Fortified for Freedom
We tendered ashore to the Old Port, steps from the Ploce Gate. Ancient forts at each end of the port-Fort Revelin (now a concert venue) and the Fort of St. John (home to an aquarium and maritime museum)-give a sense of its historic importance. Once part of the Venetian empire, by Dubrovnik’s heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city had become a rival to Venice and capital of the forward-thinking Republic of Ragusa.
At the opposite end of the city just outside the imposing Pile Gate, a second set of forts, St. Lawrence (Lovrijenac) and Bokor, guards a small bay. Legend has it that 11th century citizens of Dubrovnik, warned by Saint Blaise that Venetians were going to build a fort on the rocky promontory where St. Lawrence Fort now sits, beat them to it. These days, the fort offers some of the best views of the walled city and excellent summer theater.
The Old Town of Dubrovnik is encircled by over a mile-long City Wall which rises to more than 80 feet in places and is reinforced by towers, forts and bastions. Most of the fortifications date to the 1400s, but construction was ongoing from the 10th to 17th centuries. Following the guard’s walk around the city affords stunning vistas-one more amazing than the next.
Places of Power
Just inside the city walls from the Old Port, the ancient city’s most important official buildings line up. The Rector’s Palace, seat of government during the Republic of Ragusa (14th-19th century) houses the Cultural Historical Museum, displaying period furnishings, works of famous artists including Carracci and Tintoretto and the not-to-be-missed Bronze Jacks, bronze statues that rang out the hours at the city’s Bell Tower next door. As a reminder that freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand, a sign above the Great Council Hall reads “forget private and deal with public business,” and we learned that to guard against power grabs, each rector served only one month.
Across the street, the Church of St. Blaise is dedicated to the city’s patron saint. A 17th century earthquake and fire devastated the city along with the original church but a statue of the city’s patron saint holding a model of the ancient city miraculously survived and now stands in the rebuilt Baroque church.
Recent history is commemorated at Sponza Palace, formerly the mint and arsenal, where the Memorial Room displays photos of soldiers who died in the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. Looking at the city today, it’s hard to imagine that more than half the city was affected by the shelling, and from atop the city walls, its resilience is evidenced by the bright new terracotta roofs covering large swaths of the city.
A Proud History
On each side of the wide main street, or Stadon, signs point the way to small museums that offer intriguing perspectives, often in bite-size 30 to 60-minute visits. For example, at the Ethnographic Museum, farmer’s tools were set out next to photos of the fields they were used in and displays included folk costumes, furnishings and a horse skull believed to provide protection against spells.
At the Jewish Synagogue, among the oldest still in use in Europe, a tiny museum displays artifacts of Jewish life in the city and, as in most of the museums, a friendly docent was on hand to answer questions. Here, we learned that the Dubrovnik Senate resolved to permit Jews to settle in the city and many came on Ragusa ships when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal. The city also was hospitable to orphans; a plaque at 14th century St. Claire Convent notes that this was one of the earliest known orphanages and a special window allowed unwed mothers to anonymously leave their infants for the nuns to care for.
A fun novelty was picking up cough drops from a tiny pharmacy that dates back to 1317, located at the Franciscan Monastery Museum. Dubrovnik is also a city of art galleries, interesting boutiques, and lovely terrace restaurants. We never made it up the famous cable car or sampled the beaches and felt we’d only scratched the surface of the city. As we sailed off that evening, we agreed that Dubrovnik was a place we’d come back to-and not just for 12 hours!
For independent clients who plan to explore the City Wall and dip in and out of museums as we did, check out the Dubrovnik pass. Note that museum collections are generally simply presented with minimal interpretation; those who prefer more in-depth explanations can tap into one of the excellent history, culture and other special-interest guided tours. For more information, visit the Croatian National Tourism Board at www.croatia.hr, Dubrovnik Tourist Board at www.tzdubrovnik.hr, and Dubrovnik Riviera/Dubrovnik Neretva Country Tourism Board at www.visitdubrovnik.hr