Somewhere we read that this city is full of too many tourists, too loud festivities, and the hassles for travelers that go with such things. So it was with trepidation we stepped off the ferry into the largest potential tourist trap we’ve seen since Venezia. We were staying for a week and had time to avoid “peak hours” of tourists.
It is easy to see why people enjoy visiting. Dubrovnik is enchanting. The glittering Adriatic begs you to sail away into the sunset. The marble walls and baroque buildings bewitch even the experienced traveler. We found the perfect balance: lots of bustle and excitement, but many places to escape and discover for ourselves. Many people were swimming and kayaking in the warm waters . First, we wanted to wander the cobblestone streets with no agenda. We unpacked our belongings in our new apartment and did just that.
The first sight you find upon entrance to the old city of Dubrovnik is Pile gate. Centered above the gate is a statue of St. Blaise holding Dubrovnik in his hand. St. Blaise was an Armenian Bishop killed for his faith around 316. He is famous for the ability to cure medical problems of the throat. A unique blessing of throats takes place in the baroque Church of St. Blaise in honor of him.
Once inside the gate, the Onophrian Fountain is imposing in its size. It is a sixteen-sided container with a cupola made by an architect from Milan. Each faucet on this 15th century historical masterpiece has a unique stone-carved masked face. The water comes from directly from the mountains 7 miles away, through an elaborate series of aqueducts designed to bring fresh potable drinking water to the city. We found it delicious.
The Stradun is a large, wide promenade in the center of the old town. The side streets in both directions are ideal for finding a hidden restaurant or shop. Near the Stradun after entering at the Pile Gate is the Franciscan Monastery. It has one of the oldest pharmacies in the world – open since 1391! Cafe culture is alive and well on the Stradun. It is well worth grabbing a seat for people-watching.
WALLS OF WONDER
A well-known tourist tradition is walking the ramparts around the old city. It is worth the effort! The Roman city of Epidaurum pre-dated Dubrovnik, until barbarian invasions forced resettlement north to a new colony: Ragusium. Slavic migration in the 7th century began what is modern-day Dubrovnik. The two settlements traded and coexisted until they became one. By the 9th century, the new joint city was so well fortified and defended that a year-long Islamic invasion didn’t breach the city.
A channel of water seperated Ragusium and Dubrovnik many years ago. In the 11th century workers covered up the water channel with limestone rocks. This new street became the Stradun. So when you walk the Stradun, imagine two ancient cities on either side of you – with water where you’re standing. Maritime trade has always been a central feature of Dubrovnik, as has talented shipbuilding inherited from great sea traditions of Epidaurum.
The Byzantine Empire protected and controlled Dubrovnik until the 13th century, when Venice occupied the city for 150 years. After Venetian rule, Dubrovnik retained a semi-independence in the 14th century with a nominal association with Austro-Hungarian rulers. During the Battle of Levent, Dubrovnik sold war ships to both Turks and Christians. The reason for this was simple. Dubrovnik valued its independence more than a temporary alliance. Lovrijenac Fortress has the inscription: “Non bene pro toto venditur Libertas auro.” (“Liberty cannot be sold for all the gold in the world.”)
In 1667 a terrible earthquake devastated Dubrovnik, which attracted invading Turkish and Venetian warships. Clever diplomacy, by now a trademark of the Republic, saved the city once again. Ambassadors met the ships and assured them that the city was “fine.” No help necessary, thank you!
THE CURSE OF LOKRUM ISLAND
Lokrum is the island found just outside Dubrovnik harbor. If you have visited here before, you have seen it – either while walking the walls or from sight-seeing. What you may not know is that Lokrum is cursed!
Benedictine monks had lived in peace at a Monastery on Lokrum for hundreds of years. A French Army general (bien sûr!) ordered the closure of the Monastery. The monks protested but to no avail. Desperate, they went to the Church of St. Mary to serve one last Mass to God on the island. They put on their hooded robes and slipped into the night. Circumnavigating the island in a long single-file procession, they held their candles upside-down to leave a melted trail of wax. As they circled the island they chanted: “Whosoever claims Lokrum for his own personal pleasure shall be damned!” Exhausted by dawn, they left on a boat and never looked back.
Here is where it gets interesting. Three aristocratic families of Dubrovnik ordered the monks off the island: Gozze, Pozza, and Sorgo. One of them later jumped out a window to his death, another drowned in the sea on the way to the island, and a servant murdered the third in a mysterious incident.
The next owner of the island was Captain Tomaševic, a rich man who became bankrupt after buying the island. This forced him to sell it to Maximilian, the young brother of Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph I. Maximilian added trails, planted trees, and imported exotic birds. Soon he went to America where he became Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Amid revolutionary fervor, he was taken prisoner by the notorious Benito Juarez. He died by firing squad in Querétaro. On and on it goes. (More to the story here.)
Are these deaths mere coincidences? You decide! The island today is a protected public site with a lush botanical garden and the original Benedictine Monastery from 1023.
For a few days, we watched a cable-car run from outside the old town to the top of the Alps. This has to be worth the ride! The line to board the car took 5 or 10 minutes to get to the end. It may have been longer than usual because we were ascending the mountains just before sunset.
A delightful surprise awaited us at the top – not only a world-class view but two different restaurants, one outside for drinks and a casual meal, and another inside with nice place settings but a somewhat more expensive price tag.
We walked over to the rocky point eager to see our reward. The sounds of animals pierced the air. Goats! We found it comical that we were even higher than the mountain goats. An inspiring sunset was our reward for the trip.
We decided that since we came this far, we might as well eat at the restaurant. Our hopes sank as we noticed that diners reserved each table in advance. Wait, there’s one – right at the window! We caught an intoxicating view of the city at night, just before the last cable-car. What a magical place!