Many places in the world can mesmerize the mind but few can tantalize the soul. Dubrovnik in Croatia, for instance, has the instant ability to steal the heart.
We touched down at ?ilipi Airport, gathered the whole group and drove towards the walled city of Dubrovnik. We traversed vast, rolling greens set against craggy mountains – our first preview of the Croatian coast’s natural charm. Just as I was looking out the window admiring the lush landscape, we cut across a mountain and were greeted with glistening crystal blue water as far as the eye could see.
As we approached the city center, we could see the Old City’s historic walls from across the horizon. It was unreal; a vision of majestic towers, stonewalls and terra cotta houses floating on the Adriatic Sea.
The entire city looked perfectly preserved, like it had been frozen in time. Later we learned that the ancient republic was an important Mediterranean Sea power beginning the 13th century. Strategically located as a base for trade between the Christian and Ottoman world, Dubrovnik was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The 16th-century walls that surround the Old City have withstood great earthquakes and even bombs, making Dubrovnik even more mystical.
We took the cable car to the top of Sr? Hill for the best, sweeping view of the city. The former Imperial Fortress was strategically built here as an ideal viewpoint where you can see as far as 60 kilometers on a clear day. We enjoyed a cool mountain breeze as we took in panoramic views of the city, and watched the sun set into the Adriatic Sea, painting the sky and the water with fiery colors.
You can take Game of Thrones tours to visit different filming locations.
A few steps away from the souvenir shop and restaurant stands Fort Imperial. The 18th-century fortress was built by French General Auguste Marmont to protect Dubrovnik from the north, at the height of battle between the French versus the Russians and Montenegrins. After the fall of Napoleon, it was occupied by the Austrians who strengthened the fortress for its proximity to the Ottoman Empire.
The fortress played a pivotal role for the defense of Dubrovnik during the Homeland War in 1991. The city was surrounded by Serbs and Montenegrins, and only the Imperial was in the hands of the Croatian Army. The largest attack on Dec. 6, 1991 saw fighting the whole day but the few defenders there survived the attack and thanked the French and Austrian engineers for fortifying the building.
Today, Fort Imperial houses the Homeland War Museum, which showcases documents, weapons, maps, art, photographs and authentic recordings, that provide insight into the aggression on Dubrovnik. You can also climb up the tower for a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the Old City and surrounding islands.
We took the cable car back down the mountain and explored the Old Town at night. Her beauty from afar was multiplied tenfold up close. We zigzagged our way through narrow cobblestone paths, brimming with interesting shops, pubs and restaurants. There were stone staircases leading up into the arched doorways of apartments, and leading down into the main plazas.
Standing in Luža Square, the main plaza of the city.
We wound our way through side streets into Stradun, the limestone-paved main street of Dubrovnik. Once lined with lavish, gold-gilded mansions of wealthy merchants, legend has it that the great earthquake and fire of 1667 left the Stradun with a stream of melted gold. During the city’s reconstruction, the mansions were all rebuilt in the same, more modest style with the ground floor housing a shop with a street entrance and living quarters above.
At the end of the Stradun is the heart of the city, Luža Square. Its four sides are surrounded with Dubrovnik’s most important buildings – the State treasury, St. Blaise Church, the Palace of the Rector, the customs house and the headquarters of the city guard. At the center of the square is the Orlando column — a stone pillar carved in the form of an ancient knight.
We sat in one of the many restaurants for a traditional Croatian dinner. Seafood is a must-try in Dubrovnik, so we ordered black seafood risotto and fish soup. The risotto was a pleasant surprise, squid ink was used sparingly so as not to overpower the flavor of the other fresh seafood in the dish. The mussels and clams in particular were excellent.
View of the Old Town, Adriatic Sea and nearby island.
The fish soup had an incredible depth of flavor as it contained three types of fish along with other shellfish. This dish is a traditional part of coastal Croatian cuisine and culture. Typically, the ingredients change depending on what is caught for the day. The most common type of fish used in this dish is scorpion fish, whose poisonous spines can actually kill but when carefully removed reveal delicate, flaky white meat reminiscent of lobster.
After dinner, we explored the winding streets some more until we heard the most angelic voices. We were treated to a performance by Klapa singers, a group performing traditional a cappella singing. They sang odes to celebrate love, wine, country and sea. Set against the backdrop of the Old Town, it was pure magic.
We called it a day and I was pleasantly surprised by my first impression of Croatia. I felt like I had stepped into another world, straight out of a storybook or movie set, yet it had such a rich, ancient heritage and history behind each and every stone.
I’m not the only one to realize this in recent years. Television and film producers adore Dubrovnik and the city doubled as King’s Landing – the seat of power of the Seven Kingdoms in the incredibly popular Game of Thrones franchise. It has also been featured as Canto Bight, a casino city in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and as filming locations for the newest Robin Hood and James Bond films.
Sam, Matthew, Mylene, Alex and Mark Dayrit enjoying the view from Lovrijenac Fort.
This has turbo-boosted Croatia’s tourism, seeing a nine-to-12 percent increase every year since Game of Thrones started filming in 2011. This is both a blessing and curse for the residents of Dubrovnik as 80 percent of the economy depends on tourism, but the hordes of crowds are filling up the city’s ancient, narrow streets. Cruise ship passengers, in particular, pose a problem as the passengers typically eat and sleep on the ship, contributing very little to the local economy and only spend a few hours in port, rushing around and taking selfies.
We took one of the countless Game of Thrones walking tours with our guide Jelena. We started our tour on the Jesuit steps where Cersei Lannister began her walk of shame. The Great Sept of Baelor supposedly at the top was just inserted via CGI. We followed Cersei’s steps around Dubrovnik, passing the same staircases and ending on a distinct bridge.
Our tour also took us to the Rector’s Palace, which was the only indoor shooting location of Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik. Here, they filmed the scene where Daenerys meets the Spice King, the wealthiest man in Qarth, to ask to borrow his ships to sail to Westeros.
We also visited Lovrijenac Fort where several scenes that take place in fictional Red Keep, the castle that holds the Iron Throne, were shot. The beautiful water that it overlooks is known as Blackwater Bay in the series. Finally, we ended the day with a breathtaking view of a swimming cove beneath the city walls. The water was crystal clear and seemed to be calling us in.
One of the many narrow cobblestone paths
Dubrovnik has meant many things throughout history. It has transformed from a bustling center of trade, to a tourism hotspot and sometimes even to fantasy worlds. It is enjoying a boom in visitors for good reason.
The beautiful water and marvelous hills surrounding the massive stonewalls and historic Old Town make it unlike any other destination in the world. If you haven’t thought of it yet, visit Dubrovnik. Walk the walls of the city, and be transported to a different world.
Caution: Dubrovnik will tantalize your soul and steal your heart.
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