The Dubrovnik/Neretva County consists of both continental areas and islands. North of Dubrovnik, you can enjoy the natural beauty and peace of ‘Trsteno’ which is home to the oldest arboretum in the world, dating back to 1498.
The Pelješac peninsula, the second largest peninsula in Croatia, is famous for many reasons especially for those associated with the sense of taste and smell. Therefore, when in the area, make sure you don’t miss out on the infamous Pelješac oysters and wines amidst the intense beauty of the peninsula.
South of Dubrovnik and following the coastal road you will find yourself in Župa Dubrovačka, where there are a handful of bays that have a promenade which passes through small romantic places such as Srebreno and Mlini.
If you continue further south, you will find yourself in a vortex of history. The small town of Cavtat will enchant you with its architecture, nature and charm. Historically known as Epidaurum, it used to be a key part of Dubrovnik’s history and development of the city, which the citizens of Cavtat built respectively.
From Cavtat to the border with Montenegro stretches the Konavle municipality which was named after the Latin word 'canalis', referring to water channels that used to bring water from water-wells across Konavle Fields to the ancient city of Epidaurum (present-day Cavtat).
The Elaphite archipelago consists of 13 islands and islets, of which only three are inhabited. Robinson Crusoe will get a run for his money here as the nature and culture on the islands are next to perfection; the peace and tranquillity, invaluable.
The island sitting high north of the Dubrovnik/Neretva County is Korčula which is filled with its rich culture, historical remains and natural surroundings. The town of Korčula is also known as 'Little Dubrovnik' because of the walls that surround it.
The island of Lastovo is the second most forested island in the Adriatic earning it the title of a Nature Park.
With a National Park on the western front to a reserve of natural assets on the eastern front, the island of Mljet is full of flora and fauna, fascinating history and wild adventure offers.
The islands in general have a completely different atmosphere from mainland towns making their way of life all the more special.
TrstenoIf you’re on the edge of your nerves and even a stay in Dubrovnik brings no respite to your soul, it’s time to go green, get back to nature and indulge in a spot of tree hugging at Trsteno. It’s not only the terminally overworked who will be delighted by this historic arboretum – of course, for gardeners and plant lovers it’s unmissable. The centerpiece is a summer villa first built by Dubrovnik nobleman Ivan Marinov Gučetić in 1494. Rather than investing his wealth into a sprawling and luxurious home, he built a more modest abode and surrounded it with gardens in which his spirit could soar. More than one hundred years later, his descendant Nikola Vitov Gučetić composed humanist philosophical texts here.
Trsteno was thus created by a man with a vision and aided by local sea captains who came home from their travels bearing gifts of exotic specimens. Over the centuries, many people have invested their energy and soul into these gardens. A sense of gratitude to nature and water permeates – don’t miss the baroque fountain at the foot of the stone aqueduct.
East of the villa lie a grape and olive press, once shared by the local community. A little path leads from the villa to the sea where a pavilion overlooking the water offers a view encapsulating the true meaning of this place – botanical splendour on the lush, island-strewn Adriatic. In this part of the garden, you can also see the oldest tree in the arboretum – a palm almost 500 years old looking remarkably healthy.
The arboretum includes the original 15th century garden laid out in renaissance style, with a geometric pattern of paths, a chapel, the fountain and aqueduct. There is also a newer garden (early 20th century) featuring formal and modern sections, with features typical of the southern Adriatic, plus a historic olive grove and natural woodland. Trsteno suffered quite badly both from shelling and from a forest fire which broke out in 2000, but Mother Nature has taken over and it’s clearly business as usual. A walk amid the beautiful, tall trees offers welcome dappled shade and the chance to enjoy the harmony of man and nature.
The village of Trsteno is a modest little settlement with a fine church, St Vitus, and two huge 500 year old Asiatic plane trees. By the waterside just east of the gardens is a remarkable but dilapidated fort, and a tiny harbour where a stream cascades down rocks into the sea. Magical.
Pelješac PeninsulaThe Pelješac peninsula is so tenuously connected with the mainland that it has the unique character of an island. The first delight that awaits you is the gastronomic haven of Mali Ston. The narrow lagoon dividing Pelješac from the mainland is rich in premium quality oysters, and the village restaurants offer some of the best cuisine in the country.
Nearby, the town of Ston is encircled by 14th century stone walls, 5.5km long and once including forty towers, which with the backdrop of the mountainous countryside look scarily like the Great Wall of China. These walls were built by the Republic of Dubrovnik due to valuable salt pans and the town’s strategic position, and Ston is often called “little Dubrovnik” as the streets have the same layout and the same names. The historic salt pans still produce salt for industrial purposes. If you’d like to have an active holiday with a difference, you can join in salt harvesting, board and victuals provided. Check out www.solanaston.hr.
The finest vineyards in Croatia bask on Pelješac’s spectacular conical hills. This is the home of the indigenous Plavac Mali grape, and on certain south facing slopes near the village of Dingač the vines yield grapes of awesome quality. Dingač is an atom bomb of a wine: rich, dark and strong, and was the first Croatian wine to gain protected geographic origin (1961). It’ll cost you about €10 a bottle, but to enjoy the Pelješac experience to the full, we recommend you try it. Postup is another Pelješac wine often called “Dingač’s baby brother”, while Plavac is softer, more affordable and very quaffable.
On Pelješac you can find wonderful stone villages, untouched by modern times. Coastal hamlets are backed by steep slopes, their shores fringed by pine. Pelješac is famous for pristine shingle beaches, and on the southern side a bracing wind makes this a favorite spot for windsurfers, especially at Viganj. Orebić is the largest resort, its architecture reflecting its links with the Republic of Dubrovnik, and has fantastic stretches of shingle to the east of town. A ferry connects Orebić with Korčula town, and Trstenik to Polače on Mljet - ideal for island hopping.
The best thing about Pelješac is its unspoilt character. Take time to slowly discover and drink in its delights – a week will hardly be long enough.
The walls of StonIn an area known for its rugged natural beauty, few man-made sights are more magnificent than the grizzled fourteenth-century walls of Ston. For many years only a tiny stretch of this 5.5km-long line of fortifications was accessible to the public, but after a long period of renovation a significant circuit of wall was ceremonially opened to the public in October 2009. Visitors can now scramble around the ring of bastions that surrounds the town of Ston itself, enjoying fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.
The walls date back to 1334, when the Republic of Dubrovnik gained Ston and the neighbouring Pelješac peninsula, and immediately set about securing it against potential Venetian or Ottoman attack. The area was well worth the investment: the salt pans of Ston went on to become a key source of Dubrovnik’s revenue, and helped to keep the republic’s fleet on the seas.
Spanning the isthmus that connects the Peljesac peninsula to the mainland, and consisting of 40 towers and 5 fortresses, the walls comprise one of the longest stretches of surviving fortifications in the whole of Europe. Local sources reckon it to be the second longest stretch in the world after the Great Wall of China, although this eye-popping claim was probably intended as an attention-grabbing ruse by PR-conscious tourist officials. In the event, we feel obliged to report that a few idle seconds of web-surfing revealed that Kumbhalgarh in India boasts 36km of surviving wall – although we didn’t bother investigating any further.
Summer camp of a different kindThe name Dubrovnik evokes images of Renaissance buildings with ancient palaces surrounded by the radiant blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Well amidst all that beauty there is another side to the city that offers tourists a different experience, an experience that connects the present to the city’s very own past. It all has to do with the natural resource ‘salt’, yes that very ingredient that most cooks simply cannot live without. Let us turn back the clock for a moment to fill you in on some history.
The Republic of Dubrovnik was very well off and part of its prosperity came from the trading of salt. Obtaining salt from sea water and exporting it to other regions brought economic wealth to its aristocrats. The region also included the small coastal town of ‘Ston’, whose entire working population and surroundings were mobilised for extracting and panning salt.
Believe it or not, over hundreds of years the need for salt intensified causing competitors such as the Venetians and Turks to have open armed clashes with Dubrovnik merchants.
NeretvaIf you visit Dubrovnik in the spring, you may be surprised to see ripe oranges lying on the ground everywhere you walk. Orange trees are so common that the fruit is often ignored, inducing a twinge of regret in visitors who have to part with good money for them back home. Obviously, the warm climate gives the people of the Dubrovnik region these southern fruits. But there is one more life-giver - the River Neretva.
It starts its life as a brazen young thing, rushing green and impetuous under the famous stone bridge at Mostar, upriver in Herzegovina. In Croatia, it spreads out open arms to meet the sea, creating a swampy region. Generations of backbreaking work mean that this area today is a fertile region sometimes called Croatia’s California.
As you drive north to Metković, you can stop at roadside stalls and pick up sacks of mandarins, local honey and spirits. It is also sometimes called Croatia’s Venice, as the life of the people is closely tied up with boats, used for transporting pretty much everything around here.
The region has its own types of wooden boat; a smaller kind called a trupa, and a larger one called a lađa. Although these traditional boats largely died out, in recent years an annual race (Maraton lađa, August 13 ) which attracts competing teams from around the world looks set to revive the picturesque tradition – the boats have a curiously flattish construction which is very attractive but definitely renders their navigation a challenge!
More curious still is the water life of the valley. The traditional dishes of the area are often centered around two aquatic inhabitants, the frog and the eel. Both are made into a tomato casserole called brudet – you can try it in the popular restaurant Villa Neretva at the town of Metković, where accommodation, tours by boat and photo safaris are also offered. The area is also rich in bird life, particularly storks and coots, the latter being traditional hunting game.
Near the town of Ploče you can see the Baćina lakes from the main road – a spectacular chain of seven interconnecting freshwater lakes, plus one separate one. They are beautifully clean and have beaches suitable for swimming. It is hoped that the region will be proclaimed a nature park in the near future.
Župa DubrovačkaThe road south from Dubrovnik snakes alongside a broad bay dotted with some of the loveliest beaches to be found on the Mediterranean.Their white pebbles are probably the reason why the village of Srebreno was given its name, which means “Silver”. The water here is that perfect aquamarine colour so beloved of the holiday brochures. The town of Mlini is named after the water mills that you can still see here, driven by streams that race down the mountainside and emerge right on the beach, bringing the sea to a temperature that could be named “refreshing” or “freezing” depending on the hardiness of the swimmer in question.
Mlini’s waterfront is possibly the most unusual we’ve ever seen: a picturesque village aspect is created by a stream, a watermill and a massive plane tree dating back to 1752 right on the beach. Nearby Plat has a pleasant hotel complex with little villas nestled in leafy shade.
KonavleThe Konavle region stretches from Cavtat to the border with Montenegro. The village of Čilipi close to the airport is one of the cultural centres of Konavle, and on Sunday mornings you can witness the traditional songs and dances of Konavle and performers dressed in colourful folk costume. Konavle consists of a fertile valley plus upland and coastal parts, all with stone villages that would reduce real estate agents to tears. In the central valley, you’ll find traditional rural restaurants where you can enjoy delicious home grown food - locally reared meat and trout, sometimes served by waiters and waitresses in traditional costume (see our “Where to eat” pages). If you come in spring, you can try dishes made with wild asparagus and see almond orchards in bloom.
Mills on the river Ljuta
The protected landscape surrounding the Ljuta is home to a watermill and stamp system, which consists of eight flour mills, two oil mills, and three stamp mills. Part of this system, called the ‘lower mills’, was built after 1550, when Konvale came to be under the control of the Republic of Dubrovnik. The lower mills have been preserved until today. The mills were built on a canal network, while some of them were driven by three aqueducts. Most of the mills were on the western bank of the river, apart from the Đivanović stamp mill which was on the eastern bank. The mill system was extremely important for the economy of Konavle and the Dubrovnik Republic as a whole.
CavtatThe approach to this little gem of a Mediterranean town is one of the most breathtaking things about it, as the campaniles of its churches poke their way into view above a canopy of lush trees. But that's not all – this was the ancient settlement of Epidaurum whose inhabitants populated Dubrovnik. A pleasant promenade fringes the rambling old streets, edged by cafés, a couple of good places to drink, a selection of good restaurants and a handful of rather lovely small hotels. The promenade leads to the pleasant town beach, a park and a cemetery with an imposing mausoleum by sculptor Ivan Meštrović as its centrepiece. A little way out of town are several large hotels which are good choices for families, with good shingle beaches and occasionally all-inclusive packages. But we certainly wouldn't recommend imprisoning yourself in a modern hotel complex when you can indulge in the delights of a meal in a traditional konoba in the town, and the rural Konavle region, famous for its traditional style gastronomy and folklore is on your doorstep.
A highlight of a trip to Cavtat is the Bukovac house ( Open 09:00 - 13:00, 14:00 - 17:00, Sun 14:00 - 17:00. Closed Mon. May - October Open 09:00 - 13:00, 16:00 - 20:00. Closed Mon. Admission 20kn), where one of the best-loved Croatian artists, Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) grew up. As a child, he painted murals on the interior walls of the lovely old villa, bringing them alive with colourful paintings featuring semi-naive animal themes. Although subsequent owners saw fit to paint over his works, they have been restored with some success, and the delightful exhibition space upstairs features paintings and sketches surrounded by original furniture from Bukovac's day. Bukovac’s portraits are especially personal and full of emotion. An exhibition space on the ground floor is given over to the work of young artists, and the shows feature contemporary works, a refreshing contrast with the antique mood of the rest of the house. There’s an idyllic garden at the back, and the whole experience is a rather uplifting one.
Sokol TowerKids these days will say ‘hey, this reminds me of a fortress in World of Warcraft’, and they are not far off. Enter an ancient fort located in Konvale and up on a 25 meter high cliff, it dates back to 1420 and was most likely used for military purposes. After long renovations, it’s open to the public and also maintains some archaeological items including Bronze Age weapons for the feisty!
The Elafiti Islands - Koločep, Lopud and ŠipanThese tiny islands – the first two car-free – are fantastic places to stay: you have all the sights of Dubrovnik on your doorstep but get to enjoy the peace and cleanliness of island life, and accommodation is inexpensive. The journey by boat costs just a couple of Euro so you can travel every day and explore if you want, just like on a bus, but a million times more refreshing!
MljetMljet gets a growing share of tourists, but as one of the more remote and less developed islands, with a limited ferry service, it lacks the kind of mass tourism of much of the Dalmatian coast and some other more accessible islands. This isn’t the place to come for late night bars, concerts or discos. One might hope it never will be.
Be prepared to fall in love with nature all over again, for this island has a stunning quality waiting for you to discover. Croatia’s 8th largest island is approximately 3km wide and 37km long making attractive to explore for a short or lengthier stop. It has an area of roughly 100 square km with 131km of coastline and many little niches and coves to discover, so you’d be forgiven for wanting to stay. With five distinct forest tree varieties, abundant fauna and lush vegetation, it’s easy to see why Mljet is called the “Green Island.” Mljet offers a panorama of coastline, cliffs, reefs and numerous islets as well as the rich topography of the hills that rise steeply above the sea and plummet back into deep valleys sheltering ancient stone villages. The submarine world includes quite an array of fish and several types of corals. With fantastic weather, sailing, recreational sports, swimming, scuba diving, hiking and bicycle paths are only a fraction of the pleasures that you can enjoy here. The western end of Mljet has been protected as a National Park since 1960.
Getting there and around
Two ferry types are available to/from Dubrovnik, a car ferry and a catamaran mostly provided by Jadrolinija ferries. Mljet is only 8km away from the peninsula of Pelješac, 18km from Korčula and 30km from Dubrovnik. There are a number of harbour ports in Mljet. Polače is its largest and main port of call in the north, however, you can also access the island from Sobra which is best used to reach Maranovići and Babino Polje. Other harbours include Pomena which has daily connections to Dubrovnik (watch out for reefs and shallow water), and Lokve or Gonoturska port where you can throw anchor just before the entry canal toward the Big Lake.
What to See
Mljet National Park (Nacionalni Park Mljet) Pristanište 2, Goveđari, tel. (+385-20) 74 40 41, email@example.com, www.np-mljet.hr. Established in 1960, the park is Mljet’s top attraction. The park, encompasses 54 square kilometres at the western end of the island, with an astonishing interior and coastline beauty. Veliko Jezero and Malo Jezero (Big Lake and Small Lake), and the villages of Soline, Babine Kuće, Pomena, Polače and Goveđari all lie within the park boundaries. Of interest, this park represents the first institutionalised attempt to protect the native eco-system in the Adriatic.
Benedictine Monastery on the islet of St Mary (Samostan Sv Marija) This tiny island, in a lake on the island of Mljet, is at the island’s cultural and spiritual heart.
Polače The village is named for the ruin of a significant Roman palace and fortifications – one tower is 20m high - built between the 2nd and the 5th century. Second in size to the Palace of Diocletian in Split, you can’t miss it: The road to Pomena slips right between its high walls.
Pomena Located on the western coast of Mljet in the National Park, about 200 m from Malo Jezero. This village, built after World War II, has only about 50 inhabitants living among charming thick forests and working in agriculture, fishing and tourism. The bay of Pomena is perfect for small yachts, which can pull up to the pier while you enjoy the hotel’s amenities.
Goveđari Settlement began here in the late 18th Century when two families of land workers and fishermen from Babino Polje were given permission to settle by the Benedictines to work as cattle-breeders (goveda means cattle in Croatian). Located in the national park, 5km inland, this ethnologically interesting site is a great place to be surrounded by peace, serenity and lush vegetation.
Babine Kuće This picturesque little fishing village is located on the shores of the Veliko jezero just beneath Goveđari. It offers a splendid view of the islet of St Mary. There are a number of private rentals here, too.
Babino Polje The central and largest inhabited area with around 350 people, Babino Polje is the administrative centre of the island. Stretched along a ridge above a bypass road and a field (the name means “Grandma’s Field”), Babino Polje is surrounded with pine woods, groves of old, twisted olive trees and vineyards, and 514m Veliki Grad, the highest hill on the island.
Odysseus’s Cave (Odisejeva Špilja) Technically that would be Calypso’s cave; Odysseus, shipwrecked on his way home from the Trojan War, only stayed with the nymph seven years, and most of the time he was pining for his wife and his home. After walking along a path lined with rock walls and wildflowers, which takes you out above a deep grotto and the crashing waves, you may wonder why he was in such a hurry to leave. You can pick your way down into the cave; come back another day by boat to squeeze into it through a 30m tunnel. Local fishermen use the grotto as a harbour.
Prožura This medieval village was used by Ragusan nobles who – a bit like yourself – were looking for relaxing getaway. Perched on a hill over a Blato (an intermittent lake) and the sea, Prožura has a 17th Century watch tower and three beautiful churches: the Church of the Holy Trinity, the Church of St Martin and the Church of St Rocco.
Maranovići The 18th Century Baroque house of the Peš family is in the middle of the town. The 19th Century parish church of St Anton rests on the foundations of an older church and features Gothic architectural elements.
In nearby Korita, the ruined 14th Century Church of St Mary of the Hill mixes Gothic and Renaissance elements, and demonstrates features typical of the island’s churches. A roughly square plan with a deep porch extending to the front, and a picturesque belfry “na preslicu” (“on a distaff,” that is, the belfry has a split where the bell hangs, the way a distaff’s end is cleft to hold wool). Some of the manor houses have Renaissance-Baroque elements. The town has its own 17th Century defence tower with loopholes for firing. Korita is named for the stone troughs, common on the island, that are used to capture rainwater.
KorčulaKorčula, birthplace of the renowned traveller, Marco Polo, is a compact jewel of Venetian architecture surrounded by the clear blue waters of the Pelješac channel.
Korčula town, alongside Dubrovnik, is one of the Adriatic towns which hits the news from time to time with reports of rich, famous and notable types who buy up old town properties for heart-stopping sums. There is good reason for this – the tiny, almost circular old town occupying a rocky promontory is one of the most perfectly preserved and most romantic historic towns you’ll ever see with many opportunities for shutterbugs. It doesn't take long to wander through the atmospheric streets, where you’ll come across gothic details and balconies that make you feel like you’ve entered a Slavic version of Romeo and Juliet. Pay attention to the hidden architectural delights, such as relief figures on the Cathedral of St. Mark and, as rumor has it, the interestingly sculpted menu of an old brothel near the main entrance. Visit the town museum and the local galleries within a casual morning stroll.
Many of the historical sights and landmarks are just a stone throw from the main square and you’ll be bedazzled by the amount of history and culture that surrounds you. Take for instance the Tower of Marco Polo, believed to be the house in which the great world traveller and writer was born, whilst there head up to the tower for some breathtaking panoramic views of the island. There is also a Marco Polo Museum which reflects on his life through seven vast and deep scenes which bring to life his amazing adventures. The Abbey Treasury of St. Mark is in the heart of the main-square and features reliquaries, artworks, liturgical vestments and manuscripts with some dating as far back as the 12th century. The Icon Gallery features artworks of Byzantine paintings on wood and most of which were brought across by island sailors from the 13th to 17th century. Ahoy to the naval ancestors! The Revelin Tower with its descending steps is a majestic site in itself whilst the Maximilian Vanka Gallery hosts his astute paintings and portraits for which he is most known for. And that’s just a snapshot of Korčula with more to do and see. All in all, it's well worth a few days' stay and is a perfect place to recharge your batteries.
One of the other most prominent features of the island is its folk tradition which includes the Moreška, a dance with swords, which you can witness during the summer months (Mondays and Thursdays in July and August, Thursdays in June and September, starting at 21:00), heralded by drumbeats as a parade of citizens in historical costume passes through prior to the performance.
With such material, Korčula has a long tradition of tourism and is one of the more commercialised of Croatia’s Adriatic towns, so the town itself gets pretty busy during high season. But this is a relatively large island, there are plenty of other places to explore and get away from it all. As with any island, the perfect way to explore is to rent a scooter or bicycle from any of the tourist agencies in town. Head towards the village of Lumbarda where you'll find picturesque vineyards. You must try the Grk wine, only produced in the surrounding area, and said to have been brought from ancient Greece after the fall of Troy. Wander the stone streets of the old village and feel miles and centuries away from everything else. Other destinations for wine connoisseurs are the villages of Čara and Smokvica, these two island gems also add to the agricultural pallet as they are known for the top quality white wine known as Pošip, considered to be one of the most prestigious wines of the Croatian south.