A walled, sea-battered city lying at the foot of a grizzled mountain, Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination, and it’s not difficult to see why. An essentially medieval town reshaped by Baroque planners after the earthquake of 1667, Dubrovnik’s historic core seems to have been suspended in time ever since. Set-piece churches and public buildings blend seamlessly with the green-shuttered stone houses, forming a perfect ensemble relatively untouched by the twenty-first century. Outside the city walls, suburban Dubrovnik exudes Mediterranean elegance: gardens are an explosion of colourful bougainvillea and oleanders; trees are weighted down with figs, lemons, oranges and peaches.
The main tourist resorts south of Dubrovnik, Župa Dubrovačka and Cavtat, are within easy reach of the city by public transport. In addition, Dubrovnik’s port is the natural gateway to the southernmost islands of the Croatian Adriatic, with the sparsely populated, semi-wild islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan providing beach-hoppers with a wealth of out-of-town bathing opportunities. Slightly farther out to sea, the green island of Mljet is one of the most beautiful on the entire coast – you’ll need a day or two to do it justice.
One of the most perfectly preserved walled towns in Europe, Dubrovnik has always exerted a firm hold over the popular imagination. Its use from 2011 to 2016 as a location for HBO series Game of Thrones bestowed the city with a new and unexpected aura of otherworldly glamour – and increased visitor numbers to boot. Such layers of televisual fantasy should in no way overshadow the city’s very real place in European history, however. For the Croats themselves Dubrovnik has always served as a powerful metaphor for freedom, having spent much of its history as a self-governing city-state independent of foreign powers. The city played a more than symbolic role in the war of 1991–95, when it successfully resisted a nine-month Serbian–Montenegrin siege. Reconstruction was undertaken with astonishing speed, and the fact that conflict took place here at all only reveals itself through subtle details: the vivid orange-red hues of brand-new roof tiles, or the contrasting shades of grey where damaged facades have been patched up with freshly quarried stone.
The success of Dubrovnik’s tourist industry has brought a certain degree of complacency and self-satisfaction. The city’s museums are the most disappointing of any major Croatian city, and many local restaurateurs are focused on raising prices rather than culinary horizons. Certain aspects of the city’s appeal remain immune to tourist numbers, however, most notably the uniquely beautiful setting and the unjaded straightforwardness of the Dubrovčani themselves.
Dubrovnik is worth a visit at any time of year, although spring and summer – when life spills out onto the streets and café tables remain packed well into the night – bring out the best in the city. Croatia’s cultural luminaries visit the town during the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in July and August, bringing an added dash of glamour to the streets, while the main event in winter is the Feast of St Blaise on February 3, when the patron saint of the city is honoured by a parade and special Mass, followed by much drinking and eating. Be warned though: Dubrovnik’s popularity with cruise liners can lead to big crowds during the day, when the Old Town can resemble a vast theme park-cum-souvenir shop for shipborne day-trippers. And though Dubrovnik is increasingly an all-year-round destination, a good half of the city’s hotels are closed from November through to March, and a lot of restaurants take the whole month of January off.
With a population of a little under 45,000, Dubrovnik isn’t as large as you might think, and although it sprawls along the coast for several kilometres, its real heart is the compact Old Town. Doing the circuit of the city walls is the one Dubrovnik attraction you really can’t miss, and it’s worth doing this early on in order to get the feel of the place. The rest of the Old Town can easily be covered in a day and a half – although once you begin to soak up the atmosphere you’ll find it difficult to pull yourself away. Running above the town to the east is the bare ridge of Mount Srđ, the summit of which provides expansive views of the town and the coast. The best place for swimming and sunbathing is the islet of Lokrum, a short taxi-boat ride from the Old Town.
Dubrovnik was first settled in the early seventh century by Greco-Roman refugees from the nearby city of Epidauros (now Cavtat), which was sacked by the Slavs. The refugees took up residence in what is now the Old Town, then an island known as Laus – a name that later metamorphosed into Ragusa. The Slavs, meanwhile, settled on the mainland opposite, from which the name Dubrovnik (from dubrava, meaning “glade”) comes. Before long the slim channel between the two was filled in and the two sides merged, producing a symbiosis of Latin and Slav cultures unique in the Mediterranean. Ethnically, the city was almost wholly Slav by the fifteenth century, although the nobility preserved the use of both Latin and Italian in official circles, if not always in everyday speech.
Initially subject to Byzantium, the city came under Venetian control in 1204. The Venetians stayed until 1358, when they were squeezed out of the southern Adriatic by Louis of Hungary. Officially, Dubrovnik became a vassal of the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom, although it effectively became an independent city-state.
The emergent Ragusan Republic was run by an elected senate – fear of dictatorship meant that the nominal head of state, the Rector (knez), was virtually a figurehead. However, the republic was by no means a democracy: the nobility was the only section of society allowed to vote. Civic peace was ensured by allowing the rest of the citizenry full economic freedom and the chance to grow rich through commerce. Dubrovnik’s maritime contacts made it one of the major players in Mediterranean trade, but the key to the city’s wealth was its unrivalled access to the markets of the Balkan hinterland. The Ottoman Empire, having absorbed the kingdoms of both Serbia and Bosnia, granted Dubrovnik this privileged trading position in return for an annual payment. Dubrovnik established trading colonies stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, from where wheat, wool, animal hides – and, for a time, slaves – could be shipped back to the mother republic before being re-exported to the West at a fat profit. As commerce grew, so did the need to protect it, and the republic extended its borders to include the whole of the coast from Konavle in the south to Pelješac in the north, as well as the islands of Mljet and Lastovo.
Mercantile wealth underpinned an upsurge in culture, producing a fifteenth- and sixteenth-century golden age when the best artists and architects in the Adriatic were drawn to the city. It was during this period that many of the urban landmarks of present-day Dubrovnik were completed: Juraj Dalmatinac and Michelozzo Michelozzi worked on the town walls, and Onofrio della Cava designed the Rector’s Palace, as well as the two fountains that still bear his name.
Suzerainty over Dubrovnik had passed from the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom to the Ottoman Empire by the early sixteenth century, but shrewd diplomacy and the regular payment of tributes ensured that the city-state retained its independence. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Dubrovnik enjoyed the protection of both Spain and the papacy, but usually avoided being dragged into explicitly anti-Turkish alliances. In fact, wars between the Ottomans and the West usually led to increased revenues for Dubrovnik, which exploited its position as the only neutral port in the Adriatic.
Decline set in with the earthquake of 1667, which killed around five thousand people and destroyed many of the city’s buildings. Bandits from the interior looted the ruins, and Kara Mustafa, Pasha of Bosnia, demanded huge tributes in return for keeping the robber bands under control. Kara Mustafa’s death during the Siege of Vienna in 1683 allowed the city the chance to rebuild, producing the elegantly planned rows of Baroque townhouses that characterize the centre of the city to this day. However, the Austro-Turkish conflict of 1683–1718 seriously affected Dubrovnik’s inland trade, a blow from which it never really recovered. By the eighteenth century Dubrovnik’s nobility was dying out, and commoners were increasingly elevated to noble rank to make up the numbers; anachronistic feuds between the Sorbonnesi (old patricians) and Salamanchesi (newly elevated patricians, named after the universities of Sorbonne and Salamanca, where many young Ragusans studied) weakened the traditional social fabric still further.
The city-state was formally dissolved by Napoleon in 1808. The French occupation of the city provoked a British naval bombardment, while Russian and Montenegrin forces laid waste to surrounding territories, destroying much of suburban Dubrovnik in the process. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna awarded Dubrovnik to the Austrians, who incorporated the city into their province of Dalmatia. Political and economic activity shifted to Zadar and Split, leaving Dubrovnik on the fringes of Adriatic society.
Few thought that Dubrovnik would be directly affected by the break-up of Yugoslavia: no significant Serbian minority lived in the city, and its strategic importance was questionable. However, in October 1991 units of the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), supported by volunteers from Montenegro and Serb-dominated eastern Hercegovina, quickly overran the tourist resorts south of Dubrovnik and occupied the high ground commanding approaches to the city. The bombardment of Dubrovnik began in early November and lasted until May 1992. Despite considerable damage to the town’s historic core, Dubrovnik’s medieval fortifications proved remarkably sturdy, with the fortresses of Revelin and St John (the latter more familiar to tourists as the site of the aquarium) pressed into service as shelters for the civilian population.
The logic behind the attack on Dubrovnik was confused. Belgrade strategists unwisely considered it an easy conquest, the fall of which would damage Croatian morale and break the back of Croatian resistance elsewhere on the Adriatic. The attack on Dubrovnik also presented an effective way of dragging both the Montenegrins and the Serbs of eastern Hercegovina into the conflict, not least because it seemed to promise them ample opportunities for pillage. Attacking forces employed a mixture of bad history and dubious folklore to justify their actions. Dubrovnik’s links with medieval Serbia, and the fact that so many leading Ragusan families had originally come from the Balkan interior, were unconvincingly offered up as evidence that the early republic had been part of the Serbian cultural orbit. In a particularly twisted piece of cultural logic, opportunist Serbian intellectuals painted modern-day Dubrovnik as a cesspit of Western corruption that could only be purified by the macho values of the Balkan hinterland. A special edition of the Montenegrin magazine Pobjeda published in November 1991 and entitled The War for Peace argued, with startling mendacity, that Dubrovnik was under the control of World War II fascists and therefore deserved to be conquered.
Contrary to Serbian–Montenegrin expectations, Dubrovnik’s hastily arranged defences held out, and in the end the siege was broken in July 1992 by a Croatian offensive from the north. Once Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia had been re-established, Croatian forces continued their push southwards, liberating Cavtat and Čilipi.
The symbolic importance of Dubrovnik long outlived the republic itself. For nineteenth-century Croats the city was a Croatian Athens, a shining example of what could be achieved – politically and culturally – by the Slav peoples. It was also increasingly a magnet for foreign travellers, who wrote about the city in glowing terms, save for Rebecca West, for whom it was too perfect and self-satisfied: “I do not like it,” she famously wrote. “It reminds me of the worst of England.”
Already a society resort in West’s time, Dubrovnik enhanced its reputation for cultural chic with the inception in 1949 of the Dubrovnik Festival, once one of Europe’s most prestigious, while the construction of big hotel complexes in Lapad and Babin kuk helped make Dubrovnik one of the most popular tourist draws in Yugoslavia. After repairing the damage done during the 1991–92 siege with remarkable speed, Dubrovnik quickly recovered its position as Croatia’s premier vacation spot.
The choice of fish and seafood in Dubrovnik is as fine as anywhere in the Adriatic, with the waters around Mljet and the Elaphite Islands particularly rich in squid, lobster and shells. Oysters from nearby Ston also feature heavily on local restaurant menus. Among the dishes associated with Dubrovnik in particular are Šporki makaruli (“dirty macaroni”), tubular pasta served with a goulash sauce; and rozata, a vanilla-flavoured custard dessert similar to crème caramel.
The vineyards of the Konavle produce respectable red wines of the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Plavac varieties, as well as Kadarun, an autochthonous light and fruity rosé.
Sea kayaking is a popular pastime in Dubrovnik and shoals of orange-bibbed paddlers pulling into Banje beach has become one of the city’s most characteristic sights. A trip usually involves a group excursion in one-person kayaks, led by an instructor, and is an exhilarating way of seeing the walled city and its surrounding islands from a maritime perspective. Previous experience is not necessary, and the pace is gentle enough to suit most people of average health.
The most common excursions are a half-day trip round Dubrovnik’s walls and the nearby island of Lokrum, or full-day tours to the slightly more distant islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan.
The daily trip to the beach is a way of life for Dubrovnik folk, and locals discuss their favourite bathing spots in the same way that British people talk about the weather. What follows is a list of the best Dubrovnik beaches that offer something special in terms of atmosphere or fine views.
Busiest of the town’s beaches, a mixture of fine shingle and sand just east of the Old Town, backed by trendy cafés, and with good views of the island of Lokrum. It holds a special place in the heart of Dubrovnik folk, as almost all of them spent at least part of their childhoods here. With much of the beach now covered in sun loungers for hire, Banje has lost a great deal of its egalitarian bucket-and-spade charm and has become more of a tourist hotspot. The beach is great for children, with safe waters and inflatables readily available for hire.
Unlike its Brazilian namesake, this is a small crescent comprising pebbles and imported sand on the northwest side of Babin Kuk (bus number 6 from the Old Town). Owing to its proximity to Gruž’s port facilities the water here is not the cleanest, but the combination of enjoyable cafés and good views of coastal mountains make it a good place to hang out if you’re in the area. If you are looking for fun, there are many action-packed activities on Copacabana. Parachute boat rides, water chutes, canoes, jet skis, pedalos and more can be found here. Unlike other care-free beaches in Europe, Dubrovnik beaches have designated nudist beach areas. There is one close to Copacabana, just follow the signposted path.
Dance, the oldest of one of Dubrovnik beaches, is popular with the locals. The south-facing boulder-strewn stretch of coast receives sunshine from midday to evening making it ideal for sunbathing. The waters are deep enough to dive and jump, and there are ladders on some of the rocks to allow you to get in and out easily. Dance is just a few minutes' walk southwest of the Lovrijenac fortress, about five minutes west of the Old Town.
A lovely crescent of mixed shingle and sand immediately below the hotel, with good views of rocky Boninovo bay. As an east-facing beach, it loses the sun by late afternoon/early evening. Free to residents of the hotel, a small charge for everyone else.
Lapad is considered the most childly-friendly beach out of all Dubrovnik beaches, with shallow waters and lifeguards, children can play safely. Behind the beach is Setalist Krlja Tomislava that includes a bouncy play area and tennis court. The bay itself is on the southwest side of Lapad peninsula, with a shingle beach. Due to the proximity of Lapad’s package hotels overcrowding can be quite common in the high season. If you wish to avoid tan lines, there are rocks obstructing view beside the Nik i Meda Pecica promenade that allow for nude sunbathing. To reach the beach, take bus number 6 (destination “Babin Kuk”) to Lapad.
A small stretch of pebble at the bottom of a cliff, reached by steps which descend from the coastal path midway between St James’s Monastery (Samostan svetog Jakova) and the Belvedere hotel. A pleasant and quiet twenty-minute walk from the centre through tree-lined pathways, Sveti Jakov is one of the most peaceful Dubrovnik beaches. Bus numbers 5 and 8 run most of the way from the Old Town if you do not wish to talk very far. Once on the beach, fantastic views can be seen back towards the Old Town. The beach is west-facing, so catches the afternoon and evening sun allowing you to stay and enjoy the seaside for longer.
The Dubrovnik Summer Festival (Dubrovačke ljetne igre; July & Aug) stages classical concerts and theatre performances in the courtyards, squares and bastions of the Old Town. The emphasis is very much on high culture: the festival usually includes plays by Shakespeare and Marin Držić, a major opera, symphonic concerts and a host of smaller chamber-music events. Seats for some of the more prestigious events often sell out well in advance, but it should be possible to pick up tickets for many performances at fairly short notice. The full programme is usually published in April; for details and ticket booking information check the website. Once the festival starts, tickets (30–200Kn) can be bought from the festival information points, usually located on Stradun or outside Pile Gate.
For those with serious intentions to “do” Dubrovnik, the Dubrovnik Card, available from the tourist office, is a sound investment. Costing 200Kn for one day, 250Kn for three days or 350Kn for one week, the card allows free rides on municipal buses, free entrance to the city walls, and free entrance to eight museums and galleries: the Cultural and Historical Museum, the Maritime History Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Archeological Exhibition in Revelin Fortress, the Natural History Museum, the Marin Držić House, the Dubrovnik Art Gallery, the Dulčić-Masle-Pulitika Gallery and the Pulitika Atelier. Otherwise entrance to these eight museums and galleries is by combined museum ticket, which costs 120Kn for adults, 25Kn for students and children, and is purchased from the museums themselves. This ticket is not valid for the city walls or transport. Neither the card nor combined ticket covers the Aquarium, or a number of independent museums and galleries such as War Photo Limited and the historical monastery collections.
The best way to get your bearings in Dubrovnik’s Old Town is by making a tour of the still largely intact city walls (Gradske zidine), 25m high and stretching for some 2km, completely surrounding the city’s historic heart. The full circuit takes about an hour, longer in high summer when crowds may slow down your progress. The path along the walls is narrow in places and you’re not allowed up there if you’re wearing a backpack.
The walls are encrusted with towers and bastions, and it’s impossible not to be struck by their remarkable size and state of preservation. Although some parts date back to the tenth century, most of the original construction was undertaken in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A major campaign of renovation and expansion then took place in the mid-fifteenth century when fear of Ottoman expansion was at its height. Once you’re on top, the views over the town are of a patchwork sea of terracotta tiles, punctuated by sculpted domes and towers and laid out in an almost uniform grid plan – the Ragusan authorities introduced strict planning regulations to take account of the city’s growth as early as the 1270s, and the rebuilding programme which followed the earthquake of 1667 rationalized things still further.
Moving anticlockwise around the walls from the Pile Gate you first pass the Bokar Fortress, a jutting bastion that once guarded sea-borne access to the city’s moat. The southern, sea-facing walls provide fantastic views of Dubrovnik’s tiled roofs and narrow, tunnel-like streets. Marking the southeastern end of the fortifications is St John’s Fortress, a W-shaped curve of thick stone facing out to sea. Together with its northern neighbour St Luke’s bastion (Sveti Luka) it controlled access to the Old Port area, whose bobbing boats can be seen below. The gently ascending northern wall leads to the fat, concentric turrets of the Minčeta Fortress. It was begun in 1455 by the Florentine architect Michelozzo Michelozzi, although it was his successor Juraj Dalmatinac who was responsible for the eye-catching crown of battlements that make Minčeta such a landmark. From here it’s a gentle descent to your starting point.
Begun in 1301, the construction of Dubrovnik’s Dominican monastery (Dominikanski samostan) was very much a communal endeavour: owing to its position hard up against the fortifications, the city authorities provided the Dominicans with extra funds, and ordered the citizenry to contribute labour. The monastery is approached by a grand stairway with a stone balustrade whose columns have been partly mortared in, an ugly modification carried out by the monks themselves in response to the loafers who stood at the bottom of the staircase in order to ogle the bare ankles of women on their way to church. At the top of the steps a doorway leads through to a fifteenth-century Gothic Renaissance cloister, filled with palms and orange trees.
Accessed via the monastery cloister, the Dominican monastery (Muzej dominikanskog samostana) has some outstanding examples of sixteenth-century religious art from Dubrovnik, including three canvases by Nikola Božidarević, the leading figure of the period, who managed to combine Byzantine solemnity with the humanism of the Italian Renaissance. Immediately on the right as you enter, Božidarević’s triptych with its central Madonna and Child is famous for its depiction of Dubrovnik prior to the earthquake of 1667, when both Franciscan and Dominican monasteries sported soaring Gothic spires. The most Italianate of Božidarević’s works is the Virgin and Child altarpiece of 1513, ordered by the Đorđić family (the bearded donor kneels at the feet of St Martin in the lower right-hand corner) – note the concerted attempt at some serious landscape painting in the background.
Much more statically Byzantine in style is Lovro Dobričević Marinov’s 1448 polyptych of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, flanked from left to right by saints Michael, Nicholas, Blaise and Stephen – the last was put to death by stoning, hence the stylized rock shapes which the artist has rather awkwardly placed on his head and shoulders. Cabinets full of precious silver follow, including the cross of the Serbian king, Stefan Uroš II Milutin (1282–1321), inscribed with archaic Cyrillic lettering, and a reliquary which claims to contain the skull of King Stephen I of Hungary (975–1038). The Baroque paintings in the next-door room are all fairly second-rate, save for Titian’s St Blaise and St Mary Magdalene – Blaise holds the inevitable model of Dubrovnik while sinister storm clouds gather in the background.
The Dominican monastery church (Dominikanska crkva) is very much an art gallery in its own right. Among the highlights are a dramatic Veneto-Byzantine crucifix, attributed to the fourteenth-century Paolo Veneziano, which hangs over the main altar, and a fine pastel St Dominic by the nineteenth-century Cavtat artist Vlaho Bukovac.
Facing the suburb of Ploče is the wooded island of Lokrum, 1km to the southeast. Reputedly the island where Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked, it was bought in 1859 by Maximilian von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria (and subsequently ill-fated Emperor of Mexico). He transformed a former Benedictine monastery here into his summer palace, laid out gardens and wrote bad verse about the island’s beauty. Following Maximilian’s execution by Mexican insurgents in 1867, the Habsburgs sold the island to a local businessman eager to turn it into a health resort, only to buy it back on behalf of Emperor Franz Josef’s son Rudolf, who wintered here to soothe his bronchial difficulties.
Maximilian’s largely overgrown and untended gardens stretch to the east. More interesting is the botanical garden of the Dubrovnik Oceanographic Institute immediately north of the monastery, filled with a spectacular array of triffid-like cacti. The best of Lokrum’s rocky beaches are beyond the monastery on the island’s southeast side, where you’ll find a small salt lake named the Dead Sea (Mrtvo more) just inland, and a naturist beach at the island’s southern tip. Shady paths overhung by pines run round the northern part of the island, with tracks leading uphill towards Fort Royal, a gun position left by the Napoleonic French whose grey, menacing ramparts rise rather suddenly from the jungle-like greenery covering the island’s central ridge.
Just up from the island’s jetty, the former monastery complex contains a fascinating but largely barren network of walled gardens, one of which contains a routinely average café-restaurant.
Towering above Dubrovnik to the north, the 412-metre summit of Mount Srđ offers stunning views of the walled town below, with a panorama of the whole coast stretching as far as the Pelješac peninsula to the northwest. Quickest way to get here is by cable car, which was destroyed by attackers in 1991 and reopened to much fanfare some twenty years later. It’s a breathtaking, super-smooth ride, the only drawback being that the journey lasts a mere two minutes. At the top, the Panorama café-restaurant (same times as the cable car) has a viewing terrace and is only slightly more expensive than similarly touristy restaurants back in town.
The mountain seems a world away from the lush subtropical world of the coastal strip, with bare stone and scrub stretching as far as the eye can see. In spring and early summer, the scrub is covered in daisies and bright-pommelled thistles. Otherwise nothing much grows here apart from sage, which is hungrily devoured by the local sheep and goats.
The highland plateau immediately north of the summit has been earmarked as the future sight of Dubrovnik’s golf course – although this anti-ecological exercise has not met with unanimous local support.
Standing on the coastal highway 13km northwest of Dubrovnik, the straggling village of Trsteno is an essential day-trip destination if you’re at all interested in things horticultural. It was here in 1502 that Dubrovnik noble Ivan Gučetić built his summer villa, surrounded by formal gardens extending along a terrace overlooking the sea. Such gardens were considered de rigueur by the aristocracy of sixteenth-century Dubrovnik – sadly, those of Trsteno are the only ones which can still be enjoyed in something approaching their original form. Maintained by successive generations of the Gučetić family, the villa and its gardens were confiscated in 1948 by a communist regime eager to destroy any latent prestige still enjoyed by the Dubrovnik nobility. Soon afterwards the Yugoslav (now Croatian) Academy of Sciences took the place over and expanded it, turning it into an arboretum.
An easy ferry ride away from Dubrovnik’s Gruž harbour, the lush, vegetation-carpeted Elaphite Islands (Elafiti) present the perfect opportunity to savour the Croatian Adriatic at its unspoilt, get-away-from-it-all best. Strung out between Dubrovnik and the Pelješac peninsula to the north, the Elaphites got their name (literally the “deer islands”) from first-century-AD Roman geographer Pliny the Elder, who mentioned them in his 37-volume Historia Naturalis. The Elaphites became part of the Dubrovnik Republic from the fourteenth century, sharing in its prosperity and then its decline – by the middle of the eighteenth century many island villages lay abandoned and depopulation had become a major problem. Today, only three of the islands are inhabited – Koločep, Lopud and Šipan – each of which supports a modest tourist industry. Despite the daily influx of trippers from Dubrovnik, however, tourism on the Elaphites remains reassuringly low key, the almost total absence of cars contributing to the mellow feel: private vehicles are not allowed on any of the islands except Šipan.
The westernmost of the islands accessible by local ferry from Dubrovnik is Mljet, a thin strip of land some 32km long and never more than 3km wide, running roughly parallel to the Pelješac peninsula. The most visited part of the island is the green and unspoilt west, where untouched Mediterranean forest and two saltwater lakes provide the focus of the Mljet National Park, an area of arcadian beauty within which lie the villages of Polače and Pomena. Despite the presence of a hotel in the village of Pomena, the region remains blissfully unspoiled, full of bicycle-pedalling trippers during the daytime, and romantically quiet and stress free at night.
According to legend, Odysseus holed up here for seven years with the nymph Calypso, and Mljet also has fair claim to being the island of Melita, where St Paul ran aground on his way to Italy and was bitten by a viper before he set sail again. (Mljet’s snake problem was once so bad that a colony of mongooses had to be imported from India to get rid of them, and the fat-tailed creatures are still very much in evidence in the national park.) The Romans used the island as a place of exile, and it was briefly owned by the kings of Bosnia, who sold it to Dubrovnik in 1333. The republic sent an emissary on May 1 every year to rule the island for a year, and many of Dubrovnik’s admirals built summer houses here.
Ten kilometres out of Dubrovnik, the main Montenegro-bound road descends into Župa Dubrovačka, a string of erstwhile fishing villages which have now merged to form a 6km line of apartment blocks, weekend villas, angular hotels and waterside cafés, the whole verdant strip backed by impressively stark mountains. The area was occupied by Serb and Montenegrin troops in the winter of 1991–92 and most of the hotels looted, although all but a small proportion have now been spruced up and put back in service. The opening of a brand-new Sheraton hotel in the westernmost Župa settlement of Srebreno, right next door to a freshly constructed shopping mall, looks set to boost the fortunes of what is very much an up-and-coming corner of the Dubrovnik coast.
Some 20km south of Dubrovnik, and 3km off the main coastal highway, Cavtat is a dainty coastal town offering a picturesque harbour, plenty of traditional stone architecture and lush subtropical vegetation. It began life in the third century BC as Epidaurum, a colony founded by Greeks from the island of Vis. There’s nothing left to see of the antique town: Epidaurum was evacuated in favour of Dubrovnik after a thorough ransacking by the Slavs in the seventh century, and the pretty fishing village of Cavtat subsequently grew up in its place. Discovered by Austro-Hungarian holiday-makers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Cavtat was a favourite haunt of the wealthy until a rash of high-rise hotel building in the 1980s changed the place’s profile. Happily, the package hotels are set apart from the palm-dotted seafront of the original village, ranged across the neck of a sweet-smelling wooded peninsula. Much of Cavtat’s former charm survives in the old part of town, which straddles the ridge behind the waterfront.