Mark Thomas - The editor and big chief of The Dubrovnik Times. Born in the UK he has been living and working in Dubrovnik since 1998, yes he is one of the rare “old hands.” A unique insight into both British and Croatian life and culture, Mark is often known as just “Englez” or Englishman. He is a traveller, a current affairs freak and a huge AFC Wimbledon fan.
The Dubrovnik Times caught up with a photographer and travel writer who has recently spent some time in the city. The images of Dubrovnik that Crispin Zeeman captured were, to say the least, stunning. He managed to capture the heart and soul of Dubrovnik and his passion for his profession shone through like the August sun. He has brought the colours and contrasts of four continents and over thirty countries to life, and now it was the turn of the Dubrovnik region. We found out what makes Zeeman tick when he picks up his camera, how Dubrovnik mesmerised him and why he compares Dubrovnik to a well-dressed man.
Could you give me some more information about yourself?
I never knew my grandfather. He disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1929, long before I was born. Christian left his native Denmark when he was 22 years old. Joining a crew of fishermen, he set off to explore the world, travelling through Eastern Europe, Russia, Siberia, Kamchatka and was “last seen” leaving Japan on a ship bound for Hawaii. When I came to live in Oxford (UK) in my 20s, I was captivated by the majestic city that towered up around me. I felt compelled to photograph it – in case it changed. I wanted to preserve and share that sense of awe and wonder that I felt whilst living in the historic city. From here, there was no turning back, and I fixed my gaze (and viewfinder) on the distant horizon, travelling and photographing the world beyond. I feel I was destined to travel; to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather. My photographs always tell a story. They are a celebration of life, of the diversity of the world around us; the beauty of land, the richness of each culture, the human spirit, the pure emotion. Many of the people I have met have impressed me with their strong, proud sense of cultural identity. I am compelled by my encounters with people and their cultures to capture their essence – in an effort to preserve, in part, the unique beauty and elegance of our world, before it changes or disappears altogether. I am lucky to have had the freedom and opportunity to use my photographs for the benefit of charity and education – especially for promoting the ethics of protection and preservation of peoples and places under threat from poverty and climate change.
Why did you decide to visit Dubrovnik and was this your first visit?
I had never been to Croatia before but had seen many beautiful photographs and read some interesting travel articles over the years, especially the about the Dalmatian coast. I was looking for a fresh destination for a short summer break this year – somewhere culturally interesting, steeped in history, good weather, inexpensive, relatively close by – and after watching Game of Thrones, it all clicked into place. I wanted to visit Kings Landing!
How would you compare Dubrovnik to other tourist destinations that you have visited?
George Bernard Shaw once said, “If you want see Heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik.” He was not wrong. The old city is majestic. A quintessential historic World Heritage ‘city-state’ ringed with wonderful solid and powerful walls, offering fantastic views across tightly packed houses stacked up on each other, defiantly ancient walls and vibrant terracotta rooftops. I love destinations like Dubrovnik where the traffic is kept out leaving exploration only on foot, allowing the curious traveller to walk back in time through corridors of sunlight and shade. Dubrovnik reminded me of pockets of Europe I’ve wandered through in Italy, France, Spain and Greece – old fortified towns, landmark churches and horizon-crossing towers – but this city and it’s culture still felt unique and in touch with it’s own sense of identity. Considering the huge numbers of tourists visiting the old city, it was very easy to get off the beaten track into the quiet ‘nooks and crannies’, hidden squares and silent architectural character. One minute you’re on a busy street, then you climb some stairs or divert through a tunnel and suddenly the crowds feel distant, with some curious cats, or locals hanging out the washing on one of the thousands of clothes lines that criss-cross above you in the old streets and stairwells. Ever-increasing numbers of visitors swell the Stradun of Dubrovnik almost to bursting point, but behind the scenes a quieter traditional life continues to thrive. Sure, it’s clearly European, but very much its own character.
Were you happy with the service, price and general tourist offer?
I liken the Dubrovnik ‘tourist offer’ to a well-dressed, educated man, who knows he is popular, who cares about his reputation, and feels a need to uphold the promise of this to everyone. Indeed, he’s quite in demand, having to handle many people at any one time. So if on first impression, he seems a little brusque and offhand, don’t despair. If you’re polite, patient and inquisitive in your approach to Dubrovnik, the city will embrace you and treat you like a VIP! We stayed at a two-story flat in the old town nestled high up on the north side of the old city with terrific views over the rooftops. The owner, a local woman called Lydia, was very hospitable and charming; a pleasure to meet and talk to. We enjoyed many pleasant meals – best of which were at Horizont, Taj Mahal, Azur, Nishta, Glam Café and Bugenvila in nearby Cavtat (also worth a visit).
Were there any surprises, pleasant or bad, during your time in the country?
Just after we’d arrived, we wanted some no-fuss lunch somewhere nearby the flat and Lydia recommend a small place just up the steps and round a corner; a discreet place on a quiet back street, facing the city walls. She called it Lady Pi Pi. I thought nothing of it … until we discovered the statue sitting on the wall of this small restaurant. Not seen decor quite like that before! The panorama from the Srđ Mountain is amazing. I timed my visit to the latter part of the day, to get the best of late afternoon light, (and avoid crowds at the cable car terminal). That light, that view – a gift to photographers. Many of the first photos in my gallery are from this view point. The War Photo exhibitions are outstanding – everyone should make time to visit this place. Important moments in history – both locally and globally – captured through the enduring power of photography. Lokrum Island is lovely. More recent tourist development (i.e. metallic restaurant blocks) on the island felt a little soulless, which is a bit of a shame considering how much the authorities seem to want to protect the natural capital value of the island. But we sat on some ancient-looking steps ‘hidden’ behind the new blocks, sharing our packed lunches with a peacock and it’s chick.
Would you recommend Dubrovnik to other friends and family, and if so why and if not why not?
Absolutely; I’ve been recommending it to everyone ever since I got back:
What would you have liked to have done in Dubrovnik but were unable to?
Circuit the walls more than once on the same ticket. Once I’d completed my first periplus around the walls, I knew I still had maybe another hour of evening left before sunset and I’d like to have re-visited certain views from the walls to get different angles and perspectives in the golden light. But when I tried to go round again the ticket inspector denied me access, pointing to the ‘small print’ on the ticket, explaining that he was “just doing his job”. A little disappointing; I would’ve let me through!
As a freelance travel photographer, how photogenic is Dubrovnik?
Dubrovnik is a paradise for photographers. I think my gallery speaks for itself in answer to this question. I strive to create images that communicate the essence of a place, and actively look for angles and views that I’ve not seen, or at least feel fresh to me at the time. I do a lot of image research before I visit a destination and I like to walk around a place as much as possible to get feel for the light and shadow and the rhythm of life. If I’d had more time, I’d have talked more with the locals to get a better insight into their daily lives and hopefully capture some of that in my pictures. Then there those ‘unique’ moments where being in the right place at that time (and with the right lens!) can reward the fast-thinking photographer with some really nice, quirky or unusual shots. I sometimes grab candid shots of other tourists taking photos. I find this can help communicate a sense of enthusiasm felt by others visiting the destination; I like to think people looking at these images will picture themselves enjoying the place too.
Can you give our readers a few tips of taking the perfect holiday snap?
I’m always happy to offer advice on how to take photographs. I was in Dubrovnik in mid-summer, with long hot days of almost cloudless skies. So my tips are based on that time of year for this city: - Plan your day round the sun: First thing in the morning or late afternoon are the best times of the day to take photos – especially for capturing the warm hues on buildings and vistas. In the middle of the day when the harsh light flattens the contours, visit a church or a museum – or go for a long lunch. Harsh sunlight of the middle of the day is useful however for using reflected light off walls and floors to gently illuminate otherwise shaded areas. - Don’t always go for the obvious angle: look up, down, back … walk around a site to get every perspective. - Sit still for while. Find a shady spot, take a cool drink and just watch life pass you by. You can guarantee something interesting will happen before long. - Look for details as well as the bigger picture. - Get your selfies and souvenir photos out of the way, then concentrate on the scene, the people, the action. - If you’re looking for memorable moments, be ready to shoot at a moments notice; you never know what you’ll come across. - I used two camera bodies, using a 12-28mm wide-angle lens and a longer 70-300 zoom respectively. I shoot most of the time using aperture priority in order to control depth of field, saturation and sharpness, or I switch to manual to take light readings through the camera and get sample shots, assessing composition and lighting for trickier shots. My goal is to achieve as much as possible in-camera to minimise optimisation afterwards.
How would you describe Dubrovnik in three words?
Stunning. Sun kissed. Stepped.
The most popular attraction in Dubrovnik, the ancient city walls, is having a bumper year. More visitors than ever before are choosing to walk around the 1.9 kilometre long walls and enjoy the spectacular views over the terracotta roofs of the Old City. In August 199,000 people visited the walls, which is a massive 12.5 percent more than in August 2014 when 177,000 tickets were sold. And from the beginning of this year until the end of August the visitor numbers have increased by 10 percent on the same period from last year. “After last year's record figures such an increase this year is surprising,” commented the secretary of the Society of Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities, Niko Kapetanic. The society controls and cares for the upkeep of the historic walls.
In the first eight months 712,000 tickets have been sold for the walls, of which 84 percent were individual visitors, 8 percent through travel agencies and 8 percent with the Dubrovnik City Card. “In the first eight months of the year the increase was slightly higher than 10 percent, overall the walls have been visited by 712,000 people, and if the rate of ticket sales in the next following months is the same as last year then we will reach 980,000 visitors by the end of the year. However as the increase in visits is on the rise, it is reasonable to expect a million visitors on the Dubrovnik City Walls this year,” concluded Kapetanic. The Dubrovnik City Walls are the most visited tourist attraction in Dubrovnik, followed by the cable car and the island of Lokrum.
The largest island in the Elaphite archipelago, with its quiet bays, beaches, cypress trees, groves of orange and lemon trees, full of old structures (churches, summer residences of the landowners and plebeians) dispersed throughout the forested slopes, with a long history interwoven with many stories and legends, is one of the pearls of the Dubrovnik region. Two settlements, Sudurad on the eastern and the Port of Sipan on the western part of the island receive numerous tourists in their beautiful homes. There are good regular and excursion connections to Dubrovnik.
Sipan is situated 17 km north-west from Dubrovnik. It is one of the Elaphite islands and the largest among them. Sipan was inhabited as early as the Roman Empire. In the middle ages the famous vineyards of Sipan were mentioned in many European courts. Sipan got its name from Latin word "gypana" meaning "The Island of eagles". In the 15th and 16th century many noble families from Dubrovnik built their summer residences on Sipan. Unfortunately these residences today mostly stand empty. Today on Sipan people grow olives, figs, almonds, tomatoes, citrus fruits and off course there are large vineyards with finest grapes. There are a few small villages in the inland of the island. Apart from the natural beauties of the island, Sipan Island can offers many other interesting sights. For example, in Sipan harbour there are ruins of building dating from ancient Rome. On Velji Vrh there are ruins of the St. Peter's church from 11th century, in Pakljeno there is church of St. Mihovil dating from the 11th century an there is small church of St. Ivan in Silovo selo. Between Sudurad and Sipan harbour there are ruins of summer residence of Dubrovnik's Archbishops. Sipan also has many nice beaches where one can enjoy the sun and clean blue sea. Sipan also has a great number of nudist beaches for tourists who prefer the clothes off option.
Crown jewel of the Elaphite
It is beautiful island for spending vacations or relaxing in the beauty of the nature and walking. The island is well worth a day visit and I would recommend getting off the ferry at one end of the island and then walking through the centre of the valley and catching the boat from the other port. Most of the nature and villages have been untouched by time in the centre of the island. Sipan is connected with Dubrovnik with many boat lines, both state run ferries and privately speed boats. You can go with the boat in the morning and spend your day on the beach on Sipan, or go sightseeing the island, or you can do both and go back in Dubrovnik in the late afternoon or in the evening. For those looking to stay longer on this island paradise there are a number of hotels including the recently renovated Hotel Sipan in Sipan harbour and Hotel Božica in Sudurad. Both of these hotels are four star if you are looking for a cheaper option then the island also offers a range of private accommodation. For those arriving to the island by ship the port of Sudurad has a brand new 40m long breakwater to protect boats from the strong winds and currents.
Dubrovnik Airport is on the verge of having one of its best years of record. Croatia’s southernmost airport received their millionth passenger a few weeks ago and is expecting to handle around 1.6 million by the end of 2015. However the airport isn’t resting on its laurels, far from it, the construction of a new terminal, terminal C, is underway. Dubrovnik Airport is looking forward to a busy 2016. The new investment into Dubrovnik Airport is valued at around 220 million Euros and apart from the construction of the new terminal the project also includes the works on the runway, storage facilities and car parks. With completion of terminal C Dubrovnik Airport will be in the position to handle 3.5 million passengers annually. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2019.
The Croatian National Tourist Board has held negotiations with various airlines ahead of the 2016 season and many carriers have shown interest in introducing or increasing flights to Dubrovnik. Norwegian Air, Germanwings, British Airways, SAS and EasyJet have all held talks with the Croatian National Tourist Board about their plans for 2016. Croatia is a rising tourist destination. In fact so far this year the country has experienced the highest increase in tourists in the whole of the Mediterranean region, with an 8 percent increase in 2015 compared to 2014. Political turmoil in Greece and Turkey and social unrest in northern Africa have all influenced more tourists to travel to Croatia on holiday. And the world’s airlines have been quick to recognise this opportunity, with many looking to expand in 2016.
According to an article by the specialised website EX-YU aviation many airlines are reaping the rewards of connecting Croatia to the rest of Europe. Thomson Airways commented that Croatia was their fastest growing market. They have also announced that they will continue to fly their Boeing 787 Dreamliners to Dubrovnik in 2016. Scandinavian Airlines commented that “this summer we had 51 weekly frequencies from Scandinavia to Croatia and over fourteen different routes. We plan to continue serving Split, Dubrovnik and Pula". And one of the largest budget airlines in the world, EasyJet, has stated that they will increase the number of flights to Dubrovnik next summer season. The airline has announced that they will move forward the starting date of flights to Dubrovnik, meaning that the summer season for 2016 could be extended into early spring. Speaking to EX-YU Aviation the British based airline said that “Croatia is an important market for EasyJet. We carried nearly half a million passengers to and from Croatia last year.” There is no doubt that the summer season in 2016 will be even better than this year, however there are still serious question marks over the winter season in Dubrovnik. The city has virtually no international links throughout the winter months and most flights go through Zagreb. There is also news from British Airways that they will lower the number of flights through this winter and not fly at all through January. The problem of attracting airlines to fly to Dubrovnik in the off-season is one that the airport, or the tourist organisations in the city, hasn’t been able to solve so far. There is a possibility that Dubrovnik will have a direct connection with Frankfurt this winter, with Croatia Airlines, although this is still only in the negotiation phase.
Even without direct flights from Dubrovnik to the USA the city has seen an explosion of American tourists this year. In fact there are no direct flights to Croatia at all, and yet 68,000 Americans have found their way to our city. It seems that the dollar rising in value against the Euro, the popular Game of Thrones based in Dubrovnik and the promotion carried out by the tourist board have all created the perfect storm.
The most numerous guests to Dubrovnik this year, as in the past few years, have been from the UK. With the most flights than any other country it is hardly surprising that around a fifth of all guests in Dubrovnik have arrived from Great Britain. This year has also seen Dubrovnik act as the “home port” for the Thomson Celebration cruise ship which has also added to the increase in guests from the UK. From the beginning of the year until the end of September the number of British tourists has increased by 2 percent. One of the biggest surprises of the year is the fact that tourists from the USA are the second most numerous in Dubrovnik this year. Bearing in mind that there are no direct flights to Dubrovnik, or even to the rest of Croatia, from any US airport, the fact that almost 68,000 Americans have arrived in Dubrovnik is surprising. Even more when you bear in mind that the third and fourth places on the list were taken up by our European colleagues, France and Germany, who have daily flights to Dubrovnik. In fact number of tourists from America is on the rise, there have been 25 percent more American guests than last year and the same rise in the number of overnight stays, just over 210,000 achieved since the beginning of the year. What has caused this tidal wave of interest from America? Whilst the Euro has continued to fall in value against the dollar the whole of Europe has become more affordable. The fact that a European vacation is now about 25% cheaper than it was last year has not escaped the attention of US holidaymakers. Is Dubrovnik simply riding on the wave of European interest, or has the popular serial Game of Thrones serial helped raise our profile?
“I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the Game of Thrones that I wouldn’t have come to Croatia. The country was off the radar but watching the stunning scenes on the serial I decided that this was a country and a city I needed to see,” commented Peterson Lim a tourist from the US. He added that “we are actually from California so it was a long journey here. From the moment we left out home to the moment we landed in Venice, which was our first stop in Europe, it took 24 hours.” Without a direct flight from the US to Croatia American guests are forced to travel to a European hub, such as London, Frankfurt or Paris, before travelling onto Croatia. Although there are proposals to introduce a direct flight for next season so far this is only a dream. “For some period of time the amount of USA arrivals has been increasing and last year there were 250,000 US guests in Croatia,” said the director of Dubrovnik Airport, Roko Tolic. “If this trend continues hopefully an airline will recognise the potential of this interest and start a direct line,” he concluded. Adding that from the 19th to the 21st of October there will be a major conference of airport directors and this will be an opportunity to discuss the matter further with colleagues from US airports.
With over 250,000 American tourists arriving in Croatia without any direct flights we can only speculate how much more impressive this number would be with direct lines. Richard Gruica, and American living in Dubrovnik and owner of the travel agency Captivating Croatia, stated that “as an American that just recently moved to Dubrovnik, I can tell you that Croatia has hit the radar in a big way. If you asked the average American about Croatia even just 5 years ago, you would have gotten a blank stare.” When asked what he believed were the factors for Croatia’s explosion he said that “the growth of Electronic Dance Music and the loads of summer festivals here has helped. The emergence of the amazing food and wine scene here with TV shows from Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman showing Croatia's best. The Game of Thrones, having Dubrovnik as the host city for King's Landing has helped for sure...in a HUGE way. And finally the Croatian Tourist Board had done a stellar job with their marketing efforts. All these things and more have led to an over 2,000 % increase in searches about Croatia on the Web. Imagine 2,000!” And it isn’t only the Croatian National Tourist Board who have been working hard on attracting American guests to our shores, the Dubrovnik Tourist Board has been extremely active in the States for some time. “Dubrovnik is one of the biggest brands in the US and we have been working hard to further promote our city and its tourist offer in America,” commented the director of the Dubrovnik Tourist Board, Romana Vlasic. She added that the tourist board, along with major hotel chains and travel agencies in Dubrovnik, are always present at all the important travel exhibitions in the US. One of these hotel chains to see an increase is the Sun Gardens, Dubrovnik. Perica Andric, the director of sales & marketing, commented that the US is a market of very high importance for the resort, primarily because Americans visit all year round, and not only in high season. “We see the growing interest from American agencies, and we believe that what we’re seeing now in terms of number of travellers is only the tip of the iceberg, and that it will grow even more in the near future.”
The director of the Croatian National Tourist Office in New York, Ina Rodin, commented that Dubrovnik is the number one destination for US visitors to Croatia and believes that the HBO series Game of Thrones is one of the biggest motivators of interest. “One of the reasons Dubrovnik has gained the attention among US travelers is the popularity with the Emmy-award winning Game of Thrones series on HBO. Just recently, the show nabbed 12-record breaking Emmy Awards! The backdrop for King’s Landing is set in Dubrovnik, as well as other parts of Croatia,” commented Rodin. She added that the tourist office has been “proactive” in their approach to PR and that “Croatia’s diverse offering from gastronomy, landscape, culture, architecture, soft activities has attracted those who may have visited other destinations in the region and were looking for a new destinations.”
With so many American tourists discovering Dubrovnik over the past few years and Dubrovnik being heralded as a key Game of Thrones destination, it only opens the question how many more tourists the city could attract if direct flights were available. And with the city searching for an answer on to how to extend the tourist season through the winter months it seems that one solution could be to find a flight partner, the interest is there and the Game of Thrones effect will not last indefinitely.
Despite announcements that the HBO series Game of Thrones was not planning to film in Dubrovnik this season it seems that the mega popular series can’t do without Dubrovnik. HBO have been filming in Dubrovnik, which plays the part of Kings Landing in the serial, since season two.
Early Thursday morning, a camera crew under heavy security, gathered at the Pile entrance into the historic Old City of Dubrovnik. Whereas is previous seasons, when the crews spent upwards of three weeks in the city, Dubrovnik was being used as a daytrip destination for HBO this sixth season. Our cameras were on the scene as one of the leading ladies of the Game of Thrones, the British actress Lena Headey, arrived in the early morning. Queen Cersei Lannister almost had a problem reaching the set as she raced in front of a coach full of surprised cruise ship passengers.
The beach underneath the ancient Dubrovnik City Walls on Pile was the backdrop for the express filming as Lena Headey gazed out towards the St. Lawrence Fortress and the Adriatic Sea. And Lena’s hairstyle has changed since the last episode of season five when Queen Cersei Lannister walked the “Walk of Shame” with a shaved head. Along with Headey on the set was the Icelandic giant Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson who plays Gregor Clegane in the serial. Dubrovnik has been the location for King's Landing, the centre of the seven Kingdoms, since the second season of Game of Thrones. However this year HBO officially stated that they would not be filming in Dubrovnik, but rather the whole production team had moved to the Catalan city of Girona.
The Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra opened up 2016 with a spectacular concert in the heart of the Old City of Dubrovnik. After last night’s wild party on the Stradun the music continued this morning with a more classical note.
Guests to the city and locals gathered in the square in front of the St. Blaise Church and enjoyed a concert on the first day of 2016. The Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra were joined on stage by the soloist soprano Marijana Prohaska from Rijeka.
The director of the orchestra, Damir Milat, wished the audience a happy new year.