Dubrovnik, “the pearl of the Adriatic”, is an easy 2-hour flight from London. Leaving on a surprisingly pleasant easyJet flight at 7am means you are nestled safely in your hotel by midday local time enjoying a relaxing – or should that be chillaxing – pre-prandial drink.
The airport is an easy 20 minute cab ride up the coast, and our hotel is on the beautiful Lapad peninsula which twins with another, Babin Kuk, a touch to the north of the stunning old town that greets you thousands of feet below from the coast road.
After a booking cock-up we take refuge in an apartment in Lapad – compliments of the Hotel More, which is having an admin meltdown but is working overtime on service recovery. This essentially gives us a massive townhouse to ourselves, with a balcony from which to watch the world go by and drink the local wine. Dinner at the hotel is more average than it implies, and there are clearly groups in – Germans and Americans in force – which stretch service levels to the brink.
The following morning we kick off with a cappuccino at the excellently named Slatki Kutak coffee emporium before catching the easy bus into the old town of Dubrovnik. It is Saturday and the cruise ships are in town, creating a packed atmosphere in the tiny space – it’s only 500 metres from end to end. Heavily bombed in 1991, the rebuilt town is a maze of steep alleys running upward off the central street of Stradun Plaza, formerly itself a canal. It’s chaos in here – all walking tours, old people and bottlenecks. We find a promising restaurant called Wanda serving traditional Mediterranean cuisine, but it doesn’t deliver for the price. The Lasko beer is always reliable, but the Croation prosciutto is chewy, the zuccine ripene is unexciting, and the risotto and fettucine are run of the mill for London prices. One curio in the gents adds a hint of redemption – an old faded photo by Federico Fellini of a man seemingly rowing on his own a boat carrying a rhinoceros. This I have to track down on my return to discover the story behind it.
Obligatory but swift souvenir shopping sees us bidding a hasty retreat back to Lapad bay, where the clouds have rolled back to reveal a perfect afternoon on the Dalmatian Coast. This calls for sitting on the wall drinking several pints of the local Ozujsko beer, tucking into a pizza, and washing it down with fantastic tasting mineral water called Jamnica. The bay is now alive with sunbathers and kids mucking about on the rocky shoreline, with a classic sunset accompanied by half-decent jazz drifting out from a nearby hotel. We meander home on the charming coastal path just in time to watch the appalling Eurovision Song Contest from Azerbaijan, with the UK’s Engelbert Humperdinck limping in second to last with a lousy song and barely any points.
With cloud in prospect the next day, we have hired a car to explore. One of the benefits of the admin cock-up on day one is that we have been given a superb sea-facing corner suite high up on the bay, and the car is free. We take full advantage by taking a 100km trip down the coast to the superb Kotor Bay in neighbouring Montenegro. There are ten miles of dirt road undergoing roadworks and some tiresome waiting at border posts, but it’s worth it. Beer and a tuna melt at the Gradska Kafana at a high vantage point in the lovely town of Herceg-Novi provide the setting. The local beer is Toceno, and the classic Stella-style glasses add a continental feel to the brilliantly rocky scene as sailing boats drift by thousands of feet below.
It’s time to head back, but by a different route, through Bosnia & Herzegovina. Climbing high on the road to Trebinje a storm breaks out, but the road is much better and there’s nothing on it. Climbing steeply, it is a wild, totally unspoilt landscape, which we have almost entirely to ourselves. The thunderstorms pass, and we drop back down into Croatia and Dubrovnik via Brgat. The whole thing is easily doable in 4-5 hours, and as the clouds clear we enjoy an invigorating Jacuzzi on our private balcony – decadent, certainly, but with a certain whiff of cabbage as the covers come off and the water circulates for the first time in a few days.
Dinner at the Casa restaurant on Lapad bay yields an excellent steak and mussels, washed down by a bottle of Pinot Krauthacker – a slightly disconcerting name for a wine but not nearly as disconcerting as one of the starters, which was proudly announced as “Local cheese kept in extra vagine olive oil.” We gave that one a miss.
The next day it was time for a proper exploration of the old town. In glorious sunshine we buy tickets to walk the high city walls. The disclaimer on the ticket points out in very small print that the association is not responsible for visitors accidents. This is not surprising given the perilous steps up and the roving gangs of unsteady pensioners spewing out of cruise ships and invading this tiny old town. Thin parapets provide frequent bottlenecks as unaware Japanese students insist on taking endless photos and blocking the way for everyone else. The view out to sea is charming, but it is looking in that is arguably more interesting. In a slightly voyeuristic way, one can look down from on high into gardens and schools. Colourful laundry hangs from lines suspended high on the walls, and significant construction in this tight space shows how difficult it must have been to rebuild after the siege in 1991. 600 shells hit the old town in one day that year.
Breaking free of the hordes we take the ten-minute ferry to Lokrum, a peaceful island just down the coast. This is the scene of a 10th century Benedictine monastery, and botanical gardens inhabited by peacocks, some of them perched 50 feet high up in the pine trees. I have never seen high altitude peacocks before. There’s nothing much to do here, but a quiet stroll and a sandwich whilst listening to Spanish guitar music provides a welcome interlude from the bustle of the old town. Everyone has to leave the island by 7, and we are long gone by 3.30.
Back in Dubrovnik, we once again run the gauntlet of the endless walking tours for a final ‘Favorit’ beer at the Dubravka café, and at last a glass of decent wine that doesn’t taste like retsina. Here one can observe the sea- kayakers coming and going, and watch the pigeons irreverently nesting on a celebrity gargoyle of Saint Benedictine, whilst the local boys try to chat up the waitresses.
The bus brings us back to Lapad. We are old hands at this now. It’s only £1 a trip and the tickets proudly proclaim the 300th anniversary of their scientist and polymath Ruder Boskovic. The Kompas hotel on the bay is functional but holds arguably the prime spot for a superb sundowner. I take my chances with a bottle of Leffe Tamno – a fairly lethal 6.5% dark beer made by Belgian monks, who frankly should know better. Throughout these encounters I have been carrying out the “Hvala Test.”. Hvala (roughly pronounced koala with a slight guttural twang) means thank you. It always raises a smile if you take the trouble to learn just the word for hello or thanks in a foreign language. No one else seems to bother, but the effort always leads to a more pleasant encounter and often better service.
Our hotel, Hotel More, is redeeming itself. Going vertically up the steep hill, reception is at the top on level 7, descending to minus 2, which features a stunning Cave bar hewn out of solid rock, and a drinks terrace right at water level. This is the perfect spot to down a Karlovacko beer, and then simply jump into the Adriatic when you get too hot. A gang of a dozen drunk Americans are politely moved on after disturbing the peace. Dinner two levels up sees us indulging in fondu for two – a meal that requires serious concentration lest you fail to remember what you’ve put in the pot and end up with a charred cinder.
The following day – our last – is overcast with intermittent showers, so it’s time to catch up on reading and review the souvenir haul – the odd t-shirt, some jewellery, and an ornamental mask to add to our eclectic collection. Violent thunder and hailstorms change the mood and necessitate a hasty retreat to the Cave bar followed by an afternoon nap, but by 6 o’clock normal service is resumed to reveal a balmy and sunny view over Lapad bay.
We leave at 9am the following day, and the break feels satisfyingly longer than the 5 nights it truly was. Highly recommended.