Dubrovnik, the getaway for sea-lover, history buffs and Game of Thrones fans

Croatia’s UNESCO protected heritage city is the perfect getaway for sea-lovers, history buffs and Game of Thrones fanatics alike writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Dubrovnik, the getaway for sea-lover, history buffs and Game of Thrones fans

Tthe tragedy of the vicious Yugoslav war which engulfed what is now Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Formal Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia just two decades ago is still fresh in the mind but, like its near neighbours, Croatia is keen not to limit itself to the nightmare of what happened.

While remaining acutely aware of its recent troubled history, the nation has in recent years sought to emphasise the more appealing aspects of its heritage - with its second city Dubrovnik the jewel in its new international image crown.

A picture-perfect UNESCO heritage protected site perched on the Dalmatian coast while overlooking the idyllic warm blue waters of the Adriatic and a flurry of equally beautiful nearby islands, the walled city is a tourist’s dream.

And not just for the weather which is on a par with nearby Italy. The centuries old castle walls protecting the location keep alive the stories of both the city’s ancient Roman and Byzantine empire heritage and the battle scars of the horror of the 1990s.

With the added bonus of well-flagged tours of sites used for the TV series Game of Thrones and Dubrovnik’s understandable local obsession with sea activities ranging from water polo to boat trips, kayaking, scuba diving and cliff jumping, it is no wonder the location is quickly becoming the new hot spot du jour for Irish travellers keen to explore further afield without breaking the bank.

Throw into all this the friendly atmosphere surrounding the city, the widespread use of English by multi-lingual locals and the relative close proximity of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the equally appealing Croatian city Split, and it is clear that while Croatia has understandably not forgotten its recent past, it does not wish to become a victim of it either.

First Impressions

On arrival in Dubrovnik city (Grad Dubrovnik in Croatian), just a short 10-minute drive or bus journey from the airport in nearby Cilipi, you cannot but be impressed by the imposing site which suddenly rises before you.

A modern day city with a population of just over 40,000, Dubrovnik is in effect built inside a fortified 7th century walled castle which dominates its surroundings, and is the reason for its cherished UNESCO heritage standing, first given in 1979.

To the north stands the imposing Mount Sro, which is famed in Croatia for acting as a natural protector for Dubrovnik from complete devastation during the Yugoslav war, while to the south lies the glistening Adriatic with beaches Banje and Copacabana - no, not that one - and the 78-acre Lokrum island, once the play-thing of the rich and powerful but now a must-see nature reserve in public control.

Once unpacked and settled in one of the array of airbnb properties, hotels and hostels in the city and surrounding area - none of which noticeably take away from the picturesque scene - the town square just outside the Pile (pronounced Pill-ah) west gate will help travellers weary from the three and a half hour flight get their bearings (and some food and drink) with a cluster of guides more than willing to advise on what to see first.

What to do

For an area offering so much, it can often be a case of not what to do, but what to leave out.

But, with some careful planning, the vast majority of what is available can be seen in the standard week-long holiday while still leaving time to enjoy the one thing holidays are made for - relaxing.

The best way to quickly get a grasp of your new surroundings is, unexpectedly a walking tour of Dubrovnik, and luckily these 90-minute to two hour excursions are readily available outside Pile gate for less than €15 per person.

For those interested in the location’s ancient history - including its political battles with Rome and Byzantine in a bid to remain independent, which variously saw only the sea walls of imposing outposts built to quickly put off threatening fleets and requests for the Pope to block attacks by Christian Rome as Dubrovnik had “coincidentally” built churches at its gates which might be damaged - the walking tour and opportunity to travel along the high walls of the city’s defences are what should be looked out for.

Game of Thrones specific tours of locations where scenes of the popular TV series were shot - including the Walk of Shame and Kings Landing - are also available, while the cable car to the top of mount Sro is also highly recommended.

For others more interested in the modern day history of Dubrovnik, a photography exhibition of images from the Yugoslav war can be found atop mount Sro, a fitting location as the mountain provided protection from the Yugoslav army.

And even in the city itself, which was painstakingly rebuilt to its original form after deeply damaging shelling in the 1990s, reminders of the recent past are apparent, with bullet holes deliberately left in the front walls of the city’s cathedral to ensure the war is not forgotten.

Further afield, day tours to nearby Montenegro - approximately an hour away, in addition to an hour long wait at the border - and the far closer Muslim majority nation Bosnia and Herzegovina are also options to consider, with tour information to be found at the local tourist offices outside the Pile and Gruz gates.

However, tours are not always for everyone, and for those less inclined to visit the sites of years gone by Dubrovnik also has plenty to offer, with the Banje and Copacabana beaches literal stone throws from the city walls, alongside the idyllic island of Lokrum shimmering in the nearby distance.

The latter - where legend has it Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked in 1192 and also contains a secluded nudist beach for the more adventurish holiday maker (we presume this image is not what caused Richard’s shipwreck) - is a must see for anyone who visits Dubrovnik, due to its dead sea-type natural pool, nature reserve, peacocks first brought by noble men in the 1700s, cliff diving and back to nature excursions.

It can be easily accessed by a 10-minute ferry which leaves every half hour from the city’s beautiful port, costing €7 per person, or by kayak tours which also allow travellers to get up close and personal - sometimes, if your balance is poor, too up close and personal - with the famed Adriatic sea life and clear blue waters.

But, be warned: Lokrum, while beautiful, comes with a health risk. In the 11th century the French army seized Lokrum from local monks, leading to the religious order putting a curse that whoever claimed the island “for his own personal pleasure shall be damned”.

According to the curse, anyone who stays longer than one day in Lokrum shall be affected by the same woes, meaning missing that last ferry off the island at 7pm every evening poses more problems than you might first expect.

Further trips to the rival tourist beach-side hot spot Split and its similarly enticing islands can also be organised through the local tourist office.

However, travellers should be aware that the near three-hour journey may mean an overnight stay or dividing time between Dubrovnik and Split will be required.

Where to stay

Depending on what type of trip you have in mind, the options are endless.

And while Dubrovnik does not come as cheap as some would like, with prices close to the western European norm compared to other parts of Croatia, with some research the accommodation to suit your needs can be easily found.

In the heart of the city’s UNESCO heritage old town area itself, airbnb is the holiday maker’s best friend.

Due in part to local property owners’ seeking to cash in on the growing tourist market, an array of apartments are readily available to rent for the week in ideal site-seeing locations that will suit all-comers, with prices usually hovering around the €100 a night mark.

Low-price tourist hostels are also available nearby without spoiling the atmosphere of the town — in fact, you would be hard-pressed to realise they are there — while for more romantic couples secluded destinations near Zapad complete with their own private beaches are also on offer, provided you are willing to put up with the 15 minute daily journeys into the Dubrovnik itself.

However, travellers may be best advised to sign into Airbnb before deciding on where to stay, as Dubrovnik locals are increasingly putting their apartments and homes on the market instead of renting to locals, with many family-size properties available for less than €100 per night.

For the multi-millionaires out there, the jaw-dropping Villa Sheherezade - the most costly property in Croatia which has a distinctive blue marble dome its first owner insisted on in homage to the deep blue eyes of his wife, a private beach and 24-hour security to keep out unwanted paparazzi (sorry, we tried) - can be yours for “just” €4,000 a day.

Legend - well, okay, half-joking half-serious local tour guides - has it that any tourist who does choose to splash the ridiculous amount of cash on the admittedly beautiful villa has to invite them around to get a closer look.

Should you not have a contact number for said local tour guides, however, if you cannot find them an equally available Irish Examiner journalist would be more than happy to take the spot on their behalf. Honestly, they wouldn’t mind...

The bottom line

Regardless of what you want from a holiday, Dubrovnik has it on offer.

From sun-kissed beaches to sea excursions, being transported back into ancient history to exploring the far more recent past, the friendly, safe and most importantly manageable city is the perfect destination for those looking to relax while still having new experiences — assuring its place in Irish holiday lists for years to come.

How to get there

Package deals are available from most travel agents, however for those seeking to organise their own flights Aer Lingus flies the three and a half hour journey from Dublin (7.30am) to Dubrovnik’s Cilipi airport six times a week, leaving passengers just minutes away from the city’s UNSECO heritage protected old town district and the nearby Bosnian border.

While not flying to Dubrovnik itself, Ryanair also offers flights from Dublin to Zadar, offering holiday makers a choice on where to base themselves if they wish to travel to the tourist hot spot Split - roughly three hours from either location.

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