During our single day visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia on the way south to Montenegro, we managed to find the best food inside Dubrovnik’s old city walls and the best pastime just a ferry ride away at calm, peaceful, crowd-free Lokrum Island where its kaleidoscope of green and gold light waves and sea stones sends shimmering invitations to swimmers and sunbathers alike.
My only impression of Dubrovnik before arrival was something of a cross between spy rendezvous spot and Alias-style black screen with grunge lettering spelling out D-U-B-R-O-V-N-I-K to the sound of J.J. Abrams’ trademarked techno music. Eastern Europe continues to reveal my shameful ignorance of place and laughable alter ego as CIA agent.
Our single-day visit (and my subsequent Google spree) cleared up a few misunderstandings and made me wish for a masters in medieval history.
A brief history of this little thalassocracy*. Dubrovnik, Croatia, known historically as the Republic of Ragusa, rose as a powerful seaside city, harboring Greek sailors then later Roman earthquake refugees, taking shape in Byzantine times, falling under Venetian rule in the 13th and 14th centuries, then rising again as its own powerful and free state from 1358 to 1808.
*I’m a nerd; I love Greek! New word of the day: thalassocracy from θάλασσα (thalassa), meaning sea, and κρατεῖν (kratein), meaning “to rule”, giving θαλασσοκρατία (thalassokratia), “rule of the sea.” These “empires at sea,” Venice, Dubrovnik, Tyre, Carthage, and others: strongholds exerting their powers on the open water rather than mainland interiors.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Dubrovnik maneuvered its way into top rival position with Venice, that other little Republic on the Italian coastline, and allied itself with Ancona (the Italian city where we caught the ferry to Croatia in the first place), working in cooperation to keep Venice from monopolizing the entirety of the Adriatic waterway and trade routes.
Modern history saw the city ricochet from Austrian rule to Italian and later German occupancy during World War II and eventually Communist control during the era of Yugoslavia. When Croatia and Slovenia declared independents from Yugoslavia in 1991, Dubrovnik did not escape the turmoil unscathed: 650 artillery attacks on the historic walled city damaged over half of the buildings, and repairs of the UNESCO World Heritage Site continued until as recently as 2005.
Today, Dubrovnik is experiencing a resurgence in status thanks to political peacefulness and its prime location in the middle of modern tourism trade routes. Cruise ships and tourist buses release eager spenders to trade currency for experience and photo ops.
No wonder, really. The gorgeous old town with its white walls rising above the sparkling sea surely makes a convincing case for its title, “Pearl of the Adriatic.”
As Croatia continues its rise on the trendy scale, it runs the risk of being trodden into the ground by hoards of visitors plundering its riches, stripping the very beauty and tranquility that drew them in the first place.
Thankfully, there’s another hidden jewel in Dubrovnik: Lokrum Island. See this panoramic overview of the city and its green gem off on the horizon.
Ted and I made the most of our one day visit to the city (an extended layover, really, on our bus trip from Drasnice, Croatia to Kotor, Montenegro) with a tip-off from a friend to take the ferry ride from the harbor out to Lorkum Island. I’ll tell you about it, because it was too lovely to keep a secret and I’m so glad our friend told us, but you must solemnly swear to keep it quiet and keep the masses away…
Turns out the Pearl of the Adriatic sits just fifteen minutes from another jewel in the sea: emerald forested Lokrum Island and its glittery shores.
After entering the old city gates through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, we walked the main street, turned uphill and around a few corners and found a fine lunch at Lucin Lantun, then walked down to the port, bought tickets for about $10.00 apiece, and sneaked off the mainland to experience a bit of hidden charm and calm.
No hotels or touristy knick-knack spots, just bird song, sun bathers, and a manageable chunk of earth to explore.
Here, only fifteen minutes away from the bustle of Dubrovnik’s old town streets, we found a terrific way to pass an afternoon. The .33 mile square island is crissed and crossed with rustic paths leading to a monastery, an old fort, botanical gardens, olive groves, swimming holes, and a simple cafe or two selling drinks accompanied by live music and relaxed visitors.
The story goes that Lokrum Island was settled with the founding of a Benedictine abbey and monastery in 1023 and received its title from the Latin word acrumen meaning “sour fruit,” a name given for its Benedictine inhabitants’ cultivation of exotic fruits on the island. (Somehow the jump from “acrumen” to “Lokrum” seems a bit far…but for now I’m believing what I read on the internet.)
As soon as we stepped off the boat, the cluster of ferry riders scattered in all directions, and Ted and I set off to explore trails down the shorelines and across the wooded interior and, walking through the olive groves and making our way to the near-empty Botanical Gardens and abandoned Benedictine monastery.
The University of Dubrovnik Botanical Garden sits in the middle of the island. Many of the 500 plant varieties may be attributed to Maximilian of Hapsburg who left his horticultural mark after temporarily owning the island in the mid 1800s, cultivating seeds and plants from Australia, California, Chile, and South Africa gathered during his travels around the world.
Zero entry fees and small crowds most certainly play a part in the catch-22 of a modest collection and bare bones infrastructure. But despite the ramshackle nature of it all, what self-respecting landscape architect doesn’t want to explore a hidden garden on an ancient, forested island in the Adriatic?
The old Benedictine monastery, now in ruins, was deserted finally in 1798 after years of decline following terrible earthquake damage in 1667.
Ted has a penchant for wandering through abandoned buildings (flashback to tiptoeing through Hotel Majestic in Buenos Aires!), and we didn’t see any signs saying not to climb the stairs and roam the ancient halls, so…
Piles of debris, old beams patch-worked together with makeshift braces, dust and cobwebs…
…and inhabitants all too pleased to have a regal home of their own.
The peacocks, Maximilian’s travel souvenirs brought from the Canary Islands, have lived quite happily here on their Croatian island for the past 150 years.
Wandering beyond the monastery grounds, we crossed to the western side of the island and popped out on another open beach.
The island is a vast network of swimming holes, by the way. Any visitor can find a suitable spot. (Or, if suits aren’t your thing, you can head to the “naturalist” beach on the south shoreline.) There are swim ladders mounted to the rocky outcroppings and freshwater showers on land.
Mid-afternoon: another hour or two before we needed to catch the return ferry, another several-hour bus ride ahead of us that evening, the price tag was free, and unlike the beach on the south side of the island, visitors were wearing suits. Circumstance could only add up to one thing: time for a swim!
Thankfully, my travel-handy bag of goodies came to the rescue, and in a Mediterranean minute I was suited up and ready for the plunge.
The water? Just warm enough to tread amongst the calm waves and bob up and down above the stony seafloor. Ted, happy to stay warm and dry, played camera man and laughed at my impulsive spirit.
They say Dubrovnik’s a Pearl. Such a jewel comes from time and testing, from grit and turmoil. Seeing the city first hand and learning of its rise and fall and place in time and history makes me appreciate the title and the place.
Not so secretly, though, I’m glad for other colors of the jewel box rainbow, and especially for quiet, green Lokrum Island just fifteen minutes offshore, not so flashy and ornate, but perhaps richer for exploration and enjoyment than the bustling streets of Dubrovnik.
Bonus: if I’m ever in need of a safe-island during some future CIA assignment, I’ve got my corner all scoped out. I don’t think the Benedictines will mind.
Just remember: I’m trusting you to keep it to yourself.
Favorites from our Day:
Lunch and Dinner:
Zalogajnica Caffe Bar “Lucin Kantun”
Od Sigurate b.b., 20000 Dubrovnik
We ate here twice, discovering it at lunchtime by happy accident and returning at dinner for another flawless meal of locally sourced, seasonally appropriate food in a downtown area otherwise filled with “Visa Accepted Here” tourist restaurants and flamboyantly colored gelato scoops. The owner, Neno, bashfully emerged to chat with us after the waitress passed on our high compliments for the delicious food. His experience working on cruise ships for the past 30 years has given him a great sense of customer service paired with high standards for quality meals. The best bit? The beautiful small scale kitchen sits along the back wall of the restaurant, allowing diners to watch the preparations. Prices weren’t budget traveler range, but for glitzy Dubrovnik, they weren’t high, either. Lunch for two: $25; Dinner for two: $40.
Ferry to Lokrum Island:
Ask at the harbor for the boat to Lokrum Island. No need to go on extended cruises or long island tours, simply ask for the ride out and buy a return ticket for about $10/person.
Word to the wise: pack a swimming suit and a towel and plan to enjoy a few peaceful hours staring toward a horizon of sailboats out at sea.