Bombed by Serbian forces during the Yugoslavian War in 1991, this ancient city has regained its former glory
I’m sitting in my stateroom with the door open to the warm night breeze and I can hear the water lapping against the ship as the winches work to prepare us to sail north overnight.
What a joyous day this has been! Dubrovnik is a jewel of the Adriatic and numerous tourists from all over Europe seem to be in agreement. The streets of the ancient walled city were crowded this morning, and no wonder! With its profusion of red tile roofs, its protective stone fortresses just offshore, its profusion of palms, orange trees and bougainvillea, its historic buildings and magnificent vistas, this city of 600,000 is a treat for the senses.
The stone streets are lined with homes, thriving shops and historic buildings, including the palace of the rector (head of government), the Franciscan monastery and the second-oldest synagogue in Europe. There is also a market square where residents can buy fresh produce and visitors can stock up on regional specialties such as olive oil, candied orange peel and almonds and traditional embroidery.
Dubrovnik is a testament to endurance and the spirit of its people. It suffered a major earthquake in 1667 and ruins from that time can still be found scattered about the city, but life has gone on around them. In 1991, during the Balkan War, Serbian army forces bombed the city and many old buildings were damaged. The residents and the government of Croatia refused to be undone by the destruction and undertook a massive restoration campaign. Today, 20 years later, there are no signs that the city was a target, although if one looks closely, some red roofs have newer tile than others.
The monastery is a lovely spot, its 14th century cloister enclosing a lush garden and its frescoes still offering colourful decoration for the stone walls. The display cases house numerous reliquaries containing bones of saints. Many of the vessels offer displays of the excellent smiths who worked with silver and gold. Notable among them is a reliquary shaped like a lower leg that contains a leg bone of St. Blaise, one of the patron saints of Dubrovnik. This ancient physician is said to have retrieved a fishbone from the throat of a choking child, saving his life. As a result, local churches hold an annual blessing of the throat to honour him.
The oldest pharmacy in Europe, dating back to 1391, is also based at the monastery. There are old apothecary jars and measures on the shelves, and high above the floor are two cabinets where poisonous substances were kept. As the story goes, some of the substances were curative in small doses, but fatal if too much was ingested. When someone came to request a poisonous substance, the pharmacist needed to climb a ladder to retrieve it, making the purchase quite public so that if a death occurred, witnesses would remember the requester. Murderers, beware!
A visit to Dubrovnik wouldn’t be complete without a walk along its wall. The wall completely surrounds the old city, although the city has since spilled beyond the old town. The climb up the steep steps to the top of the wall is worth every breath; the views from on high are stunning. The Adriatic Sea spreads out before the visitor like a deep blue carpet, and the nearby fortress rises from a verdant mound of rock, standing sentinel over the city. Sailboats, motor launches and kayaks gambol below, and one gasps for air – not because of the height, but because of the beauty.