Croatia: Chilling out in Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast
Island-hopping, Dubrovnik's Old Town and living history are all in store for Ailish O'Hora on a trip to the Dalmatian Coast.
Less than three hours after boarding a plane in Dublin Airport, I was kicking back in the sun-drenched Croatian city of Dubrovnik, a walled gem overlooking the Adriatic and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not a bad way to start a holiday.
From the mid 1350s to the 1800s, Dubrovnik was the capital of the rich sea-faring Republic of Ragusa - a name that nowadays seems almost fantastical. Later, it boasted one of the biggest naval fleets in the world.
Today, the Old Town is resplendent with Baroque churches, palazzi and nearby unspoiled beaches. Walking these stony shores and atmospheric streets, devoid of traffic and caked in sunshine, is a gorgeous feeling. Word is spreading, too… recent visitors include Beyoncé and John Malkovich (although not together, we understand!).
And there's a reminder of the past at every turn.
Our group was only a few days into our holiday when news broke that a Malaysia Airlines plane with 298 on board had crashed tragically in Ukraine near the Russian border.
While the two countries are about 800 miles away, the incident was a stark reminder of how fragile an entity Europe is - especially the Balkans. The 19th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre had been commemorated only days before.
That's mainland Europe; you can't turn a corner here and not be reminded, often starkly, of the key role history has played in the continent's formation.
Dark and all as these events were, however, the former Eastern Europe is far more than a playground for history buffs. Many parts of it are truly magical tourism destinations and Croatia is no exception.
Dubrovnik's Old Town
For foodies, there's plenty of choice in a wide range of restaurants. Influences from nearby Italy are everywhere - you'll find good pizza and pasta in Dubrovnik - but seafood is especially popular.
Croatians also make some very fine wine… taught by the Greeks no less.
For the dyed-in-the-wool Dubrovnik experience, the best time to see the Old Town is early morning or evening/night time. That's when the light is at its kindest, the heat is less fierce, the cruise ship passengers have sailed away and the photos seem to take themselves. A morning walk along the town walls is a must.
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Another of Dubrovnik's classic views comes courtesy of a cable car (below), rising some 450 metres above sea level as it glides up Srd Hill. The journey takes just three minutes, the cars run from 9am to 9pm in high season, and there's a decent snack bar at the top to toast the Adriatic.
There's more to Dubrovnik than its Old Town, of course. A few minutes outside, a whole new world opens up with the pristine sea glistening to one side and the Croatian countryside on the other. This is where we stayed.
My trip was a seven-day holiday arranged by the ever-efficient Travel Department, and it took us less than an hour to get from Dubrovnik airport to our accommodation, Hotel Tirena. This little three-star is nestled away in the Babin Kuk peninsula - just 6km from the old town, with local buses stopping regularly at the end of the avenue. The hotel was clean and comfortable and the staff friendly. A nearby pool was spotless, with plenty of seating and there were two beaches within walking distance. Our package was half-board deal, meaning breakfast and dinner were included, and we were free to wander off for lunch.
The cable car up Srd Hill
The food? Croatia isn't exactly famous for its fine dining, but the fare here was good - local produce, we were assured - with deliciously fresh salads and vegetables as well as a good variety of meat and fish dishes at dinner. Like many half-board arrangements, it did get a little monotonous towards the end, but we could always escape to the Old Town.
Excursions were included in our package, including day trips to Medjugorje (an optional extra) and Kotor in Montenegro. Because it was just a week-long holiday, I wasn't keen on spending time on buses so I opted to take just one, the Elaphite island-hopping trip to Sipan and Lopud.
The smallest of these islands reminded me of what Inis Mór must have been like in the 1950s - albeit with a lot more sunshine! Even a brief visit served to highlight the ravages of Communism, and how a small island community is bravely shrugging off those shackles to become a tourist hotspot. Again, I got the sense of turning a corner to be reminded of the depth to this place, and the stark events that have played out in its history.
Sometimes, it's the people you meet that makes a trip that bit more special -in this case it was the lovely Ann Kiely of Limerick and her friends who had escaped their husbands, families, housework and jobs for a week in the sun.
They lit up the place and put a smile on everyone's face.
Travel Department offers seven night trips (traveldepartment.ie), including direct return flights with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), to Dubrovnik. Prices start from €667pp on various dates from April through to October, including a walking tour, full-day boat trip to the Elaphite islands and a full-day excursion to Montanegro.
Where to stay
A range of 3-star hotels feature on Travel Department's Dubrovnik packages. We stayed at the Hotel Tirena (valamar.com) on the Babin Kuk coast, and found it to be clean, friendly and just a short walk from two beaches. It also has a decent-sized pool. If you get a room with a sea view, all the better.
Take life into your hands!
Take a trip (not part of the Travel Department schedule) on one of the smaller boats from Dubrovnik’s Old Town. I headed off down to the coast to Cavtat on a tiny boat manned by a skipper enjoying a post-breakfast bottle of beer! There were no lifejackets, but that didn't bother me or the other 15 passengers. Cavtat is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist towns in Croatia.
What to pack
The usual summer attire will work just fine. Croatia can get slightly chilly in the evenings, so take a light jacket or fleece. If you're not too keen on pebbly beaches, pack swimming shoes. Mozzie spray or cream should also be added to your bag, if those little devils bother you!
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