There’s a famous Dalmatian word that loosely translated means relaxed and carefree. It’s called ‘fjaka’, and more specifically, it’s the feeling of contentment you get after a good meal that has lasted more than three hours. Which in this neck of the woods is most meals.
I’m sat overlooking the deep-blue Adriatic, the sun’s just dropping behind the Old Town of Dubrovnik, and I’m tucking into one of the best pisco sours and ceviche dishes this side of Lima. I’m loathe to tell you the name of where I am, because, quite honestly, I’d like to keep it all to myself. However, because it’s you, I’ll tell you. At the end of this piece.
The Dalmatian coast has long been a playground for pleasure-seekers. Modern tourism was established here in the late 1800s, and my hotel — the five-star Excelsior — opened in July 1913, carved into the cliff edge. Since then it has seen many a Hollywood star grace its doors. A “hall of fame” displays portraits of Che Guevara, Sophia Loren, Sir Roger Moore and Orson Welles, among others. You can practically smell the glamour and history.
Our room looks out over the ocean, with Lokrum island one way and Dubrovnik the other. Evenings are spent watching the sun set from our terrace; mornings waking up to the smell of oak and pine and sea salt that is so distinctly Croatian.
The Old City of Dubrovnik has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Perched on a rocky promontory, framed by tree-studded hills, Dubrovnik means ‘oak grove’ in Croatian. It’s a beautiful, if slightly imposing, sight, and its thick stone walls and huge gates give way to a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, public squares and churches. It’s amazing anyone would try and attack it, but attack they did. Numerous outside forces have fought for and occupied the town over the years — from Napoleon to the Austrian Empire to the Italian and German armies.
In 1991, following Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) besieged the place for seven months. The news was full of pictures of soldiers bombarding tourist resorts and the city streets. In total, more than 100 civilians lost their lives, among them the poet and playwright, Milan Milišić, and 56% of the buildings suffered artillery damage, or were burned and looted.
I visited for the first time 10 years later, in 2001, and walked around its city walls. Although much reconstruction work had taken place, I was still saddened at the sight of pockmarked buildings and a patchwork of red roofs before me — as broken and gappy as an old lady’s mouth. The surrounding hotels had been badly shelled, and the road outside our campsite showed signs of where grenades had fallen and melted the tarmac. It was the first time I’d been anywhere like it, and we spent our days exploring the Old Town and swimming, mostly alone, around the nearby coves.
It’s safe to say things are very different now, and Dubrovnik has made a monumental comeback to become one of the Mediterranean’s most popular tourist destinations. During high season, the main street, Stradun — which runs the length of the Old Town — is thronged with visitors. And when a cruise ship happens to dock, which is most days, thousands of people pour into its city walls. Most recently, the town played the backdrop in films and TV series such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars. There’s even talk of Bond making an appearance (though that’s still being negotiated).
Dotted with lush green islands and national parks, this coastline is a yachty’s paradise, and definitely a gourmand’s dream. Fish, seafood and olive oil are the staple diet, and most meals come washed down with copious amounts of local wine from one of the region’s vineyards. We eat like kings at the Excelsior, and venture out to sample the excellent cuisine at the Hotel Bellevue and a stunning fish restaurant in town called Proto, which opened in 1886 and whose upstairs terrace is a favourite among the stars.
One of the best ways to explore the area is by boat. Most hotels in Dubrovnik can organise a private charter for guests. The Excelsior takes us on an excursion to the Elaphiti islands, where many 15th-century aristocratic families built their summer homes. We dock at Lopud and Koločep, with a stop in the middle for a sea swim.
“Lots of people hire boats for a week or two during summer, and take their family or friends around the islands,” says Zrinka Marinovic, PR manager at Adriatic Luxury Hotels. “They stop wherever they want, and it’s nice because they can be independent. They can come and go as they please.”
However, if you don’t wish to splash out on a yacht, there’s always the reliable Jadrolinija ferries, which ply the routes between the bigger islands, and which I took when I first came here in 2001. It’s not quite James Bond, but it is a great way of ticking off the main ports. Split, Hvar, Vis, Brač and Korčula are absolute must-sees.
If you have time and you love seafood, take a trip to Mali Ston on the Pelješac peninsula — home to one of Europe’s largest city walls, which wiggles up the hillside like the Great Wall of China. Here, in the topaz-coloured bay, is a 700-year-old oyster farm where you can sample world-class oysters from aboard a traditional boat (with plenty of local wine, of course). The oysters take three years to reach maturity, and are traditionally farmed using tree branches and rope. It’s a fascinating place, and well worth the hour’s drive from Dubrovnik.
Back at the Excelsior, we enjoy martinis on the terrace, massages in the spa, and epic seafood suppers. Which leads me nicely back to the best ceviche and cocktails in town. The secret place is called Villa Orsula, and it’s two doors up from the Excelsior, outside the Old Town. As the Excelsior is closing for a facelift in October, you could always book in here instead. Either way you’ll definitely be in ‘fjaka’ heaven. See you there.
For more information or reservations, please visit adriaticluxuryhotels.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org, +305 20 300 300. Stay at Villa Orsula from 540 Euros (£440) per room per night. Price includes buffet breakfast and VAT. Stay at Hotel Excelsior with their special Dubrovnik Deluxe package, including three nights in a deluxe room with a complimentary upgrade (subject to availability), transfer to and from the hotel, private tour of the Old Town, a Dubrovnik Daily Card, and a late check-out, from £378 per room per night.