The Franciscan Monastery of Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is a town which rises beyond its reputation. Even when drowning under a sea of summer tourists, as cruise boats arrive by the score and unload their passengers, there is much to do here, and places to escape the sunburnt crowds. Aside from the beauty of the Adriatic lapping at her feet, and the wealth of museums and sights within the town (not to mention her cafés and restaurants), side streets stretch off in all directions, begging to be explored. There are hidden nooks at every turn, lined with ancient houses and walls of crumbling stone.
One of my favourite spots in Dubrovnik is the 14th C Franciscan monastery. This is not far from the Pile Gate, the main entrance to the town. (In days gone by the drawbridge here was raised every night; now the moat is filled with orange trees. Their perfume filled the air as I entered the town.) I went in to visit one of Europe’s oldest functioning pharmacies, and found peace and tranquility as soon as I stepped in from the street. A pharmacy has operated here since 1317, and the perfumes from the shop paint the air. (The dispensary, although moved, is still in use, being the third oldest still functioning pharmacy in existence.)
Within the old pharmacy, now a museum, are hand-written texts, paintings and an extensive collection of votive jewellery, vestments and rosary beads. The collection is famous for its wealth of over 70,000 books, including 216 incunabulas – books printed, not hand-written, before 1500. There is also an inventory of the old Franciscan pharmacy from 1317 as well as the utensils and recipes then used, along with paintings by Old Masters. The detailing in the jewellery and vestments is exquisite. There is also an extensive collection of reliquaries, each one encased in precious metals or encrusted with gems, as well as the obligatory piece of the True Cross (there are a few of these in Dubrovnik).
Originally built just outside the city in the 14th C, the monastery was rebuilt inside the walls after the devastating earthquake of 1667 felled so much of the city and killed some 5000 citizens. The portal, dating from 1498, is the only remaining original part of the church. (The Hilton Imperial Hotel stands on the original site of the monastery.) The tower of the Franciscan Holy Saviour Church looms high in every view of the Stradun, the main road of Dubrovnik, while the wall of the monastery runs along the street.
The monastery’s prize possession is St. Blaise’s foot, preserved in a gold and silver boot. Originally an Armenian martyr, St. Blaise appeared in a vision to a local priest in 791, saving the town from an imminent Venetian attack. (Intriguingly, the story was not recorded until around the year 1000.) There is also a relic of the head of St Ursula.
A large number of these old text-books are displayed in the pharmacy library. These contain recipes for secret potions, such as those for an elixir of youth, one for good memory, and another to grant peace in marriage. Three for one would be a good combination! The monastery also has a famous painting showing a map of Dubrovnik before the earthquake of 1667. The town was quickly rebuilt, and has remained virtually unchanged since.
Missile damage suffered on ‘Black Tuesday’, (6th December 1991), can be still be seen in the monastery walls. The monks have left it untouched, to serve as reminder of those who died during the war of 1990-1991.
The monastery also boasts a double cloister – the upper level is for the use of the monks only. Below, a Romanesque cloister decorated with frescoes showing the life of St. Francis wraps around an elevated garden. The frescoes with their fading tones and gentle themes immediately take you back to the world of the Middle Ages. Don’t forget to look at the capitols of the colonnade – animals and people peep coyly out from amongst the designs.
When the world of travel becomes overwhelming, such places as Dubrovnik’s monastery offer an oasis to sooth both the soul and tired nerves, before the next round of sight-seeing begins.
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The Literary Traveller
The Bridge on the Drina was written by the Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andric whilst he was under house arrest by the Germans during WWII. The novel revolves around the bridge built by the Ottamans in the 16th C and destroyed in WWI, and which serves as a silent witness to all which happens in these centuries. It reflects on the lives of both the Serbs and Bosnians during the occupation of the Ottamans and under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1961, Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.