Medieval seaport is a brilliant marriage of History and scenery
03/29/2016 - 03/30/2016 70 °F
Me on Dubrovnik, Croatia's medieval walls
For decades I had been wanting to see Dubrovnik. This fortified, medieval seaport was Venice's rival throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Known as Ragusa back then, the city made alliances to stay independent of the mistress of the seas, Venice. Most importantly for the traveler, her walls remained intact through the centuries and her location on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photographs of her gleaming walls and terra cotta roof tiles. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian artillery rained down on this UNESCO world heritage sight. The Croats resisted, though, cut off from the rest of their countrymen. The damage has been repaired, and the Old Town greets visitors with shining walls and even freshly scrubbed slick, stone streets.
In fact, Dubrovnik looks so pristine it has been used by Hollywood to film a number of movies over the past few years. I knew that the city is a stand-in for King's Landing in the HBO Games of Thrones adaption. We were surprised, though, to hear we had just missed filming of the next Star Wars installment by a week. Though it would have been cool to be there during the filming, in hindsight, that would have meant closed sights, blocked off streets, and other inconveniences. So, best to miss it, we surmised.
Our exploration began on the Stradun, the pedestrian main drag through the compact, walled town. After checking into our hotel, we walked maybe 50 yards, and there we were! It LOOKED like a movie set, it was so pristine. Had they given the walls and streets a thorough scrubbing for Disney? Perhaps. We didn't ask. We checked out a few of the sights, including the Sponza Palace, built in the 14th century and elegantly remodeled during the Renaissance. Not much of it is open to visitors, but there is a photo exhibit in one room honoring the city defenders who died holding off the Serb army. Facing the palace across the square was the Church of St. Blaise, which we ducked inside to see a service going on. Though they were speaking in Croatian, my Catholic upbringing and its ritualistic mass meant I could tell what they were saying.
As we wandered up stairs and around twisting Medieval streets, we could see most of the city's buildings were made with same light, yellowish stone. It gave the buildings a unity of appearance and made them glow with luster when the sun struck them. Over the next day and a half, we also visited both the Franciscan and Domenican monasteries. Each had similar cloisters surrounding gardens, with carved, stone pillars capped by interesting capitals. We declined to visit the museums in each, as we wanted to save the bulk of our time for Dubrovnik's greatest attraction: walking the circuit of the city's medieval walls. We were biding our time, keeping an eye on the sky. We wanted the best possible lighting for Dubrovnik's premier sight. When the sun broke through in earnest, it was time to begin our assault.
The walls were built in the 10th century and improved three centuries later. As we climbed higher and higher, the panorama of terra cotta roofs spread out beneath us. Many of the tiles were a newer, brighter orange, replaced since being damaged during the 1990s struggle. Some were relics from further back, and their darker and duskier tones intermixed with the new ones. The colors shining back at you looked like swatches from a paint store's selection of oranges. Rearing up through the ocean of tiles were church bell towers, like giant stone sea creatures, grazing and passively watching the smaller life swim by beneath them. Out to sea, the blue Adriatic sparkled like gemstones, parted by the prows of ferries, tour boats, and speedboats. Beyond the landward walls, green hills rose up like an amphitheater to enfold the city on two sides. White walled houses shined back down at us, their view doubtless the equal of our's atop the walls.
It was easy to get lost in the past, climbing up the stout towers and pacing along the battlements. The quiet, contemplative stroll was suddenly interrupted when a huge high school group of French students burst onto the bulwarks like an invading army. Shouting, laughing, and taking selfies, they marred the dreamlike quality for awhile. Thankfully, they descended the walls at the halfway point, though I cringed the rest of the day when I heard the "musical" (read nasal) tones of French being spoken. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a historical sight is to slowly wander through it. Dubrovnik's walls are perfect for that. I stopped to take dozens of photos -- every set of steps you climbed or medieval turret you peer through is an amazing view. The wedding of the magical Dalmatian coastline with the martial splendor of a medieval walled city has given birth to a world-class sight.
To gain another perspective, we rode the cable car to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the city. Tourists pointed their "selfie sticks" -- one of the more annoying inventions of recent years -- every which way. We were elbowed aside several times by a Japanese tour group, but what could you do? Under sunny blue skies, on a warm Spring day, how could you really get angry? It took a bit of doing to find a view of the city below that wasn't partially blocked by the cable car towers and wires. When we did find it, I couldn't resist a smug satisfaction that the tour group was nowhere around, and seemed to miss out on that secret. I felt less guilty about my feeling when the tour group pushed in front of us and ditched us in line, forcing us to wait 15 minutes or so for the next car.
Once down on street level, we grabbed ice creams and ate them on a bench overlooking the harbor. We then moved to the breezy sea promenade and sat on another bench, marveling at the glorious weather and view. I felt myself dozing off, contented and satisfied. At this point, we'd seen the top sights we'd come to see. We flipped through our guidebooks to figure out how to finish out our second afternoon in Dubrovnik. I picked out the Maritime Museum, which was a mistake. When a History buff is bored, you know it is a poor museum! Next, we decided to take a sightseeing boat tour to get a chance to get a new perspective on the city. It was about a 45 minute cruise in a small boat with only a dozen or so of us. The captain gave us occasional commentary -– the most interesting of which dealt with the millionaire hotels along the coastline leading back to the harbor. I recognized the gardens of the one which had been used in Game of Thrones filming.
We finished out the afternoon watching the sun sink slowly into the Adriatic Sea from a seaside cafe located just outside the walls. Although they were sold out of virtually everything, they had plenty of Croatian lagers. I had worried that only two days in a city I had waited two decades to visit would not be enough. It had turned out fine, though. Sure, I could have taken an excursion to one of the islands in the area with a third day, but that wouldn't have been Dubrovnik, would it? Two sun-soaked, Spring days to visit this medieval relic of the Middle Ages were without rival. I looked forward to spotting places I'd visited in Hollywood productions for years to come.