It's a fantasy for romantics – a medieval walled city whose gorgeous forts, palaces, churches and squares are transformed for a short time into a consummate set for theatre, concerts, ballet, dance, film, comedy and opera.
This is Dubrovnik every July and August when the city's Summer Festival bursts from its chrysalis for its annual life cycle. If you're anywhere near this renaissance-baroque beauty during the vibrant 47 days, join the magic.
The heritage-listed city, considered one of the world's 10 best medieval walled cities, is a work of art itself – "a city made of stones and dreams", said Croatian writer Jure Kastelan.
We've stepped ashore from our Ponant Le Lyrial small-ship cruise from Venice to Athens to explore the city that hosts one of Europe's oldest and most distinguished festivals. It's not an insignificant event – this year there were 80 events and 2000 artists. During our visit, the Adriatic glitters, the city's polished stone glows, banners fly and the air is heavy with summer scents of lavender, sweet-bitter arancini and honey emanating from Gundulic square, home of the city's open-air market. Gundulic Square is one of the festival's many venues.
Since 1950, the festival has welcomed a glittering array of actors, directors, singers, violinists and pianists. These include Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ravi Shankar, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Martha Argerich, James Galway, Montserrat Caballe, Isaac Stern, Stuart Burge, Branko Gavella, Franco Zeffirelli, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Day Lewis, William Gaskill and Jiri Menzel, to name a few.
Theatrical offerings have included old masters – Shakespeare, Moliere, Goldoni, Goethe, Croatian playwrights Marin Drzic, Nikola Naljeskovic, Ivan Gundulic – and contemporary dramatists such as Berthold Brecht, Edward Bond and Miroslav Krleza.
There have been musical performances from renowned classical orchestras – philharmonic, symphony, chamber and vocal ensembles – to jazz, folk, comedy, choir, ballet, dance, opera and comic opera and contemporary film. And all set around beautiful venues such as Dubrovnik's Rector's Palace, St Blaise's Church, Sponza Palace, Gruz summer residence, Gradac Park, Lokrum Island, Jadran open-air cinema, Franciscan Monastery, Museum of Modern Art, the old city harbour, numerous city squares, plus the Revelin and Lovrjenac forts. These forts are two of four in the irregular walled parallelogram surrounding Dubrovnik. Revelin protects the port's eastern side while freestanding Lovrjenac (St Lawrence Fortress) protects the west from land and sea assaults.
While many festivals employ open-air venues in historic areas, Dubrovnik prides itself on carefully selecting settings, not simply from a visual but also an acoustic perspective, to suit particular performances.
Ballet and dance fit the Revelin Fort, Shakespearean plays are at home on Lovrjenac, opera and virtuoso music performances in the Rector's Palace atrium and St Blaise's forecourt, renaissance comedies and mystery plays find their place in city squares like Gundulic, home of the city's open-air market.
Dubrovnik's annual Shakespearean tradition began with Hamlet, performed on the Lovrjenac Fort and it's the setting every year for another Shakespeare. In 2017, it was Othello.
Other theatrical events included Carlo Goldoni's play La Bottega del Caffe from the festival's golden age (Sponza Palace Atrium), the brilliant Croatian play 3 Winters by Tena Stivicic (Gradac Park) and eminent UK jazz vocalist Zara McFarlane singing on the Revelin Fort Terrace.
From a musical point of view, festival-goers chose from Handel's Orlando, performed on Lokrum Island, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in Gradac Park, Dubrovnik's Symphony Orchestra at the Rector's Palace Atrium and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in front of St Blaise's Church. The festival's box office at Od Sigurate 1 on Stradun or Placa (Dubrovnik's main street) is worth a visit itself. It's housed in a 17th-century baroque palace with not just lovely rooms, frescoes and stucco decorations, but an interesting history.
Originally the home of the Kersa family but donated to the festival, Serbian and Montenegrin bombardment badly damaged the palace in 1991 during the Croatian war of independence. Fire gutted the interior, the roof was destroyed and all festival records were lost.
It was one of eight other historic buildings seriously damaged in the Old Town and the first to be reconstructed due to its cultural significance. Like the festival itself, the building's rebirth is a celebration of history, culture and survival.
Alison Stewart travelled as a guest of Ponant and Emirates.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice via Dubai and returns from Athens via Dubai.
Le Lyrial's Discovery of Dalmatian Shores' eight-day Athens to Venice departs on July 21 or August 7, 2018. From $3660 per person double occupancy; book now to save up to 30 per cent. Includes private balcony, all meals, open bar. See au.ponant.com or call 1300 737 178.