Local Takes: Dubrovnik
Five notable locals show us how to do their town, their way
It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, this medieval walled city overlooking the Adriatic Sea was Europe’s best-kept secret. Last year, Dubrovnik attracted a record 1.27 million international visitors, drawn to its thrillingly preserved Gothic and Renaissance buildings, its vibrant cultural scene, its spectacular rock-and-pebble coastline and its magical pine-scented islands. Of course, for Game of Thrones fans, Dubrovnik will always be King’s Landing. As more and more people discover Croatia’s undisputed jewel, insider knowledge is increasingly valuable. Luckily, our five locals are on hand to steer you toward its best sights, restaurant, bars and shops—and even places where it is still possible to enjoy glorious isolation.
Ana-Marija Bujić, 32
Piling on the calories around the city
Five years ago, when Ana-Marija Bujić and her husband, Milan Vasić, opened their restaurant, Pantarul (or “Fork”), in an un-touristy part of Dubrovnik, it really was a labor of love. After studying in Zagreb, where she had started a food blog (“Like, nobody was doing this in Croatia in 2007”), Bujić landed a job in the Croatian capital at a popular food magazine. The only wrinkle was that Milan was working in Dubrovnik.
“As Milan had been a waiter for years, and I am so crazy about food, it made sense for us to open something together in our home city,” she says. “The last five years have been a scary, grown-up adventure, but seeing our business grow and watching so many of our diners become regulars has been hugely rewarding.” During this time, Bujić has also managed to deliver two stylish cookbooks—What’s Cooking in Dubrovnik and Pantarul at Home—along with a young daughter. “Sleep is by far my biggest luxury,” she sighs.
Still, if Bujić is annoyed that I have rolled up 30 minutes late for an early-morning shopping spree at the Gruž produce market, she hides it well. “I know, the traffic is terrible,” she soothes over dwindling mounds of artichokes and fava beans. It is no accident that for dinner later, in Pantarul, I am served a hearty stew made from artichokes with fava beans. People here are sticklers for seasonality.
People also tend to have their main meal of the day at lunchtime, a throwback to the era when many had done a full shift of fishing by midday. Adjacent to the market is Glorijet, a traditional konoba (tavern). Today’s lunch specials include grilled red mullet, goat stew and sporki makaruli, or dirty macaroni.
A few doors down is a shop where a woman force-feeds me endless samples of identical-tasting cheeses.
Because we are obviously in need of more calories, we cab it to Dolce Vita in the Old City, a mainstay for locals in need of something sweet. Although the big draw here are the filled pancakes, we confine ourselves to bitter orange ice cream made with local fruit, and dark chocolate ice cream with hazelnuts and pistachios.
Our next stop is the nearby Terra Croatica, a lovely shop offering alternatives to the Game of Thrones figurines and pirate-themed fridge magnets that characterize souvenir shopping in Dubrovnik. Here, you can pick up a sack of coarse Ston salt, on which the city’s wealth was originally built, a bottle of Grk wine from the island of Korčula, and artisanal cosmetics made with local ingredients such as lavender. Even sweeter-smelling is Rozalin, a rose-petal aperitif that suddenly materializes in shot glasses. “Živjeli!” the proprietor, Danijela, toasts as we knock back the flowery liqueur.
A short stroll brings us to narrow Pustijerne Street, home to Cogito Coffee, which claims to be Dubrovnik’s only independent coffee roastery. Predictably, everything is in lower-case, including ice cream in hipster-baiting flavors such as green pea and coconut mint. This tiny alley is also home to Craft & Stones, a sweet little shop selling prints and small homeware items made from stone. I get a tote bag emblazoned with the local greeting De Si Iz—which means, weirdly, “Where Are You?”
Back at Pantarul, Bujić exchanges this phrase with a handful of regular lunchers. “Everything here is governed by our motto—Feels Like Home,” she says. However, while Bujić may occasionally stealth-test recipes on diners here, she never feels the urge to do a shift in the kitchen. “Are you insane?” she says, laughing. “Family and professional cooking are worlds apart. I don’t want to feed 50 hungry, demanding people at the same time. It is enough with a toddler at home.”
Pero Šare, 35
Restaurateur, Sport fisherman
Finding heaven off the Adriatic Coast
I traipse around gruž port for 20 minutes looking for “a small blue boat,” as instructed, until I spy Pero Šare waving from a gleaming 32-foot vessel, its teak deck fitted with handsome aluminium outrigger poles, rods and reels. There are smaller apartments listed on Airbnb.
“Today we’re going to catch the best fish you have ever tasted,” Šare yells as he throttles up the twin 315-horsepower engines, Dubrovnik dissolving in our spray. “Can you feel all that city stress leaving your body?” I grip my seat.
We’re hoping to catch a bluefin tuna to eat at Šare’s restaurant, BOWA (Best of What’s Around), on Sipan, the largest of the Elaphiti islands, which lie about 10 miles off the mainland. For creatures this size, we need to go another 10 miles past the islands, which leads to some pretty fantastic views as the boat glides past shady reefs, craggy shorelines and red-roofed cottages poking through the wild Aleppo pines.
“You have to spend time on the water here,” says Šare, grabbing a beer from the baby fridge, our vessel cruising on autopilot. “Not only does Dubrovnik look best seen from the sea, but for much of the year you also really need a boat to relax—away from the heat and the crowds. There are so many beautiful islands to explore, some completely uninhabited.”
Part of an oyster-farming dynasty that expanded into restaurants, Šare had an epiphany in 2008 when he first tasted sushi in California. A decade on, the family owns four Bota Šare Oyster & Sushi bars in Croatia, fusing Japanese and Dalmatian cuisine. “It may sound unlikely, but it is a perfect pairing as both countries are obsessed with the quality of the fish,” Šare says.
Šare has a separate business offering tourists “extreme fishing experiences,” which I soon witness. After a couple of hours of drifting in strategic spots, one of the rods, baited with a sardine, starts to convulse. Šare leaps up to reel in our catch and 20 minutes later a glistening five-foot monster lies on the deck. We have landed ourselves a 150-pound swordfish.
The skipper cuts a chunk the size of a grapefruit out of its neck and disappears into the cabin, returning with it sliced and dripping with soy sauce. “I’d bet this is the freshest sashimi you’ve had,” he says. I look at the fish, its giant eye still staring at me, and nod.
As we idle in to Sipan, the island looks like a movie-grade deserted paradise, all turquoise reef and lush vegetation. I spot five cabanas with billowing curtains, set on wooden platforms over the water, plus plush loungers on the rocky beach. “Welcome to heaven,” Šare says.
In a cabana, we eat shrimp tartare and grilled scorpion fish washed down with crisp malvazija wine. Šare chastises me for using cutlery. “You have to eat with your hands, or you won’t get all the flesh off the bone.”
A couple of fancy yachts pull up for lunch, but after the boat, the heady wine and the fragrant scent of the island, I’m too sleepy to scope the jetty for celebrities. In fact, I warn my host that I feel so relaxed I might actually nod off at the table. “That is the whole point of this place” he replies.
“You eat, you swim, you doze off. Is there anywhere else you’d rather be?”
Darija Mikulandra Žanetić, 48
Castle walls and Christmas bells in the Old City
“In Dubrovnik, we linger over our morning coffee,” says broadcaster and actress Darija Mikulandra Žanetić. We are sitting outside Caffe Bar Libertina, a tiny joint in a narrow passage in the Old City. “If there are no seats in the alleys, we’ll put cushions on the steps. An espresso is easily a half-an-hour ritual.”
Libertina is one of Žanetić’s favorite local spots, partly because of its colorful owner, Luciano Capurso Lući, who was once in the Dubrovnik Troubadours, a local band who wore Renaissance costumes and appeared in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. The bar, which attracts a mix of eccentrics and sailors, resembles the kind of traditional English pub that is rapidly disappearing in England.
For 21 years, Žanetić has broadcast a weekly show, Radio Caffe, from a different cafe or bar in Dubrovnik. On each program, she tells me, 20 guests discuss the day’s big issues—which, according to my calculations, means about half the city’s population has now appeared on her show. “Yup,” she says with a smile. “People here have a lot to say.”
We weave through the crowds on Stradun and enter the city’s medieval maze, stopping to admire piles of fruit at the open-air market in Gundulić Square, and to taste olive oil from the island of Brač in the specialist shop Uje. Over a sea of sunburnt shoulders, I spy a sign: “It is only 196 days to Christmas.”
Žanetić practically body-slams me into Dubrovnik’s permanent Christmas shop, which is crammed with pastoral decorations, all of them either hand-carved or hand-knitted or hand-blown. “I buy traditional gifts here throughout the year,” she says. “The good thing is that nothing is too seasonal.”
We’re heading for the house where Marin Držić, often referred to as Dubrovnik’s Shakespeare, lived 500 years ago. Today, the stone-built house contains a tiny museum—its exhibits include a replica of the Croatian bard’s original room, complete with a comically small bed.
A little later, we pass a bronze statue of Držić near the 17th-century baroque cathedral, his prominent proboscis shiny as a new penny. “You’re supposed to rub his nose to bring you good luck,” says Žanetić. I do so, trying to ignore the bullet hole in his neck, a reminder of the 1990s conflict.
Žanetić has snuck a new English-language version of Držić’s comedy Uncle Maroye into this year’s Midsummer Scene festival, the Shakespeare-heavy event she co-founded in 2014 and which takes place on the battlements of Fort Lovrijenac—“the most magical part of the city.” It is hard to imagine a more dramatic stage than this 11th-century castle (it was the location for Red Keep in Game of Thrones), built on a rock 120 feet above the sea, reached via two drawbridges and possessing panoramic views of the Old City and Adriatic Sea.
“Dubrovnik has always had a rich cultural life,” Žanetić says as we nose around the ancient structure. Since 1950, the city’s Summer Festival has attracted the greatest names in music and theater, from Duke Ellington to Daniel Day-Lewis.
We sit on high stools at the ramshackle Beach Bar Dodo, built into a cliff opposite Lovrijenac, gulping cooling lemonade. Below is the tiny, pebbly Šulić beach, where local kids are shrieking and splashing around in astonishingly clear water. “This is the festival staff’s favorite place. We often meet here during rehearsals,” says Žanetić. “And sometimes, after a show, we come back and let our hair down.”
Vedran Mezei, 42
Strolling the villages of the Dubrovnik Riviera
“Growing up, no one ever carried a beach bag, or even a towel,” says Vedran Mezei, an author and part-time musician. “We’d just jump in the sea when we needed to cool down, then dry off on the rocks. It’s a wonder anyone ever made it home from school.”
We are standing on a palm-shaded terrace overlooking the bay in Mlini, a pretty village of pastel-hued houses that’s part of the Dubrovnik Riviera. This verdant coastline stretches from Dubrovnik to Cavtat, another picturesque town seven miles south on a peninsula between twin harbors. Behind us are spectacular mountains; in front, a pebble beach sweeps around one side of the bay, while white coves scallop the other.
“I love Dubrovnik, but until you get outside the city walls, you cannot really appreciate the quality of life here,” Mezei says. “This very spot is where I learned to swim when I was four years old, and it’s where I taught my kids to swim.” Farther on, we stroll alongside the tiny harbor, passing a family of ducks and a dinky waterwheel that, long ago, would have powered one of village’s grain and olive-oil mills.
We started our walk earlier in Srebreno, another charming village a mile west. There, a promenade leads into a trail lined with tall oaks and sweet-smelling cypress trees, wending its way along much of the coastline. “Local people laze here in summer, but in fall and winter it is a lovely place to walk and collect your thoughts,” says Mezei, striding ahead.
A fiction writer, Mezei in 2017 published a short story collection titled I Am Here! Asked if he walks this trail musing about character development and story arcs, he smiles and tells me he’s much more likely to be humming “The Girl From Ipanema.”
“I relax by playing my guitar and singing at bars along the coast,” he says. “To be clear, this is a hobby. I’m not deluding myself that I’m ever going to be a rock star—even a Croatian rock star—but I do enjoy performing, especially at the summer festivals, of which there are plenty in this area.”
We stop for beers at the Caffe Bar Gusar, a lively seafront spot named after the local water polo team (gusar means “pirate”), taking an outdoor table with yet another breathtaking view. We are in the narrowest part of Croatia, Mezei tells me, gesturing at a nearby ridge of imposing hills, the only thing standing between us and the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The rainwater that flows down from these hills is responsible for the lush, almost tropical vegetation along the coast.
We end our day in Plat, another idyllic village a mile or so south of Mlini. Here, we flump down at the beachside restaurant Konoba Poseydon for a late lunch of swordfish and local beer. “I spend a lot of time here during the summer,” Mezei says. “There is absolutely nothing to do but relax by the warm sea, enjoy the landscape and contemplate our existence.”
Then our waiter appears and we contemplate another beer.
Ines Tričković, 37
Conversing with peacocks on Lokrum Island
I’m sitting below a 15th-century clock tower in Dubrovnik’s Old City, melting in the midday heat, when I receive a text: “I’ll be there in 28 seconds.” Ines Tričković is clearly a woman who likes to make an entrance.
And … three … two … one … here she is, shimmering in gold capri pants, Betty Boop shoes and fingernails as black as her hair, which is elaborately coiled around a jagged fringe. Sunlight bounces off the silver barbell dangling from her septum. This Girl-With-the-Dragon-Tattoo-meets-Princess-Leia look would turn heads in Berlin, never mind the Balkans.
I wonder if the acclaimed jazz singer has just been shooting a video. “No, this is all me,” she laughs. “I’ve always enjoyed dressing a little eccentrically. I used to be a clown, visiting kids in hospital.” After a pause, she adds: “Of course, as a musician it helps to have a distinct look.”
We have a few minutes to catch the ferry from the Old City port to Lokrum, a small island less than half a mile off the mainland. Known for its untamed beaches, thick forests, ancient ruins and botanical gardens, it is a special place for Tričković. Three generations of her mother’s family lived here, and the island continues to inspire her music. Later this summer she will stage a concert here, as she does every year. “It’s a headache to organize, but it is nice to give something back,” she says.
Before we hit the jetty—where I discover Tričković’s celebrity merits us a free ride—we make a quick stop on Stradun, the limestone-paved shopping drag. Tričković ducks into her favorite boutique, Michal Negrin, to return a vintage-style dress she wore for a show last week—the shop lends her outfits in exchange for promotion on social media. “It’s a great arrangement for both of us,” she says, “and they have fantastic clothes and jewelry.”
Tričković assures me she will be much lower maintenance on Lokrum. Disembarking from the ferry, we pass a pretty pink building that serves as the information center. “That is Forester’s House, named after my great-grandfather, who was the island’s first forester,” she says proudly. “As a child, I used to sleep on my grandfather’s boat here. Now I sometimes spend the night here in my own little boat.”
We head for the leafy shade of her beloved Lacroma café bar, where we slump into canvas chairs and order coffee and custardy cake. “In this heat we should take a siesta, but Croatians never stop working,” she says.
“Our Slavic ancestry has taught us that we never know what is coming.”
Tričković says she first sang as a child in a bomb shelter during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. At 17 she auditioned for a local band and at 18 she was a professional jazz singer. She now spends part of the year in New York, where she recently played Carnegie Hall, and in Macau and Hong Kong, due to her popularity in Southeast Asia.
Next, Tričković leads me through the remains of a Benedictine monastery, now a playground for inquisitive peacocks and rabbits the size of Jeeps. She screeches back at one friendly bird and then speaks in Cantonese to some Chinese tourists photographing it. “I’m good at picking up languages; it’s like learning music,” she says. We linger for a while beneath the island’s thick foliage, which provides welcome respite from the sun. “I’m so lucky,” she says. “Not just to have been born here, but also to have had the kind of freedom I had—which made me so independent and confident.”
Tričković certainly seems to be in her element now, sniffing eucalyptus leaves, poking prickly pears and casually identifying bushes and berries.
Should she ever need to, she says, she could survive on Lokrum, diving for sea urchins and wringing moisture from cacti.
She also claims she could skin and cook a rabbit. “I studied gamekeeping and environmental conservation,” she says matter-of-factly. “It was a kind of modern forestry course.”
Seeing my surprise, she bursts out laughing. “What? It’s my Slavic background. Singing is my passion, but I like to be prepared for everything.”
MORE LOCAL TAKES
Founder, Eat With Locals
Apart from walking around the city walls, I always suggest that visitors should take the cable car to Mount Srđ for the view. They should also see a traditional Linđo folk dance, visit an open market, get lost in the Old City streets, and of course try local cuisine.
“Visitors should see the 15th-Century Rector’s Palace, now a cultural history museum. There are fantastic acoustics in the galleried courtyard that have always attracted top musicians. The view of the harbor from Ploče Gate always reminds me how beautiful and resilient the city is.”
Romana Milutin Fabris
You should definitely have a coffee in Gradska Kavana Arsenal Restaurant, or sit in the nearby Old Port and watch the life around you. The ships built at the Arsenal were the pride of the Dubrovnik fleet, which in the 16th century boasted 180 commercial ships and was one of the most important in the Mediterranean.
It is always exciting to discover the villages of the Primorje and Konavle regions, which contain a number of natural and cultural attractions such as the hidden third-century Mithraeum in the village of Močići. The most beautiful way to get to the top of Mount Srđ are the serpentine steps above the garage Ilijina Glavica
Manager of the Poco Loco cocktail bar
For a truly historical experience, the excavation of a preserved metal foundry underneath the Gornji Ugao Tower, the upper corner of Fort Minčeta, is a must. The Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik should also be seen. For the best photo-op in Dubrovnik, take a walk to Park Orsula, where an amazing vista stretches before you.
Taking the Walk of Shame, minus the shame
Fiction and reality blend on a Game of Thrones walking tour
It was King’s Landing that put Dubrovnik on the map for many people, even if the place doesn’t exist outside of the Game of Thrones universe. Even now, with the hit HBO show having finished its last season, GoT tours continue to be one of the most popular ways to experience the city.
Tours by Locals guide Tomislav Matana, who has been leading GoT tours since 2013, is well acquainted with the effect the series had on local tourism. “It brought a completely new market to Dubrovnik, mainly from North America and Australia,” he says. “Not only this, it also brought a fresh and positive perspective of the city.”
Today’s tour begins at Ploce Gate, which doubles as Red Keep in the show. Here, we admire the view over the Old Port, the site of Jon Snow’s dramatic departure from King’s Landing. We can also see the island of Lokrum, location for the city of Qarth in the show, and the abandoned Hotel Belvedere, which was used for the final fight scene in season four.
Matana likes to throw a bit of actual history in with the fictional stuff. We stand atop the staircase of Cersei Lannister’s “Walk of Shame” as Matana describes how the Jesuit Church started Dubrovnik’s first university in the 1700s. The show’s Spice King’s mansion was represented by Rector’s Palace, which housed rulers of the old Ragusa Republic, which began in the 1300s. “We get many guests who come with questions about the show,” Matana says, “and end up with questions about the city.”