101 reasons to visit Dalmatia

 

It’s hard to believe that the medieval port of Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian Riviera, was under siege 20 years ago, writes MICHAEL PARSONS

‘IF YOU WANT to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” gushed George Bernard Shaw in 1929. Never mind the exaggeration, the tourism industry in Croatia is eternally grateful to the old gruffalo.

But Dubrovnik – known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” – is indisputably lovely and still drawing Irish visitors. It’s hard to believe now that less than 20 years ago this medieval walled port city, on the island-strewn Dalmatian Riviera, was under siege and bombardment. Happily, the bitter war which resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia is a fading memory and Dubrovnik has been meticulously restored. The city centre is completely car-free and subject to controls on planning, advertising and even shop signage strict enough to tickle even the pinko tummies of the An Taisce brigade.

Pedestrianised streets and squares are paved with stones polished to a shining marble by the feet of a million tourists. The crowds are swollen by hordes of day-trippers disgorged from vast cruise-ships, so the best time to see the sights is early morning or late evening. There’s very little normal commercial life: pretty much every shop, cafe and restaurant is devoted to serving tourists’ needs.

Many restaurants specialise in fish or pastas and pizzas. But do try Dalmatian “Pršut”, the double-smoked ham which is similar to prosciutto di Parma. Croatia is an important wine-producer and restaurants will normally offer local reds or whites. Imported beers are widely available but the most popular local brew is Karlovacko.

Nightlife is low-key and there’s a welcome absence of the blaring music and drunken revelry associated with many Mediterranean resorts. If you experience a “Sally O’Brien moment” – or just absolutely have to see that big GAA fixture – then fret not. There are some “Irish pubs” discreetly tucked away in the alleys off Stradun – the city’s principal street.

For more high-brow leisure, Dubrovnik’s lovely churches (increasingly popular venues for Irish weddings) offer free or reasonably-priced classical music concerts and recitals.

The patron saint of the city is Sveti Vlaho (St Blaise) who is the chap to pray to if you suffer from an illness of the throat. Seafood is very popular and in case you happen to swallow a fishbone it might be wise to remember this little prayer before you tackle dinner: “Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii liberet te Deus a malo gutteris et a quovis alio malo.” (May God at the intercession of St Blaise preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil).

While Dubrovnik’s architectural appeal is a major attraction, most people visit Croatia for a sun holiday and the state’s tourism authority promotes the country with the slogan: “The Mediterranean like it used to be”. Despite an extensive coastline, sandy stretches are few and far between but most hotels offer access to pebble beaches and crystal-clear sea.

Dubrovnik is perfectly accessible for, say, a three-day, “city-break” but most Irish tourists tend to stay for a week. Popular excursions include mini-cruises to the islands; a day-trip to the Republic of Montenegro; and outings to the neighbouring state of Bosnia-Herzegovina where attractions include the Marian Shrine at Medjugorje and the city of Mostar where the famous Stari Most (old bridge), destroyed during the 1990s war, has been restored.

Croatia has been an independent republic since 1991 (having previously been part of federal Yugoslavia) and is believed to be next-in-line among applicant countries for EU membership. Croats have taken to capitalism and tourism with a vengeance and the country is no longer a “cheap” destination. Its currency is the kuna but the euro is accepted in some establishments.

Direct flights, of about three hours’ duration, (scheduled and chartered) operate throughout the summer from Dublin and Cork to Dubrovnik’s small, efficient airport and transfers to hotels take less than 30 minutes.

It is possible to find accommodation inside Dubrovnik’s old walled city but this can prove rather claustrophobic for more than a couple of nights. Many of the finest hotels are situated on the pine-clad peninsulas surrounding the city and are accessible using the reliable and easy-to-negotiate local bus company, Libertas. Some provide private shuttle-bus services to the Pile Gate – the main entry point to the old city – which is accessed via drawbridge. Visitors staying in the former fishing village of Cavtat can visit Dubrovnik by boat – the journey takes about 30 minutes each way.

Over the past decade, new hotels have been built and Communist-era survivors refurbished. Popular traditional hotels include the Argentina and Palace in Dubrovnik and, in Cavtat, the Albatross and Croatia.

The luxurious five-star Radisson Blu resort (see panel), 10km from Dubrovnik, opened last year. Built on a private 46-acre site overlooking the sea, with marvellous views to the Elaphite Islands, the resort offers both hotel and self-catering accommodation. It has oodles of space, feels peaceful even when operating to near-capacity and has great facilities – including multiple pools, restaurants and leisure activities.

The resort

WHERERadisson Blu Resort and Spa, Dubrovnik Sun Gardens is 17km from the airport.

WHAT201 five-star hotel rooms; 207 self-catering one-, two- and three-bedroom residences, most with sea views. Luxurious 3,500sq m spa, free to guests. Sports centre. Three landscaped pool areas and a pebble beach. Kids’ club and creche; 13 bars, restaurants and cafes; a supermarket, fashion and jewellery shops; a hairdresser. July/August rates start at €180 per room (including breakfast and taxes). Two-bed “residence” (no breakfast) is €300 per night, minimum seven-night stay. Toll-free booking on 1 800 55 7474 or see radissonblu.com.

GET THEREAer Lingus serves Dubrovnik four days a week (Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday), with convenient afternoon departures and evening returns. See aerlingus.com.

  • Michael Parsons was a guest of the Rezidor Hotel Group which operates the Radisson Blu Resort and Spa, Dubrovnik Sun Gardens