Gustasp and Jeroo Irani explore a once obscure city that now exudes the air of a beautiful movie set.

On a summer’s day, several years ago, a record 10,000 tourists marched through the medieval town of Dubrovnik in Croatia like an invading army. The day visitors from 10 cruise ships that had docked that morning trod purposefully down the marble main street, scuffed over the centuries by the footfalls of local citizens who had lived and prospered within the two-km circumference of its sturdy 13th Century city walls.

Radio stations crackled to life and warned the locals to stay indoors so as not to add to the crush of tourists. Tucked into a hillside, with the cobalt-blue Adriatic Sea lapping its shores, Dubrovnik is a European gem with a population of 50,000 which often gets overwhelmed by visitors and cruisers, eager to explore a city that exudes the air of a beautiful movie set. Here time has not stood still but has certainly moved more slowly; the charms of the Old World have resisted change.

Today the ship schedules are better managed, said the guide of our luxury ship, Costa Fascinosa. Indeed, for us, Dubrovnik unfolded in a palette of orange-red roofs and bleached yellow limestone homes as our cruise ship dropped anchor near the car-free town. A local lad and a pretty belle, dressed in traditional garb, welcomed us even as the weathered yellow walls of St John’s Fortress seemed to fill our vision. (The fortress is now a maritime museum which traces the former naval power of a city that once had one of the largest fleets in the world.)

We strolled around the yawning piazza and Rector’s Palace as well as the picturesque cafes located in twisting atmospheric cobblestone alleys and edgy boutiques. Our out-of-cellophane Costa Fascinosa, the largest and newest Italian-flagged ship afloat, was etched on the horizon like some stranded galleon.

Babble of tongues

Even as we stood around, encircled by a few tour groups being herded by guides who spoke a babble of tongues, we felt like we had slipped into a time capsule humming with joie de vivre. Dubrovnik is at the heart of what is now called the Croatian Riviera, a walled town that once languished in obscurity but today lures the rich and the famous who sail up in their fancy yachts or uber luxurious cruise ships.

Dubrovnik’s gloss and polish perhaps emanate from its rich past as a prosperous maritime city-state in the 14th Century, second only to Venice. It soon became the crossroads between the East and West and was ruled by a rector from the Rectors Palace which still exists but, strangely, a rector‘s term of office lasted for just a month!

But in April 1667, the Dubrovnik dream soured when a devastating earthquake felled the city, destroyed many of its architectural treasures. Most of it was restored to a harmonious whole but the city was subsequently occupied by the French and less than a decade later, it was handed over to the Austro-Hungarian Empire under a treaty. Subsequently, Dubrovnik became a part of Yugoslavia, and in 1991, when the states of Yugoslavia proclaimed independence, war broke out. Dubrovnik was under siege for 14 months, without food and water, and survived, bloody but unbowed; the scars of shrapnel damage are still visible.

Said to be protected by its patron-saint, St. Blaise, a bishop who saved the city from Venetian occupation, and its five-metre-thick city walls with four gates, 15 towers and five bastions plus a fortress, the city has just one main street. Lined with rows of limestone houses, with green slatted windows, which were built after the earthquake, the street had a lively theatricality about it as tourist groups gawked and stared at the treasures of the medieval city, led by flag-waving guides. We strolled past an elderly man strumming on a Dalmatian mandolin and into the cool heart of a Franciscan Monastery with a leafy courtyard which at one time had the oldest pharmacy in Europe. (During the war, 51 grenades were lobbed at the monastery which housed the Red Cross.)

Palaces, a tranquil Dominican Monastery, the 18th Century Church of St. Blaise, a baroque cathedral, said to have been blessed by Richard the Lion Heart, the valiant English king; the picturesque Jewish Quarter, Street of Blacksmiths and Goldsmiths… Dubrovnik is a captivating jumble.

Timeless joys

We walked the steep, cobbled back streets amid mansions, gardens and weathered stone work. Tourists sat in cafes absorbing the timeless atmosphere while we stumbled on a hidden church, a man with exotic parrots perched on his arm and shoulders, kids playing hop scotch, portly mamas hanging up the wash of the day... Yes, Dubrovnik is not a cold museum, but a living one, washed by salty sea breezes and warmed by a blazing Mediterranean sun in summer.

Instead of taking the cable car, we drove along a twisting mountain road to a vantage point where the pale tile roofs of cosy homes, spread below us like a slightly worn-out carpet. As an apricot-coloured sun slowly began its descent into the bluest of blue waters of the Adriatic, Lokrum Island glimmered in the distance. Here, Richard the Lion Heart was said to have been shipwrecked on his way back from the Third Crusade in 1191. His ghost still lingers there in the sylvan surroundings, flitting in and out of the ancient monastery, rambling through the soaring pines and scanning the rocky coastline where today toned bikini-clad bodies lie prone in the sun. As our tender boat ferried us back to our ship, we marvelled at the clarity of the water, the snazzy James Bond-style yachts in the marina even as the sounds of tourists partying on the beaches wafted on the air.

Gazing out at sea from the balcony of our cabin, we imagined the locals reclaiming their city. The korzo (a local tradition) or the round of chatting, flirting and ambling would start in the main street of Dubrovnik, even as the last of the straggling tourists mingled with the friendly locals. Yes, Dubrovnik is a stage and everyone plays their part till curtain call.

Fact File

Many airlines fly via their respective hubs to the Croatian capital of Zagreb from where one can catch flights or coastal ferries to and from Dubrovnik.

Despite its small size, the town has a number of accommodation options.

Or sail into Dubrovnik on a cruise ship. For more information on Costa cruises contact their India representative.