An Adriatic Adventure
Deep in the labyrinth of atmospheric alleys that form the heart of the old walled city of Dubrovnik, I was sitting on the first floor terrace of Proto Restaurant where King Edward VIII once brought his American fiancée Wallis Simpson.
I can see how this location would have impressed the jetsetters of the 1930s. Even the wealthy, much wooed Wallis Simpson must have been bowled over by the al fresco table amid the potted geraniums. Today, the view must be much the same, looking down on the ancient cobbles and sunny stone palaces of this magical Mediterranean kingdom.
When Simon Heptinstall captained the British travelwriters team on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show he humiliatingly scored no points at all. It was yet another memorable milestone in an award-winning writing career that has included being described by Private Eye as “a miserable little squirt”, repeatedly spelling ‘kangaroo’ wrong in a book for Australians and enthusiastically driving a high-speed dog-sled into a tree. In between Simon has become the only person to have worked for both BBC Countryfile… and BBC Top Gear.
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A Taste Of The Coast
I suspect Miss Simpson also swooned at the food here. In fact, Proto has been world-famous for serving top-notch nosh since 1886. When I was there I found that chef Bosko Lanac’s menu still followed traditional recipes with local ingredients. Whether you eat at Proto or a small café by the harbour, you can expect fresh fish and shellfish from local fishermen and Dubrovnik specialities, like my ‘brodetto’. Look out for this, it’s a Dalmatian speciality. Proto’s version is a hearty stew of white fish, mussels, shrimps and squid with white wine, olive oil, lemon, garlic, tomatoes and parsley, and served with a chunk of freshly made polenta. It was certainly enough to make me swoon.
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Of course, you’d expect the food at Proto to be brilliant… but of course, it’s expensive. Proto is one of the highest-rated seafood restaurants in the Adriatic and this glamorous spot illustrates what a special place a little walled town on the coast of Croatia has become.
Recent visitors to Proto have included glamorous stars like Bono, Richard Gere, Francis Ford Coppola and Novak Djokovic. Proto is considered such a national institution that Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic dines there. The restaurant’s fame helps to contribute to the appeal of Dubrovnic, which is now one of the most popular destinations in the Adriatic. It’s also one of the best and prettiest walled cities anywhere in the Mediterranean.
When To Visit?
I found that the best time to visit is in October, when most of the crowds have gone. It’s still as warm as an English summer’s day but the high-season cruise ships and tour buses don’t queue up outside to disgorge their clients into the little seaside citadel.
The luxury hotels dotted around the rocky shores boast even more celebrity guests than Proto. I heard locals mention famous visitors’ names as disparate as Brian Ferry and Diego Maradona. But, sadly, during my stay in October I didn’t spot any famous faces.
In fact, it was blissfully quiet as I first wandered into Dubrovnik’s Old Town through the monumental arches of Ploce gate. I strolled carelessly between aristocratic palaces and baroque churches dating back to Dubrovnik’s golden age of around 500 years ago. The grandeur of the architecture hinted at a time when this seaport ruled the region and boasted one of the world’s biggest trading fleets.
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Exploring The City
Today, outsiders like myself come to visit not trade – although I did enjoy browsing the superior clothes and art boutiques lining the main thoroughfare, known as ‘Stradun’ to the locals. The attractions of the Old Town itself are fairly low key. It’s more about the overall feel of the place than seeing any specific sights.
I completed a circuit of the massive defensive walls, which run for over a mile round the Old Town. Then I toured the richly decorated, domed Church of St Blaise in the centre. It’s worth a browse. Look out for the glittering statue of the city’s patron saint called Blaise on the main altar. The 15th century gold and silver masterpiece is said to be the most valuable object in the city.
Nearby is the Dubrovnik Cathedral. Again, I found it’s an interesting monument to explore. It was damaged during the wars when the former Yugoslavia broke up and Croatia was formed. The shells’ damage has been perfectly repaired. I looked, but I couldn’t even see where the repairs had been made. The highlight inside it the Cathedral’s main treasure – a trio of paintings behind the altar by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian.
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Beyond The Port
Perhaps the best bit of the whole Dubrovnik Old Town, which is now a World Heritage Site, is that it stands in such a gorgeous location, perched at the water’s edge. When I was there the sea looked so blue it was like it had been photo-shopped. And even in October, it was as hot as an English summer’s day, and warm enough to swim.
I found that the area of Dubrovnik extends beyond the ancient walled port, encompassing nearby islands, beaches and mountains. That tight little grid of medieval buildings within its intact thick stone walls is where you’ll take all your photos… but outside the town is where you’ll spend most of your holiday.
There are fine sandy beaches just to the west of the Old Town. You’ll also find a choice of boat trips to nearby islands. Just ten miles away is Sipan, a relaxed wooded island where Dubrovnik’s richest aristocrats built their summer mansions. The beaches, villages and historic landmarks make this one of the most popular day trips.
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Much closer to Dubrovnik is the island of Lokrum and you can simply take a water taxi there. It’s only a mile wide but you’ll find a medieval monastery to visit, a botanical garden and a hidden seawater lagoon for swimming.
On the water taxi and around the island all English visitors will be told, several times, by locals the story of how the English medieval king Richard the Lionheart was once shipwrecked here. My advice is nod knowingly as if this very important news… but never, ever, ask: “Who is Richard the Lionheart?”