmonies. They are singing Klapa, an ancient form of a cappella music in which tales of friendship feature strongly. For the next half an hour the booming baritone and rich tenor harmonies drift out over the harbor and I leave Mljet struck by the strong sense of community and tradition on this beautiful island.
On my last morning in Dubrovnik, I wake up early to walk its star attraction, the Medieval Walls. I just have time to walk around them before my taxi arrives and so I skip breakfast and scurry over to the ticket office. I have the walls much to myself and enjoy the bird's eye view of the city, its rich stonework glowing in the morning sun. Red tile roofs stretch out before me, with modern copies sympathetically replacing the many older handmade tiles ruined in the 1991-92 siege when the city was shelled from the hills around.
On a sunny bastion overlooking the sea I find a café to grab a quick coffee. I’m still the only visitor around and the waiter sits down next to me for a cigarette and a chat.
“This is the life eh?” he says lighting up. “What more could you want: fantastic weather, a wonderful view and nobody around to spoil it.”
It’s a sentiment few would disagree with. For a few brief months each winter, the residents of Dubrovnik have time to unwind, indulge in their natural hospitality and appreciate the Paradise on Earth that George Bernard Shaw once wrote about. But it’s a fleeting paradise and only lasts until March when the first giant cruise ships of the season appear over the Adriatic’s deep blue horizon.