Dubrovnik: The jewel of the Adriatic

Posted on: 22 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

"Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik," pronounced George Bernard Shaw, normally quite curmudgeonly when it came to praise.

When the visitor sees the view of Dubrovnik from the Lovrijenac fortress they will agree with the Irish playwright. The Old Town of Dubrovnik stands with the waves of the Adriatic crashing against the rocks that form the town’s western defences.

The walls extends in a pale line around the patchwork of orange rooves that cover the houses of the old town, making the whole place look like a huge jewel in a silver setting. Fortified towers stand at the corners: Minceta, Revelin, and Bokar.

Starting with Mount Srð that looms above the town, the hills of the Dalmatian coastline are clearly visible for many miles towards the Montenegrin border. In the New Town the signs of the shelling that shattered the area during the Civil War have been covered up.

After going through hell for a few months in late 1991 and early 1992, “paradise” has been restored to its former glory.

Dubrovnik rivalled Venice for Adriatic superiority

Far less known than its recent history is the fact that from the fourteenth century until 1808, Dubrovnik was a free state that rivalled Venice. Ahead of its times in many respects, Dubrovnik developed institutions and regulations much earlier than most other European cities.

A refuge for the elderly was opened in 1347, slave trading was abolished in 1418, and the town’s first orphanage was established in 1432. The piece de resistance of its town planning was a water system, 20 kilometres long, constructed in 1436 and supplying fresh running water from the local mountains; visitors were required to wash their feet at the D’Onofrio fountain, to guard against the plague.

Today’s visitors can (with unwashed feet) anticipate an altogether remarkable time in this ancient city. The essential items of Dubrovnik are as follows.

The famous Stradun Street stretches along the 250-metre length of the old town and finishing in Luza Square. Stradun is the favourite promenade walk of all Dubrovnik citizens and tourists – no one should miss the experience of strolling along this main thoroughfare and really getting in touch with the town.

Narrow streets aching to be explored branch off every few metres, hinting at greater treasures. The Stradun’s lovely building facades are free of despoiling banners and hoardings, thanks to local laws; only discreet lanterns hang over individual shop entrances.

The Dominican Monastery houses a fine collection of religious paintings by some of Dubrovnik’s celebrated artists. Particularly interesting are the works of Nikola Bozidarevic, not least because they often contain clues of how the town looked before the devastating earthquake of 1667. In particular, a triptych of the Madonna and Child contains a depiction of the town’s soaring spires in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

100 metres westwards from the Cathedral is a square called Gunduliceva Poljana. In the mornings this hosts a small outdoor market, with vendors selling fruit and vegetables to the locals, as well as tourist souvenirs such as plates, linen and lace.

Traversing the square, the visitor can ascend a set of steps modeled on Rome’s Spanish Steps, to admire the stained glass of the Jesuit Church, Dubrovnik’s largest.

Dubrovnik’s Old Town walls

Visitors can walk the length of the walls without ever descending to street level. They are 1940 metres long, and along the way there are five bastions, as well as three round and twelve square-shaped towers, built between the eighth and sixteenth centuries. The lanes branching off Stradun look incredibly narrow, their grid-like plan a reminder of the strict planning regulations introduced as early as 1270 to monitor the town’s rapid expansion.

The Island of Lokrum

Visitors should not leave without taking in one of the many beautiful views of the Old Town. Mount Srð offers a beautiful panorama of Dubrovnik; the spectacular view from either Fort Imperial or the white stone cross that epitomizes Dubrovnik’s deep faith more than makes up for the tedious climb. From the seaward side, when heading on the ferry to either Lokrum or Cavtat, the beauty of the sea against the city walls is enthralling. From Lokrum, olive trees will frame a charming photographic vignette of the ancient city.

Dubrovnik is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and yet paradoxically is a place that has always been ahead of the times, with its town planning, customs regulations and fresh running water systems. Having recovered its poise after the sad events of the early 1990s, this is a city that should top the list of every visitor to Europe.

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