Sunday 23 July 2017

Croatia: Island hopping mad

Almost being stranded on a gorgeous desert island off Dubrovnik was a dream come true for Richard Conway -- until he found out an angry horde of tourists were waiting for him

Sights to see: Dubrovnik beach
Sights to see: Dubrovnik beach

Richard conway

I'm definitely lost now. Off-the-map lost. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Either way, I'm pretty glad. I'm high up on a grassy cliff overlooking the Adriatic. It's sunny, but not too warm. And wow, what a view.

The water is that sort of turquoise you only seem to get this far south, and it stretches out in every direction. I can just about make out boats in the far distance heading towards the horizon, in what looks like slow motion. It's quiet too. Hard to hear anything but the waves crashing below and intermittent birdsong.

I'm pretty proud of myself, actually. After years of hoping it would happen, I seem to have finally managed to get myself stranded on a desert island.

This is the gorgeous island of Lopud, off the Dalmatian coast. And as part of the well-known Elaphite chain, it's not so much a desert hideaway as a slick off-shore retreat.

But my wrong turn today means I have missed out on much of that slickness, and my trip has turned out much better for it.

I came to Croatia two days ago, and had been hesitant about seeing much more than nearby Dubrovnik. I was worried that this island-hopping malarkey was so overdone that all I would see would be tacky shops, expensive restaurants and architecturally questionable hotels.

But standing here overlooking the ocean right now, I'm glad I took a chance. Today, among the cypresses and orange trees, I managed to discover the hidden sandy beach of Sunj and a completely empty pebbled one.

I stumbled upon a crumbly, stone-built lodging and saw the bell tower of St Mary of Spilica, a charming Franciscan monastery.

I'd rather not mention that I got here on a mock 15th-century galleon, packed with bumbag-sporting tourists -- tourists I ran away from the minute we docked, ignoring instructions about when we should return.

In fact, that's the one thing threatening to spoil my clifftop zen: I had better get myself unlost pretty quickly if I want a make it back to the mainland.

I probably shouldn't fret, though. Lopud and the idyllic islands of Lokrum, Sipan and Koloèep are just a short hop from the coastline. If I needed to, I could easily jump on a regular ferry back. .

Indeed, back in the city yesterday, I learned that these islands form an integral part of its cultural history. Known for centuries as the Republic of Ragusa, Dubrovnik was a bustling, maritime city-state and its islands acted as both homes for some of its wealthier citizens and breeding grounds for captains of its naval fleet. At its peak, the entire area rivalled mighty Venice.

And just like Venice, Dubrovnik feels truly unique. Marble-paved streets give it a sparkling, crisp warmth as, all around, red-roofed houses nestle at the bottom of the Dalmatian mountains.

It's a small city, but its excellent bars and restaurants would satisfy even the most sophisticated of palates.

Local specialities such as squid-ink risotto and Karlovaèko beer alone make a trip there worth it.

Its municipal buildings are as grand as they come.

There's the wonderfully baroque Church of Saint Blaise (patron saint and protector of the city) and the splendid Rector's Palace (housing part of the museum of Dubrovnik), the magical Onofrio's Fountain and the charming Romanesque Assumption Cathedral.

And of course, there are the city walls.

Designed by Florentine master Michelozzo Michelozzi, they are the very essence of the place, leading some to refer to the city as Croatia, with an Italian accent.

"It's like buying Gucci today," as a local told me, outside a busy central café. "Commissioning an Italian architect was a sign of prestige."

Make no mistake, though, it is also very Balkan. The wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- the siege of Dubrovnik and the Croatian War of Independence -- have left scars. The city, a Unesco World Heritage Site, suffered a great deal.

It is estimated that nearly 70 per cent of the city's buildings were hit by projectiles during the conflict, with nine buildings being completely destroyed by fire.

The hotel I stayed in, the Libertas, was repeatedly shelled by Serb forces, and lay empty for a long time. Similarly, the city's main thoroughfare Stradun saw significant damage.

But now, like the rest of the place, they all stand proud.

History, an almost tangible thing in Croatia, is something locals have learned to live with.

The well-kept Dubrovnik memorial (located in the magnificent Gothic-Renaissance Palace Sponza), commemorating those who died in the attacks, is a testament to this.

Here on the islands, though, it's easy to forget all that. There is little evidence of anything but the natural beauty of the Adriatic. This is a place for rambling, taking one's time, for listening to church bells and getting lost.

Indeed, having finally got my bearings, I wander back down to the café-filled port area.

It could easily be a Greek island, or somewhere off the east coast of Italy.

I order an ice cream, and taste their wonderful coffee. It's ever so peaceful.

And yet, quite suddenly, I hear what sounds like a gunshot.

Loud and piercing, it makes me jump. I'm stunned. What is this? I look towards the port and realise what's going on. It's the galleon, the one I ran away from. The one with all the tourists. The crew are firing the ship's canon to remind me they're about to set sail.

Flustered, I look at my watch. I reckon I'm about half an hour late and so decide to run. As I get closer to the docks, I see the port side of the ship looming.

I think I may even be the last man on the island.

Everyone on board seems to be looking at me.

With stern "you-messed-up-our-day" looks. Wait, they can't all have waited for me, can they?

I clamber on board and it becomes clear that they have, indeed, waited for me. I even get a small round of applause (a somewhat mocking round of applause, it should be added).

I had forgotten, in my haste to get lost on an island, that others might want to get off it.

Oh dear, how embarrassing.

Embarrassing, but definitely worth it.

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