Welcome to Fantasyland.

Ever since Dubrovnik began location duty for the fantasy series Game of Thrones,

everyone has been talking about the Croatian city.

This scenic place isn’t just a great movie backdrop.

Viewed from the ancient city wall, the Stradun – the old town’s main thoroughfare – looks like one long catwalk. Its paving stones have been worn smooth and shiny by the footsteps of millions of visitors, and cameras flash everywhere in the gathering twilight. 43,000 people live in Dubrovnik, but only 1,000 of them reside in the old city, which has been on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list since 1979. Families with children prefer the newer suburban neighbourhoods further inland. Cars are prohibited in the old city; then there are the 160 flights of stairs to constantly negotiate.

Ups and downs Dubrovnik’s old city has 160 staircases.
Vedran Perojevic worked and lived in China for many years.

A younger generation begun returning to the historic city centre.

Only recently has a younger generation begun returning to the historic city centre and attempted to create a cultural counterweight to the myriad cheap souvenir shops – people like chef Vedran Perojevic, who serves up Asian-infused Mediterranean cuisine in his restaurant, Azur, or jewellery designers Simona and Marko Farac, who fashion unique creations out of coral, gold and silver.

The best place in Dubrovnik to sample fresh Mali Ston oysters is at the Kamenice Buffet in the centre of the old city.

Dubrovnik is an aesthetic city.

Even unassuming signs showing the way to the nearest hair salon are tastefully designed, with elegantly curved white lettering on red velvet. At the small open-air market, zucchini blossoms, peaches, candied bitter oranges and burnt sugar almonds lie atop wooden tables.

A stroll through the old town reveals how important culture is to its residents. There’s an art gallery on practically every corner; the sounds of cello and piano music drift across from the former St. Catherine’s convent, which now houses a music school; a brass band plays on the Stradun.

Operatic dreams 20-year old Laura Hladilo dreams of a career as an opera singer, but it would require leaving her hometown.

Cultural DNA.

This small city boasts a symphony orchestra, a theatre, an academy of music and three open-air movie theatres; its summer festival of classical music concerts is a known quantity all over Europe. “Culture is embedded in our DNA,” says 20-yearold Laura Hladilo. The aspiring young opera singer has been training for the profession since she was 15, following in the footsteps of her grandmother. Laura dreams of a career in one of Europe’s great opera houses, and though she treasures the familiar atmosphere of her native town, she anticipates eventually having to depart for Berlin, Vienna or Paris in pursuit of artistic success.

Miho Hajtilovic has never entertained the thought of leaving his hometown.

The fisherman stands in the small hatch of his boat, tiller in one hand, cigarette in the other, looking a good deal younger than his 83 years. He started fishing when he was five; since then, he has absolved his rounds in Dubrovnik’s waters on an almost daily basis. The city used to have 40 professional fishermen; now Hajtilovic is one of the last of his kind. “Fishermen are going extinct, it’s a tough job,” says the old man without any bitterness. Hajtilovic named his modest vessel after his grandson: “Mali Ivan”, or “Little Ivan”. Ivan is 35 now – the same age as the boat – and has promised his grandfather to continue the fishing business, even though it’s hardly worth it anymore. “The nets used to be mostly full, my grandfather filled them 70 to 80 percent on his trips,” relates Ivan, “these days they’re only 30 percent full.” The waters have been overfished, and noise from cruise ships, jet skis and ferries has driven away marine life. But the old fisherman knows a few choice places where he can still use his “Parangal”, or longline, to extract a prime specimen or two from the crystal-clear waters.

Miho Hajtilovic started fishing when he was five years old. Today, at 83, he still takes his boat out on a regular basis.

Lopud Island, with its secluded oves, lies just a few miles away from Dubrovnik.

A shark’s tale.

Near Lokrum Island, just across the water from the old city, the fisherman throttles the steady putt-putt of his diesel engine. This is where Game of Thrones scenes in the desert Kingdom of Qarth were filmed. In reality, the park-like island has its own botanical garden. The fantasy TV series couldn’t interest Miho Hajtilovic less. He doesn’t have an Internet connection or a car, and lives in a modest apartment. But he doesn’t appear to lack for anything. On the contrary, his life contains more than enough excitement. “My grandfather used to be the Robin Hood of the spear fishermen,” reports his proud grandson. Once upon a time, a marathon swimming race was taking place just off the coastline, and from his boat, Hajtilovic spotted an approaching shark. Without hesitation, the fisherman dispatched the predator with his spear. To this day, he is still celebrated as a local hero. A fisherman’s yarn? Perhaps. Regardless, the shark tale still sounds more plausible than most of what happens in Game of Thrones.