‘Dubrovnik is just as magical as when I visited aged 10’

The old Croatian city, which inspired Annabelle Thorpe’s first novel, weathered the war of the 1990s and has emerged as glamorous as before

The old town and harbour, Dubrovnik.
Adriatic pearl … The old town and harbour, Dubrovnik. Photograph: Alamy

Dubrovnik is as eternal as Venice. There are those who say it has become a victim of its own success – flooded with cruise ships and Game of Thrones fans. To me, this misses the point: at different times it has been Roman, Byzantine and Venetian; it’s withstood wars and sieges, and emerged as glamorous and unbowed as ever. Ridiculously beautiful but still real, it remains as magical to me now as when I first visited in 1981, aged 10.

During the Balkan wars, I remember watching the siege of Dubrovnik on the news. It seemed impossible that it was the same place where we’d had happy family holidays. It became a location in my first novel, which tells the story of Miro Denković and his family, and how their lives are changed forever by the war. Watching the city’s rebirth over the past 20 years has been wonderful.

Annabelle Thorpe
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Annabelle Thorpe. Photograph: Ian Allenden

If you want to see the locals’ Dubrovnik, turn left off the Stradun – the wide boulevard that bisects the old town – rather than right (facing away from the Ploče Gate). This is the side of town where you’ll still find simple grocery shops and alleyways of family homes, rather than rentals. In some grocers you’ll find huge vats of local wine: go with an empty container and fill it from the tap at the bottom of the vat. Just don’t expect Château Lafite.

My perfect Dubrovnik day would be to catch a late-morning boat to Koločep, have a dip and then lunch by the sea at Villa Ruža, an historic waterfront mansion that’s now a restaurant and lounge bar. I can pass a whole day here, eating seafood and drinking cocktails under the olive trees. The harbour is full of water taxis, heading across to the Elaphiti islands, or to Cavtat.

Villa Ruža, near Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Villa Ruža, the perfect place for seafood and cocktails

Quite possibly the best ice-cream I’ve ever eaten is the very dark chocolate at Dolce Vita gelato shop. The city’s cuisine is a unique Italian-Dalmatian fusion, although there are a lot of so-so trattorias. For pizza, locals swear by Pizzeria Tabasco (don’t be put off by the rather utilitarian location at the back of a car park). For classic Dalmatian dishes, family-run Kopun, on a quiet square in front of the Church of Saint Ignatius, is a great bet.

Dolce Vita gelateria in central Dubrovnik.
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Dolce Vita gelateria in central Dubrovnik. Photograph: Alamy

The city walls are at their best at sunset. All the guidebooks recommend the Buza Bar (Crijevičeva ul 9) for a sundowner, and it is lovely; tables balanced on the rocks, accessed through a hole in the old city walls. But for my money, the place is the terrace at Villa Orsula, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Ploče Gate. A former nobleman’s mansion, it’s now a scorchingly expensive hotel but, for the price of a pivo (beer) or cocktail, you can watch the sun sink into the sea behind the old city walls.

Dubrovnik is such a musical city. Last time I was there, a busker was singing arias by Verdi outside the Sponza Palace. I’ve been to lovely recitals in the galleried hall at the Rector’s Palace.

Restaurant Leut, Cavtat
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Restaurant Leut, Cavtat

The road from Dubrovnik to Cavtat rivals anything on the Amalfi coast. Clinging to the edge of the mountain, the road climbs steeply above the sea before dropping down to Cavtat, a picturesque jumble of terracotta rooftops that step down to a small seafront promenade lined with restaurants. In my novel, Miro and his family live in Ljeta, which is a fictionalised version of Cavtat. During the war, the hotel where I stayed with my family was used to house refugees, and the village was under occupation for eight months. Remarkably, it’s now almost exactly as it was when I first visited in 1982. The brothers at the Restaurant Leut serve the best mussels buzzara and crni rižoto (squid ink risotto) in town. Beyond Cavtat, the region of Konavle stretches down to the Montenegrin border; a land of wooded hills and quiet villages. The last time I visited, I drove out to a vineyard and sat drinking wine in the sunshine. It felt wonderfully tranquil; a region reborn after suffering dreadfully during the war.

Talking to people about the war is incredibly moving. Last April, I met Maja, who lived through the siege of Dubrovnik with her young family. She told me her son, now in his early 30s, still says he is “going out to play” when he goes to meet friends for drinks. She believes it stems from his childhood, when “going out to play” was impossible. There’s a real responsibility if you’re basing fiction on actual events; I did huge amounts of research, most of which never made it into the book. But if you’re telling people’s stories in this way, you have to get it right.

The People We Were Before, by Annabelle Thorpe, is out in paperback on 23 February (Quercus, £7.99). To buy a copy for £6.79 including UK p&p, go to bookshop.theguardian.com