By Rosie McKechnie
It might take just 90 minutes to walk the solid stone ramparts wrapped around the old city of Dubrovnik , you need to linger a little longer to soak up the spellbinding history of the best preserved city walls in the world.
Soaring 25-metres high, with fortresses, towers and a two-kilometre footpath looking out across red rooftops, church domes and monastery arches, they’re like something from a fairy tale.
Shaken by earthquakes, attacked by Napoleon’s troops and shelled by Serbian forces in the homeland war 16 years ago, it’s truly miraculous they’re still standing. If the sense of history doesn’t leave you gazing in awe, turn around and look out to the gently rippling azure waters of the Adriatic for a view to remember. No wonder George Bernard Shaw described it as “paradise on earth”.
Wander the labyrinth of narrow streets, paved with marble and lined with Baroque buildings, snaking around the old city. Trace and rise and fall of one of Europe ’s greatest commercial and seafaring empires in the museums filled with art and artefacts. Then take a seat in a centuries-old church where the wonderful acoustics bring an orchestra recital to life.
Dubrovnik has as much vitality today as it did back in its heyday in the 14th century when the wealthy city had abundant gold supplies and a fleet of over 300 ships. This is no living museum – local families still have homes within the city walls, they shop for fresh vegetables at the morning market, chat with their neighbours in cafes and walk their dogs through streets packed with ancient architectural gems.
The best way to explore it all is on foot, walking through Pile Gate with a sturdy wooden drawbridge which was once pulled up at night to keep intruders out. Now orange trees grow where the protective moat encircled with walls.
Placa, the main street, is a stunning sight as sunlight bounces off the white stone. Sit at an outdoor café and watch the world go by, then come back at night to see the marble gleam in the lamplight.
In a city of architectural wonders, one of the highlights has to be the Dominican monastery – a Gothic-Renaissance style wonder packed with paintings by 15th and 16th century artists.
The Sponza Palace is one of the few buildings not destroyed by the 1667 earthquake. Local merchants once met behind the Gothic windows and Renaissance portico. Now it houses regular art exhibitions and the Memorial Room of the Dubrovnik Defenders, commemorating those who lose their lives in the homeland war.
Equally poignant is the nearby War Photos Limited, where award-winning photographs tell the story of the region’s troubled history from a very human perspective.
To escape the crowds, take a boat across the harbour to forest-clad Lokrum. Walk along shaded gravel paths laid out by the archduke Maximilian of Austria to find botanic gardens and a Benedictine monastery. Climb to the Napoleonic fortress for the best views across to the old city, then cool off with a dip in a secluded rocky cove.
Or head along the coast to Cavtat, where fish restaurants line the harbour and art fans visit the birthplace of homegrown talent Vlaho Bukovac.
There’s no shortage of freshly caught fish and seafood on menus between here and Dubrovnik . Mussels, calamari and black risotto, made with squid ink, are local specialities, washed down with a decent bottle of Croatian wine or locally-brewed beer.
Find a table on a rooftop terrace and you can even squeeze in some sightseeing without leaving your seat.
Flyglobespan flies weekly from Edinburgh to Dubrovnik with flight only prices from £60 (one way, including taxes).
Book a choice of accommodation packages with optional transfers at www.flyglobespan.com
A seven-night stay at The Ariston Hotel costs from £619 per person based on two sharing, including airport taxes, transfers and flyglobespan flights from Edinburgh .
See www.flyglobespan.com or call 08712 710 415.
See www.visitdubrovnik.hr and www.croatia.hr
Go to www.kompas-travel.com for information on city tours and sightseeing
Read Bradt Dubronvik guide