When we went on our amazing Eastern Mediterranean cruise this summer, the last stop was one of my favourite European cities: Dubrovnik, Croatia. I had visited this beautiful city on my own back in 2001 and it was high on my list of places I wanted to see again with the kids. The compact old city is completely enclosed within some of Europe’s best medieval walls and the city centre is compact and completely traffic free. When I mention our visit to Dubrovnik to others, responses seem to be divided into two groups: “Where’s that?” and “Dubrovnik? I love Dubrovnik!” I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been to Dubrovnik that didn’t love the place.
Now I have to say that a cruise ship stop is not the ideal way to visit Dubrovnik. I had expected some changes and an increase in tourist activity since my first visit, but having 4000 cruise ship passengers pour into the tiny city centre all at once definitely accentuated the negative aspects of mass tourism. When I first visited in 2001, it had been less than a decade since the devastating Balkan war and the city was still picking it self off and repairing the damage from the siege of 1991-1992. Locals were eager for tourist business and prices were low. I got off the ferry with a group of about six backpackers and two women began fighting over who would get to show us their rooms for rent. We were able to settle things by agreeing to split in two groups and go with both ladies, but you know a town is hungry for tourists when they’re fighting for the backpackers!
In 2014 however, it’s clear that Dubrovnik is well established on the tourist map once again and it’s no longer the bargain destination it once was. We didn’t have to look for accomodations, obviously, but restaurant prices in the old town were as high or higher than most parts of Italy and the attractions were quite expensive as well. We both agreed that it would be interesting to come back to Dubrovnik in shoulder season and see if the prices were a bit softer after the summer crowds died down a bit.
Our ship docked at the same terminal where my ferry had arrived all those years ago, about 4km from the old town. I had walked this route back in 2001, but on a muggy, hot day with two kids in tow we elected to take the bus. We were dropped off just outside the city gates and like all visitors, from backpackers to millionaires, we had to enter the city on foot. Unlike many European town centres that are technically traffic free but have just enough local traffic and deliveries that you can’t relax with little kids in tow, Dubrovnik is truly car free. The main entrance gate is actually only about five feet wide and approached via a steep staircase or winding ramp, so you couldn’t drive into the city even by accident.
The city walls are made of beautiful white rock and go right down to the water, encircling the harbour at one end of the town. The overall effect is absolutely beautiful. You can climb up to the top of the wall and walk around the city along the wall for a fee, but we decided that the kids would get tired of that pretty quickly so we decided to ride the cable car up to the hill overlooking the city instead. It wasn’t cheap; about $60 Cdn for two adults and two kids, but it was easy and fun for the kids and gave us beautiful views and some welcome ocean breezes at the top of the hill.
The cable car ended at a fortress on the hill over the city and it was actually the sight of some of the heaviest fighting during the siege. It was closed when I was there in 2001, having been heavily damaged, and there were warnings not to venture up into the area just outside the city walls due to landmines in the area. The area is now safe and restored and the cable car was re-opened in 2010, but it’s quite interesting to see the photos displayed at the top and to consider just how recently these events occurred.
When we got down from the cable car we went looking for a place to grab a snack. The old city streets are really more like laneways and some are so steep that steps replace sidewalks in places. These districts have many charming looking restaurants with tables and chairs tumbling out onto the streets, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of paying six dollars for a Coke or ten for a beer, so we ended up buying drinks and snacks at a local corner store and eating on the steps on a quiet sidestreet while people watching.
The town itself had a few interesting sights. We stopped into the two largest churches and we could have visited a few small museums and an aquarium if we had the time, but I found that the most interesting sight in Dubrovnik is just the city itself. It’s one of those places that rewards wandering, where you could see the sights in a day, but you could happily spend a week exploring as well. There still seemed to be a lot of independent room rentals in the old town; I’m sure you wouldn’t find anyone fighting over the chance to rent you a room for a few dollars a day any more, but it looked like it should be fairly easy to find somewhere nice to stay in the off season.
So once again, we’ve added another destination to the “places we need to go back to” list. If you’ve never been to Dubrovnik, you really should go. Trust me, you’ll love it too.