Dalmation dreams come true

 

A trip to Dubrovnik in Croatia is an elegant feast for the senses in a stunning coastline setting, writes Gary Quinn

I'VE HAD A lot of firsts in Dubrovnik: my first lobster, my first outdoor cinema and my first visit to a nudist beach, all but one of which I've returned to ever since. I first arrived in this former Venetian stronghold almost 10 years ago on a former Irish Ferries ship that had found itself swapping the Dublin-Holyhead route for the long and lazy journey through the hundreds of islands that dot the Croatian coastline. Since then, many thousands of Irish have done likewise and Dubrovnik is firmly established on the Irish travel map.

It's not hard to understand why. To my mind, Dubrovnik is possibly the most elegant tourist destination in Europe. Small and perfectly formed, it sells its nightlife and youthful image well but ultimately this is a city that does well-heeled, cultured and confident better than anywhere else. While the polished streets of the old town might be thronged with people from all over the world, Croatians, male and female alike, hold court along Dubrovnik's winding alleyways in a way that we northern Europeans just can't match.

A city break here is about taking your leisure time seriously. You have to plan for swimming, diving and sailing, quiet conversations in cafes and bars, strolls in abbeys and churches, music recitals and theatre while constantly surrounded by incredible ocean views. But, most important of all, you must plan to eat.

Croatia, and Dalmatia in particular, has built a great reputation on its local cuisine. Taking as it does the best of Balkan, Italian and central European flavours, it's a terrific melting pot. But expect fish and lots of it.

Dubrovnik isn't a huge city and the old town where you are going to spend most of your time is quite compact, framed within its huge city walls. But it is unique. Those same walls that were built to keep invaders at bay do an equally popular job now by ensuring the old town remains pedestrianised, which in a world of cars is no mean feat. It's a pleasure to walk through the main gate and let the world fall away behind you. Laid out among its warren of alleyways and avenues are churches and nunneries, palaces and private homes. The walk around the city walls will be a highlight of any trip, offering some of the most breathtaking views you can imagine, and a visit to any of its architectural treasures is impossible to resist in a city whose very fabric is priceless.

Beyond the city walls is the Adriatic, its islands and all the water sports and sunbathing you could want. Take the ferry from the harbour out to Lokrum island, stroll its pathways or spend the day on its rocky beaches. Sun traps don't come much more accessible than this, so it's a big favourite with locals and tourists alike.

It's not a particularly cheap destination. The Dalmatians have taken to tourism like, well, the Irish, and their prices reflect that. But you get value for money. From five-star restaurants and hotels to its summer-long Dubrovnik cultural festival and outstanding coastal lifestyle, Dubrovnik offers more than most.

Go there

Aer Lingus ( www.aerlingus.com) flies direct to Dubrovnik four days a week from Dublin.

Where to stay, where to eat andwhere to go if you're in the Croatian city for a weekend

5 places to stay

Hotel Stari Grad. Od Sigurate 4, Old town,  www.hotelstarigrad.com. Most of the hotels are outside the city walls but if you can get a room at Hotel Stari Grad (which means old town) then do. It has only eight rooms so you have to book early but it is perfectly located in the centre of the old town.

Hotel Palace. Masarykov Put 20,  www.dubrovnikpalace.hr. On the other end of the scale is the five-star Hotel Palace. Located about 4.5km from the old town, it has 308 rooms, swimming pools, a spa, scuba- diving centre and direct access to the beach. It's very popular with honeymooners and all rooms are said to have a sea view.

Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik. Marijana Blazica 2,  www.hilton.co.uk/dubrovnik. If you want a name you can recognise, the Hilton Imperial is located just outside the city gates, making it one of the few hotels that really are a stroll from the old town. You'll pay well for staying here, but you get all the polished service and amenities you can expect from a Hilton.

Hotel Bellevue. Pera Cingrije 7,  www.hotel-bellevue.hr. Hotel Bellevue is a hip hotel overlooking the old town. It went through a major revamp recently and is considered one of the top-rated hotels in the city. With "designer everything" being its main selling point, this isn't really one for the kids.

Youth hostel Dubrovnik, Vinka Sagrestana 3,  www.hfhs.hr. For the tourist on a budget, or those in search of a more authentic experience, there is plenty of private accommodation to choose from. This is a YHA-affiliated youth hostel 20 minutes walk from the old town. Among others, the state-run tourist offices manage private accommodation bookings. As always, a room in the old town is usually your best and most convenient bet. Check out the Dubrovnik Tourist Board website at  www.tzdubrovnik.hrfor further details.

5 places to eat

Nautika. Brsalje 3, 00-385-20-442526,  www.esculap-teo.hr. The Nautika restaurant is something really special. Quite apart from its great food, it has a terrace with stunning ocean and coastal views. Located just outside the old city walls, it overlooks the sea and offers a fantastic view of the Bokar and Lovrijenac fortresses.

Sapur. Gunduliceva poljana 2, 00-385-20-324572. This much-lauded restaurant is located in a former Ragusan aristocrat's home. It's said that the proprietor came across an ancient recipe book that now forms the basis of the restaurant's menu. The selection is a welcome alternative to the standard fish and meat fare offered in many of the city's establishments.

Sesame Tavern. Dante Alighieria. 00-385-20-412910,  www.sesame.hr. Sesame is a terrific mid-range restaurant situated just 150 metres from the Pile gate. Follow the main road out of the old town on the western side until you reach a 200-year-old house. Ask for a table on its large terrace where you'll be surrounded by mature plants and orange trees.

Hotel Excelsior. Frana Supila 12, 00-385-20-353353,  www.hotel-excelsior.hr. For what many consider to be the best views of the old city, book a table for dinner on the terrace of Hotel Excelsior. Also known as Taverna Rustica (although that name seems to have been changed recently), this is a hotel restaurant that you can depend on. Its views of the city walls are best enjoyed when they are lit up at night.

Bakeries and markets. Croatia enjoys bakeries with almost as much passion as the French. Always fresh, make sure and try Orahnjaca, a pastry filled with sweet walnuts. Opposite the Rector's Palace and along a narrow street is a square called Gunduliceva Poljana. Here you will find a great outdoor market where you can stock up on fresh provisions for the day.

5 places to go

City walls and Stradun. The city walls are a given in Dubrovnik. Completed in the 13th century, they appear as perfect today as the day they were finished. The main gate into the city is the Pile gate, which leads directly onto the Stradun, which is the main promenade through the town. This is a great place for people watching at night. During the day, the walls take about two hours to walk, so remember to wear plenty of sunblock.

The islands. Apart from Lokrum (the closest island to Dubrovnik and the most visited), there are a number of others that are close enough for a day trip. Daily ferries leave Dubrovnik for Mljet, an island which is a national park and is densely forested. It's around 35km from the city. It's also possible to visit the larger island of Korcula on a day trip, but make sure to get an early start.

Open-air cinema. Anyone who loves cinema will enjoy one of the two open-air cinemas in Dubrovnik. There really is nothing to beat the enjoyment of watching a film under the stars. There is one in the old town and another on the Lapad peninsula nearby.

Franciscan monastery and museum. At the end of the Stradun, you'll find the Franciscan monastery, which has a museum, garden and the oldest functioning pharmacy in the world. Cool and shaded, it's a great place to escape the afternoon sun.

The Aquarium. First floor of St Ivan's Fortress, D Jude 2, 00-385-20-427937. Being this close to the sea you (and the children) will want to get up close and personal with some of the Adriatic's sea life. Don't expect acrobatic dolphins, juggling sea lions or US-style razzmatazz - it's small, with only 27 tanks - but you will see eel, red snapper, sea bass, octopus and all manner of sea weeds, sponges and starfish.

Shopping

While Dubrovnik isn't a big retail shopping destination, you can get some really good local products. The Stradun is the main shopping street but don't forget to visit the alleyways and smaller streets too. They often hide great galleries, small local shops and small boutiques.

Hot spot

St Stjepan door and Buza bar. When walking the walls, most people spot a small bar set precariously on the rocks on the eastern side of the old town but most can't find how to get to it. This is the Buza bar and is a great spot to watch the sun set, have a swim or sunbathe without having to leave the town, and so it is very popular with the locals.

At the eastern end of the town, walk along the base of the wall on the inside of the city walls. You will eventually come to a small doorway set into and leading through the walls themselves. This is the St Stjepan door. Go through it and and you will emerge out the other side of the wall onto a terrace with more great views and the Buza bar. It's simple really, but finding the doorway in the first place is the hard part.