Cultural Winter Dubrovnik Excels as St Blaise Feast Awaits

By 3 February 2017

A visit to out of season Dubrovnik on February 2, 2017 reveals vibrant cultural life in a famous tourist city preparing to celebrate its patron saint, St. Blaise. 

Dubrovnik, the winter edition, a UNESCO World Heritage Site almost unrecognisable from the busy summer months when its walls are overtaken by tourists (more than one million peole walked them in 2016), its harbour full of cruise ships, and its cafes and restaurants packed to the gills. 

And then there is winter, a quieter time, where the city is stripped back to its bare stone bones, with most (but not all - there is still a wide variety of dining options) cafes and restaurants closed, their tables and chairs locked away, thereby enhancing not only the beauty of this timeless beauty rightly named the Pearl of the Adriatic, but also the enhancement of space; not only are the crowds much smaller (almost non-existent), but the streets are wider without the cafe props, and more authentic as more of the stunning original stone is available for enjoyment. 

But quiet as the city may appear to be on the surface, there is plenty going on, especially on the level of culture, from filming of Hollywood movies to a local celebration of the arts. Above part of the set of Robin Hood: Origins, the latest high profile production to be shot in the city after Game of Thrones and Star Wars. 

Filming is due to start later this month, with producer Leo di Caprio rumoured to be arriving next week. The preparations continue in this quiet period, and Dubrovnik's famous main street of Stradun will also turn into a slice of Nottingham for the movie. 

Magnificent from any angle, this shot is taken from luxury Hotel Argentina, which kindly hosted TCN for three days, Dubrovnik is one of the premier destinations in Europe, and it is working hard to expand its season beyond the traditional summer and shoulder months. With its temperate southern Dalmatian climate and rich cultural offering, Dubrovnik out of season is one of European tourism's better kept secrets. The key issue of winter connectivity is  slowly being addressed, and Dubrovnik is now connected to the world via two key links which operate 12 months a year - Croatia Airlines to Frankfurt and beyond, and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul and onward connections to Asia and North America. Japanese were noticeably the largest tourism group in early February. 

And a particular benefit of a winter visit is the privacy one is afforded in the top attractions. A million people on the walls is a significant number, but come in early February and you can have the famous old wall of Dubrovnik all to yourself. I saw just 11 other people on the walls during my 90-minute breathtaking tour of some of the finest city fortifications in existence. 

A gorgeously compact city, with a proud history and heritage. An additional benefit of visiting at the beginning of February is that the usual 20 euro admission fee is waived, as the city celebrates its patron saint, St. Blaise. 

Given its rich trading history, Dubrovnik has always been a very international city, attracting international artists, and the latest exhibition, Love in Damascus, by Moscow-based Syrian artist Elias Ayouba at the Dulcic-Masle-Pulitika Gallery, was the first in a series of events to mark the celebration of St. Blaise, who has been the city's protector since saving Ragusa (as  Dubrovnik was known then) from Venetian attack.  

The Syrian exhibition was complimented by one of internationally renowned Dubrovnik artist, Djuro Pulitika.  

The musical event of the day took place in Dubrovnik Cathedral, as the fabulous Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra put on quite a performance to mark the occasion of the Feast of St. Blaise (the main event is on February 3) and the Day of the City of Dubrovnik. 

After the quiet streets the day before, Febraury 2, the eve of the feast, sees the old town come to life, and there are various events to add some local colour, including a humanitarian celebration of Dubrovnik's famous bitter oranges by the Desa Association - read more about Desa and Bitter Orange Day here

Vineyards are one of the features of the region around Dubrovnik, and its wines are attracting increasing international attention and recognition, and a wine festival at City Caffe Dubrovnik allowed visitors to become more acquainted with the indigenous grapes of southern Dalmatia. You can read more about the event here.  

There is a delightful sense of joy in Dubrovnik around the time of St. Blaise. The pressure of tourism is off, locals revel in their revered and much beloved patron saint, and families come together to enjoy this most local of celebrations. It is a privilege to be a silent witness on the outside looking in.

And so it started, initially with an impressive parade down Stradun.

Destination the Church of St. Blaise, where some highly impressive banner furling got proceedings underway.  

Bishops and other religious diginitaries from all over Croatia and beyond took up their positions. 

And those empty streets of yesterday were taken over by the people. Not teeming with tourists as is the case in July, but the majority locals, enjoying the celebration of St. Blaise. For a comprehensive overview of the festival and its traditions, read this TCN report.  

And so it began.

The celebration is a decidedly family affair, and local kids were clearly enjoying themselves.  

And after the speeches and thanks, the tradition of releasing a dove, which did not take long to fly away in gratitude high above Dubrovnik's orange roofs. 

The sound of gunfire closeby filled the air, and a short walk to the waterfront revealed the magnificent Tromunjeri in action. Learn more about them here.  

An essential part of Dubrovnik tradition, the Trombunjeri diligently cleaned their weapons before reloading.  

As well as inspiring some Tromunjeri of the future, perhaps?

Known also as the saint who protects throat ailments, local people then lined up en masse for their annual throat blessing.

A wonderful spectacle to observe, but this is only the warm-up day, remember. The main festivities take place today.  

But things were not quite finished for the evening. A gala Candlemas Dinner at the truly spectacular Revelin Fortress on the edge of the old town was the culmination of the perfect day, especially when accompanied by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra once more. 

Dubrovnik out of season? I can't think of a better time to visit.