Back to the Balkans
Historic Dubrovnik plays to the crowds, as Robert Cross discovers
DUBROVNIK, Croatia – On my first day, thunderstorms exposed the town’s true nature.
In good warm weather, Dubrovnik can feel like a museum specimen, filled with visitors eager to experience its beauty and marvel at the intricacy of its historic buildings.
Trouble is, the admirers obscure some vistas and crowd through interiors that otherwise would transport them back through the centuries. All those flip-flops, cruise-ship caps and digital cameras play havoc with the imagination and keep reminding us that the Renaissance has come and gone.
And yet here I am spending more ink on the place, drawing more attention to it. Obviously, this no longer can be considered one of Europe’s delicious secrets. But it should be on everyone’s must-see list, throngs or no throngs. Ideally, Dubrovnik is absorbed, savored over many days. Still, even a glimpse is better than nothing. No other city on the Continent quite compares.
The frequent whump of seaside thunder and the bouts of heavy rain made umbrellas blossom on the main street – the Stradun, or Placa. Its marble surface turned slippery, while the sudden bath revealed it as a handsome, glistening pedestrian thoroughfare with the famous Onofrio Fountain on its western end and the 15th century Orlando’s Column on the east – and a handsome clock tower for punctuation.
Only a few strollers braved the downpour. Clusters of visitors found shelter under the 15th Century portico of the Rector’s Palace, where the rector and his staff once reviewed parades. Now the spectators could see fellow visitors running for cover, joining them under the portico or ducking into the baroque embrace of St. Blaise Church.
Dubrovnik is an al fresco sort of town in the warm seasons and during the dry days, so the storm provided an occasion to see the interior of the Gradska Kavana, a cafe where townspeople gather for coffee early in the morning. Most customers choose to sit outside on the terrace facing Luza Square and Orlando’s Column, or take a table on the harbor-side veranda, where the armory used to be.
Inside, the cafe boasts two floors of tables surrounded by handsome Art Deco paneling and murals. It’s a good place to get one’s bearings after a stroll from Pile (PEE la) Gate, the western opening in the massive wall that surrounds the old city, or Stari Grad.
When the weather clears, the wall is a wonderful place to gain an overall impression of Dubrovnik, no matter how thick the crowds on the streets below. Built between the 13th and 15th Centuries to repel enemy sieges, it’s a wide and lofty barricade, 80 feet tall and fully intact.
It has all the turrets, forts, towers and casemates with cannons that a Hollywood scenic designer could wish for.
The wall covers slightly more than a mile, uninterrupted, with fine views – sea, harbor, the orange-tiled rooftops of dwellings within the old city and modern Dubrovnik clinging to the foothills just outside the gates.
Strolling the Dubrovnik wall has to be one of the best walks in Europe.
The wall bridges the two most distinct aspects of Stari Grad. Visitors typically come for the wonderfully preserved or restored historic sites, most of them at ground level. That’s where the tour guides hold up their umbrellas and explain the palaces, the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries (built for further protection), the churches and the odd artifacts like Orlando’s Column. (Sculpted in 1417, its statue of Roland, the legendary medieval knight, is a symbol denoting benevolent powers protecting the city.)
The guides never fail to mention St. Blaise, the city’s patron, usually depicted holding a model of Dubrovnik as it looked before the devastating earthquake of 1667.
Up on the wall, down along its base and along the sides of V-shaped Stari Grad, visitors with time can get a look at homes and the villagers who occupy them. They represent only a small percentage of Dubrovnik’s 45,000 citizens, but they serve as excellent ambassadors for all the rest. It’s fascinating to see children at play and adults going about their daily chores in a place so thoroughly tied to its long history that even the satellite dishes appear ready to grow moss. No wonder the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the Stari Grad a World Heritage site.
Tourism is the main engine driving the Dalmatian Coast economy these days, so visitors receive welcoming smiles. One morning, a member of the wait staff at the Orlando Cafe had me pegged immediately as an American. She brought me, unbidden, an International Herald Tribune someone had discarded on another table. “Something to read with your cappuccino,” she said.
I was trying to build some energy for the climbing required for a walk around the wall followed by more climbing up the residential tiers on either side of the main streets.
When I did reach the wall, I heard somebody remark, “Not a lot of privacy here. I don’t think I’d like thousands of people walking above my house.” But residents of Stari Grad apparently have learned to humor the visitors, entertain them or make a few kuna – the Croatian dollar – by selling them things.
Atop the wall, strollers find refreshment stands and women selling their crochet work and souvenirs. Down below, pots of flowers decorate scores of front stoops, as if to enhance the enjoyment of anyone peering down at them.
Along the wall’s base – which stands on a steep bluff – I saw a wooden sign, in English: “Cold Drinks With The Most Beautiful View.” An arrow on the sign pointed toward an opening in the wall. I entered to find a drink stand called Cafe Buza and several tiny umbrella-shaded tables clustered on stone ledges.
The beautiful view took in blue Adriatic Sea, the greenery of Lokrum Island and passing pleasure boats. Italy was out there beyond the horizon, but on a day like that, in a place like this, the boot lost some of its allure.
Frank Sinatra serenaded the Cafe Buza patrons. As I sipped a Coke and listened to Sinatra’s rendition of “The Summer Wind,” it occurred to me that all over Dubrovnik and neighboring Lapad I had been hearing music from the Cold War America songbook. Sinatra in this charming little cafe, Bob Dylan in a souvenir shop, Frankie Laine at a pizza place, even the McGuire sisters in a resort-area shopping mall.
It appeared as if I’d be listening to these familiar refrains all through my stay. But then, farther along the wall, I heard a beautiful contralto coming from a church school, where someone was rehearsing for a recital or a solo in the choir.
On the Stradun one afternoon, men and women in costume paraded toward Pile Gate. Some of the men played guitars and mandolins – even a full-size bass viol. And everyone sang. The parade drew scores of spectators, of course. They squinted into their digital camera screens and at one point formed a circle around a group of singing women – all in costume.
Not everyone was a tourist. Here and there, I could see lips moving in the crowd and hear the voices of other women, softly joining in.
It wasn’t clear to me which period of Dubrovnik’s and Croatia’s history the marchers represented. Clearly they were dressed as country folk, courtiers and wandering troubadours, not the nobility and traders of the 14th and 15th centuries, when the town still was called Ragusa.
Through the centuries the city endured many shifts in power and allegiance: Romans, Turks, Venetians, the Croatian-Hungarian kingdom, all had their moments. The 1667 earthquake leveled the city-state, which had been an important seat of Renaissance enlightenment. Citizens rebuilt, but trade declined. The artistic treasures and cultural riches were destroyed.
At the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon’s forces ruled. Then came the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Croatia tried and failed to break away from its Austrian rulers. In 1867, Hungary ruled Croatia but Dalmatia, including Ragusa, stayed in Austria’s grip.
Fast-forward to post World War I when an uneasy bundle of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes were gathered together as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (i.e. southern – yugo – Slav).
Around that time, Ragusa became Dubrovnik, named after the dubrava, the holm oaks, or holly trees, that grew on the hillsides. The area fell under fascist rule during most of World War II. Afterward, it was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and his independent-minded Communist regime. Tito forcefully rejected Croatia’s bid for independence, but his break with Stalin in 1948 did allow for more tourism and a slightly freer spirit than in most parts of the Soviet sphere.
When Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, Croatia again declared independence and its leaders removed Serbs from public office. The Yugoslavian army stepped in, beginning in June of 1991. That fall, the city and all of the southern Dalmatian coast fell under attack by the Yugoslav army, navy and Montenegrin militia. On Dec. 6 shells pounded Dubrovnik’s old town, killing 19 people and wrecking several buildings.
With the help of a shocked world community, especially the European Union, Croatia did gain its independence and gathered the strength to repair and rebuild after the siege finally ended in 1992.
The work has been done so skillfully and with such an eye for authenticity that it’s hard to comprehend how extensive the damage really was.
In the Sponza Palace, which survived both the recent war and the 1667 earthquake, a room on the ground floor is devoted to the events of 1991 and `92. Walls hold photographs of the men who died resisting the attacks. A continuous film shows collapsing rooftops, doorways belching flames, plumes of smoke rising from broken windows, people running for their lives.
“So many of our friends died,” a tour guide told a group just outside the door. “There was so much damage 15 years ago.”
Sponza Palace once served as a customs house, a bonded warehouse and a bank. Now it holds state archives, including manuscripts dating back centuries. Most visitors prize its exquisitely carved and be-columned Renaissance-era portico and its graceful Gothic and Renaissance windows.
The Rector’s Palace – the only other building to survive the earthquake – is equally ornate. Those two structures hint at what an artistic and handsome city Ragusa/Dubrovnik was.
Of course, the artisans and engineers of post-Renaissance years filled the sturdy walls with delights of their own. The exteriors along the Stradun display a sort of baroque uniformity, an eye-pleasing arrangement that’s anything but austere. Just past Pile Gate, the domed, 15th century Onofrio Fountain greets visitors with a ring of water-spouting sculpted faces. A few yards away, the Church of the Holy Redeemer is a favorite venue for evening concerts.
A doorway cut into a virtually blank wall leads to the beautiful cloister of the Franciscan monastery, where a small group of monks prayed and lived even during the Communist era. The complex includes a working pharmacy founded in 1317, an apothecary museum, and galleries of religious artifacts and paintings.
There are other churches, a cathedral and a Dominican monastery, which stands near the eastern Ploce Gate. People tour those, too, for the fine ecclesiastical art and that ephemeral thrill of supposing how it was to live in another time.
But it’s satisfying just to experience Dubrovnik simply as a community with a design for living. That climb to the tightly condensed neighborhoods on the northern side reveals cozy streets – alleys, really – lined with restaurant tables, little shops selling everyday things and baubles the visitors might like.
A hike up the terraces is rewarded with close looks at tucked-in apartments and the cozy Hotel Stari Grad, one of only two hotels within the walls. The other, the exclusive Pucic Palace, shares a terrace with the morning market, where farmers and artisans sell their goods.
The Ethnographic Museum up in the south side residential sector sits atop a former granary. Mannequins wear clothing similar to those I saw on the paraders. Artfully mounted housewares, tools and farm implements grace the rooms.
I looked out a window at the rooftops of the Stari Grad, a bowl of small wonders, and it hit me that I had scheduled far too little time.
Back down at harbor level, I walked past the Pucic Palace behind a couple taking in the sights. The woman said to the man, “You’re in Dubrovnik. Why do you always have to be somewhere else? Be where you are.”
When I saw her mild rebuke in my notes, I felt a blush coming on. I do that so often: “This place reminds me of …” Just the other day, I compared Dubrovnik to a town in Tuscany.
A mistake. Dubrovnik is Dubrovnik, and that’s all it needs to be.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING AROUND: A bus is all you really need to get from an outlying hotel to the old city. Within the walls, it’s walking or bicycling only; no vehicles allowed. And biking is impractical there because of the crowds. Bus fares are 8 kuna if purchased at a kiosk or newsstand and 10 kuna when paying on the bus. The kuna at this writing is equivalent to about 17 cents U.S.
SLEEPING THERE: Only two hotels operate within the old city. At the small (eight rooms) but charming Hotel Stari Grad (Od Sigurate 4; 00-385-20-322-244; www.hotelstarigrad.com), doubles start at US$238 in summer, including breakfast. The 19-unit Pucic Palace (Ulica Od Puca 1; 00-385-20-326-222; www.thepucicpalace.com) overlooks Gundulic Square and charges for its elegance, comfort and central location with rates that start at more than $550 a night in high season.
Outside the walls, the city and its suburbs offer a wide choice of hotels and resorts. To stay within walking distance, you could book a room at the Hilton Imperial (Marijana Blazica 2; 00-385-20-320320; www.hilton.com), a totally refurbished 1897 landmark just a short walk from Pile Gate. Rates start at about $300.
In Lapad, I stayed at the plain but modern and comfortable Hotel Kompas (Setaliste Kralja Zvonimira 56; 00-385 20 352 000; www.hotel-kompas.hr), one of many resorts in the area with superb Adriatic views. Doubles start at about $240.
Also, it might be worthwhile to consider apartments and rooms rented out by families. Look for signs that say “Sobe,” which indicates accommodations are available. Or ask at one of the tourist offices.
Prices quoted are subject to change and do not include tax. Always ask about discounts and specials.
EATING THERE: My personal culinary highlight was a lingering afternoon repast at Proto (00-385-020-323-234; www.esculap-teo.hr) in the heart of the old town. I chose to sit on the terrace upstairs, instead of at a street-level table. It was the perfect tranquil setting for a meal of seafood salad, fresh and lightly seasoned. It went well with the local white wine, Posip. The bill: US$28.
A sister restaurant of Proto, Atlas Club Nautika (00-385-020-442-526; www.esculap-teo.hr) has a fine reputation, but the salad I ordered there couldn’t match Proto’s. I was told the gourmet treasures are in the dining rooms – rather formal and dressy compared to the seaside terrace. But outside, selecting from a very limited menu, you still get to pay gourmet prices (cash only). With a glass of red wine, my tab came to US$30.
In general, seafood is almost a sure bet anywhere along the Dalmatian Coast. But the beef and pork dishes I tried in Dubrovnik tended to have sauces and gravies laid on with a heavy hand. Italian cooking is widespread – including pizza, of course – and most of it meets the Italian standard.
INFORMATION: The Dubrovnik Tourist Board, www.tzdubrovnik.hr. Republic of Croatia, www.hr/index.en.shtml. www.croatia.hr
Useful guidebooks include Frommer’s Croatia by Karen Torme Olson and Sanja Bazulic Olson; Lonely Planet’s Croatia by Jeanne Oliver; and the Berlitz Dubrovnik Pocket Guide by Roger Williams.