What you didn’t see in Game of Thrones
Dubrovnik's good looks have earned it cult status in fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, but a date with Croatia's pin-up city reveals more than just a pretty face. With its brooding good looks, roguish charm, a stroke of swagger and just enough mystery to keep things interesting, first impressions of this seventh-century seaport are the stuff of serious swoon.
Terracotta rooftops tumble together beneath a cobalt sky while towering ramparts flex stone muscle into the Adriatic Sea. Entering the renaissance arch of Pile Gate, the wide runway of Stradun unravels 300m to Luza Square, its marble promenade flanked by cafes and bars with front-row seats for the passing parade of ice cream-toting tourists angling iPhones at the old city's iconic sights.
Church spires and belfries punctuate the sky and inside their honey-hued baroque walls, stained glass throws mottled light on polished floors and the air is thick with incense as tour guides reverently lower their voices.
The Cathedral of the Assumption, a 12th-century gift from a grateful King Richard The Lionheart saved from shipwreck on the nearby island of Lokrum, sports spectacular frescoes on its high-domed ceilings and houses the gold-plated bones of Dubrovnik's patron saint, Saint Blaise, while the Franciscan Monastery boasts a 14th-century cloister and one of the oldest operating pharmacies in the world.
Like many of Dubrovnik's world heritage monuments, both buildings have undergone extensive restoration, facelifts forced by the ravages of a deadly earthquake in 1667 and the Balkan War of the early 1990s.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the biggest threat facing Dubrovnik is its own popularity. Although the city has become synonymous with Game of Thrones, a date with this medieval metropolis more often resembles an episode of The Bachelor with lovelorn hopefuls desperate for precious time alone with the object of their affections.
Gaining an audience with the real Dubrovnik requires diving into the narrow alleyways which disappear up steep stone stairs. Here, away from the mayhem and monuments, daily life nestles between soaring walls.
Flower boxes brighten shuttered windows, stray cats bask on sunny doorsteps, old men gather on wooden benches, grandmothers hunker over embroidery and laundry hangs high above the cobbled streets while the whisper of domesticity waxes and wanes behind closed doors.
Meander on through the tangle of tiny laneways and you might stumble onto another of Dubrovnik's hidden gems, Buza Bar. Following the simple signpost "cold drinks with beautiful view" will lead you through a hole in the city walls (buza means hole) to one of two sprawling outdoor bars tucked into the cliffs on the western fringe of town, the perfect place to watch the sun slip into the sea.
For the best city views, take the cable car to the summit of Mount Srd. The 400m ascent melts away in four minutes, the postcard-perfect panorama spreading out below. At the top, observation decks offer sublime vistas over the red rooftops of the old city hugged tight by the stone walls.
A thatch of forested islands spreads west, suspended upon the sapphire Adriatic spilling up against the limestone bluffs of the Dalmatian Coast while planes scour jet streams across the cloudless sky, the tinkle of cowbells floating on the still morning air as farmers coax their herds uphill.
Despite the serenity of this eyrie overlooking Dubrovnik, the strategic position almost proved the city's undoing when taken by Serb forces in 1991, the town's ancient streets pummelled by mortar from above as a bloody and complex war unfolded in the crumbling wake of the former Yugoslavia. Inside the walls of Fort Srd, the Homeland War Exhibition attempts to unravel the conflict of the years 1991 to 1995. A grainy BBC news reel shows dramatic footage of Dubrovnik under siege from relentless shelling, its residents cut off from food, water and electricity as black plumes of smoke rise over the UNESCO World Heritage town, fortress walls built to withstand spears and arrows, but no match for missiles.
Even more haunting is War Photo Limited stationed in the heart of the old city. The brainchild of New Zealand photojournalist Wade Goddard, the gallery devotes an entire floor to the Balkan battle, the searing images of combat, death, despair and destruction dedicated to exposing "the myth of war". Back in bustling Dubrovnik, the ghosts of war retreat.
The sun is creeping down the western sky and the city walls call with their promise of tranquillity 25m above the cloistered streets.
Chaperoned by a sturdy breeze and caterwauling gulls, I circumnavigate the 2km-long fortress wending its way between red-tiled rooftops and the Adriatic Sea. The silhouettes of belltowers, spires and domes undulate the city skyline while crenellations in the thick walls allow glimpses down to the ocean from vertigo-inducing heights, the setting sun throwing patterns of light and shade across these impenetrable walls constructed in the 14th century and touted as "the finest in the world".
Arriving back at 16th-century Pile Gate, I'm just in time to see the guards of Dubrovnik march through the Stradun to the ceremonial beating of drums, salute to the ancient ritual of pulling up the drawbridge and locking the town gates, a curfew once deployed to keep the city's residents safe throughout the night.
I've surrendered my defences to this valiant city and been won over heart and soul.
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney and Brisbane to Frankfurt. Croatia Airlines operates onward connections.
Lodgings are limited inside the city walls, but Dubrovnik offers a range of accommodation within a walk of the old town. For a cheaper and more colourful alternative, look for sobe, which are rooms rented out by locals.
Set atop the city walls, Restaurant 360 serves up Mediterranean flavours with a distinctly Croatian twist and harbour views.
When to go
To avoid summer crowds, visit for the shoulder months, May to June or September to October.
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