There is no one reason to visit Dubrovnik. The beautiful Dalmatian city was relatively unknown until the fantasy epic Game of Thrones put the ‘city of dragons’ on the world map after showcasing it as the King’s Landing. Croatia is making headlines again for being not just the newest and the smallest country, but also one of the lowest ranked teams to beat all-time favorites like Argentina and England and earn a spot in the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018.
I visited Croatia in May 2017. I traveled to Dubrovnik, Mount Srđ, Split, Pula, Istria, Trogir, Rovinj, Brač, Bol, and also passed through another country — Bosnia & Herzegovina — while going from one city to another. Yes, Croatia is that small a country, with a population of merely four million, which is why their World Cup feat has left most sports aficionados around the world stumped.
The country, born in 1991, has attracted hordes of tourists in the last few years. Most of them go there to see the GOT sites for real, or to relax in the laidback air of the country while hopping its many islands. It is a hotspot for adventure enthusiasts, with many daily excursions leading to the pristine waters of Kotor Bay, Montenegro, and the Elaphite islands. But for me, the top reason to visit this city again would be its food.
Dubrovnik surprised me by throwing wonderful flavors on my plate every time I sat down for a meal. I am a vegetarian, and I faced many difficulties in finding a good plate of vegetarian food when I traveling across some other parts of Europe, so much that my friend (who does not even eat eggs, by the way) and I ended up cooking for ourselves in our AirBnb apartments, or go to bed hungry. I even raised a lot of eyebrows among friends back home when I told them I wouldn’t be trying any meat products during my time in Europe. “You won’t survive for so long,” is what they told me.
Dubrovnik, however, was different. The food was like a breath of fresh air, just like a whiff of the Adriatic Sea I got at every step during my stay there. On my first day in the city, I made my way to the old town. Before stepping inside the city walls, my friend and I decided to fill our growling tummies and prepare ourselves for the long walk that lay ahead of us.
Right outside the Pile Gate of the City Walls on the Brsalje Square lies Dubravka 1836, a serene terrace restaurant looking out at the sea with a special vegetarian menu. The restaurant lies surrounded by three fortresses — Lovrijenac, Bokar, and Minceta. The restaurant also comes with a souvenir shop, where you can buy traditional Croatian arts, crafts, hand-made jewelry, and delicacies typical to the region.
My friend and I, scarred by the bleak vegetarian food we’d eaten in our trip so far, ordered a modest Margarita pizza. As we sat looking at the breathtaking view that spread out in front of us, we were served a typical large pizza, with full round, almost-raw tomatoes on top and a few pitted olives in the middle. We didn’t think much about the look of the dish, but as we took one bite each, we were humbled by the gooey cheese that melted in our mouths, matched perfectly by the salted olives and the crunchy base. The view made it taste even better.
We stepped inside the old city walls and were immediately part of a huge crowd, some crowding outside the Tourist Information centre, some waiting in a queue to get on top of the walls and begin their walk. The first thing I noticed about the ‘old town’ was how new it looked, as if it had been recently constructed, neatly tiled, glistening clean, without a speck of dirt or falling paint on the walls. We bought a bottle of water and began our long walk on the wall.
As we looked on the outside at the majestic Adriatic Sea, we saw many boats and kayakers paddling in the sea, making their way to Lokrum. Lokrum, also called the pearl of Dubrovnik’s archipelago, comes from the Latin word acrumen, meaning sour fruit. When we looked on the inside of the walls, we saw numerous red roofs that made up the old town, which used to be home to natives and had been converted into hostels and cafes to make way for tourists. We saw many restaurants from the top, each distinguished with a unique-colored awning and setup.
I had planned to meet a guy in Budapest. He was a friend’s old classmate who was currently working in Europe. He had asked me to visit a hole-in-the-wall cafe inside these walls in Dubrovnik when I felt like relaxing with a beer and an unbeatable view. With that description, I was sold. The walk on the walls was long and tiring, and there was no exit to cut it short. The walk stretched well into the afternoon, and we were famished. We decided to look for the cafe my ‘phone acquaintance’ had so kindly suggested, and made our way to Buza Bar.
I must confess, the tiny entrance through the wall with what looked like an abyss on the other side put me off; I was too tired to have come so far just to find a door that would barely fit me and fight a crowd to get through it. But it was on the other end of the old town, we had walked many alleyways and passed several other gastropubs to reach this place, there was no going back. My friend and I stepped inside the door, and went down the steep steps, to be finally greeted with a slightly open space, abuzz with activity, with waiters rushing around with bottles of beer, and lots of people sitting with their feet propped up on the railing that saved them from falling straight into the sea.
Buza Bar hangs on the cliff right above the sea, with an unmatched panoramic view of the sea and Lokrum island. The rocks below the bar also serve as a diving spot for people who’d like to take a dip in the sea. The bar has a limited menu, some juices, beer, and a few other drinks. It is easy to mingle with other customers and share a drink with them. I had a wonderful memory of that place, of about 50 strangers coming together for an act of motivation, and sheer grit, but I shall talk about that in another post later.
With time slipping away from our hands as we sat distracted by the beautiful view in front of us, we quickly left the place and made our way to Mount Srd in a cable car. This short trip gave me the most amazing view of Croatia. I enjoy heights and looking at cities, barren lands, or a water body spread out in front of my eyes. From the top of the Srd Hill, I saw the entire old city of Dubrovnik with patches of red roofs everywhere, the Lapad Bay, and Lokrum island and the most beautiful stretch of the Adriatic Sea.
But this story is not about the magnificent views that left me awestruck. It is about Dubrovnik’s scrumptious food. We got a table at Panorama, the sister restaurant of Dubravka. The restaurant lies on the Upper cable car station, and would make for an unforgettable romantic dinner when paired with a wine from their elaborate collection.
It is not everyday that you get a seat in a restaurant at such an exclusive location such as this, serving classic Mediterranean cuisine. The menu looked excellent, but we could not spot any ‘pure’ vegetarian dish on it. We asked the chef if he had anything non-meaty in the kitchen for us, and he politely asked us to wait for a few minutes while he whipped up a risotto for us. We smeared our freshly-baked bread with olive oil and chili flakes while we waited. The view outside disappeared in less than a few heartbeats as we were surrounded by a dense mist that had traveled as fast as sound. Our outstanding view was lost among white clouds. It did scare us a little bit, but we were too hungry to pay any further attention to the changing atmosphere we were currently engulfed in.
You may not believe me when I say this, but it was the best risotto I’d had in my life. The portion was small for the price we paid, but the taste was excellent. And, the service was impeccable. We took our time to finish the tiny portion, hoping that the mist would clear by the time we were done. And miraculously, it did clear out. We caught the next cable car to go downhill again, and waited at the bus stop on the foothill to catch a bus that would take us back to our apartment at the other end of the city.
The weather took a turn for the worse, and we were caught in a hailstorm. Strong winds blew, and it rained very heavily. A huge crowd clamored to get cover under the small roof of the bus stop. We waited for about half an hour, but our bus was nowhere in sight. Other buses came and went, many people left our side, but we were still waiting. After being almost drenched by the rain, and scared to bits by the sound of hail falling around us, we called for a cab. Our cab dropped us at the foot of the cliff, on top of which we had our rooms. It was only drizzling at that time, but we were cold. My friend made us a cup of hot tea and we went to bed, tired after having an adventurous day.
Next day, we made our way back to the old city. This time, we decided to explore the city on the ground level, instead of from the walls. We walked in and out of many small lanes, stumbling upon some of the cafes we had seen from the top of the walls, and smelled grilled food, wine, truffles, olives, and lots of different things we couldn’t decipher the origin of.
The old city has many restaurants, most of which serve traditional Mediterranean cuisine, followed by Italian. You will also find Michelin-guide recommended restaurants serving local meat specialties cooked on a grill, under a large iron bell, as well as Spanish, Mexican, and even Bosnian delicacies. For those who like to play it safe even on foreign travels, there are many pizzerias serving wood-fired pizzas. There are also some gourmet pubs serving craft beer, fine wine, new-style street food, and tapas that are accompanied by live Irish music and screenings of the biggest sports events. Imagine eating smoked ham, cheese, with some olive and wines while being surrounded by stone palaces that are home to lifestyle boutiques. You can even sign up for a sunset dinner cruise on wooden boats locally known as Karaka.
Note: Many restaurants in Dubrovnik remain closed from December to March due to bad weather conditions and limited daylight.
As we walked in and out of several deli-type stores selling hand-made artisan delicacies, we clicked pictures of attractions like Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, the Dead Bell. Many parts of the old city were closed for renovation. We unanimously decided to spend another evening at Buza Bar, because one evening at the glorious cafe was certainly not enough for us.
If you are spending more than a few days in Dubrovnik, make sure you sign up for a cooking class, which will take you to the countryside where you get to handpick your produce and learn the traditional way to cook it, and enjoy it with some wine. The locals put it aptly, Dubrovnik’s gastronomy overcomes the language barriers! Food will always be my top reason to visit the country, it should be yours too!
All images © Ano Patel