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Just south of Dubrovnik lies one of Croatia’s most interesting areas. Squeezed by the coast to the west, Montenegro to the south and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the east, Konavle is a verdant ribbon of land that has it all: imposing mountains and dramatic cliffs, a spectacular coastline sprinkled with beaches, a broad, fertile valley sustaining dense olive groves, bountiful vineyards and orchards (figs, lemons, oranges and pomegranates all grow here) as well as characterful rustic villages where the pace of life is as if from a bygone era.
The name Konavle is derived from the many water channels and canals which criss cross the region, contributing to the unique richness of the soil. Hence the inhabitants are farmers by tradition and fishermen to a lesser extent whilst the lure of the sea means that many work away from home on ocean going ships. The region formed the rural hinterland (and larder!) of the Dubrovnik Republic, which it became part of in the 1400s
Emblematic of Konavle is the national costume decorated with sumptuous silk embroidery and related needlework of which the locals are supremely proud. Women wearing this dress are known as “Konovaka”. It is still worn today at local festivals is a cultural symbol for Dubrovnik and the people of the area. Such is the significance of this handmade embroidery that many private homes display examples on their walls. After mass on a summer Sunday, in the main square of the village of ?ilipi, locals put on a show of folk music and dancing, all in national dress.
Surprisingly, Konavle has a long tradition of silkworm breeding for the production of silk thread. Never an industry in the area, its production took place in local households and was generally the task of young girls before they got married, as silk was the most important material for bridal clothes. These days, some ten families are still engaged in the trade in the area.
Interesting monuments include remains of the Roman aqueduct which ran from the coastal town of Cavtat down to the Konavle, some stretches of which can still be seen today. Notable too is the Franciscan monastery in Pridvorje, (the former administrative centre of Konavle), which dates from the 15th Century, and sits directly below southern Damlatia’s highest peak, Snježnica (1,234m).
Take the road from Gruda, heading inland and winding up the mountain towards Dubravka through woodland comprising oaks, cypress, pines and laurel trees and you will pass the impressive Sokol Grad Fort, dating from the 15th Century. Strategically situated, as the road leads to present day Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was built as protection for the hinterland and played a key role in repelling attacks from the mighty Ottoman Empire and Venetian Republic. Lovingly restored over a 50 year period, it has only recently been opened to the public.
Another fort is found in the Prevlaka Natural Park, at the end of a peninsula known as Oštri rt which is the southernmost point of mainland Croatia. Guarding one side of the narrow entrance to the spectacular Bay of Kotor, it affords splendid views of the bay looking directly across to Montenegro. This ruined castle was built during the Austro-Hungarian period in the mid 1800s.
And then there’s iconic Dubrovnik, the jewel in Croatia’s crown. With more than its fair share of history and attractions as well as, arguably, the best city walls in the world, Byron once referred to the city as the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’. Backed by rugged mountains and jutting out into the sea, it is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved fortified cities and now Croatia’s most upmarket and glamorous destination.
Well-trodden, hefty stone walls and solid medieval fortress towers enclose the historic centre, filled with terracotta-roof, green-shuttered houses, elegant bell towers and monuments such as the 15th Century Rector’s Palace, two monasteries with cloistered gardens and several fine Baroque churches with polished copper domes. In summary, jaw-dropping architecture!
The 2km walk around the top of the ramparts is an essential introduction to the city offering stunning, elevated views over the rooftops and the sea, as well as being useful orientation. The centre of the old town is traversed by the main pedestrian promenade, Stradun, paved with glistening white limestone and lined with open air cafes, restaurants and small boutiques. Dubrovnik was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1979.
Notable during the months of July and August in Dubrovnik is the highly acclaimed international summer festival which as well as taking in all musical, dance, theatrical, folklore and artistic genres, also uses all city space imaginable, both inside and out.
Follow the road as it serpentines along the coast north of Dubrovnik, running around a pretty bay at Zaton. It’s worth a stop here to enjoy the pretty view, a number of galleries and a superb waterfront restaurant with a maritime theme in Mali Zaton. The natural beaty of the 2km long bay did not escape the academics and merchants of Old Dubrovnik many of whom established summer residences here.
Continue heading north and the laid back Elafiti Islands (literally the deer islands) will come into view. The three main islands in the archipelago Lopud, Šipan and Kolo?ep are all accessible by ferry from Dubrovnik and celebrated for their beaches, rich architectural heritage and lush vegetation. Generally regarded as a laid back and ‘undiscovered paradise’, motor vehicles are permitted only on Šipan and tourism is acknowledged with nothing more than a casual shrug!
Situated on the mainland opposite the Elafiti is the village of Trsteno noted for its Arboretum, established in the early 16th Century. Making the most of its dramatic seaside setting this vast collection of trees and plants from around the world offers fine views of tiny Trsteno harbour and the islandsbeyond. The wooded park is laid out in the grounds of a Renaissance villa guarding the entrance to which are a pair of 400 year old giant plane trees. Traditionally, the men of Trsteno and southern Dalmatia were sailors and merchants and wherever they went in the world they would collect seeds and saplings for planting in the Arboretum.
Running up the coast from here, the next village is Brse?ine which has a pretty beach called Veliki Žal and quite stunning views across to the Elafiti.
Continue north and the Plješac Peninsula reveals itself to the west. This narrow, mountainous peninsula, about 65km in length, is barren along its northwest coast where it is swept by the Bura wind whilst the southeast coast is fertile and planted with vineyards and orange trees. Almost guarding the entrance to this coastal appendage, which looks as though it’s about to drift off across the Adriatic to Italy, on a narrow isthmus are the twin towns of Ston and Mali (little) Ston.
The sheltered waters of Ston (sometimes known as Veliki – big – Ston) are well known for salt production which over the centuries has been key to the region’s prosperity. The narrow, shallow waters in the bay of Mali Ston, which separate the mainland from the peninsula, contain a mixture of freshwater and seawater forming part of a nature park and are given over to oyster and mussel farming for which the town is famous. There are several excellent restaurants along the pretty harbour front here.
In the 1300s Ston came under the jurisdiction of the Dubrovnik Republic who wanted to isolate the peninsula in order to protect it by digging a canal but it was decided that the building of a network of fortresses would be better. Throughout this era this defensive system of walls was maintained and renovated. In their heyday, they were 5.5km in length, strengthened by 40 towers and 7 keeps, meaning that Ston was unassailable from the mainland. Following the fall of the Dubrovnik Republic, work began to dismantle the walls and, later, the Austrian authorities plundered them for material to build schools and community buildings. Their gradual demolition was halted after World War II and they are now protected with 3km and 20 of the towers still proudly standing today.
Like most in Croatia, the beaches along the coast tend to be pebble, shingle or rock. The sleepy fishing village of Molunat has a fine shingle beach as well as numerous weathered outcrops; other attractive beaches are found at Popovi?i, Pasjaca and close to Cavtat, a popular, easy-going town with a palm-fringed Riva promenade curving around the bay lined with open air cafes and restaurants. Closer to Dubrovnik, the coastal town of Milini has a beach of shingle and pebbles with plenty of facilities while the many beaches found on the Plješac Peninsula are rarely busy, even in the height of summer.
A wide range of Mediterranean fayre is available at most restaurants, but authentic dishes which you are likely to find on menus include meat (often lamb), slow cooked under an iron bell for several hours usually with potatoes and/or vegetables. Ispod peke is the term for this method of cooking under a dome-shaped lid which leaves the meat deliciously succulent in its own juices. No two peka produce the same results and it is the custom to order this a day in advance.
Other delicacies include homemade pršut (dried ham), oiled cheeses, pickled vegetables and a speciality known as šporki macaruli (literally dirty macaroni) which is tubular pasta served with a goulash sauce. Afterwards, try rozata, a vanilla-flavoured custard dessert similar to crème caramel, apple strudel (a legacy from the Austrians) or mantala a rich cake made from grape juice. Pizzas, pasta dishes and pancakes are widely available on menus, so kids will be happy – they are also good value, so mum and dad will be happy too!
Fresh seafood is abundant in the local waters. The clear, clean Adriatic Sea delivers high quality to the daily catch which might include mackerel, sardines, sea bass, shrimp, squid and tuna. This will be served in restaurants the same day, prepared with delicious simplicity: pan-fried in olive oil, grilled on the barbecue or baked. Seafood risottos are widely found as well, often prepared with squid and dark squid ink, langoustines or just about any seafood.
The vineyards of the Konavle produce respectable red wines of the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Plavac varieties. Recently, in Paris, the Konalvoska Malvazija achieved one of the highest ever ratings for this type of white wine. Also, try Kadrun, a light and fruity rosé.
Maybe surprisingly, the Plješac Peninsula is also blanketed with vineyards producing some of Croatia’s finest wines. Particularly celebrated are the earthy reds derived from the plavac mali grape. The villages of Postup and Dinga? stand at the heart of the best known vineyards (indeed, wines bearing the Dinga? label are highly rated by connoisseurs and pair particularly well with pršut). These two villages, both on the southern side of the peninsula, feature steeply angled vineyards to catch the maximum sunshine quota which creates very sweet, dark grapes producing high alcohol. The rugged rocky limestone here produces natural irrigation and the wind keeps off bugs and other pests resulting in extremely healthy vines where pesticides are rarely required.
The Dalmatian coastline is one of the sunniest parts of Europe with a mild, Mediterranean climate. The summer months all along the coast are hot and dry, particularly in July and August which average 10 hours of sunshine per day and temperatures touching 30c. A refreshing mistral breeze often blows in the afternoons.
Dubrovnik is well served on a Sunday from many UK airports: BA, easyJet and Thomson from Gatwick; Thomson and Jet2 from Manchester; Jet 2 from Belfast, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle; easyJet from Stansted, Thomson from Birmingham and Aer Lingus from Dublin.