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Dazzling Dalmatia

From the bustling beauty of Dubrovnik to deserted coves and unspoilt islands, Christopher Middleton explores Croatia's glorious coastline

It’s just 25 years ago, Dubrovnik was under constant attack, from land and sea, by Serbian artillery during the Yugoslavian war.

How wonderfully different things look today for this ancient walled city. There is still a sort of daily siege, but now from hordes of eager cruise tourists.

They visit the secluded Franciscan monastery, the handsome Rector's Palace and they stroll up and down the elegant, car-free main street, Stradun, its flagstones polished to a sheen by centuries of shoes.

Sunset over the port of Dubrovnik

By 3pm, though, the trippers are all gone, clutching their souvenirs. And those checking in for a longer, more satisfying stay are at liberty to find out what else Dubrovnik has to offer.

Set sail anywhere within a five mile radius, and you'll find a handsome shoreline hotel or villa. Yes, the war brought devastation to large numbers of buildings in the area in the Nineties, but they have been both re-built and improved.

For instance, there's the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel, which stands three miles out of town. Not only was it hit by shells during the conflict, it also provided shelter for locals who had been bombed out of their homes.

Now, it's a sleek, modern structure, built into the cliff at a raked angle, which means that all 308 bedrooms have a view over the sea and surrounding mountains.

Relax at one of the many beautiful beaches on the Peljesac Peninsula

And while you could happily spend a couple of days sunbathing by their pools, there's plenty more to do. The most popular tour is to the neighbouring Peljesac Peninsula, an undulating collection of sea-lapped hills, devoted to the cultivation of wine and oysters. A two-hour drive takes you past a dozen little try-and-buy vineyards, of which the biggest by far is the Korta Katarina winery, on the edge of the bay at Orebic.

This glorious white structure was built by American philanthropists Penny and Lee Anderson, who decided to put their wealth (they own 44 companies) towards re-constructing postwar Croatia.

Here you can taste their wines, including a very good rosé, which makes use of vast quantities of locally-harvested Plavac Mali (meaning 'little blue') grapes, which grow all over the surrounding hills.

An hour's drive back towards Dubrovnik, and you're in salt-flat country. The hills overlooking the little village of Ston are lined with huge walls, designed to repel invaders who came in search of the white gold that was salt, the main method of food preservation in a pre-refrigerator world.

The breathtaking village of Mali Ston

Half a mile down the road, you're at the water's edge, in Mali (Little) Ston. First, you are taken out by boat, to a floating platform, where they slice open fresh oysters and mussels, pulled straight from the water.

Then you are ferried back to the jetty, where, beneath the dangling nets and ancient brick arches of the Bota Sare restaurant, you are served fish broth and Pošip (or Posip), a white wine produced from grapes grown on nearby Korcula.

This is one of the 12 Elaphiti Islands, which, like so many of the spots around Dubrovnik, are both unspoilt and uninhabited (only three have a resident population). This southernmost part of Croatia (it's a seven-hour drive to the capital, Zagreb) has certainly managed to avoid any excesses of over-development. Perhaps the lack of sandy beaches has turned out to be a blessing.

The best view of the city is from the cable-car that takes you from the historic, 7ft-thick walls right up to the clifftop where the enemy guns once stood.

Some visitors are interested not only in the medieval frescos in the monastery, but also the locations where TV series Game Of Thrones is filmed; local guide Lucija Podic works on the production and also shows fans the key film sites.

The result, then, is a happy marriage of past and present, in a setting where the scars of war are now virtually invisible, and the excesses of commercialism have yet to leave a mark, at least once the cruise-ship crowds have left for the day.

First published in the Mail on Sunday - July 2017

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