Jewel of the Adriatic

The city of Dubrovnik has been shaped by a rich coastal history.

By Andy Round

Fort Lovrijenac from the top walls of Dubrovnik city of Croatia. Looking Fort Lovrijenac f

Taking the cable car 778 metres to the top of Mount Srđ is the fastest way to appreciate why the Croatian city of Dubrovnik is one of Europe’s most precious coastal gems. Set in sparkling Adriatic waters and gift-wrapped in two kilometres of medieval wall, this photogenic jumble of terracotta roofs has got to be one of the most recognisable cities in the world.7

 

Today those medieval walls echo with the laughter of tourists, the chink of cool ice in hot summer bars, the sizzle of grilling fish and the contented creak of expensive marina yachts, but this beautiful city has always been a centre of attraction, from would-be invaders to international traders.

 

‘Dubrovnik has been a coastal link between east and west since 600AD,’ says Divo Bašić curator of the city’s Maritime Museum. ‘By the 16th century it was a successful rival to Venice with 200 merchant ships connecting to every significant port in the Mediterranean and as far as Britain, Germany and Belgium.’

 

At the heart of this success were revolutionary concepts. ‘Even in 1272 there were established maritime regulations in the city,’ says Bašić. ‘One of the world’s first quarantine centres was opened here in 1377 and in 1418 slavery was abolished. By the 16th century there was even a system of maritime insurance.’

 

Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was then known, became an independent Republic in the 14th century and like any other ambitious trade-rich city in Europe, it set about constructing beautiful buildings such as Sponza Palace.

 

‘Today the palace houses the priceless Dubrovnik archives,’ a guide tells a group of gathered tourists. ‘But in the 16th century this courtyard was a centre for international trade and Dubrovnik was regarded as a highly trustworthy trading partner. You see that inscription there? In Latin it reads: ‘‘Our weights do not permit cheating or being cheated.’’

 

Coordinating the city’s success was the Rector of Dubrovnik who occupied another Gothic-Renaissance palace close by. In the past this place was a thriving centre of official business, now the glory of the city’s trading legacy is spelled out in museum exhibits of sedan chairs, robes, wigs, portraits, clocks and summer classical music concerts.

 

Taking an interest in recent history is Adriana Dumandžić. ‘My father left Croatia after World War II,’ she says. ‘He went to Argentina and started driving a truck. A few years later he had his own transportation business. I have brought my children here this year to experience their Croatian roots.’

 

Evidence of international influences is everywhere. Opposite Sponza Palace stands a 15th century statue of Roland, one of Emperor Charlemagne’s most loyal knights.

 

‘Before Croatia’s European Union accession, this was the last statue of Roland to be outside the EU, they appear throughout Europe from Latvia and Germany to France,’ says Adriana Kremenjaš-Daničić, President of Europe House Dubrovnik, a non-profit organisation set up to help Croatians benefit from EU membership. ‘Whatever differences each country may have, Roland’s presence in so many places is just one of the many threads that have linked different parts of Europe for centuries.’

 

Outside Kremenjaš-Daničić’s office, strolling along the polished promenade of the main thoroughfare known as the Stradun are members of church groups from Spain and France on their way to services at Holy Saviour Church.

 

Like the sea, religion has shaped the city. After being rescued from a shipwreck on the nearby island of Lokrum (see separate story), a grateful Richard the Lionheart founded the city’s cathedral in the 12th century. Also, when St Blaise warned of a planned Venetian sea attack of 971AD, his loyalty and faith were rewarded with the construction of a beautiful church named in his honour. 

 

Twenty minutes away at the entrance to city by Pile Gate, stands the city’s famous 14th century Franciscan monastery. By the fruit trees of the monastery’s pretty courtyard, Vjekoslav Vierda points out his favourite frescoes. ‘Look at those,’ he smiles. ‘Only 200 years young.’

 

Vierda’s warm personality served him well in his former life as the director of Dubrovnik’s restoration after the devastation caused by the Croatian War of Independence that started in 1991. During the eight-month siege of Dubrovnik hundreds lost their lives and heavy shelling devastated 68 per cent of the city.

 

‘The restoration cost USD73 million, more than 5.5 million tiles alone were needed to repair roof damage and eight palaces had to be entirely built from scratch,’ says Vierda.’

 

For most of the tourists exploring the sun-drenched backstreets off the Stradun in search of the perfect shady bar, the bright bricks and fresh tiles of Dubrovnik’s restoration mostly go unnoticed, but memories of this Adriatic jewel are likely to sparkle long after they leave.

 

What the doctor ordered: Dubrovnik’s Franciscan Monastery houses one of the oldest pharmacies in the world founded in 1317. A modern chemist still serves locals today. ‘We have everything you need from cough mixture to aspirin, but we also sell items like bees’ wax, almond face oil or rose cream that are based on Franciscan techniques hundreds of years old,’ says pharmacist Kate Ančić.

 

No worries atoll: Lokrum Island is just a 10-minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik, but it may as well be in a different world. Populated by a ruined French fort, a pristine lake and endless exotic plants with origins dating back to the founding of its Benedictine abbey in 1023, Lokrum is a treasure island of charm. It is also a favourite anchoring port for celebrity superyachts belonging to Paul Getty, Bill Gates, Caroline of Monaco and Roman Abramovich.