Dubrovnik

This is the 2nd destination of three in the Croatia itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Croatia circuit are described in The Croatia Travel Planning post.

If Croatia is the gem of the Balkans, then surely Dubrovnik is the gem of the Adriatic. Deeply steeped in history, Dubrovnik was once a city state – from the 14th through the early 19th centuries, vying with the likes of Venice for control of commerce in the Adriatic. The city is surrounded by medieval walls built over hundreds of years, which have never been successfully breached, although many sieges have been attempted over time. The recent city’s history witnessed the siege of the Serb and Montenegrin armies after the declaration of Croatian independence in 1991. A small number of buildings within the ancient city walls were destroyed, but many more were damaged. Restoration has since been completed, but they did leave one building with war damage to bear witness to the deeds of that era.

 

Arrival

It is under one hour flying time from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, to Dubrovnik – a scenic flight as well with a window seat, with views of the blue Adriatic, and its island dotted coast for most of the trip. Transiting through Dubrovnik’s regional airport on an early Tuesday afternoon could not have been easier, especially with only carry-on luggage in tow. A picturesque 30 minute taxi ride following the Adriatic coast, and we arrived at the outskirts of Dubrovnik, above the city by several hundred feet where most of the residential parts of this area were found. It was early June, the skies were a deep, cloudless blue. The view of the old town and the Adriatic were beautiful from street level. The excitement was building just stepping out of the taxi.

 

Settling in

It took the taxi driver a turn or two to find the location with the address I had given him. We were on a street north of the walled city, and significantly uphill from the walled city. The farther north, the further uphill went the terrain. So what we had were homes and apartments accessed by stairwells at street level, which stretched to hundreds of steps going up to various homes in the hills. Navigating which stairwells lead to which address was difficult even for the taxi driver, a native of the area.

Ascending the 100+ stairs to get to the apartment from street level with luggage in tow was an appetite building, aerobic workout. And I kept in mind that we’d have to do this every time we returned to the apartment, which we had for 5 nights. The good news was that I had to haul the luggage up the stairs just once.

The lovely apartment was booked through Homeaway. It was spacious, with all of the amenities needed for an extended stay – including a washing machine, and good working Wifi. But the true highlight of the apartment was the spectacular views of the city and the Adriatic from its balcony. It made climbing up all those stairs so worthwhile.

 

Discovery Trek

The ancient city inside the walls was just stunning, with architecture dating back to the 17th century with the Dubrovnik Cathedral, and further back to the 16th century with the Saint Savior Church. Wandering around inside the walls was like meandering through history. The streets were clean, and lined by medieval architecture under a turquoise blue Adriatic sky – with a steady tourist throng ebbing into and out of the city.

Dubrovnik is a very popular tourist stop, and moreover a port of call for some of the largest cruise operators in the Mediterranean. It takes a little strategy to get an immersive travel experience within its ancient city walls. The best thing to do is simply avoid visiting during cruise ships’ ports of call. There are searchable published schedules with details on dates, times, and even the typical passenger manifest. Otherwise visiting either early in the morning, or later in the evening also tends to avoid the cruising throng.

Medieval Walls

A morning walk on the medieval city walls was the first truly immersive travel experience for me in Dubrovnik. Under perfect weather, with blue Adriatic skies, and the kind of sunshine that requires good polarized sunglasses, we slowly meandered the wall circuit. It was a beautifully memorable experience.

 

Game of Thrones Tour

My wife and I are big fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones, and we knew that Dubrovnik was a filming site for the series. Dubrovnik is King’s Landing in the series. Some of the most interesting scenes filmed in Dubrovnik include the “Walk of Shame” at the Jesuit Staircase, St. Dominic Street was where many market scenes were filmed, The Museum Rupe as the exterior of Little Finger’s brothel, The Plo?e Gate was used as the entrance to the Red Keep, and The Rector’s Palace used in a Qarth episode. So with all of that personal interest, we took a multi-hour Game of Thrones tour with a local guide. I both enjoyed and would highly recommend such a tour for any fan of the series.

 

Lokrum Island

This island was visible from the balcony on at our apartment. It was an easy day trip from Dubrovnik with ferries departing frequently. It was difficult to resist an afternoon island excursion with the wonderful weather we were enjoying during the trip.

 

Mostar Side Trip

I had a rental car, actually a well appointed Audi A3, and wanted to add Bosnia Herzegovina to my countries visited list. I had read some good reviews in a travel guide I had previously used about Mostar, and decided to visit. It was a 2.5 hour drive each way, most of it through hilly, stark, scrub country with hardly any civilization between the Bosnian border and Mostar. Mostar itself was very compact, with a little shopping district surrounding its “old bridge.” The rest of the town was unremarkable and hardly worth the 5 hours round trip from Dubrovnik.

 

Kotor Side Trip

Further whittling away at countries not visited, we took a day trip to Kotor, Montenegro. This was big contrast to the relatively disappointing side trip to Mostar, as both the drive to get there was scenic along the Adriatic and Kotor Bay, and Kotor itself was a stunning location with great views over the water, and a wonderful little town to explore.

 

Island Hopping

Because of the enjoyable short ferry ride to, and explorations of Lokrum Island earlier in the week, I decided I needed to get more water and island time. There are thousands of islands dotting the Adriatic coast, and there were plenty within an easy day cruise from Dubrovnik. So naturally we indulged, with the weather as cooperative as can be. We hit three islands, Kolocep, Sipan, and Lopud, spending a wonderful day on the water with lunch on board.

 

 

Food Scene

Above 5

This appropriately named restaurant is atop a five story building in the center of Dubrovnik. We had a drink at a local cafe where our waitress highly recommended this restaurant for dinner. The views were grand, the menu upscale, and on the pricey side for Dubrovnik. The food was very good. We had the seabass carpaccio, and octopus confit for appetizers, pan seared mackerel and braised beef cheeks for our main course, followed by mango and raspberry coulis shared for dessert. It was an excellent dining experience and a perfect entree to the old city of Dubrovnik.

 

Kopun

This restaurant is in the center of old Dubrovnik, inside the city walls, on a lovely square at the top of the Jesuit Steps, overlooked by a grand church. We stopped here after a long day of exploration with hearty appetites. I started with a dozen of the local oysters, then we followed with grilled squid over Swiss chard and potatoes, pan fried fillet of seabass with crispy veggies, and we shared a green salad. Good seafood, very nice atmosphere overlooking the square. The service was good as well.

 

Panorama Cafe

This appropriately named cafe is what we found at the top of the Dubrovnik cablecar, which whisked us up to beautiful views of the Adriatic and the surrounding islands. We both had grilled squid with fresh veggies, and shared a green salad and grilled potatoes. The views were lovely, and the food was good. Service was a bit slow because of the volume of customers around sunset.

 

Restoran Teatar – Mostar

This was our meal in the center of Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, overlooking its famous old bridge. We had a large lunch of grilled trout with potatoes and Swiss Chard, a hearty, fit for a lumberjack mixed grill with french fries, mustard on the side, and shared an interesting local mixed salad. This was nice stop after a long drive. The food was basic, but good.

 

Dubravka Cafe

This restaurant is not inside the walls of old Dubrovnik, rather it overlooks the Adriatic where the Game of Thrones Blackwater Bay episode was filmed. It was a like having a meal inside a picture postcard. We shared Dalmatian style mussels in tomato sauce, followed by grilled squid with veggies, and a mixed grilled seafood plate with veggies. The food was good, but we really paid for the views with dinner.

 

Konoba Roma – Kotor

This was our lunch stop in the beautiful city of Kotor, Montenegro during our daytrip visit. We started with a charcuterie and cheese plate, and grilled octopus with french fries and grilled veggies, and grilled squid with french fries and grilled veggies. And just to be sure we had our daily allotment of veggies, we had grilled plate of veggies to share. This was our fortification stop before climbing to the top of the walls of the ancient city fort, some 1360 steps above the city.

 

Konoba Jezuite

This restaurant was inside the walls of the old city of Dubrovnik, at the base of Saint Ignatius Church. This was our dinner stop after the long day on the road visiting Kotor, and climbing 1360 steps to its old fort walls. We split an order of mussels in red/white wine sauce, shared a cucumber, tomato, feta, and olive salad, then grilled trout with Swiss chard and potatoes, and grilled chicken breast a la Dubrovnik with potato croquettes. I never got tired of the local seafood. Basic, and very tasty.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Dubrovnik. What an epic, memorable destination. The weather was perfect, the crowds on the thin side with cruise ship throng avoidance planning, the side trip to Kotor was spectacular, island hopping was enjoyable, the food was very good, and the people were friendly and spoke English well. I would go back to Dubrovnik to visit again, but would not recommend this destination as a cruise ship port of call – as you’re only way to visit. It would simply not have the same impact as spending several days taking in all of the sights.

 

Related Topics

 

Croatia Travel Planning

Croatia Travel Planning

Motivation – Croatia Travel Planning

The Balkans are a part of the continent that must be explored by anyone wanting to see a good representation of European history, geography, and culture. There is so much more to Europe than France and Italy, with all due respect to the charm and allure of this magical duo. Let’s face it, we won’t see the rest of Europe, not to mention the world, if we don’t stop visiting these two wonderful countries. It took me years to move on from the France/Italy habit, and I still go back occasionally – just not exclusively.

Croatia has so many wonderful things going for it, starting with its mild, sunny Adriatic climate. The Croatians are a friendly, even-keeled lot – easy going, English speaking, and customer focused since so much of their GDP comes from tourism.

Modern day Croatia has a history going back to Roman times, then through periods of Hungarian, Venetian, Ottoman, Napoleonic, and Austrian rule – all before World War II. It is steeped in history. Croatian food has a focus on the bounty of the sea, the Adriatic to be specific. Lovers of seafood will have a heyday, and others will enjoy the great variety of meats, sausages, and cheeses that have made Croatia famous. They have traditional restaurants called Konobas that specialize in a variety of meat dishes. Vegetarians be warned.

Croatia has thousands of islands comprising its sunny Dalmatian coast. The geography is perfect for lovers of the beach, sunshine, and island hopping. And the very best part – it is amazingly affordable. Compared to the dynamic duo of France and Italy, it is even dirt cheap.

Plan a trip, and pack your bags.

 

Itinerary – Croatia Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 12 nights on this trip, starting at the beginning of June 2016. I wanted to establish reasonable lengths of stay at each destination to explore them at my leisure, and to have the best chance for an immersive travel experience. Three nights in Zagreb is necessary, not only to get over the jet lag, but explore the city thoroughly, and to do a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. I apportioned  five nights for Dubrovnik because I wanted to do day trips to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Kotor, Montenegro, and do some island hopping in the area. And lastly, I set aside four nights for Split because I expected to do at least one day trip there as well to Hvar and Zadar.

Zagreb – 3 Nights

 

Dubrovnik – 5 nights

 

Split – 4 nights

 

Logistics – Croatia Travel Planning

There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to Croatia from the US at the time of this writing. So the best we can plan for is a one-stop of reasonable duration in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich airports. Other airports – most notably Istanbul, take us out of our way with lengthier flight times. From my Atlanta home base, I can book flights on Delta and their SkyTeam partners conveniently to Amsterdam and Paris using frequent flyer miles. This greatly reduces transportation costs for the longest and most expensive leg of the flight. I selected Paris Charles DeGaul as the layover because it had the most convenient connecting flights to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. The Air France connecting flight to Zagreb was very reasonably priced due to the intense competition in Europe from all of its startup carriers, like EasyJet and RyanAir. So my airfare requirements to get to Zagreb were complete –  frequent flier miles sponsored round-trip to Paris, and round-trip Paris to Zagreb on Air France – a major carrier without the silly bag restrictions that some of the smaller carriers impose.

There were other destinations in Croatia to be visited beyond Zagreb. I briefly considered driving to them, but such an itinerary would have only made sense with more days than I had because the driving times were so long.  Flying was more pragmatic, convenient, and relatively cheap as well.

I planned to fly to Dubrovnik, the Southernmost point in Croatia for this trip. Dubrovnik would be a perfect hub to use for exploration by car. The car would be used to work my way North on the Dalmatian coast to Split, our last destination on this trip. And finally, Split had many scheduled flights to Zagreb to conveniently connect back to Paris.  Air Croatia had a near monopoly on these flights, but didn’t gouge its customers because of it.  I found the service to be very good, and the prices competitive, much to my surprise. I think the Croatians understand the gold mine that tourism is to their economy, contributing nearly 20% to GDP.  I think Air Croatia is a key factor to that gold mine.

Take a look at Croatia on Google Maps. It begs to have some exploration by car. Driving on this trip is a must – definitely for aesthetic reasons, aside the pragmatic need to get between points A and B. I booked a car for a day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park – a single day booking, which I had not done previously. I also booked a car for a week, to be picked up in Dubrovnik and dropped off in Split. This would provide ample opportunity to day trip from both locations, as well as the basic transportation to get between them. Sixt is my go-to car rental company in Europe, having booked many times previously with them, and always having had a good experience – even the one time I damaged the car during the rental.  The customer service is very good, and the execution is German-efficient.

I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive travel experience for me.

I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the three destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Airbnb.com.

 

Resources – Croatia Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Zagreb.  Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  On this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Zagreb as they had some good apartment selections, and I was  able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity (mostly) before booking it.  The other two apartments were booked through HomeAway, as they had quality listings in both Dubrovnik, and Split. Ironically, I booked nothing through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purposes.  On this trip, it served as my GPS while navigating through Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It’s also very useful for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on a discovery trek.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot.  When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”.  Then I sort by distance – not highest rated.  When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best.  To be fair, Google maps is also good for this purpose, although the restaurant ratings are less sophisticated.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. But every place I went to in Croatia was English friendly, and I only had some minor issues with language in Mostar, Bosnia.

 

Epilogue – Croatia Travel Planning

Reflections on Croatia. The trip was a wonderful extended vacation, with immersive travel experiences in Zagreb, and Split. Dubrovnik was very touristy, and as a cruise ship port of call, it received tourists in great volumes on certain days. Still, it was an exceptional travel experience, which I would both recommend, and personally return to in the future. The trip was relatively inexpensive – I rarely comment on this because my focus is on immersion, but it is noteworthy. The people were lovely, accommodating to travelers, and were sharply focused on providing a good experience for visitors. English was spoken well everywhere I visited in Croatia. The food was excellent, and a great value – although vegans might have a tough time finding accommodating fare. I find myself at a loss in recalling any negative reflections on this trip.

 

 

Related Destinations – Croatia Travel Planning