Even before the sun had emerged over of the Dalmatian coastline, you could tell it was going to be a blisteringly hot day in Dubrovnik. The air was already thick with warmth, and, more tellingly, my hair was expanding in size like a frizzy brunette peacock showing off its plumage.
After fulfilling my personal daily challenge of leaving no waffle-topping combination untested at our cruise ship’s dangerously well-stocked breakfast buffet, we docked at the southern Croatian enclave of Dubrovnik, where we disembarked and trudged, already weary from the heat (and the ungodly amount of fats and sugars recently ingested), towards the waiting tour buses, bottled water and weather predictions being offered to us almost every step along the way.
While the city had looked beautiful from the morning half-light of the port, it was truly striking up close. All at once, we rounded a corner and the winding inland-facing streets gave way to a view of the harbour, a glistening inlet encircled by the rocky outcrop on which the historic Old Town was built. The whole scene looked, frankly, Photoshopped.
Being that Dubrovnik has famously doubled as Game of Thrones’ city of King’s Landing over the last few years, I had naturally assumed the cityscape was a clever mix of set design and computer animation, an assumption I quickly found to be false. The dramatic cliff-face, the striking medieval architecture, the clear blue of the Adriatic – it was all just as it appeared on screen, minus the impaled heads on spikes.
As I surveyed the Lannister stronghold, casting my gaze over the port and its sheltered marina, I thought back to the local history lesson we were given on the coach ride. For as long as Dubrovnik had existed, the ocean had been its life-blood, bringing in traders from around Europe in older times as well as providing a reliable fishing industry. In recent years, tourism has overtaken as the main contributor to the local economy, but the seaside has continued to thrive, alive with the sounds of outboard motors as charter boats ferry visitors around on private tours of the surrounding islands.
The city’s medieval charm only became more evident as we wound our way through more white stone cobbled pedestrian streets to reach the heart of the Old Town. As the oldest part of the city is the closest to the sea, and protected by the ancient fortifications of the City Wall, it is navigable only on foot down seemingly endless flights of stone steps.
On the rambling downhill traverse, we passed through a warren of tightly packed historic buildings clad in the same tactile white stones as the pavers and topped with the even more iconic terracotta tiled roofs. Together, these features lend the Old Town of Dubrovnik its title of ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’ and UNESCO World Heritage Site status and protection. As we made our way down the steps, skin slick with sweat and sunscreen, and footsteps reverberating with the classic summer sound of jandal slapping on pavement, we ducked into doorways every so often to find respite from the heat. Local businesses and retail shops operate out of the quaint maze of buildings with proprietors presumably living in the upper storeys, the shadows from which cast welcome shade across the open track, cooling the stone walls enough to lean against. Ledge-like landings were built every so often into the stone-face like mini piazzas, just big enough to fit outdoor seating for the restaurants that also pepper the cobbled ways.
Once we reached the foot of the steps, the Old Town unfurled around us like a flag in a breeze. The tight, tributary-like alleys all appeared to feed into an impressive, limestone-paved main street, which, like the rest of the Old Town, was for pedestrian use only. To one side stood a huge bell tower, which, upon closer inspection, was also home to a 15th century monastery, presumably a remnant of Dubrovnik’s time under Italian rule. Around another corner flowed ancient aquifer-fed fountains, from which locals and tourists alike drank deeply through cupped hands. Time melted around us as we spent our hours winding through more of the streets, constantly surprised at the simple, calming beauty of our surroundings.As our time on land drew to a close for the day we meandered, regretfully, back towards the waiting coaches, guided by the shrill voices of the tour guides and, presumably, my massive beacon of hair, the sheer volume which by this point drew unavoidable parallels to the back-combed look favoured by Russell Brand circa 2006. Back on board the ship, the captain filled us in on the day’s weather – a seasonal high of 42 degrees – a memorable temperature for a memorable city.
By the time we pulled out of our berth, the sun had fallen over the horizon. The city’s lights that looped the coastline blinked back at us from the inky darkness. We stood out on the deck, watching the coast inch slowly past us until it receded altogether, a light breeze fanning us for the first time that day.