Never in my life have I been so repeatedly surprised by a country as much as Croatia. Since arriving nearly a month ago, each and every city I’ve visited ranks as one of my favorites in the world and Croatia currently holds the #1 spot as my favorite country. The last city on my tour of the Croatian coastline, Dubrovnik, came highly recommended by my fellow travelers, many of who ranked it as their favorite city in the entire country. Considering how amazing Croatia has been so far, the rave reviews from travelers, and my fascination with the Game of Thrones TV series - I had very high hopes for Dubrovnik.
The Song of Dubrovnik:
My arrival into Dubrovnik coincided with a series of storms and remarkably cold weather, but the city certainly did not disappoint. Frequently referred to as the “Jewel of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik is a well preserved coastal town that still retains its old city walls. Nestled between imposing mountains and the always-mesmerizing deep blue, shimmering water, Dubrovnik is a remarkable glimpse into the past. After the heavy Serbian and Montenegrin bombardment in the 1991/1992 Siege of Dubrovnik during the Croatian War of Independence, the city has spent a great deal of time, money, and effort restoring the town back to its former glory. Numerous buildings were seriously damaged or completely destroyed during the fighting, but the restoration was done remarkably well; the only visible sign of the repairs are the newly refurbished roof tiles adorning some of the buildings.
While I enjoyed Dubrovnik, I must forewarn you that it is the most expensive city in all of Croatia and the streets are flooded with tourists from all around the world. Even at the end of October, I was inundated by giant tour groups consisting of 50-year-old vacationers from the cruise ships docked nearby. Unlike my trip to the Plitvice Lakes where there were just a few stereotypical Asian tour groups, Dubrovnik was full of these DSLR wielding groups each containing easily 20 people apiece. Every tourist was marked with a sticker on their jackets/shirts indicating their group number onboard the ship just in case they wandered off. I couldn’t stop laughing; it was like a classroom of children on their yearly field trip!
The experience reminded me of Neuschwanstein Castel, but thankfully Dubrovnik has far more redeeming qualities.
I shudder to think what Dubrovnik is like during the high season.
As I entered the main gates I was funneled into the old town with the other tourists like a herd of cattle, but it is possible to escape the crowds. Thankfully, tourists on vacation are generally a lazy bunch, so my advice to other backpackers: take the stairs! From the main promenade, Stradun Street, turn either left or right and start climbing. The higher you get, the better off you are and the quieter the town becomes. After a few flights the sound of the crowd dies down and I got a much better feel for the city. High above Stradun, there are a myriad of empty, windy streets and cramped houses that I could explore all by myself. Up here I was more likely to hear the locals talking in the small elevated plazas, smell the delicious food residences were cooking for lunch, see children playing around in the small parks, and watch a variety of cats scamper from building to building.
This city has so many cats! It’s incredible!
As much as I loved the empty streets, I have to admit my favorite attraction was the most overpriced, touristy thing I could do in the city – walk the walls of Dubrovnik. As hypocritical as I may be, it is a rare treat to actually see fully intact city walls and even rarer to get to walk around on them! Many of the towns I’ve visited so far like Valencia and Krakow have demolished their walls over the years as the cities expanded. Buying my entry ticket was a surprisingly frustrating experience (they didn’t accept my student ID or any currency in coin form), but I eventually made it in.
Don’t expect a shred of customer service from the vendors here in Dubrovnik.
The walk along the wall was fascinating from start to finish and provided wonderful picture opportunities in every direction. For the entire walk there were stellar views of the of the numerous red roofed buildings and the sparkling Adriatic sea in the background. Along the way I could see Fort Lovrijenac on the edge of the harbor, the abandoned monastery island of Lokrum off in the distance to the south, and Imperial Fortress at the top of the nearby mountain. While the old town of Dubrovnik is rather small, the walk along the city wall is easily an hour-long endeavor with numerous stairs that provide for a nice workout.
Dubrovnik really is a jewel of a city.
From the walls up to the Imperial Fortress, I hiked with three friends from the hostel, Jeremy, Ellouise, and Michelle. What took us the better part of an hour and a half to climb could easily have been accomplished by a minute and a half cable car ride, but none of us wanted to pay the exorbitant price (and I’m always up for unnecessary climbing). The hike itself isn’t particularly strenuous, but make sure to wear some really sturdy shoes as the terrain consists of large jagged rocks that will leave your feet in a sorry state of affairs. At the top we took a break at nearby cafe and waited for 30 minutes for at table because, unsurprisingly, a large Asian tour group packed the cafe to capacity.
Once seated, we had a breathtaking view of the city and the surround landscape, but I can’t for the life of me understand who the hell designed the cable car to cross right in front of the cafe. Every single picture I took of Dubrovnik from the top of the mountain contained wires and steel support towers! After all the work the city put into building the damn thing, they ruin the view they were trying to provide visitors in the first place. It seems odd, but if they just flipped the layout of the cafe and cable car station they could have avoided this whole thing.
Not like it stopped the trigger-happy tour groups from snapping thousands of pictures.
By and far, my favorite part of Dubrovnik was stumbling across scenes from Game of Thrones. For those of you who do not know, the capital city in the TV series, King’s Landing, is modeled after Dubrovnik. For the last four seasons, the show filmed so many scenes throughout the city that I doubt you can walk through the old town without spotting at least one of them. Plus, if you time it right and visit the city during filming, you can even be an extra in the show (apparently I missed out on my opportunity by just two weeks)! While the old town is littered with scenes from the show, my favorite spot was outside of town in the abandoned Belvedere Hotel where they filmed the Mountain and the Viper episode.
The Belvedere Hotel is a great “off the beaten path” kind of place to visit that is absolutely fascinating to explore if you can get past the giant signs indicating “Danger of Building Collapse” and “Enter at Your Own Risk.” Fortunately, such signage is actually a selling point for me since it scares away the tour groups. Even in the middle of the afternoon, the old hotel is wonderfully creepy in an apocalyptic/Resident Evil sort of way. Back in the 1980’s the Belvedere Hotel was the most expensive, exclusive hotel in all of Croatia; however, it was used as a command center during the Croatian War of Independence and sustained heavy damage as a result of Montenegrin bombardment. After the war, the iconic hotel was condemned and has been a hollow shell of its former glory ever since.
I loved the Belvedere Hotel because such places are usually off limits to the general population, but here in Dubrovnik I could walk right in from the street! The hotel is a complete disaster full of broken windows, discarded furniture, trash, and graffiti just about everywhere, yet I was endlessly fascinated. Along the edge of the hotel are two large pools full of dirt and garbage with weeds jutting out from the cracks in the tiles. Looking into the hotel I could see down several never-ending dilapidated hallways full of dangling electrical wiring and exposed plumbing. I have never experienced such an uneasy feeling in my entire life and was legitimately fearful of what lied down the poorly maintained hallways eerily reminiscent of a Dead Space video game. Even at two o’clock in the afternoon the place gave me the chills and is what I imagine Chernobyl to feel like if I had the chance to visit back in Kiev.
Sans radioactivity of course.
Dubrovnik is officially my last stop in Croatia and I am horribly sad that I must now leave this absolutely spectacular country. If you are thinking of taking a trip to Europe next summer, schedule in at least one stop along the Croatian coastline, I can promise you it will not be disappointed. It doesn’t even have to be Dubrovnik, just pick a city along the coast that is the easiest to get to. There are numerous boats that leave from Italy, so there is no excuse! I cannot say enough great things about Croatia. Even with the droves of tourists and high prices, Dubrovnik is an exceptional city worth visiting, but I have to say it doesn’t rank quite as high as the others I visited so far. Here’s my final ranking of the cities I visited on my little tour of Croatia:
I can’t believe it has almost been a month and a half since I stepped foot in this country, Zagreb feels like such a long time ago. Every single city I’ve visited since the moment I stepped foot in Croatia has been wondrous - not a single disappointed the entire time. I’m now off to Montenegro with a few friends from my hostel. While I’m leaving the country I’m not quite ready to leave this wonderful coastline. I figure this will be a nice way to slowly wean myself off of this great landscape.
Fare thee well Dubrovnik!
A little piece of my heart will forever remain here in Croatia.