Croatia: Winter is Coming

Croatia’s southernmost major city is probably the one I most associate with Croatian beauty – it’s certainly the city I think of when I think of Croatia. It’s perhaps ironic then that I enjoyed Dubrovnik less than Zadar and Split. However, it’s still absolutely worth a visit. A slightly less enjoyable Croatian city is still head and shoulders above the rest.

I was coming from Mostar in Bosnia along a slightly bizarre route which about 4 buses a day ply. Costing around £15, the 4 hour journey makes no less than 6 border crossings. I didn’t realise before this trip but there is a tiny area of Bosnia which separates Croatia along the coast. It’s a really small area of land, containing one destination of note (Neum) but the bus took this route to Dubrovnik, meaning we exited Bosnia, entered Croatia, exited Croatia, re-entered Bosnia, exited Bosnia and then entered Croatia again. Oddly, I didn’t get my passport stamped at all when exiting Bosnia (despite having an entry stamp from before) and on some borders the guards didn’t even want to check my passport despite the fact Bosnia isn’t in the EU. It was very odd but a bit of an experience and the ride was a gorgeously scenic as I’ve come to expect when travelling in the Balkans. Definitely sit on the right hand side of the bus.

The main bus station in Dubrovnik is right next to the port. I was originally meant to stay in Hostel Petra Marina, a short distance away. However they had last minute flooding or something so I changed to Hostel 365 4 U, another modern, clean Croatian hostel with friendly staff. It’s about a 20 or so minute walk to the Old Town from here and it is handily close to several supermarkets.

Dubrovnik’s Old Town

The main draw in Dubrovnik is its Old Town which was bigger than Zadar or Split’s and definitely more touristy. Surrounded on all sides by large walls, it is let down by its lack of promenade but it’s still incredibly fun to get lost amongst its winding streets. Dubrovnik is noticeably more expensive than its counterparts. I struggled to find food in restaurants for under 75 kuna (£9) and beers in a lot of bars were going for 50 (£6+). As such, I restricted a lot of my eating to al fresco dining, grabbing bakery items and a beer. Fortunately there are plenty of bakeries around, many specialising in delicious burek (meat + pastry) for around 20 kuna. The cheapest bar I managed to run was Buzz Bar, somewhere up the steps off the Main Street. A pint in here went for a reasonable 29 kuna (£3.50) at the time of writing. Another money-saving tip in Dubrovnik (and indeed the whole of Croatia) is that all water is drinkable throughout the country. Keep hold of your bottles and fill up at taps or fountains. There are two fountains, one huge one, just by Pile Gate, the main entrance to the Old Town.

You’re going to need to save your money if you want to do Dubrovnik’s top attraction. Walking the iconic city walls costs a whopping 150 kuna (£18). I debated at first whether to fork out this much for it but decided in the end it would be a shame not to. I think the debate you need to have is not whether it’s worth the money – the price isn’t going to change – but whether it’s an experience you want to have. The views I got walking the walls were ones I could not have got anywhere else. Note that students get a huge 70% discount so bring your student card if you have one. You can buy tickets online or at an office to the right of Pile Gate after entering the Old Town.

I bought my ticket but then decided to hang fire from walking the walls until late afternoon. The walls shut at 6.30pm during September and I figured if I went up around 4.30ish, I might catch the early sunset glow. It was the best decision I could have made. Before I did that however, I headed to nearby Lovrijenac Fort. You won’t be able to miss seeing the fort as you enter the Old Town; it sits on a cliff overlooking the town. With your ticket to the walls, you get free entry into this fort (within 3 days) so I decided to visit it first whilst I had a couple of hours to kill. It’s a bit of a slog up but you’re rewarded with fantastic views of the sea and the Old Town. They also filmed Game of Thrones here if you’re a fan of that (apparently I’m the only person in existence who hasn’t seen it).

After visiting the fort, I headed up to the walls. There are three entrances, the easiest of which is next to Pile Gate. There’s a one way system to walk round the walls (which some people ignored) and there’s not really much I can say. It’s breathtaking, the views are stunning and there are so many opportunities to explore up here. Littered along the way are overpriced bars and stalls. Note that you can’t leave and come back once you’ve started so bring any refreshments with you. Late afternoon was a perfect time to come – it was cooler, much less crowded and you get a gorgeous sunset glow on the pastel coloured roofs of the Old Town buildings. Coincidentally, the sun was due to set at 6.30 so I decided to hover round on the walls, hoping to catch a glimpse of sunset before I got kicked out. I certainly got more than a glimpse – I was able to witness the whole thing and it was spectacular, up there as one of the best sunsets I’ve seen. People were hanging round until almost 7pm and nobody told us to leave – everyone just left after the sunset. There are few accessible places in Dubrovnik where you’re going to get such a good vantage point for sunset so I’d really recommend sticking round for it if you can.

Incredible sunset from the Old Town walls.

Another amazing sunset vantage point would be Mount Srd just behind the city. Whilst I didn’t go up for sunset, I did hike up during the day. Alternatively there is a cable car (150 kuna) but the hike is pretty easy and incredibly beautiful and you can feel good about yourself too. It’s worth using to find the trail entrance (it’s on Google Maps too) as it’s not very well signposted. Once you’re on the trail though it’s easy to follow – it just constantly zig-zags its way up for about 45 minutes worth of hiking. It’s not very steep but is made up of loose stone so it’s worth having shoes with a bit of grip. At the end of each switchback is a slab depicting the crucifixion of Christ so if you know your New Testament, you should be able to work out how much further you’ve got to go.

The view of the Old Town from Mount Srd.

The best views are probably during the hike itself so make sure you stop to appreciate it. However the views at the top aren’t too shabby either and makes a perfect place for a picnic or, if you want to splurge, you can indulge yourself at the bar at the top. I never realised beforehand just how mountainous Croatia is but looking across to the east and north, you can see mountains as far as the eye can see. It’s quite incredible. Another recommended walk (not so much a hike) would be Velika Park to the north-west of the city. It’s hilly but with easy paths and you get sweeping views of the rocky cliffs.

I feel like I say this with most countries I visit, but Croatia may well be one of the most photogenic countries I’ve ever been to. It just doesn’t let you stop gasping in awe. Yes, Croatia (and Dubrovnik especially) has had a huge tourism boom in recent years. But sometimes tourists are right; sometimes a place is touristy because it’s really rather amazing. It might not be undiscovered anymore, but embracing your inner tourist isn’t always a bad thing and Croatia’s a bloody good place to do it.

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