Coastal Jewels of Croatia

Rumors prove true - Dubrovnik is Europe's next big historic destination city By: Gary Bowerman
Dubrovnik has proved that it is an “it” destination. // © 2010 Maharajas’ Express
Dubrovnik has proved that it is an “it” destination. // © 2010 Maharajas’ Express

In recent years, Rumors have abounded that Dubrovnik could be Europe’s “next big thing” as a historic destination city. It’s not a rumor anymore because 2010 proved that Dubrovnik’s time is now.

This summer, the city was visited by scores of celebrities — John McEnroe, Eva Longoria and Tony Parker were spotted on the picturesque Stradun plaza just before I arrived. Tourists also arrived en mass to “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” Dubrovnik Airport broke its monthly passenger record in both July and August. Cruise passengers were up 8 percent at the Port of Dubrovnik, with several ships, including Aurora, Nieuw Amsterdam and MSC Magnifica, calling in the city for the first time.

The walled city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is built on a picture-postcard promontory that juts into the Adriatic Sea, and is Croatia’s highest-profile historic city. But visitors to this stunningly diverse boomerang-shaped nation — known locally as Republika Hrvatska — will find plenty to explore along its fabulous 1,010-mile coastline and its mountainous hinterland, which is emerging as a winter sports destination.

It is Croatia’s dramatic coastline that attracts most visitors, however — and for good reason. Spanning the coast are three atmospheric ancient cities, Dubrovnik in the south, Zadar in the north and Split in between, plus 1,185 beautiful islands — many of which are easily accessible from these coastal cities.

Ascending the steep stone steps onto the ramparts surrounding old Dubrovnik is an exhilarating experience. The views out to sea are spectacular, with yachts and islands dotting the horizon. Below is the compact ancient city’s ornately sculpted Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces and fountains, and plazas lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Almost 6,500 feet in the length, the crenulated fortress walls were built between the 8th and 16th centuries. The most intriguing part, leading from the Minceta Fortress to the tower of St. Jacob’s Cathedral, dates from the late 13th century, and was extended toward the Dominican Monastery in the 14th century. The views across the terra-cotta roofs, domes and spires are exquisite, though an even better view can be enjoyed from the cable car that wends into the hill overlooking Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik’s architectural beauty and its popularity — on a hot summer day I was surrounded by an amalgam of accents, ranging from Serbian, Spanish and Italian to Australian, North American and Israeli — has overcome two historic challenges. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 1667, Dubrovnik managed to preserve most of its fine buildings, but the brutal nine-month siege by the Serbian armed forces beginning in late 1991 after Croatia seceded from the former Yugoslavia had a devastating impact.

A map at the entrance to the Pile Gate reveals the 500 historic buildings that were damaged by mortar shelling, shrapnel and burning. After the siege, the Croatian government invested heavily in a complex restoration program and, as Dubrovnik prepares for 2011 — the 20th anniversary of the siege — Croatia’s Pearl of the Adriatic is shining brightly once more.

Dubrovnik is also a base for island excursions. I took the 90-minute ferry during a spectacular sunset to Mljet — claimed locally to have been the inspiration for the island of Ogigija in Homer’s Ulysses. Most of Mljet is protected natural parkland, yielding forested hills for hiking and cycling, saltwater lakes, rocky beaches and hidden caves, plus well-preserved ruins of Middle Age fortresses and monasteries. The pretty village of Polace boasts several small hotels, cafes and bars (serving the excellent local beer, Ozujsko) around the haborfront.

Croatia boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace in the historic center of Split — the republic’s second city after the capital Zagreb. Built by the Roman emperor Diocletianus, work began on this sumptuous stone palace in 293 AD, and it is the highlight of several Romanesque buildings, gates and churches throughout the city. But look carefully, as you will also discover fine medieval fortifications, vaulted Gothic and Baroque palaces — and scores of statues, gargoyles and symbolic detailing on its magnificent historic architecture.

The best view over Split’s narrow streets, Venetian plazas, palm-fringed seafront and the coastal archipelago can be gained by climbing Marjan Hill. Known locally as the “lungs of Split,” this forested hill is a popular weekend spot for hiking, cycling, jogging and escaping the heat in summer.

Split is easily accessible by car from Dubrovnik (around four hours).

Clients can also catch a direct coastal ferry from Dubrovnik or from several of the islands on the central Dalmatian coast.

North of Split, the 3,000-year old city of Zadar is a gem. Blessed with a revered Roman forum in the center; a curving natural harbor; dramatic, Romanesque churches; eye-catching copper-colored, terra-cotta roofs; and Croatia’s oldest university, which has a history that dates back to 1396 and is where the first Croatian-language newspapers were published, Zadar also counts fewer tourists than either Split or Dubrovnik.

Throughout its tumultuous history, Zadar has been conquered and ruled by, among others, the Romans, Venetians and the Austrians. Similar to Dubrovnik, it came under heavy attack from Serbian forces following Croatia’s separation from the former Yugoslavia, and many buildings were badly damaged and required meticulous restoration.

Daily ferries and buses link Zadar with Split. The 100-mile road journey follows the Adriatic coastal highway. Popular excursions include the offshore archipelago of around 300 islands and the picturesque Krka National Park, which features a beautiful limestone karst gorge, plus waterfalls and more than 800 species of plants and 200 species of birds.

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