Jan 24, 2017

Dubrovnik, Re-Built to Last


Picturesque Dubrovnik is a city that has it all, and has been through it all writes Mal Chenu.

The product of a tragic and triumphant past, Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful and intriguing cities in the world. Awestruck tourists wander marble streets past Baroque buildings or gaze into the endless turquoise shimmer of the Adriatic, channelling Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote “those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik”.

Known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, Dubrovnik is a Croatian city in the region of Dalmatia. It is one of the most prominent – and unique –destinations on Mediterranean cruises and ships are constant companions.

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Dubrovnik Old Town is a half-hour bus trip from the port and transfers include a commentary covering the history and culture. You’ll have to listen closely – it’s not easy to summarise 14 centuries of construction, destruction and reconstruction on a short bus ride.

Dubrovnik was established in the 7th century on a rocky islet called Laus. Other settlements sprung up along the adjacent coast and the groups eventually merged. The channel separating them was filled in and is now the main street, Stradun. Over the centuries Dubrovnik was variously occupied, governed from afar and a wealthy seafaring state in its own right.

It was destroyed by fire in 1296 and an earthquake in 1667 and besieged and occupied by a Napoleonic army in 1806 and the Italian and German armies during WWII. It formed part of Yugoslavia until it broke away in 1991, prompting a bloody seven month siege. Peace, reconciliation and a celebration of Dubrovnik’s resilience have ruled since.

Dubrovnik’s fantastical beauty – and heritage - is centred on the Old Town, dominated by the city walls and fort. There are two kilometres of uninterrupted walls to walk (anti-clockwise only) and stunning photo-ops pop up every few steps. The walls were constructed in sections over time – hundreds of years in fact – beginning in the ninth century until the entire city was encircled and ‘safe’ from invaders. Minceta Tower, which has featured in the TV series Game of Thrones, is a must-climb andprovides not just an incomparable vista but also an understanding of the extent of the damage from the Balkan war - the brighter newer terracotta rooves distinct from the erstwhile. Other ancient towers, gates, forts and the rugged limestone mountains in the distance add to the mystique. A cafe at the half-way point does a roaring trade in overpriced beer and fresh orange juice.

Pile Gate, built in 1537 and a part of the walls, also leads to the pedestrians-only ‘Stradun’, the main street of the Old Town. The promenade is home to the stunning Sveti Vlaho Cathedral and Orlando’s Column but these are just two of dozens of marvels. Cobblestone lanes lead off in every direction revealing enchanting town squares, churches, museums, markets and bazaars.

For another rewarding climb, head up the Baroque staircase off Gundulic Square to the Church of St Ignatius of Loyola and discover frescos and the oldest bell in Dubrovnik, cast in 1355. And for the best view outside of the Old Town, take the cable car up the 412 metres to the top of Mount Srd. Island tours and Game of Thrones tours are also well-patronised.

The seafood is excellent. Shellfish fans should try prstaci, best paired with a traditional local wine. Cured ham and spicy pork sausages are also very popular, along with white truffles and cheese – aficionados should sample paski sir, an unforgettably sharp sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Pag.