Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Dubrovnik: Love you truly madly deeply !

Having visited Dubrovnik, the famous writer George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Those who search for paradise on earth should come and see Dubrovnik”. And I couldn’t agree more with him! Balmy weather, stunning landscape, awe inspiring architecture, delightful Mediterranean culture, and great people are what make Dubrovnik truly a paradise, which still remains unknown to most Indian travellers.

(*“The English poet Lord George Byron called the old town Dubrovnik “The Pearl of the Adriatic, and it’s still holds this name today”.)

It was around 5 years ago I first heard about Dubrovnik; thanks to one of the travel clients I was working on who offered packages to Croatia. I started exploring more about this beautiful country and some of the prettiest places it is home to. Dubrovnik won me over big time with its sheer charm, history, and offbeat status. I knew if I ever planned a trip to Croatia it has to begin from Dubrovnik.  And I finally visited this wonder land a couple of weeks ago and I am already longing to go back again.

Since we were travelling on the long weekend, there was a maddening rush at the airport; that too in the early hours of the morning. Surprisingly, there were lot of people travelling to Dubrovnik who I am sure were keen to get away from the wet and windy weather of the UK. Moreover, May is kind of an early peak season there; the weather is pleasant; temp ranges between 17 and 25 degree, hotels are not insanely expensive, and the city is not as crowded as it gets in the peak months of June, July, and August when it becomes a favorite stop for all European cruises.

The first view of Dubrovnik from the flight was nothing short of stunning. Numerous tiny islands spread across the vast Adriatic Sea appeared like random imperfect circles drawn on a turquoise blue canvas by a child who is learning to hold a pen. It was an incredible sight. After a smooth flight of around 2.5 hours, we landed at Cilpi Airport (pronounced as Chilpi). Surrounded by verdant hills with cottony clouds hanging over them, it was one of the most beautiful airports I had ever seen. 

The view of islands of Dubrovnik captured from the flight
We had pre booked our taxi from one of the local tour companies in Dubrovnik. As soon as we came out of the airport, there was a smartly dressed man waiting for us with a placard in hand. He cheerfully welcomed us in Dubrovnik and drove us to the hotel. The route from the airport to the hotel was very scenic. We drove along the hilly roads overlooking the stunning Dalmatian coast dotted with date and spikey pine trees while listening to our driver who gave us a quick overview about Dubrovnik.

En route to the hotel

Our hotel was located in a very quiet area facing the beach. Since we were visiting the city for the first time, the hotel upgraded us to a sea facing room as a welcome gesture. We quickly checked in our room, left our luggage, and headed to the Old Town, which was just 20 min walk away from the hotel. The road to the old town was very picturesque; around 35 meters above the pristine waters of the Adriatic Sea. There are some vantage points en route from where you can enjoy the endless view of the sea and the playful waves crashing against the rugged cliffs. 

Waves crashing against the cliffs
 One of the most striking things on this road is the numerous colourful locks of all shapes and sizes locked to the fence by love struck couples declaring their undying love and devotion for each other. So, all you have to do is, buy a lovely lock, write your names on it, lock it to the fence, and throw the key away in to the sea. Voila, you love is now sealed forever! :-)

wire fence covered with locked padlocks
(*When in Dubrovnik, breathe deeply! Every nook and corner of the city is adorned by Jasmine trees that fragrant the whole city with their sensual and dainty scent.) To me, Dubrovnik is now synonymous to the lovely fragrance of jasmine flowers.":-) )

As you approach the Old town, you get the first taste of the city’s vibrant life, Fort Lovrijenac, and the massive walls that fortified the city. There are a couple high end hotels standing on the either side of the road. There is a tiny square facing the sea that houses a few restaurants, a tourist office, souvenir shops, and a large seating area. Standing in the middle of the square is a beautiful fountain, where you can fill your water bottles from. Relax! The water is clean and fresh so don’t waste your money on water in Croatia. Just carry a water bottle with you and fill it up from the many fountains installed across the city. 

Pile Gate in the evening
The main entrance to the old town is the Grand Pile Gate, which is accessed through a stone bridge followed by a tiny wooden bridge, which used to be pulled up every evening in the olden times. Embedded in the big arches of the Pile Gate is the Statue of St Blaise, who is the patron saint of Dubrovnik. In one hand, he holds a model of the city while blesses it with the other.

St Blaise, Patron Saint of Dubrovnik
 As soon as you enter the gate, you are transported back in the time of middle ages when Dubrovnik was called the “Republic of Ragusa” All the buildings in the old town are made of lime stone that gleams in the sunshine. The architecture is a wondrous mix of Venetian, Greek and ottoman styles.

Looking over Onofrio Fountain from the city wall
Just at the start of the main street is a huge fountain called Onofrio Fountain, which was built in the 15th century. It was connected by an aqueduct with a spring which is 12km from the old town. Onofrio’s Fountain is a sixteen sided container and each has a unique maskeron (stone carved masked face) with the faucet projecting out of the mouth of each mask. The fountain has a huge cupola which was designed and decorated by a famous architect from Milan called "Peter Martinov". During the horrific earthquake of 1667, the fountain suffered heavily and almost all the decoration was damaged except maskerons. 

One of the maskerons at Onofrio Fountain
Opposite to the fountain is the entrance to the city walls, which I was really excited about. However, we thought of doing it in the afternoon once we had taken a stroll around the old town. Adjacent to the city wall entrance is a small votive “St Saviour church”, which now bears the visible marks of the gruesome Yugoslavian war. It was built as a sign of gratitude to God for sparing the city from the bigger destruction that 1520 earthquake could have caused to the city. In the year 1667, when Dubrovnik was again rocked by a disastrous earthquake, which took away the lives of some 5K citizens and destroyed much of the city, this beautiful church withstood the disaster and can be still seen in its original form. Some other historic buildings that you can see in this area are Franciscan Monastery, medieval pharmacy, and a cathedral.
St Saviour Church
Leading straight to the bell tower is the main street of the old town called Stradun. Originally called as Placca (in Greek means street), the street was given the name Stradun (used ironically) by Venetians who once ruled over Dubrovnik. This street is the lifeline of Old town, which on either side is lined with brand stores, restaurants, caf├ęs, and souvenir shops. It is hard to imagine that it was the part of the sea until 11th century when it was finally paved over. 

Stradun-the most happening street of Old town
The charm and beauty of Stradun instantly grew over me. It is completely built of marble slabs, which with time have become slippery and extremely shiny. Nothing is more fun that roaming on this street aimlessly. While on the right side, numerous parallel streets connect to the interior part of the town, there are steep steps on the left side after every 100 meters or so that lead up to narrow alleyways, which house lovely apartments, souvenir shops, and lots of restaurants and bars. Owing to these steep steps and maddening tourist rush, a lot of locals have moved out and have either converted their homes in to service apartments or sold them off to big hotel chains. Sadly, old town is now home to just 1000 people. 

 A flight of steep stairs leading up to an interior alleyway
Walking along the Stradun, you can cover almost all major attractions of Old town, which include bell tower and a clock, Orlando’s Coloumn, Luza Square, Rector’s Palace, and Sponza Palace. While leisurely exploring and soaking up the history of this stunningly beautiful city, we reached the old harbour, which was brimming with life. The view of the walls and the verdant hills dotted with tiny houses from the old harbour is breath-taking. You can catch a boat to Lokrum, Korcula, Cavtat, and many other popular islands from here. So tired I was after walking for 3 hours in the old town that I sat along the harbour for some time silently appreciating the beauty of this medieval town. 
The bustling Old Harbour

After treating ourselves to scrumptious pizza at a restaurant around harbour, we made our way back to the Stradun and brought the tickets for the city walls. This was one of the highlights of our trip to Dubrovnik. If you want some incredibly amazing views of the old town, nearby island of Lokrum, and the endless Adriatic Sea, then you should not miss walking on the walls at any cost. It takes over an hour to walk along these strong stone walls that encircle the old town. Trust me; you would literally go crazy capturing those postcard perfect images of the bright red terracotta roofs, the narrow alleys, clock towers and beautiful coastline.

Breathtaking view of the city and the fortress from the city wall
Considered to be one of the most grandiose fortification monuments in Europe, the Dubrovnik walls were constructed between 15th and 16th century. There are three entrances to the walls, on Stradun by the Pile gate, by Fort St. Johns and by Fort St. Luke, Dominika Street. So you can start from any point, whichever is closer to you. 

City walls that encircle the Old Town

(*“The local currency of Croatia is Croatian Kuna. You can pay by euros at big restaurants but local shops, takeaways, and attractions accept payments only in Kuna”)

We walked leisurely along the walls capturing the mystic beauty of this magical city through our eyes and camera. From there, we headed off to our last stop for the day; the cable car ride that goes up to the top of the Srd Hill, which is 405 m above the sea level. It was a sunny day; hence was perfect for the ride. The lifts are huge and can carry up to 14 people at one time. Within three minutes, we had swiftly glided 778 meters from the lower station to the upper station. 

View of the Old Town from the city walls
The beautiful red roofed houses and palm trees dotting the streets had become mere dots; the turquoise waters of the sea merged with the clear blue skies, and the city appeared like a colourful painting dominated by bold grey lines drawn around it. There are two restaurants on the top where you can try some amazing Croatian dishes and a souvenir shop to buy a memorabilia for your home.

Bird's eye view of Old town and Lokrum Island
Dubrovnik is considered one of the best places to watch sunsets. And that evening, I witnessed one of the most divine sunsets of my life from Srd Hill. The golden rays of the bright orange sun splashed on the serene blue waters and the tiny islands scattered across the sea. 
Sunset in Dubrovnik
Everyone was quietly admiring the nature’s surreal beauty; all we could hear was the gentle “Kha-Chick” sound of the cameras. We also captured some photos but then we realized it is something that needs to be experienced. Together, we watched the sun slowly dissolving in the crystal clear waters leaving behind its hues on the cottony clouds and on our awestruck faces. Honestly, there couldn’t have been a better ending to a fun filled day in Dubrovnik.


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