Our first full day in Dubrovnik was the memorial of the people fallen in the recent war. Outside the door to our restaurant, I watched a steady stream of children filing from the church, each with a red lantern in their hand, an endless parade of joyous children too young to remember what they were commemorating. The waiter explains to an Australian couple what’s going on as we eaves drop. Almost 600 people died in and around Dubrovnik during the year long siege. Artillery fire rained down from the mountains; 70% of the buildings in old town were damaged and many more in the surrounding areas destroyed, looted, and set on fire. The sea was blockaded to prevent any escape. The neighboring towns had all fled to Dubrovnik for shelter. The couple glibly compliment the waiter on his good humor towards the war as he explains that most of his Bosnian family had left the country. But I get the feeling he doesn’t really want to be talking about it. At least not glibly. Later, driving through town, I see the same red lanterns lining the streets. Hundreds of them. Dubrovnik has been rebuilt, but here and there you can still see shelled out buildings or the outlines of once grand homes now parks or soccer fields on the hillsides. The war still seems close.
But the city persists and thrives, I assume, like it always has. To us Dubrovnik is a medieval wonderland; we loved it! You hear it’s unbearable in the summer, and the crowds, and the dopey tourists, but it’s not the summer, and it’s not crowded at all. In fact, it’s almost empty and the weather is just fine to us. Maybe every square inch is packed with cafes in the summer but we’re completely ok with the hundred options left open. Actually we’ve been busing downtown for the local food places anyway.
Compared to most of our destinations in Croatia, Dubrovnik seems to be in full swing. Old town has more than one cinema running and the museums are open. There’s nothing I feel like we haven’t been able to do (well I’m sure the beach scene is probably not at its finest). The city is quite a bit smaller than Split but the old town is larger, so it feels a bit deceptive. But that makes it quite easy to navigate by city bus and we seem to be on one almost every day. That along with a steady stable of Uber drivers makes getting around if you choose to leave old town fast and easy.
To be so celebrated and popular, Dubrovnik feels very livable. There’s a clear community and it’s easy to find markets. School children are playing in the streets. And you can discover townie bars tucked all throughout old town. Unlike the smaller islands, I don’t feel on display, even in the local spots. I feel . . . ignored, which is just lovely.
Getting to old town from the bus station
We took the bus from Korcula which left at 6:45am. Oof! The bus ride includes the ferry to the mainland and then a spectacular drive through mountains and small towns including a stop in Ston, a walled city, and eventually arriving in Dubrovnik. The bus station is a little ways from old town. Ubers are plentiful but we chose to take the city bus for 15kn. To find the stop, walk out of the station lot and turn right, the stop is about a half block down. You can take the 1A, 1B, 1C, 3 or 6, they all go to Pile Gate, it’s pedestrian only from there through old town.
Dubrovnik is narrow oriented north to south with old town at the south. Most of the buses stop at Pile Gate and head north before diverging on their separate routes so it’s easy to hop on one and head into the nontouristy spots. We bought the Dubrovnik city card which gives you access to local attractions and museums but it also includes 10 bus trips on a bus card. The 7 day card was 315kn (with online discount) but it more than made up for the cost. Here’s their website.
Old Town does not disappoint. It’s an enormous walled city with all the original fortifications still intact. High walls surround the city that you can still walk in their entirety (2 miles), functioning gates with drawbridges and accompanying mechanisms. Although the moat has been turned into a park with fruit trees. The interior is packed with white stone buildings and shiny stone lanes that have organically grown over the top of each other and up steep hills on each side so that the city looks down towards the center, and narrow lanes of steps leading up and up, seemingly endlessly until you reach the outer walls. The town itself is built on sheer cliffs jutting up out of the sea and the peninsula originally severed from the mainland with sea moats and bridges. It’s spectacular!
The city walls
The main attraction in old town is the city walls walk. The entire wall system is still walkable and you can spend an afternoon walking the entire 2 mile loop that winds up cliff sides overlooking the sea and through residential neighborhoods. You get the best views of the city from up here and it’s a must-do if you’re visiting. I hear it’s unbearably crowded in the summer but we basically had the place to ourselves in mid November and it was sunny and nice. Apparently there are normally cafes at intervals along the walls in summer but these were all closed except one guy selling chips and beer beside two picnic tables. It’s a bit pricey at 200kn but it was our favorite thing. This plus admission to the Rector’s Palace make up for the cost of the city card, so all of the other museums and the bus are free after that.
Kolorina and the Dubrovnik west harbor
Maybe even more than the city, the scenic bays surrounding it are iconic. Windex blue waters and sharp almost too perfect rocks jutting up near white stone piers, nestled between sheer cliffs. The whole scene seems straight out of a storybook.
The Game of Thrones thing
Ok, so, I didn’t want to make this post about Game of Thrones. There’s way more to the city and it deserves its own respect. But . . . it’s hard NOT to notice that like everywhere you go, you’re in a shooting location for the show. Dubrovnik served as the exterior locations for King’s Landing after the first season (season 1 was shot in Malta), and for good reason. The entire place is so photogenic and fabulous that the evil mouse couldn’t have done better starting from scratch. If I’m being honest I went to every shooting location I could find and it took me to some awesome spots. Yeah, I know it’s touristy and cheesy, but whatevs, I love finding shooting locations everywhere I go, on a variety of levels. From Twin Peaks to Kindergarten Cop. Although we never made it to the botanical gardens about 20 minutes north of town or the abandoned Hotel Belvedere where they filmed the trial by combat between the Mountain and the Viper. I have more images than I’m including here.
Like I’ve mentioned before, Katy has been very excited about marende, which is a concept common across southern Europe, Slovenia, and Croatia. It’s exact manifestation is a little different from region to region but in Croatia it is a noontime meal served by restaurants consisting of a hearty regional dish for a small amount of money. Here in Dubrovnik we’ve found marende for about 40kn or about $6. In Hvar our marende came with a salad, soup, and desert like a halfboard meal but here we just got a single entree. Katy spent some time researching and found a couple of places downtown away from the tourists that served marende so we kept busing over to have it. Our favorite spot was Konoba Tabak that we ate at twice. The menu was completely different each time. Common dishes include stuffed peppers or cabbage rolls (sarma), hearty stews like goulash (which is like a thick beef stew here), grilled meat, handrolled pasta, and other regional dishes. I’m sure we’ll continue to explore this concept as we travel.
The credit for this find goes entirely to Katy. She spent a lot of time tracking this place down and motivating to go there and I’m so happy she did. This place was exactly the kind of place I love. No nonsense local food for reasonable prices without any whitewashing for tourists. The menu board is entirely in Croatian (that’s a good sign) so you have to do a bit of frantic translating but we discovered they have a specials board near the road where you drive in so you can figure it out at your leisure without the stress of negotiating a waiter who’s in a hurry. For our first lunch Katy got the goulash and I ordered the pork neck but since they were out and I hadn’t really thought through a plan B I got the goulash too and I’m really happy that I did. One of my favorite dishes in Dubrovnik. Sopping up the gravy with the soft white bread was heaven. The second time we came back I came prepared and had looked up all the dishes on the board the day before and memorized it but when I got there the board was entirely different. That’s great but my preparation was in vain. The restaurant also had a dinner menu with both a Croatian and English section so for expediency I could find the marende items in the dinner menu, flip to the English section and get the full translation. Worked like a charm. I was easily able to identify the pork belly this way and Katy ordered what we thought was a beef patty in tomato sauce. It was only after it arrived did we realize that not all of the English menu was in the same order as the Croatian, so she actually ordered the veal tongue with a dill or caper sauce (it was unclear). I thought it was delicious but Katy’s not as into tongue, but she was a good sport. I could eat here a couple times a week forever.
This place is about a block away from Tabak. It also had a marende menu but it seemed a bit limited at 4 items and the ambiance was a little more mallish compared to Tabak’s mom and pop feel, so we chose to return to Tabak instead of trying Mazzanave. But I wanted to list it for anyone who did want to try it. I’m sure it’s a great alternative.
Fast Food Preša
Not a typical “fast food”, Preša was down an alley about a block from our apartment. Our host recommended it and we went back at least three times in the week we were there. Nothing fancy here, just decent food at reasonable prices (by old town standards). They have burgers and cevapi, salads, a large crepe selection (we particularly liked the crunchy salty ham and cheese one where they take a savory crepe, roll it up like a burrito, then deep fry it), beer and wine. It’s a utility lunch joint. Also, no bathroom fyi.
This is a larger family event type place about 20-30 minutes south of Dubrovnik specializing in grilled meats and peka! Our uber driver was pretty excited for us. This time of year it’s only open on the weekends so we made a 6pm reservation for Friday. That’s a bit early for locals. Out of three separate dining rooms full of long tables, we were the only people in the restaurant with about 10 staff members joking in the lobby. Our waiter let us go back and check out the wood fire kitchen where they make the peka! We could see other meals cooking there for later. It takes about 3 hours to prepare so you have to order in advance. We’ve only had peka once before in Rovinj and it was rock’em sock’em delicious, one of our favorite meals of the trip so far. No frills meat slow cooked with potatoes in it’s own sauce.
The Dubrava version was about the same, except presented a bit more fancy on a heated platter instead of a dented aluminum pan. We got both lamb and veal mixed this time and it was fantastic as expected. Tender fatty meat that would just fall apart. The potatoes were caramelized in spots and saturated throughout with meat juice making them taste just like the fatty meat. It’s a fat/meat flavor-bomb. Hard to eat much. But we did our best while working through a liter of local wine. We had the leftovers for lunch a couple days later and it was just as filling.
We discovered this little place late in our visit hidden way back by the seaside wall and tried it for lunch (right by the little passage leading to the abandoned cliffside terrace). It’s not particularly cheap but it had an interesting Croatian/asian fusion menu, particularly the Croatian laksa caught my attention. We’re a little burned out on the traditional food. Sort of a Greek island vibe inside with a pan-asian twist to dishes. Katy had the pork belly tacos and I had the laksa. Not exactly like laksa but lots of seafood and had a good spicy/creamy soup with noodles. We ordered desert and coffee and they comped us a chocolate tart. Three desert lunch!
Emulsified meat products (part 5): Paté
This is the fifth installment of my continuing series on delicious emulsified meats of Croatia. This time I want to focus on paté or pašteta in Croatian. Paté is usually reserved for fancy party food or restaurant appetizers in the US but in every Croatian grocery store there’s a huge section of this stuff in cans and tubes and it made me very curious. It had to be somewhat of a staple to take up so much shelf space. At first glance you think, “wow, that’s a lot of catfood in the middle of the canned food section”. It mostly comes in these smaller gold tin cans with aluminum foil sealed over the top. An outline of chickens or whatever meat it’s made from on the top sometimes, but usually just words. Actually I started seeing fish pate on menus in Split which piqued my interest and decided to invest a few kuna to try it for myself. This stuff comes in an endless variety of meats and fishes, single or mixed. The salmon pate even comes in these huge tubes, I figure it’s probably used like we use tuna salad. The little cans are just enough for a sandwich so I figure it’s kind of a lunch thing, either spread on bread or dipped with something. I’ve been trying a couple here and there throughout the trip. Truth told I’m pretty burned out on pate at this point but you can’t say I didn’t go deep here.
I really liked it. It’s basically like deviled ham but smoother, salty, creamy, fatty. You can eat it by itself on a bread as a toast or sandwich or use it as a condiment to a sandwich with other meat or cheese. There’s a lot of things you could do with it. It could also be used as a dip or added to dressings like anchovies paste. All of the fish ones were great. Loved the salmon and white fish. The anchovie one was had a great complex flavor and the paste was darker than the mystery pink most of them had. Honestly I don’t even know what all of them were but worth a try if you’re into emulsified meat food. =)
I realized that these are all just going to look the same to most people but I documented each one so here you go!
I also wanted to include a few pics of our cool apartment tucked up a couple flights of stairs in old town. It was small but felt luxurious with all the thoughtful touches and charm.