Croatia: Frieze frame on painter's paradise

By Linda Cookson

Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but Linda Cookson prefers the calmer pace and more human scale of Cavtat, along the Adriatic coast.

Established as the town of Epidaurum in the 4th century BC, Cavtat sits on the saddle of a wooded peninsula between two bays, offering plentiful access to the shimmering sea. Photo / County Tourist Board: Dubrovnik-Neretva
Established as the town of Epidaurum in the 4th century BC, Cavtat sits on the saddle of a wooded peninsula between two bays, offering plentiful access to the shimmering sea. Photo / County Tourist Board: Dubrovnik-Neretva

Truman Capote famously said of Venice that visiting the city was like eating a whole box of chocolate liqueurs all in one go. I feel a bit like that about Dubrovnik. Beyond doubt, Croatia's "pearl of the Adriatic" is breathtakingly beautiful - a jewel encased by city walls and, beyond them, by the unbroken blue of the sea.

But its opulence can be overwhelming. There are no fewer than 17 sumptuous churches crammed within barely a square kilometre of Old Town. And, in the summer, the heat within the city's medieval walls can become fiercely oppressive, as hordes of visitors and cruise-ship parties push and shove within the crowded confines of narrow streets and alleyways.

How to avoid the hassle? Happily, there's a simple answer. Base yourself 17km down the coast in the small harbour town of Cavtat (pronounced "tsavtat"), less than 45 minutes by boat or bus from central Dubrovnik. Here you will have the best of both worlds.

You can enjoy the relaxed rhythm of life in a colourful waterfront community, while knowing that you can sample the attractions of Dubrovnik whenever you like (connecting services run every half-hour or so).

Cavtat is a fascinating and cultured destination in itself. I first stumbled upon it by accident on a day-trip from Dubrovnik - though smarter travellers than I have been going there for years. Throughout the last century, it was an exclusive retreat for wealthy Croatians (many of whom built mansions there), as well as a thriving hub for working artists.

But it is only relatively recently - following the end of the disastrous siege of Dubrovnik in the early 1990s - that the town has begun to develop as a resort for foreign tourists.

Cavtat perches on the saddle of a wooded peninsula set between two bays, so you're never more than moments from the water. The sea is as still as a mirror, a deep and brilliant blue with pools of green reflected from the pine forests beyond. A wide promenade, fringed with palm trees, runs along the harbour front.

This is the cosmopolitan centre of the town, where fishing and tourist boats jostle with gleaming jet-set yachts the size of battleships. In the same way, simple bars where locals crowd to watch football matches stand alongside restaurants gleaming with silverware and white linen.

Ordinary pharmacies and hardware shops are likewise interspersed with hastily improvised souvenir outlets selling cheap shot glasses and ashtrays sporting the Croatian flag.

If Dubrovnik is a chocolate box, then Cavtat is a paintbox. Cobbled streets with traditional red-roofed brownstone houses climb back from the blue of the waterfront. The narrow stairways between the opposite sides of each street are smothered in clouds of white, mauve and pink blossoms.

In the fruit and vegetable market, by the bus station, crates of green and red peppers, aubergines and green figs are piled high beside trestle tables laden with a golden blaze of fruits: bananas, papayas, enormous melons and the gorgeous knobbly lemons that also drip from the surrounding trees like blobs of yellow candlewax.

But most of all, Cavtat is about light. In the daytime, the town shimmers. In the evening, clouds in the night sky are outlined in a glow of copper and silver, looking for all the world like strange new countries on a mysterious old map. Little wonder the place has attracted so many artists.

The celebrated Croatian painter, Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922), remains Cavtat's most famous son. His former home is slowly being transformed into a gallery.

It displays portraits by the artist of his family and provides space for visiting exhibitions. In addition, the quirky little building has recently been revealed as something of a work of art in itself. Workmen accidentally uncovered wall after wall of fabulous pastel-washed friezes depicting birds, animals and rural scenes by Bukovac, all hidden for years by plasterwork and now being lovingly restored.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bukovac is everywhere in Cavtat. The gracious waterfront Church of St Nicholas has his painting of the four evangelists over its main altar, with more of his works on display in the Pinakoteka - the art gallery - next door. But, Bukovac apart, there is a host of other treasures in the town, testament to an impressively long and distinguished cultural history: Cavtat was originally the site of the town of Epidaurum, founded in the 4th century BC.

Next to St Nicholas's Church, the 16th-century Rector's Palace houses an eclectic collection of paintings, books and furniture donated by another notable former resident, the 19th-century lawyer and cultural activist, Baltazar Bogisic, whose statue dominates the southern part of the harbourfront.

Even more impressive - though not, it has to be said, to all tastes - is the Racic Mausoleum. This octagonal white dome with huge bronze doors decorated with gargoyles of dogs, eagles and winged lambs, was built high above Cavtat in the early 1920s by the Croatian sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, for a wealthy local ship-owning family. Even if you prefer not visit this marble folly, the walk to it is definitely worthwhile.

The mausoleum is on top of a steep, wooded hill at the very tip of the peninsula on which the town rests. Unexpectedly - especially for people arriving from the comparative bustle of the quayside - the whole of this end of the peninsula is given over to semi-wild parkland, heavily scented with herbs and flowers. In just minutes, you've stepped from an artificial forest of yacht masts into a living Arcadia.

The peninsula is the perfect place to come for a swim and a picnic. After a respectful nod at the no-nonsense stone angels guarding the doors to the ship-owning dead, you can clamber down from the mausoleum through the woodland to a waterfront fringed by rocky outcrops.

Cavtat has its share of sandy beaches - but these are mostly in an area known as Zal, a kilometre east of the town centre, which houses a rather unprepossessing string of modern hotels. More attractive are the occasional bathing platforms and shack-like cafes that are dotted round the water's edge of the peninsula itself.

Right by the shoreline, though easily missed amid the greenery, the Rokatin cafe is a little gem - look for an ancient rowing boat draped with fishing nets and suspended between pine trees, and a wooden sign offering sun-beds for hire. Once settled with some local ham and cheese (both from Pag island) and a carafe of Dingac wine, you'll find it difficult to tear yourself away.

As evening falls over Cavtat, the lights go out on the peninsula. Seemingly the whole of the town heads down to the harbour - either for a stroll along the promenade or for a gossip and a travarica (powerful local herb-brandy) in one of Cavtat's many bars and restaurants.

Everyone finds a favourite bar. Mine was the Cafe Posejdon - in pole position at the southern end of the harbour, shaded by pine trees heavy with cones and overlooking the entire waterfront.

From there I watched many a glorious sunset, the local water-polo team practising in their floodlit pitch and the aproned waiters of the exclusive Restaurant Leut. I watched the crews of the tour boats hosing down the decks. And with awe but no envy, the fairy-tale city of Dubrovnik twinkling in the distance.

CHECKLIST

Further information: See croatia.hr. For information specifically on Dubrovnik, see dubrovnik-online.com.

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