Konavle: Escaping Dubrovnik to Croatia’s southernmost tip

Dubrovnik is often called the “Pearl of the Adriatic” and it certainly lives up to its nickname. Without a doubt, it is the most gorgeous and magnificent city on the eastern Adriatic coast. However, there is a catch. Dubrovnik can get crowded, and if I say so, I mean packed like sardines in a can. The medieval city has always been a popular tourist destination, but with the arrival of giant cruise ships and low-cost airlines, crowds have been increasing massively over the last few years. If that was not enough, “Game of Thrones” turned out to be the most brilliant marketing stunt, bringing Dubrovnik on the map of American tourists. Even in what is elsewhere considered “low season”, Dubrovnik remains busy throughout the year.

Given Dubrovnik’s popularity, enough or perhaps too much has already been written about the city itself. While I encourage everyone of you to visit Dubrovnik, let me introduce you to a more quiet region, just half an hour south. Located at the southernmost tip of Croatia close to the border to Montenegro, Konavle is the perfect region to escape the madness of Dubrovnik without avoiding the region altogether.

Dubrovnik seen from Cavtat

Konavle is a diverse and scenic region that has it all: pristine beaches, towering cliffs and mighty mountains. It stretches from the Adriatic town of Cavtat to the southernmost tip of Croatia at Prevlaka. Apart from Cavtat and the southernmost village of Molunat, all other settlements within the municipality are located in the hinterland, rising up to the Sniježnica peak at 1234 meters above sea level.

To give you an idea of the geographical location, here’s a map of Konavle including all points of interest mentioned in this article:

In September 2016, I spent a wonderful 10 days in and around Konavle. Those of you who know me know that I have had this special bond with the Croatian coast ever since I lived in Zadar a few years ago and I love coming back every now and then, even if only for a weekend. I personally enjoy the more quiet part of the year when most tourists are gone and I have the waterfront to myself. The second half of September is a fantastic time to visit Konavle because the school holidays are over, resulting in less crowds and much less traffic on the notoriously jam-packed roads. More imporantly, the water temperature is still around 22 to 25 degrees.

I stayed at a lovely apartment overlooking the seaside village of Molunat in the very south of the region, which was not only a great place to relax at the beach but also proved to be an excellent base to explore not only Konavle but also neighboring Montenegro (more on that in a separate blog post). Molunat’s sea temperature tends to be slightly higher than at the beaches along the coast of Konavle region because the bay is protected from winds and waves by a hill to the west. Due to the topographical position south of the Konavle cliffs, the weather is often different than in Dubrovnik and Cavtat.

View from the apartment in Molunat
Molunat – the southernmost village of Croatia

I loved everything about my stay in this small village. Whenever I stepped outside, there was this scent of the sea mixed with Mediterranean vegetation. Life goes by slowly in this part of Europe, a quality which made this place an attractive destination for a proper vacation. While I do not consider most of my trips “vacation,” as they tend to be city breaks where I still remain available for my clients, this one certainly lived up to it. It felt great to be out of office for a couple of days, sit down and chat with the locals and read the paper.

My day trips from Molunat included a number of destinations within Konavle and two road trips to nearby Montenegro. I did go to Dubrovnik as well, but I figured that there is (more than) enough content about Dubrovnik out there already, so I will not mention it in this article. Below, I will list a few of the places I visited in Konavle region. There is definitely a lot more to explore, but my trip was not about ticking off items on a list of “must do’s”. I actually visited a lot less places than during other trips and even canceled one of my planned road trips to sleep in and relax.

Prevlaka

Prevlaka peninsula is the southernmost tip of Croatia near the border with Montenegro. The small and uninhabitated peninsula is just 2.6 kilometers long and a few hundred meters wide. The tip of the peninsula is called Cape Oštro (Oštri rt). Its geographic location has always been of strategic importance, as the entrance to the Bay of Kotor can be observed from here. It was controlled by the Dubrovnik Republic from the early 15th century until Napoleon’s conquest of Europe in the early 19th century. The former Dubrovnik Republic, including Prevlaka, came under the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1813. It was incorporated into the Kingdom of Dalmatia as a subdivision of the Habsburg Empire.

The fort at Cape Oštro
Memorial commemorating the 1917 Battle of the Strait of Otranto

In order to control the entrance to the Bay of Kotor, the Austrian Empire built a fort at Cape Oštro and at the nearby Mamula Island, just two kilometers east of the cape, part of today’s Montenegro. Construction of the fort and a wharf started in 1850. The fort played an important role in World War I battles of the Austro-Hungarian navy which was locked in the Adriatic by the Allied naval blockade of the Strait of Otranto. A memorial plaque, put up in 2007, commemorates the “heroes” of the Battle of the Strait of Otranto.

After the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prevlaka became part of the newly-found Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The fort has suffered from wars and dilapidation
“Tito – this is our path” – a remnant of Yugoslavia

From 1955, the peninsula was used by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) as a military base and closed to the public. During the Croatian War of Independence, Prevlaka and the surrounding territory were under control of the JNA. The Croatian Army briefly gained back control, but the peninsula was soon retaken. In October 1992, the two sides agreed on the demilitarization of the peninsula.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the peninsula became the subject of a fierce border dispute between Croatia and Montenegro (which was part of the rest of Yugoslavia after the war and became independent in 2006). There was even an UN observer mission at Prevlaka from 1996 to 2002, overseeing the demilitarization and acting as a buffer between the former war enemies. A border crossing was opened near the peninsula in 1999, known as Konfin (stamped as Vitaljina) on the Croatian side and Kobila on the Montenegrin side. The peninsula was returned to Croatia in December 2002, but the dispute could not be solved. The two countries still have not been able to agree on the final demarcation of the border, neither bilaterally nor by international arbitration.

Looking towards Montenegro: Mamula island in the foreground, Lovćen mountain towering in the background
Prevlaka seen from Herceg Novi (Montenegro)

Croatian media recently reported that the area was finally handed over to the municipality of Konavle. This step was necessary to allow the Society of Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities to start the much needed restoration of the fort. The plans also include a Museum of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. I could not be more excited – this will be a great reason to come back in a few years!

 

 

Cavtat

Church of Saint Nicholas

Cavtat is a small town on the Adriatic coast, not far from Dubrovnik Airport. Due to its proximity to Dubrovnik and tourist infrastructure, it is probably the busiest and most visited part of Konavle. Cavtat has a well-preserved old town dating back to the times of the Dubrovnik Republic. The seaside promenade is lined with restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops.

My favorite part of Cavtat is the 2-kilometer walkway around the small peninsula that forms the bay where the old town and the seaside promenade are located. The peninsula is overgrown with pine and cypress trees and features a number of rocky beaches. Be careful though if you want to go swimming here, the rocks are sharp and sometimes slippery. I brought flip-flops and a towel to be on the safe side.

A rocky beach on the peninsula

Sokol grad

Sokol Fortress on a cliff in the hinterland
Exploring Sokol grad

Sokol grad is a natural fortress built on a 25 meter cliff, located in the village of Dunave at 440 meters above sea level. It was first mentioned in a document in 1373, but archaeological finds from prehistoric times show that this location has been inhabitated for thousands of years. The name translates into Falcon’s Fortress.

The fortress had different functions over the centuries. The medieval structure was built on the location of previous Illyrian and Roman fortifications. It came under the authority of the city of Dubrovnik in 1423. Its purpose was to protect and defend the settlement below the fortress, Konavle and the southeastern borders of Dubrovnik Republic.

The small trading republic had many enemies, including the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the role of Sokol grad was crucial throughout the centuries. However, it lost its significance after the peace treaty following the Candian War and was abandoned in 1672.

The small museum features some medieval exhibits

What followed were three centuries of decay and dilapidation. The fortress fell into oblivion. It took until 1966 that the Society of Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities acquired the remains of Sokol grad. Following a long and thorough restoration, the fortress is open to the public and features a small museum and a rooftop café (very much recommended and to my surprise not more expensive than any other café nearby!).

The small museum

From Sokol grad, you can admire the green vegetation of the mighty mountains rising up behind the fortress. The peaks to the east practically form the border with nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. The geographical tripoint is somewhere up in the mountains at the still contested demarcation line, but inaccessible. This area is pretty uninhabitated and it is not possible to cross the external border of the EU anywhere nearby, except for the main international border crossings that are each about a half an hour drive away.

The hinterland of Konavle region, seen from Sokol grad

Konavoski dvori

Konavoski dvori

Konavoski dvori is a traditional Croatian restaurant located in the village of Ljuta, not far from Sokol grad. To be honest, I did not eat there, but it is supposed to be a good restaurant. I stopped there just briefly to see the old watermill on my way back from nearby Sokol grad. Even if you don’t come here for lunch or dinner, it might be interesting to drive around the area and check out these random places to get a better idea of the villages away from the coast.

If you like wine, you might want to check out the vineyards in this area. They grow many different types of grapes of good quality, including the Malvazija dubrovačka

Pasjača beach

Looking downhill from the parking lot

Pasjača beach is located near the village of Popovići below a cliff. My friends recommended coming here because of the breathtaking landscape and the crystal-clear water. They suggested that there are hardly any people around. In fact, it took a while to find the gravel road leading to the small parking lot, as there are no signs anywhere. From the parking lot, I walked down the narrow path to the beach for about 10 minutes. The view was stunning and I had the entire beach to myself! Well, maybe because it was late September, but I doubt that this place would be crowded even in high season. It’s just so far away from everywhere else and you wouldn’t find it without a GPS. 

There were so many great things to do in this region, but only so little time! I still have wonderful memories of the ten days spent in Konavle in September 2016 and this was definitely not my last visit. 

A plane landing at Ćilipi airport, just outside of Cavtat