Breffni Keogan enjoys nothing more than meandering through the medieval maze that is Dubrovnik, so much so he vows to keep returning for more.
Long before tourists claimed their spot on its beaches, Croatia and its impressive Dalmatian coast had been fought for by many kings, tribes and emperors. A pivotal location between Eastern and Western Europe, Croatia has long been revered as a country of diversity where different worlds and cultures collide. Everyone from the Illyrians, Romans and Hungarians battled for the country and its coast. It is even claimed that the Celts engaged with Alexander the Great on the Southern Banks of the Danube in a fight for this land.
The culmination of this struggle came to the fore at the end of the last century. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union during the second half of 1991 resulted in the Croatian War of Independence. Often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II, from the autumn of 1991 until May 1992, Dubrovnik was the target of relentless heavy bombing by Yugoslav troops.
Many houses, monuments and symbols of Dalmatian culture were destroyed. But in 1995, UNESCO and the European Union set up a special commission for the reconstruction of the city. In a remarkably short space of time, the city has been restored to its former glory.
Although tourism was quite strong before the conflict, it was only after peace that it experienced a real boost. It was 2003 when I made my first visit to the pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. So enthralled and captivated was I that I vowed to return. I have since made two further visits, again in 2005 and most recently in June this year.
Interestingly, Ireland and Croatia have much in common. Both countries fought for independence, have primate cities as their capitals, the population numbers are nearly the same, and both have unique landscapes. But more importantly, it’s the valuable resource of people that really shines through.
Refreshingly, not much has changed on all of my return visits. Croatia still has all its charm and none of the pretentiousness one would expect. Bordered by Slovenia, Hungry, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia is rich in history, architecture, culture and scenery. Although the cost may have risen in eight years, the warmth and friendliness of the Croatians is still the same.
With over 4,800km of Mediterranean coastline and some 1,185 islands, it’s easy to see why the coastline and picturesque ancient ports are a real draw for tourists. But there is more to Croatia than islands and beaches. Inland, Croatia’s rich wildlife, steep river valleys and uninhibited mountain gorges stretch down to the pristine Adriatic Sea in a spectacular display of rocky islands and awesome rock formations.
Mountains form nearly 40% of Croatia and rise to nearly 2,000m. A vast array of flora thrives in the warm Mediterranean sunshine and olives, lemon trees and vines creep endlessly down the mountains. Lavender, particular from the island of Hvar, and broom, a bright yellow flowering plant, also flourish in the warm climate.
Plat and Mlini boast some of the best beaches along the Dubrovnik Riviera, and I decided to base myself at Plat. Located close to Dubrovnik, in an area called Zupa Dubrovacka, Plat is 6km from the picturesque town of Cavtat and a short boat ride from Mlini. An oasis of peace and tranquility, due to its beautiful landscapes and mild climate, this agricultural and fishing area is ideal for those who want to escape the rush of daily life, but still have the convenience of being just 12km from Dubrovnik.
With enchanting bays and lovely pebbly beaches, Plat is an idyllic location where relaxation is unavoidable. Staying at the tried, tested and trusted Villas Plat, this three-star, self-catering apartment complex offers the facilities of a hotel but the freedom of self-catering. There is a beach and pool bar, á la carte restaurant, bistro, fine dining restaurant, the choice of three beaches and a mini market.
Fruit of the sea
For eating out, the King Konoba – located back up the road from hotel – comes highly recommended. A vast array of fresh fish is cooked on an open grill and the vantage point of the restaurant lends itself to magnificent views. The fresh seabass, which is filleted at your table, is a personal favourite, but everything on the menu is good and the service and personal touches are second to none.
If you want to head further afield, take a shuttle bus services to Dubrovnik to witness the city by night and sample local culinary dishes in a Romanesque setting. The Villas Plat hotel offers a shuttle bus services to Dubrovnik. Seven buses make the return trip to the city daily, costing €6.50. The other option, and a nice way to take in the scenery, is a taxi boat from Plat pier straight into Dubrovnik port for €11 return.
When in the city, it easy to get lost meandering through the medieval maze that is Dubrovnik, but due to its size you’re never really lost and it’s an easy city to navigate. The walls of Dubrovnik, built in the 10th century, offer amazing views. But it is a hidden gem situated outside the city walls that is a real favourite haunt of mine. Perched on the side of a cliff, with stunning views of Lokrum Island and the surrounding turquoise water, Café Buža offers breathtaking views. A refreshing break from the midday sun, sit back and watch a flotilla drift by or a local perform cliff diving.
Further along the coast from Plat, in a south easterly direction, is the idyllic, and it would appear from my last visit, increasingly affluent village of Cavtat. Nestled in a tree-lined bay, with port access on the north and south of the town, sailing boats, yachts and small luxury liners arrive for lunch or an overnight berth. The town offers quality restaurants all in close proximity to each other, so competition prevails and the menu choices are vast and appetising.
Tours and excursions
Although Cavtat has all the hallmarks of a sleepy town, there always seems to be an event happening. Whether it’s the arrival of a luxury liner, fashion shoot or a glamorous wedding, events unfold organically and captivate the attention of locals and tourists alike.
A day trip to Montenegro is definitely worth doing. We organised the tour through the front desk at the hotel with a company called Elite Travel and at approximately €50 per person, its great value. The trip starts at 8am and as you head across the border into Montenegro the impressive, mountain ranges and sheer peaks provide a spectacular backdrop. The most impressive peak is Mount Orjen, reaching to 6,225 ft.
The climb into the mountain ranges is achieved by ascending a road with 32 hair-pin turns. At lower altitudes, you travel along Kotor Bay, Montenegro’s largest bay and stop in the Roman village of the same name. Budva is another fortified city located on the Montenegrin Riviera where winding streets are all very endearing. Luxury tourism is really taking off in Montenegro so it might be worth going before it becomes too expensive.
Whether its kayaking, scuba diving, a glass boat tour, watersports, cave snorkelling or for the less adventurous, hiring an outboard motor boat, dropping anchor and having a refreshing swim – the Croatian coastline is a marvel well worth exploring. The Elaphite Islands, Mljet National Park, Hvar Island… the list of places to visit is endless. Have I seen it all? No. Will I return? Most definitely! I have only begun to scratch the surface of the captivating and inspiring Croatia and its warm and welcoming people.
Croatia: Need to know
AerLingus flies from Dublin to Dubrovnik Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Prices vary starting at €70 one way. For more information log on to www.aerlingus.com.
Hotel Villas Plat is ideally located. With a choice of stunning beaches within walking distance, it is also close to Dubrovnik, Cavtat and many of the islands. €77 a night for an apartment for two is great value for money. Bookings can be made directly or with www.bookings.com.
If you like fish, you will love Croatia where the ‘fruit of the sea’ is in abundance. King Konoba is highly recommended for its mouthwatering food and friendly service.
Trips & excursions
To find out about excursions, day trips, areas of interest, sports and all activities, log on to the Croatian Tourist Board website www.croatia.hr/en-GB/Homepage.