Byron dubbed Dubrovnik the Pearl of the Adriatic, and the town has drowned under superlatives ever since. We sailed in on clear water, the vibrant new town hugging the foreshore. The bus from the port wound along the waterfront before eventually chugging up the hill – and there lay the old town, just as she appears in every photo.
The bus spluttered to a stop in a cobbled square by the city gates. Cafes decked with umbrellas, and stores offering cold water and ice cream, overlooked a crystal sea. Already the heat had settled in for the day, bouncing off the stones and onto anyone standing still. By midday the town would be wall to wall of sunburnt tourists.
For the moment, however, Dubrovnik was (almost) empty. The moat is now filled with orange trees, and their scent hung in the air as we approached the Pile Gate. Large metal balls on a chain acted as a counterbalance to the drawbridge, which was once raised every night. St. Blaine, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, looks down on all visitors from above the portal. (Don’t miss the small medieval door nearby.)
Once a city state, Dubrovnik retains the charm of her medieval life. This is in large part due to the protection offered by her walls, up to 6m thick and 22m high. The foundation boulders are massive; how they were moved for construction beggars belief. Climbing the walls is not for the faint-hearted, anyone with bad knees, or carrying a backpack (which are banned). The stairs are steep, and there are few places to shelter from the blazing sun.
Yet they are worth the effort. The views over the sea are as stunning as those over the city. The walls wind and curve, climb up and down, peek into back yards and hidden corners, open into fortress and guard-houses along the way. I looked down over balconies and across backyards, into the maze of streets. Splashes of colourful flowers peeked through wrought iron railings and tumbled down stairwells. I spied someone busy in their kitchen as another hung out the washing. Little veggie patches lay dotted around the place.
The roofs form a sea of terracotta tiles. The newer tiles are easily seen, replacing those destroyed in the War of 1990-91 when shells were lobbed from the hills above into the defenceless city below – city holding little or no strategic value, and full of civilians. Many locals still refuse to walk in the hills, afraid of unexplored mines.
Dubrovnik is smaller than it looks on maps. The main street, the Stradun, leads from the Pile gate to the other end of town. When empty, it could easily be walked end to end in 10 minutes – most shopping malls are larger. Just within the Pile Gate, and before the start of the Stradun, is the Big Fountain of Onofrio, (as opposed to The Small Fountain, at the other end of town). It dates from the 15th C, and all visitors once stopped here to wash and remove all trace of the plague.
We walked half way around the wall before descending at the Ploče Gate. From there we wandered back towards the Square of the Loggia, or Loza. This square was once the political and economic heart of the city, and today Orlando’s Column remains a popular meeting spot (as does the Small Fountain of Onofrio). On one side of the square stands the Gradski Zvonik, or Clock tower. Bells in the nearby Loggia of the Bell, built in 1480, once rang out in times of trouble.
Tradition holds that the nearby cathedral was founded by Richard the Lionheart in thanks for surviving when a storm which shipwrecked him up on the nearby island of Lokrum. The cathedral was for the nobility, with the Franciscan church down the road for their servants. Masses were timed 15 min apart to allow servants to settle their masters in the cathedral before wending their way down to their own service.
The cathedral was rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake which destroyed the city. Above the altar is an Assumption by Titian, with a Raphael (The Virgin of the Chair) in the treasury, a copy of his own masterpiece now hanging in Florence. There are also a host of reliquaries. (I find it unsettling to stare through delicate crystal at a piece of someone’s bone or tooth.) The cathedral also boasts a few pieces of St. Blaise – his skull, his hands and one of his legs, as well as a piece of the True Cross.
Almost behind the cathedral stands the Jesuit Church of St Ignatius. Built in the 18th C, it was modelled on the Jesuit’s mother church in Rome, the Chiese del Gesu. It is reached via a flight of stairs reminiscent of the Spanish Steps. In contrast to many a European church (especially those of Venice, which we had just left) the church is simple and sparse, with a single nave.
If in need of refreshment after all these cultural delights, not far from the Jesuit church is the highly recommended Hole in the Wall. A lane runs alongside the wall – turn right and simply follow the sign pointing to cold drinks. (Turning left leads to another Hole in the Wall. Naturally. Apparently good, but not as good.) When you come to a hole in the wall, step through, and follow the stone steps leading down to a terrace. The reward is spectacular views over the Mediterranean.
We were the first to arrive for the day, and sat with some cold drinks overlooking the sea. A large island opposite was covered in trees, plunging to grottoes and caves at the water’s edge. It was simply glorious to sit there in the shade and watch the sun sparkle on the water, hidden from the hordes of tourist who sweep over Europe of a summer. Below, people lay sunbathing or else jumping from the rocks into the water. A few traditional wooden fishing vessels (looking much like pirate boats) were heading out for the day. Later the expensive cruise boats would appear; all summer, tourist vessels ply up and down the Dalmatian coast.
The main street of Debrovnik is the Stradun, or The Plača, which leads from the Pile Gate down towards the Ploče Gate. Every lamp and window shutter is painted the same shade of green, and large shop signs are forbidden. Paved with limestone in 1468, the surface now looks like glass after centuries of use. The stones were laid in rib-fish pattern, each half of the street facing opposite directions. A small stone lies at the centre, marking where they meet.
One of the drawbacks of a cruise is we didn’t have nearly long enough in town. Next time? There are so many little side streets to explore. Then there is the Sponza Palace, the Dominican Monastery (which contains a Titan and works of the Venetian school), the Church of St Blaise, the Rector’s Palace (which houses the famous Dubrovnik arm, a unit of measurement). For such a small place Dubrovnik has a wealth of museums and buildings to explore, not to mention cafes, restaurants, and shops. There is also the cable car which goes to the top of the hill overlooking the city.
One of Dubrovnik’s highlights for me was the 14th C Franciscan monastery, not far from the Pile Gate. The place radiated peace 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). A Romanesque cloister, decorated with frescoes sowing the life of St. Francis, wraps around an elevated garden. Within the old pharmacy are hand-written texts, paintings and an extensive collection of votive jewellery, vestments and rosary beads. The prize possession, however, is St. Blaise’s foot, preserved in a gold and silver boot.
The monastery also has a famous painting showing Dubrovnik before the earthquake of 1667 felled the city and killed some 5000 citizens. The town was quickly rebuilt, and has remained virtually unchanged since. Some missile damage suffered on ‘Black Tuesday’, on (December 6th 1991), remains unrepaired, serving as reminder of those who died during the war.
Not far from the monastery a small stone juts out from a wall a foot or so above street level. Balancing on one foot, preferably with your shirt off, is some proof of masculinity – watch out for the many tourists giving it a try!
One day I will return and stay in rooms somewhere near the wall, and discover the magic of Dubrovnik as the sun sets and the tourists leave, and the town becomes home to locals and the ghosts of legends.
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The Literary Traveller
The Bridge on the Drina was written by the Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andric whilst 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, a silent witness to all which happens in these centuries. It reflects on the lives of the Serbs and Bosnians during the occupation of the Ottamans and the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1961, Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.