By Cameron Hewitt
Sunny beaches, succulent seafood, and a taste of la dolce vita...in Eastern Europe?
Croatia's Dalmatian Coast is Eastern Europe's Riviera. And the best Dalmatian destination of them all is Dubrovnik — a living fairy tale that shouldn't be missed. With an epic history, breezy Mediterranean culture, and one of Eastern Europe's best old towns, Dubrovnik is like Venice without the canals. The highlight of any day in Dubrovnik is strolling the scenic mile around the Old Town's city walls. As you meander along this lofty perch — with a sea of orange roofs on one side, and the actual sea on the other — you'll get your bearings and snap pictures like mad of the ever-changing views.
Surfing along the rooftops, ponder how Dubrovnik's charm is the sleepy result of its no-nonsense past. Busy merchants, the salt trade, and shipbuilding made Dubrovnik rich. But the city's most valued commodity was always its freedom. In the Middle Ages, the city-state of Dubrovnik had to buy its independence from whomever was strongest, sometimes paying off more than one at a time. The city faced another threat to its independence during the recent war with Yugoslavia. While the rest of Croatia's coastline was virtually untouched by the war, the Yugoslav National Army laid siege to Dubrovnik for eight long months. In the years since, Dubrovnik has repaired itself with remarkable speed and confidence. Today the city feels perfectly safe, and the only visible signs of the war are some new, bright-orange roof tiles. The tourists are most decidedly back — in droves.
And there's plenty here to keep those tourists busy. Within the Old Town walls are a gaggle of surprisingly interesting sights: a pharmacy that's been open for business since the Middle Ages, a pair of tranquil convents surrounded by painting galleries, Europe's second-oldest synagogue, a dusty but evocative Serbian Orthodox church and icon museum, art-packed churches and mansions, and museums devoted to the local folk life and seafaring culture. The traffic-free Old Town is bisected by the main promenade, the Stradun. This is the heartbeat of the city: an Old World shopping mall by day and sprawling cocktail party after dark, when everybody seems to be doing the traditional evening stroll — flirting, ice-cream-licking, flaunting, and gawking. A coffee and some of Europe's best people-watching in a prime Stradun café is one of travel's great $5 bargains.
With more time, Dubrovnik is an ideal home base for day trips. At Dubrovnik's salty Old Port, local captains set up tiny booths to hawk touristy boat trips. It's fun to chat with them, page through their sun-faded photo albums, and see if they can sell you on a short cruise. Just offshore is Lokrum Island, famous for its nude beaches. Also popular are the Elaphite Islands, a nearby, time-passed archipelago speckled with beaches and villas. You're also just a couple of hours (by car, public bus, or guided tour) from other attractions in the former Yugoslavia, including Montenegro's striking Bay of Kotor and Bosnia-Herzegovina's thought-provoking Mostar. And there's no better place to "come home to" than Dubrovnik — after a busy day exploring the coastline, strolling the Stradun to unwind is particularly sweet.
Fresh, delicious seafood is another Dubrovnik joy. Around every corner is a characteristic, family-run eatery with sun-bathed outdoor seating. For starters, let a startlingly delicious sardine — carefully marinated in a generations-old family recipe — slowly melt in your mouth. Dalmatians say that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive oil, and finally in wine — when you eat it. If fish isn't your style, savor a bite of grilled squid or air-dried Dalmatian ham (pršut).
For a memorable finale to your Dubrovnik day, poke your way to the cocktail bar perched on a cliff above the sea, clinging like a barnacle to the outside of the city walls. Watching ships sail into the sunset, and enjoying the castaway views and Frank Sinatra ambience, you'll understand why this town is called the "Pearl of the Adriatic."
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia.