Discover Dubrovnik: The perfect out of season mini break
Looking for a perfect place for a mini break? Can’t wait until summer to feel the sun on your back? Fancy a fairytale walled city to stroll about in and have it to yourself?
If you like to spend your holiday exploring medieval streets, soaking up sea views and eating at pavement cafes serving delicious food and local wines, then Dubrovnik gives you all that and more. And here is the secret, you do not have to wait until the summer to do so, it is all there right now waiting for you!
In less than 4 hours you can be soaking up the delights of this small coastal town and as Dubrovnik lies at the southern tip of Croatia, the weather is mild all year round, making this the ideal out of season trip.
With its red roofed limestone buildings, open squares shaded by fragrant palm and orange trees and a mountain backdrop leading down to the clear blue Adriatic sea, the main town has a relaxing yet busy feel.
A great introduction to the local cuisine is Pantural, a restaurant with an open funky feel to it, friendly and welcoming. The menu is a fusion of traditional and modern Croatian cuisine and I had beef tagliata with parmesan and rocket, a stew of slow braised oxtail and an almond brittle and caramel semifreddo dessert.
All were scrummy and well proportioned and the menu also offers homemade bread and pasta and a 5 course fish or meat tasting menu. A nice memento is “What’s cooking in Dubrovnik ” with 120 recipes written by one of the owners.
If you are feeling fit, climb up to Fort Lovrijenac which has stunning views of the old city and its ramparts. This well preserved fort is now used for theatre and film productions, especially during the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
Or take a cable car up to the top of Mount Srd where you can get a birds eye perspective of the city and town with a view across the sea to Lokrum Island, just one of the 13 forested Elafiti Islands that are dotted about.
Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked there in 1192 (starting a trend for us Brits, we now make up 25% of all visitors!). It is worth a visit for the lush botanical gardens and there are several walking trails and a deserted monastery to wander around. Also you will find a cafe, restaurant, museum and Fort Royal which is a bit of a climb but the views across to the city are stunning.
Back on the mountain you can visit a Napoleonic fort which houses the Homeland War Museum and gives details of the civil war in the 1990’s in which 56% of the old buildings of the city were damaged.
The aptly named Panorama restaurant perched next to the cable car station definitely has the wow factor when it comes to a view with your meal, do get a window table to take advantage of the fairytale setting.
Keen to try some of the local seafood I opted to start with a Dalmation trilogy of marinated octopus, anchovies and shrimps followed by a juicy steak served with potatoes, rosemary and garlic then finished with a chocolate and cherry cake.
NOTE – If like me you cannot face a cable car ride then a taxi will take you up the winding one track mountain road instead. This is marginally less scary but I was determined to see those views!
The Old City has been laid seige to many times in its history from the Saracens in the 9th century through the Napoleonic wars, WW2 and most recently the 7 month seige in 1991 during the Homelands war. But now the only invasion comes from hordes of tourists in the peak season of July and August.
You almost have the place to yourself out of season and it has a feeling of exclusivity as you share it with the locals. The lack of crowds and queues gives you space to soak up the medieval architecture, stroll around the alleys and relax by the harbour, it is as if you have stumbled on some hidden secret.
As soon as I walked over the drawbridge of the huge 16th century Pile Gate and into the city I felt a surge of familiarity. If you are one of the 18 million fans of Game Of Thrones then welcome to Kings Landing!
Pass through an inner gate and immediately you are confronted with your first photo op, the 15th century Onofrio stone fountain with water trickling out of carved faces. Straight ahead is the main street Stradun and to your left is the entrance point to the City Walls walk.
This is a guided tour along the top of the walls which were built between the 12th and 17th centuries and stretch for over a mile in length. There are great views over the city and the sea and I was told it was a fascinating tour, but as the only access is by ascending lots of steep narrow steps then it is out of bounds to vertigo sufferers like myself!
Walk past the Franciscan monastery with its 13th century pharmacy and along the wide marbled Stradun with its inviting pavement cafes and discreet shops.
If you like taking photos then try not to hurt your neck as you will be constantly swivelling round trying to get it all in! Click, theres an old building with shutters, click, theres a view up a stepped alleyway framed with hanging baskets, click, theres a great shot of the clock tower with the mountains behind. Each time you turn around there is something else to take a picture of.
At the end of the main street you come to a square with the Sponza Palace, bell tower, Orlandos column and the 17th century church of St Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. Turn right and you will find the Rectors Palace and the Cathedral ahead and if you head left you go through an arched door to the harbour. There is a small maritime museum here with a history of this important seafaring port and some interesting artefacts.
The harbour was a favourite spot for me, I always seem to gravitate towards water and sitting on a bench watching the little boats come in and out with the city walls around me was very soothing.
The only sounds were the sawing of wood from across the harbour, which turned out to be the building of a film set for the latest Robin Hood film directed by Leo de Caprio! Sunset here is incredible with the sun bouncing off the walls and reflecting deep orange on the water.
Walking left along the outer city walls takes you through another arched door and along even more picturesque streets and along a walkway through the other city gate of Ploce. This takes you out onto a nice seating area by Fort Revelin with even more great views of the harbour and city.
To really get a flavour of the history of the city, take a guided tour. Our guide Timea really brought it to life and we learnt about the orphanage with a lazy susan where young girls would leave their babies for the nuns, saw some 15th century graffiti and found out why any buildings built after 1667 do not have balconies!
Game of Thrones fan? Indulge your passion and join one of the specialised tours visiting filming locations including the House of the Undying and the Red Keep. Most tours include walking those high city walls but this link is good as they can tailor tours to your needs and there is plenty to see at ground level!
After sunset the old city comes to life with local families gravitating towards the restaurants and streets, a friendly and social atmosphere which invites you to join in.
Tucked away in a narrow alleyway off Stradun is the Dingac Skaramuca Wine Bar, a family run business and a great early evening stop off. Sitting outside at a candlelit table laden with plates of cold meats, anchovies, olives and crackers and tasting excellent local wines was a highlight of this trip for me.
Most vineyards in Croatia are small independent concerns and do not export in large quantities, this visit gave me a chance to try Plavac, Dingac, Postup and my personal favourite Dingac Reserva which tasted like butterscotch!
There is a 40 day winter festival from November 19th to March 1st with activities, concerts and exhibitions and it also includes the Festival of St Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik which has been celebrated on Feb 3rd since 972
Great buys are locally produced ceramics and artwork, artisan foods such as flavoured salt and chocolates, red Adriatic coral jewellery and of course those delicious wines.
The old city does have some cobbled pavements and steep uneven slippery steps but all the main streets and gates are step free and wheelchair accessible.
Dubrovnik is the ideal destination for an out of season mini break, with the fairytale backdrop making it a charming setting in which to enjoy a relaxed and stress free holiday.
It is one of those places that once visited you want to keep coming back to, so what are you waiting for? Treat yourself to a trip to the place that Lord Byron called ” the pearl in the Adriatic ” and discover for yourself the delights of this timeless slice of history.
P.S – The reason why balconies were banned is that in an earthquake in 1667 they were the first things to fall off and cause even more damage!
I stayed at the Valamar Lacroma Dubrovnik hotel on the nearby Babi kuk peninsula. This modern 4 star hotel is open all year round and boasts fantastic sea views and state of the art spa facilities.
I flew with Croatia Airlines, for more information go to croatiaairlines.com.