When Richard the Lionheart, king of England, was returning home from the crusades in November 1192, he encountered a huge storm. Fearing certain shipwreck and death, he took his Venetian fleet to shelter on the island of Lokrum, just off the coast of Dubrovnik, in Croatia. As a way of showing his thanks to God for saving his life, he vowed to build two churches – one in England and the other on Lokrum. But the citizens of Dubrovnik persuaded him to build a church inside the city instead, and the basilica stood there until the great earthquake of 1667.
From my bedroom I can see that same island, Lokrum, and I too am sheltering from a storm. Most people don’t consider coming to the Dalmatian coast in winter, but as long as you’re not arriving by boat, and you come appropriately dressed and armed with a sturdy pair of boots and an umbrella, there are many advantages to doing so.
You’ll be treated to prices that are a fraction of their summer equivalents, able to visit empty museums, and enjoy a relaxed, generous warmth from the people that is harder to find in peak times when everyone is overwhelmed. Understandably so, with the legion of tourists who flock to these shores each day, many of whom arrive on cruise ships that dock in the old ports of Dubrovnik and Split. In winter, however, the crowds are no more. In fact, there are very few tourists at all, bringing an altogether different vibe. This is the time for cosy bars, long candlelit dinners and snuggling up with a bottle of wine in a cavernous bar.
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I first came to this region in 2001 when the area felt like it was still picking itself up from the Homeland War of the early 1990s. Dubrovnik was missing roof tiles and had bullet holes in the walls. Fast forward to 2016 and my next visit, when I found that things had changed drastically – not least due to the overwhelming success of fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which was shot here, and attracted fans to its filming locations.
But much as Ansel Adams continued to photograph the Grand Canyon, and Laurence Olivier kept returning to Othello, I like to revisit places, and see how they’ve evolved. I feel there’s always more to uncover. More stories to tell. Coming here out of season this year showed me a whole new side to the place.
Hotels with character
The room I’m in at the Hotel Excelsior, just outside the old town, is where I can see Lokrum island from, and imagine Richard the Lionheart running for cover mid-downpour. It’s been open since 1913, and has hosted many an illustrious guest over the years, whose portraits adorn a “hall of fame” – Che Guevara, Sophia Loren, Roger Moore and Orson Welles, among others.
I also stay at the Hotel Bellevue on the other side of town, which is the more modern of the two hotels, with a fresh, seaside decor and nautical stripes. This also has prime ocean views, as well as a lift down to a pebble beach below. Even on sunny days in winter, people are swimming.
Although many restaurants, hotels and bars have shut up shop for the winter – understandably so – a few do remain open. And here you’ll be treated to kindness and hospitality that is rare to find in other parts of the world. In many of the hotels and guesthouses I stay in, I’m left small gifts – cakes, wine, baklava, Turkish delights, local liqueur. Little touches to make my stay extra special.
Come December, little Christmas markets spring up, and the churches and squares sparkle with fairy lights. Visitors cradle macchiatos and sit under woollen blankets on outdoor terraces or huddle together at old barrel tables. Up the coast in Split, the main square is transformed into an ice rink and outdoor bar, with wooden huts serving hot drinks, pivo (beer) and pizzas.
Dinner with a view
As I pass through Split, I stop in at the famous restaurant Zoi, beside the harbour and partially housed in Diocletian’s Palace. Not many restaurants can claim to offer you a seat within the walls of a Roman palace or Unesco World Heritage Site. When the weather is clement, there’s a terrace that has one of the best views in all of Europe. As an out-of-season visitor, I dine inside but it’s still an incredible experience, from the food and wine to the service and decor. Even the bathrooms form part of the old palace.
Each dish I try comes with accompanying Croatian wines to complement the flavours – sparkling rosé with the hors d’oeuvres, pošip (a white wine grape) and chardonnay with the sea bass, sparkling muscat with the panna cotta. Everything is exquisite. By night, Diocletian’s Palace is lit up, and you can enjoy a nightcap or walk inside its courtyards and admire this living, breathing piece of history. Come now while you’ll have it all to yourself.
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