Twenty years after being ravaged by war, Dubrovnik has become one of the world’s most beautiful seafront cities drawing food-lovers, island-hoppers and cultural nomads, all keen to sample a taste of this Adriatic pearl. Tina Banerjee flies with Monarch Airlines to check out the destination.
My tongue feels like it’s under assault; a tingling sensation escalates to an intense explosion that hits the roof of my mouth before an unpleasant bitterness overwhelms my taste buds. My mouth goes numb; shock and confusion reign.
I am in one of Dubrovnik’s prestigious dining spots, Restaurant 360°, on a balmy moonlit evening, but I feel like I am sitting in a dentist’s chair and something has gone badly wrong. I have digested a Szechuan button, a small greeny-yellow bud, on the orders of our waiter, but rapidly regret my decision.
The only upside to this culinary experiment is that everything else that follows tastes pretty good. I spear delicate cubes of raw tuna and melt-in-the-mouth, smoked cauliflower drizzled in caviar and candied garlic but resolutely ignore two neat towers of black and green powder (warm ash and nettle powder, apparently). Bread, delivered in a brown paper bag, is a pillowy, saffron-coloured, ginger and fennel number that smells divinely of pilau rice. It’s followed by lasagne – an exquisite parcel of lobster, crab and clam juices topped with a delicate sliver of Istrian truffle and accompanied by smoked tomato sauce. All washed down with an excellent bottle of local Mendek Terre Blanche Malvazija wine. Only the amuse bouche of spaghetti feels ordinary compared to the rest of my meal.
Overlooking the old port, this gorgeously sleek restaurant has taken innovation to new heights since gourmet chef Jeffrey Vella took the helm in May. And whilst the creative tasting menu may titillate rather than satisfy, I know that memories of my experience will linger for a long time to come.
Fans of fine dining can certainly afford to be less cautious elsewhere – Dubrovnik has a number of excellent restaurants showcasing its seafood and fish specialities such as Restaurant Nautica located by the Pile gate, its sister Restaurant Proto where the starter of smoked tuna, anchovies and octopus is lip-smackingly delicious and Porat Restaurant at the Hilton Imperial where the onion and milk marinated sea bass is superb.
Every angle reveals a different beauty, says our tour guide Luka, as we enter Dubrovnik’s Old Town. From the ground level, sea or from the Srd hill view point, Dubrovnik’s red roofs and gleaming facades offer much to gawp at. Oddly, parts of it look almost too polished; 95 per cent of the Old Town was rebuilt after the 1991-92 war, lending it a museum-like quality.
The city’s only battle today is with the onslaught of irritating cruise passengers who throng the Stradun each summer desperate to tick off the must-sees in a couple of hours. The best way to avoid these crowds is by touring the Old Town in the afternoon. Among the highlights are the Sponza Palace, the Rector’s Palace, St Blaisius Church and the Franciscan Monastery.
Away from the main thoroughfare though, throw away your map and plunge into the sloping, shaded side streets where beautiful balconies festooned with potted plants, ornate lamps, shuttered windows and the odd washing line (1,500 people still live here) wait to be explored. If you get lost, just head downwards – the Stradun is the lowest point in the Old Town.
Of course, no visit would be complete without a stroll atop the 2km-long (1.2 miles) walls – this is where you’ll get your best panoramas of Dubrovnik. Aim to visit when the wall opens for business at 8.30am to avoid the summer heat.
If 35°C (95°F) temperatures get too intense, you don’t need to walk far for a dip in the sea. The city may be bereft of decent beaches but head for hole-in-the-wall bar Buza, where young locals jump from rocky precipes into enticing azure waters.
The Adriatic Sea is a natural playground for mariners – apart from cruise ships, wooden galleons, day-tripping sightseeing vessels and kayakers all ply its transcluscent waters.
Escape the riff raff by chartering a private speed boat. I can’t help looking smug as we glide out of the harbourfront and the city’s walls gradually recede behind us. To the north, the wooded Elaphiti Islands beckon. We spend the day swimming and snorkelling in secluded rocky coves without another soul in sight. The tranquillity is intoxicating; a brief visit to Sunj beach on Lopud island is disheartening; there’s just too many people.
All this swimming is hungry work so when we pull up to the church-strewn island of Koločep, I am practically skipping along the promenade to reach Villa Ruza, a rustic, open-air restaurant with exposed beams, comfy, lounge sofas and billowing canopies.
The uninterrupted sea views are fantastic, and our meal is just as impressive: carpaccio of smoked tuna, with shrimps, tomatoes and capers, an excellent buttery risotto studded with shrimps and courgettes followed by garlic-smothered mains of sea bream, sea bass and romb (a type of flatfish).
Like everything in Dubrovnik, the best discoveries are intrinsically tied to the sea.
Monarch Airlines (tel: 0871 940 5040, www.monarch.co.uk) provides return flights to Dubrovnik from Birmingham, London Gatwick, Leeds Bradford and Manchester airports, with fares starting from £72.50 return (including taxes).
Dubrovnik Boats (tel: (020) 454 677; www.dubrovnikboats.com) offers speed boats for hire from £470 per day (for up to eight people).