I was thrilled to be in Dubrovnik. It’s a destination I’d wanted to visit for a long, long time. And in the looks department it didn’t disappoint. I also met some passionate people who I liked immensely in Dubrovnik.
But there were times when I was relieved to escape the Old Town.
And the reason for that is the sheer volume of cruise passengers and the impact they’ve had on the city.
They’re tourists, I’m a tourist. Beautiful cities attract tourists. Many can absorb them. But Dubrovnik Old Town is actually quite small and there can be as many as 10,000 cruise passengers descending on those lovely, cobbled streets in one day. It’s simply too many at the one time.
Arriving by local bus at Pile Square was an extreme culture shock. Admittedly we’d just come from Hvar and so were still in ‘La la, what lovely countryside and tranquil, empty coves’ mode. Alighting from the bus and into the manic throng of cruise traffic being rounded up like confused sheep was like suddenly finding ourselves in The Year of Living Dangerously. It was overwhelming.
Similarly, trying to actually get through Pile Gate was like re-enacting a mob scene from Game of Thrones (filmed there in case you didn’t know). It was a bottleneck.
At peak times there’s no stepping up side streets to get away from the big packs, they’re everywhere and therein lies problem number 2. The balance of tourists to local people is seriously one-sided. We were told by a local that under 1000 people now actually live inside the walled town.
The character of any place is defined as much by its people as by bricks and mortar. The lack of residents means that whilst Dubrovnik is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, it has the slight air of an historic theme park about it during peak cruise visiting times.
It also means that nearly everyone is there to make money from visitors and that clearly can push prices up and quality down.
On our first night we ate at a restaurant in the Old Town even though we’d been advised by a couple of Croatians on our travels that the restaurants in Dubrovnik Old Town weren’t great. Most of the menus were the same and we figured that although the food might not match the standard of the food we’d enjoyed in Croatia so far, it would be decent enough.
We’d picked an attractive looking restaurant in a picturesque alley just off the main drag. The waiter was polite and professional – no faulting him at all – and we ordered a bottle of plavac mali wine and a couple of what we thought were safe bets; beef gnocchi and seafood risotto.
You don’t need to be gourmet of the month to know that when your food arrives within three minutes of ordering it that a) it’s not freshly cooked and b) it’s not going to be very good.
My gnocchi was microwaved. Microwaved pasta. Pasta only takes minutes to cook, there’s no need to take short cuts – pasta is a short cut. Serving up food like this is taking the piss.
The wine, however, was excellent.
The substandard meal cost us more than any other in Croatia.
The next day we spotted a sign outside a restaurant which partly explained what the problem with some restaurants in Dubrovnik might be. The sign read ‘Full Lunch Served in under 30 Minutes’.
And here we are back at the cruise passengers again. It’s all about getting people who have limited time in and out quickly so they can both eat and see the sights during their brief visit to Dubrovnik.
It’s not a recipe for quality dining.
Clearly there are exceptions but you’ll probably have to fork out quite a lot to eat well. We had asked the PR woman at our hotel, who was also a qualified guide, where she’d eat in the Old Town if she wanted a decent meal but didn’t want to pay a lot. The question flummoxed her which spoke volumes.
For me, some Dubrovnik restaurateurs have taken their eye off the gastronomic ball. It can happen in destinations that don’t have to work hard to attract visitors and who don’t have much of a local population to act as quality control.
Ironically, a genuine fast food joint, Good Food ( it seemed popular with younger Croatians) opposite the Museum of Icons, served great snacks at non-inflated prices. Sandwich fillings were generous fresh and tasty plus they had a range of local specialities like prickle, a Dubrovnik cake.
I don’t intend this to come across as a hatchet job on Dubrovnik. It is a beautiful city and I’d recommend to anyone that they should visit. But there are little signs of complacency and I wish there was more of a control regarding the number of cruise ships offloading their passengers at any one time.
Knowing what we know now, we’d do things differently if we were to visit the Old Town again.
- Visit any time before 2pm (there’s a much more relaxed vibe later afternoon and in the evening).
- Eat meals in the Old Town. But we would happily snack at places like Good Food.
- Buy bottled water at silly prices, instead we’d fill our bottles from the Onofrio Fountain inside Pile Gate. We figured this out after spotting others doing it. The spring water was lovely.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+