A funny thing happened on my way back from a sea kayaking trip in Dubrovnik’s calm waters… the sport instructor told us the strange tale of a luxury hotel populated entirely by cats.
At first, it sounded like an urban myth. It was hard to believe that a five-star hotel could be overrun by moggies, but the plot thickened when we heard the full story of the Hotel Belvedere.
During the late 1980s the hotel was a five star retreat with an enviable position overlooking the sapphire blue Adriatic Sea. This was when Dubrovnik was still part of the old Yugoslavia. But its tranquil paradise was shattered by Serbian shells with the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence in 1991.
Today you can still see the ruins of the hotel, abandoned and unloved except by the furry felines who frequent its corridors.
With the story still ringing in my ears, how could I resist trying to locate the hotel and explore what’s left of its once luxurious building. This would truly be a journey of urban exploration.
I’ve long been fascinated by ‘dark tourism’ and abandoned places, but this relic of the bloody war with Serbia is frozen in aspic, a neglected fragment from Dubrovnik’s past.
With some trepidation, I set off alone and took the bus to the end of the line at Viktorija. From there I walked 1/2 mile to the Hotel Belvedere through streets lined with smart houses and lush vegetation cascading down to the sea.
As the road wound up the hillside, the views across the bay became pretty sensational as the rocky coast unfolded and the the beautiful island of Lokrun came into sight.
It wasn’t long before I glimpsed the top of the Belvedere as I turned off the main road. In its heyday the hotel had over 200 rooms, a helipad, outdoor swimming pools and a private boat mooring. Now it is abandoned.
A strong feeling of disquiet came over me as I approached the hotel entrance, ignoring a small sign warning that this was private property. But I was greeted by an army of cats and kittens who seemed to welcome my presence, even though I had no food to feed them.
Cautiously, I looked over the security fencing and locked gates. What I saw was a very strange sight – two boats were parked up in the yard alongside a load of rubbish and debris.
Two cats beckoned me down the path to my right which was unfenced. The feline duo were keen to show me around their home. Apparently, every night they’re joined by hundreds of other cats who feed on scraps in Dubrovnik Old Town by day. As darkness falls, they return to the shelter of The Belvedere.
As I clambered down the uneven, crumbling concrete steps, I was shocked to see what was left of the hotel – the original sign, the crumbling cupola, and a tangled web of wires and cables. There was broken glass everywhere.
During the siege of Dubrovnik, the Old Town was home to 55,000 Croatian refugees while dozens more took shelter inside the Hotel Belvedere to escape the fighting.
Since then, the hotel has been abandoned and left to decay. There was evidence of its decline everywhere as I ventured deeper and deeper into the hotel complex down a series of winding stairs.
But apart from the broken windows, overgrown pathways and rotting structures, much of the complex is still in tact. I wondered what had happened to the owners and why they’d let the Belvedere stand and rot.
I was starting to feel a little spooked as I descended much further than I’d intended in my original plan. Now I was entering the lower section of the hotel, out of view and out of sight. If trouble raised its ugly head, nobody would have been able to hear my screams.
But I felt compelled to continue my journey through this fascinating historic relic of Dubrovnik’s past. The further I got into the hotel complex, I discovered more and more evidence of looting and graffiti including Neo-Nazi slogans and right wing logos.
A burned-out car outside one of the hotel’s lower entrances was reminiscent of the scene from ‘Breaking Bad’ where everyone gets blasted away. I thought about retracing my footpaths, especially when I spotted a couple of parked motorbikes nearby. Clearly this is a popular ‘secret’ haunt for Dubrovnik’s locals.
Descending deep into the belly of The Belvedere was probably foolhardy and, on reflection, I should have taken a friend, but by now I was committed to my mission.
In fairness, the hotel hasn’t seen much action over the last 25 years except for a handful of unofficial raves, and forays by urban explorers, dog-walkers. and skinny dippers.
Out of the corner of my eye, I got my first glimpse of the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool. This must have been an idyllic spot before the war, packed with sun seekers and bathers.
It seems strange that the five star hotel was built during Communist rule in Croatia, but I guess this was the start of Yugoslavia’s split from the old Soviet Union. The times they were a-changing.
I was spooked by the sight of a single male figure on the level below me, but it looked like he was just heading down to the water for some wild swimming.
I was tempted to go inside the hotel reception and rooms but it looked very dark and dingy. A quick glimpse inside confirmed that much had been ransacked or vandalised and the once glass elevator down to the beach was no more.
Rumours of lost grenades and a hidden wine cellar sounded like they were urban myths. There were, however, lots of warning signs and reminders that the building is unstable and ceilings might collapse. For once, I took the sensible route along the hotel’s perimeter to see what else I could find.
Looking upwards, I realised that I’d ventured a very long way down several hundred, winding steps to the hotel’s many terraces overlooking the sea.
It was picture perfect spot but, once again, I realised how vulnerable I might be – and decided to go down just one more level, skipping any interior exploration.
Craning my neck upwards, I was able to take in the immense scale of what had been the Belvedere hotel. It once boasted 18 floors, 220 rooms and multiple terraces which cascaded down to the rocky sea front.
‘Game of Thrones’
On the next level, I discovered a strange circular amphitheatre overlooking the sea which once must have been the hotels’ helicopter landing pad.
I’d read that this site had been used by ‘Game of Thrones’ as an arena for a combat scene in season four of the TV series. Friends tell me it was the setting for the battle between Prince Oberyn and The Mountain.
No wonder the film makers loved this dramatic seafront location – it has amazing views across to Lokrun Island whilst Dubrovnik’s Old Town walls are visible in the distance.
Today, it’s decorated with the team colours of the famous Hajduk Split football club based further up the Croatian coast. Why this image is painted on the helipad, nobody seems to know!
I took one last look at a few of the hotel outbuildings, but the splashing sound of secret bathers sent me scuttling back up the steps. There isn’t any way out at the bottom of the cliffs – and going down to the sea was probably a step too far.
By now, my feline friends had abandoned me, having seen a nice tree to climb where they sat in the shade branches away from the burning sunshine. It was time to head back up the steps to civilisation.
A Lonely Place
Halfway back up the steps, I realised what a lonely spot this is – and decided not to linger longer. Panting and breathing heavily, I speeded up dramatically and hurried back at the hotel’s entrance.
Another ginger cat welcomed me at the top of the stairs, and stared at me, as if to say “Told you – knew you wouldn’t find any secret booty. Nosy tourists, expecting a wine cellar and the ghosts of the past. Tut tut.”
A posse of keen kittens came running over together with their slightly anxious mum. Even the cats weren’t totally at ease in this strange place with its creepy vibes and imposters like me sneaking around.
I walked back into Dubrovnik Old Town along the coastal road which has wonderful views of the islands from every corner. No wonder the Belvedere’s owners built the hotel in this stunning coastal area.
I was still experiencing a rush of excitement from the trip. But as I extolled the virtues of ‘dark tourism’ to one of the locals, he told me that a rich Russian has bought the Belvedere hotel. There are plans to demolish it to make way for a swanky mega tourism development next year.
I felt a little sad that this piece of Dubrovnik’s history is to be swept away but – in honesty – it’s a miracle that it has survived for so long, locked in its weird time capsule.
The property was bought for 12 million euros by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg who is renowned for his priceless collection of Faberge eggs.
His vision is that a new ‘Belvedere’ hotel will rise like a phoenix from the ruins of the old one. But it won’t be quite the same as the authentic, original model. It’ll be smaller but far grander and ‘contemporary chic’.
In my mind, the plans make it look like any other mega development in Dubrovnik – a modern ziggurat style complex which looks stylish but could be anywhere in the tourist world.
It will be a sad sight when the hotel is razed to the ground… so many memories, so many stories will die with it – and another casualty of war will be gone.
This spooky virtual video of the new Belvedere reveals a vision of wealth and luxury with brilliant white leather sofas, a glass-enclosed ‘funicular’ lift and buggies travelling along the coastal path.
It looks like something straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi movie… but with awesome sea views across the gleaming blue waters of the Adriatic.
Worse still, Dubrovnik’s feral cats will be forced to find a new home… and who knows where they will go when the bulldozers move in.
Poor little moggies…
Visit the Belvedere
I feel privileged that I managed to see the Belvedere hotel before it disappears forever. But be warned, if you fancy repeating my trip, time is running out before the hotel is demolished.
I’d also suggest taking a friend and not venturing solo… urban exploration is great fun but stick within the boundaries of what is safe. Please be careful not to trespass or go inside the dangerous areas which might drop on your head.
To get there, take the number 8 bus (runs hourly) to Viktorija to the terminus, and then walk along the coast road for about 1/2 mile before turning right down to the Belvedere. Look out for its distinctive cupola.
On the return trip, it’s an easy downhill walk back into the Old Town – which takes about 15 minutes.