There were multiple reasons I was looking forward to visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia, for the first time — its tumultuous history, its celebrated wine, its reputation for being picturesque — but I'll admit that my addiction to HBO's "Game of Thrones" was also a factor. I knew the city has served as a location for many of the series' most iconic scenes, and I was curious to see whether I would recognize anything.
I needn't have worried.
The Pile Gate served as King Joffrey’s perch in “Game of Thrones.” Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Stepping into the streets of Old Town was like walking through the streets of King's Landing — from the church where Queen Cersei endured her highly controversial "walk of atonement" to Pile Gate, where many of evil King Joffrey's scenes were filmed — and it wasn't difficult to picture the characters from the series striding around in full costume with their entourages.
"Just about everyone here has been an extra in 'Game of Thrones' at one time or another," said Ivan Vukovic, our walking tour guide, as he pointed out the various film locations, most of which are located right in the city center among the hubbub of daily life. The popularity of Vukovic's "Game of Thrones" tours was not lost on the local tourist office, which arranged the tour and lists it on www.dubrovnik-tourist-guides.com.
But while the cobblestone streets and medieval walls may serve well as TV props, Dubrovnik, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a place where people live and work, and after a few hours I forgot the "Game of Thrones" fantasy world in favor of the charms of real life.
My visit, which included an exploration of the seaside resort of Korcula, was at the invitation of the Croatia National Tourism Board, and the itinerary revealed a destination bubbling over with enough authentic culture and appeal to please a range of visitors, from the seasoned traveler to first-timers.
My accommodations at the five-star, 158-room Excelsior Hotel, a private villa in the early 20th century, set the tone with its dramatic terraces overlooking the Adriatic, a private beach, an indoor pool and a spa.
The property is an easy stroll to the city's well-known wall and to Stradun, the main pedestrian street, and it was here where exploring Dubrovnik began.
A superior room in the five-star Excelsior Hotel, which had been a private villa in the early 20th century.
Although some of the city suffered damage in the 1991 civil war — and there are bullet holes riddling the walls of Old Town to prove it — Dubrovnik has retained much of its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, much of which is being restored by Unesco as part of an extensive renovation project.
Visitors can walk the ancient wall that surrounds the city, a distance of just over a mile, to goggle at views of the sea and the brick-red city roofs, some of which have been rebuilt since the war.
For even more dramatic views, we rode the Dubrovnik Cable Car to the summit of Srd Hill, where we dined on seafood at the aptly named Restaurant Panorama and watched the sun set over Old Town.
Shopping is a popular tourist pastime in Dubrovnik, and red coral is a local specialty, although the shopkeepers we spoke to warned us about falling for products made in China masquerading as Croatian coral.
The foodies among us especially enjoyed a visit to Ston, about an hour away and accessible only by boat, where we visited the prized Belon oyster flats and sampled them raw, shucked in front of us and served with just a splash of lemon juice.
Oysters from Ston are harvested by hand and served alfresco. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
I think our guide was surprised by how much we enjoyed the nearby Ston Saltworks, said to be the oldest on Earth, but gourmet salt is increasingly on the radar of Americans interested in food. The salt, harvested from evaporating seawater in 53 pools named for saints, is collected by hand and transformed into a range of products, from fleur-de-sel for gourmet cooking to the lower-grade salt used to clear roads.
After a lunch at Vila Koruna in Ston, where we dined on, yes, more shellfish, we explored the city's wall, billed as the longest fortified wall outside of the Great Wall of China.
By then we were ready for a wine tasting at Saints Hills winery, located in an 18th-century country manor. Tours are available here, but we were happy to see that no tour buses are allowed, thanks to the small size and boutique atmosphere of the winery.
A small hotel is in the works, complete with eight rooms overlooking the vineyard, a pool and a helipad. Amazingly, the wine tasting, with five wines and accompanying tapas, cost just under $20 per person; a four-course meal with wine is priced at about $60.
Another highlight of the trip was our visit to the nearby island of Korcula, accessible via ferry. We stayed at the five-star Lesic Dimitri Palace, a Relais & Chateaux property overlooking the sea. There are five suites in all, ranging from one to three bedrooms; a full-service spa; and seaview dining, where the chef offers a wine-pairing tasting menu.
Old Town Korcula is a bit of a walking museum in itself, and in just a few hours you can take in St. Mark's Square; the Cathedral Sveti Marko, with its beautifully restored bell tower; its ancient fortifications and inviting beaches.
Once upon a time, shipbuilding and stone carving were important industries here, replaced nowadays by the production of a popular white wine called Grk, olive oil and, of course, tourism.
For a step off the beaten path, we detoured to Narona via ferry, where we embarked on an Indiana Jones-style river ride in a scruffy but charming traditional boat called a ladja, wending along the Neretva River through dense vegetation while drinking wine so local that it had been decanted into liter-size soda bottles. The hourlong ride, including wine, salad and homemade bread, is priced at less than $20 per person.
A cooking lesson involving live eels and frogs followed at the restaurant, Djudja i Mate, that operates the safari boats. The restaurant also operates a tour of the Narona Archeological Museum, which opened in 2007 with exhibits of dramatic, larger-than-life Roman statues that were discovered in the area during a dig in the late 1990s.