Thursday, April 19, 2007


Our last destination in Croatia was the touristy town of Dubrovnik. Its Old Town has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and was our area of concentration. At one time this historic town rivaled Venice for sea trade, gaining wealth by trading with Egypt, Syria, Sicily, Spain, France, and later Turkey. Its first pharmacy, opened in 1317, is still operating. In 1667 a devastating earthquake killed over 5,000 citizens. This, coupled with the opening of new trade routes to the east sent the area into slow decline, ending with the conquest of the town by Napoleon in 1806. Dubrovnik later became part of the Habsburg Empire.

With the help of a kind man (who was one of many offering rooms for rent) at the bus station, we were directed to the proper local bus that would take us almost right up to our hotel. Freshened up, we walked down the rather steep hill to Old Dubrovnik. The fragrant scent of blooming jasmine permeated the night air. In front of us, an area was blocked off with police tape. I then spotted a handgun just within the area. Pressed to move on, we continued our walk in the dark past the fancy Hilton hotel and through the Pile Gate.

Old Town at Night

Once inside the Old Town, we were on the beginning of the main pedestrian street called Placa, or Stradun. To our left was the Franciscan monastery and the third-oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe. A sign outside the stone monastery revealed that concerts were frequently held inside. To our right was the huge Onofrio Fountain (1438), its red brick dome contrasting with the dirty grey structure. An orange tree hugged the corner of the city wall and a joining building.

Hungry, we headed towards the fish restaurant recommended to us by the hotel clerk. It was located just off of the Placa in one of the many narrow side streets that contained restaurants, cafés, and shops. After a tasty meal of fish and seafood, we walked through a bit more of the town. Almost right in front of the restaurant was St. Blaise’s Church, an Italian baroque structure built in 1715 as a replacement to an earlier one destroyed in the earthquake. Although the majority of the façade was covered in scaffolding, the large semi-circular stained glass window proudly displayed its brilliant hues. At the end of the pedestrian street was the bell tower, with several mechanical figures “ringing” the bell with regular frequency. Halfway down the tower were two clocks, one in a sun ray-like analog design and a unique one below that, with one square showing the hour in roman numerals and the minutes in traditional numbers.

Nighttime in Dubrovnik was a mixture of quiet, but omnipresent pedestrians enjoying the mild temperatures and relaxing atmosphere. After a pleasant walk around the tastefully lit old town, we took a bus up to our hotel.

Tour of the Old Town
The next morning we headed down the hill after breakfast at the hotel. It was the first overcast day we had experienced while in Croatia. Noticing tiny patches of grey-blue and a struggling sun, I hoped that the clouds would clear. Thankfully, this already began to happen as we entered through the open doors of Pile Gate. To the left on the wall was a map of the Old Town showing the damage done by bombs and grenades from October 1991 to May 1992. A man dressed in Venetian-looking traditional clothing stood on the fountain sides, holding out a box of ribbon souvenirs for sale to the many tourists that would pass by during the day.

One of our first destinations was St. Blaise’s Church. Inside, the colors of the semicircular stained glass window cast a psychedelic pattern on the white columns. The morning light also illuminated the front altar, where a nun was carefully placing gardenias and Easter lily flowers. The atmosphere inside was tranquil and slightly magical with the mixture of color and light. Shortly after we left, the direction of the light changed, no longer revealing the play of color we had witnessed.
Back outside, the number of tourists had already increased. A large number were from two cruise ships that had arrived, its retired largely American passengers descending upon the town in large groups. Also represented were a large number of French, Japanese, and British tourists.

Walking the City Wall
One of the best ways to get a view of the city was to take a walk on top of the city walls. Even though it was 50 Kunas ($9), we decided it was well worth the cost. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, these massive walls enclose the entire old city for a distance of over 2 km and 25m in height. Scattered around the walls are two round towers, 14 square towers, two corner fortifications, and a large fortress.

It was fun walking around the perimeter, peering below into walled backyards full of flowers and lemon trees. In other areas, the main wall went right up to homes. The scent of jasmine filled the air. From the wall, one also had great views of the Old Port, Lokrum Island, and Fort Bokar. To the north was a high green hill with a cross faintly visible. It was from here that much of the shelling originated. From above, the damage inflicted upon the city by the Yugoslav army in 1991 through militarily senseless shelling was more apparent. Some buildings were shells without roofs, with weeds overtaking the ruins. Bright terracotta tiles revealed their newness, contrasting sharply with the older worn roofs. In a few spots, restoration was currently underway, but the majority of the work has been completed. Although the restorations were done to reflect the original look of the city, I actually felt that the complete makeover lent a slightly artificial feel.

City Tour
After a sandwich (and expensive soda) at a side street café (where we met some colleagues and family), we went for a walk though the streets of Old Dubrovnik. The sun was now quite warm on what turned out to be another clear day. While on the main street, I met two of the young women with whom I had shared a room at the hostel in Split.

We proceeded to the 17th century baroque Assumption of the Virgin Cathedral. I had already taken photos of the large structure from above and its large stone sculptures on the roof and was eager to see the interior. On the right of the entrance was a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, full of bright artificial plastic flowers, neon green vines, and some wood – a most gaudy sight in my opinion. According to the sign, the grotto was built in 1885 and was one of the oldest in Europe. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it. About the same time, our colleagues also entered the church. We would meet up with them one more time within the contained walls of Old Dubrovnik. Definitely a small place. The three-nave church contained some old paintings in the altars. It also has a large collection of treasures, including gold and silver reliquaries and the skull, arm, and leg of St. Blaise, all plated with gold. The apse was quite magnificent, complete with large rose-colored marble columns, a high chandelier, and a polyptych "The Assumption of the Virgin" (1552) painted by Titian.

One of our next destinations was the 16th century Sponza Palace. Originally it was a customs house, then a bank, and now houses the state archives. Through the large doors was an open courtyard, surrounded by multi-level arched walkways. One room was open to visitors. This was a memorial to the residents who lost their lives in the shelling – up to 200 by some estimates. Black & white photos of mostly men and older boys lined one wall. A large TV played a slide show of the destruction, also largely in black & white. Some of the scenes were quite moving and revealed the level of destruction that actually occurred. Without seeing such footage, it would be easy for visitors to forget that this seemingly intact city was once full of rubble and ruin.

Up the narrow stairs, we made a few pass-throughs of streets parallel to the main street. One street was full of fish restaurants, eagerly waiting for customers. We located the inconspicuous synagogue, the second oldest in Europe, but it was closed.

As we wandered through the tiny streets and city squares, it was apparent how tourist-centered the Old town was. Most businesses consisted of souvenir shops, galleries, ice cream stores, cafés, trendy shops, and restaurants. The open market consisted of souvenirs and a few produce items. Without the tourists flocking to the Old town and the beaches of greater Dubrovnik, I doubt there would be much else contributing to the economy.

Greater Dubrovnik
Having seen most of the Old Town, we hopped a city bus and headed for the beach areas in the Babin Kuk peninsula. The area was rather deserted. Even the shopping area had few visitors, except for an obnoxious dog and its owner. We took a path down to the coast, where two or three people enjoyed the sun. Broken bottles and rubbish littered the area – a great contrast to the rest of Dubrovnik. I guess this area would become more lively and cleaned up during the height of the tourist season. Right now it wasn’t very impressive. With not much to see, we took the bus back to the Old Town.

Golden Hour of Photography
Back in the Old Town, things were much quieter than just a few hours earlier. The tourists from the cruise ships had left. As time wore on, the colors of the light became warmer and more dramatic. I retook some photos of the small Onofrio Fountain, with the pigeons bathing themselves on the upper part of the carved structure. The golden light was especially glorious on the columns of the gothic Rector’s Palace (1441), revealing the intricate carvings on the tops of the columns. A cat lazily snoozed in the sun next to the column, seemingly impervious to the pedestrian traffic and noise around it. The shadows of the archways cast strong shadows against the inner walls. The decorative upper windows of Sponza’s Palace gained an extra level of beauty in the golden light, as did other buildings. It was a good thing I had several memory cards along!

For supper, we ate at one of the fish restaurants on the second row of stairs which we had passed by earlier. They all offered about the same menu and prices, so the decision was made by a flip of a coin. Complimentary drinks including a local sweet desert wine and carafe of white wine was served. Mussels risotto followed a large crisp fresh salad.

After taking some night shots, we took the bus back to the hotel. The next morning after breakfast we took the bus down to the bus station and then off to Kotor, Montenegro, passing through a tiny part of Bosnia on the way.

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