Nothing quite prepared me for the sight of Dubrovnik at midnight.
It had been a long day by the time my Croatian Airlines flight from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, landed in Dubrovnik. But the sight of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a walled city-within-a-city sprinkled with lit turrets and pillared walls, instantly drove any thoughts of fatigue from my mind. It was suggestive of China’s Great Wall, but with tropical foliage. It was seductive and surreal and totally, completely beautiful.
Hollywood set designers would love the ethereal beauty of this city of stone and light at the edge of the Adriatic. Against this backdrop of medieval walls and stone fortresses, Croatia’s once-grand hotels have been experiencing a renaissance, with swanky bars and restaurants replacing their decidedly less-swanky predecessors.
“Tourism is the strongest branch of Croatian industry right now,” said my Odysseys Tours & Travels guide, as he took me to my hotel. He said most visitors flock to the coast, which reflects Croatia’s tourism slogan: “The Mediterranean as it once was.”
The venerable Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik is a short walk outside the Old City’s walled main gate. Its appearance belies the fact that it took a direct hit during the Homeland War of 1990-91, though the before-and-after photos are right off the central lobby, if you care to compare.
Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built between the 13th and 15th centuries, draws an international crowd to the Stradun’s main street. It’s dotted with cafes, boutiques, alleys and courtyards, all of which invite wandering. It can take three hours to explore the sights between the West and East Gates.
When I met Mira, a local guide, she explained the rhythm of hanging out here. “The main square is a place to see and be seen,” she said, “to have a gossip and show new shoes.”
We walked the cobblestone streets while she pointed out sites laden with history. Over there was the first library built between the times of the Ottomans and Hapsburgs; a little further down was one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, with blue-and-white china and old “recipes” from the 1500s.
A few days later, I gathered my gear and headed to Hvar, the namesake queen of a group of long, narrow Dalmatian islands north of Dubrovnik. The mountainous island is dotted with pines, palms, and red-tiled roofed homes that hug stone alleys descending to the sea.
Since antiquity, Hvar has been an important port for Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. There were also plenty of pirates – mercenary pirates, hiding in caves and fortresses, hired by families to go after Venetian ships.
To get to Hvar I drove four hours along the coast to Split, a city of about 200,000. Split is a primary transportation hub for Adriatic Sea travelers because of its cruise port and ferry terminal. Split, settled 1,700 years ago, is Croatia’s second largest city; its streets are crowded with cars and pedestrians are elbow-to-elbow on its sidewalks.
The two-hour ferry crossing took me to what National Geographic once declared as one of the most beautiful islands in the world, one of the places you must see before you die.
It’s also one of the sunniest. Hvar has about 2,800 hours of sun yearly, far more than any other island along the Dalmatian Coast.
The island’s main two-lane road, built in 1990, connects the ferry port to the rest of the island. The engineering marvel was cut through mountains hugging the coast. Its mile-long tunnel was dug in the 1980s, but construction stopped when war erupted and was finally completed in 2000.
“That road literally saved us from having to go from one village to another to get supplies,” said Carmen, a lifelong islander.
There’s a feeling of great resourcefulness on Hvar. Imagine being surrounded by water but not having running water until 1977. Islanders used to say they’d rather give you a bottle of wine than a cup of water.
By car, it takes about 20 minutes to get to Hvar Town, population about 4,000. When I got out of the shuttle cab at the town’s clock tower, I lugged my gear a few blocks over cobblestone walks, past 500-year-old cypress trees and centuries-old homes and shops ringing the town square. Later, Carmen told me a little anecdote about that town square.
It seems that when Venetians occupied the island a few hundred years ago, they weren’t too keen on women arguing with each other. The solution was simple. “They tied them together on a public platform until the quarrel was done,” Carmen said.
I strolled passed shops selling lavender everything (lavender is farmed high atop the island’s mountains) to get to the Adriana Hotel.
If you hadn’t guessed, no cars are allowed in Hvar Town.
Visiting the lavender fields is not for the faint of heart. It requires driving an extremely narrow and winding road—the area’s original road that leads to the summit of a mountain. I gasped when Carmen said, “To get our driver’s license we have to drive this road.” Later she admitted, “You have to really want it.”
If you prefer non-adventure, just head to a seaside promenade and watch the rest of the world go by. Depending on when you’re here, you’ll see hundreds of boats from skiffs and sloops to sailboats and yachts docking at water’s edge. The seaside hums with activity, so much so that Hvar Town’s waterfront resembles the French Riviera.
Hvar Town is not the island’s only village. There’s also Stari Grad, one of Croatia’s oldest towns. It dates to 385 B.C., when it was founded by Greeks from the island of Paros.
I visited the summer residence of a 17th-century Italian poet, purportedly the first to translate Ovid into Croatian literature. There were gardens and fishponds, but the magic was in the words he left behind.
He had permanently chiseled his thoughts on the home’s stone walls. Over one doorway he expressed the thoughts that seemed to sum up my own visit to Hvar: “Always remember the last things you saw before you fly away.”
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.
Editor’s Note: A trip of a lifetime, like Sharyn Alden’s trip to Croatia, requires protection. Travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection is a prudent travel investment. Get it here.