Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dubrovnik: Pearls of the Adriatic before swine

I landed in Dubrovnik after a short hop north up the coast from Kotor. While “The Pearl of the Adriatic” is a highlight of any trip, perhaps I was spoilt having coming from Montenegro’s fjord coast. I wouldn’t quiet go as far as saying I was underwhelmed. But yet I found myself preferring the understated appeal of Dubrovnik’s southern neighbour. Maybe it was the fact it was a Saturday and the old town was packed with day-trippers and visitors from the several parked cruise ships. Certainly the town looked a lot more attractive at night when all the tourists had gone and I had the old town to myself. And I had to be impressed by the magnificent rebuilding the town had undergone in the last 15 years.

Although the city was without military value, it was the victim of sustained attack during the Balkans War in the early 1990s. Serb mortars poured down from the hills while the Montenegrin Navy took potshots from the bay. Nearly two thirds of the city suffered bomb damage during the war. During the eight-month siege of Dubrovnik, about 100 civilians died and more than 30,000 fled their homes. Of the 824 buildings in the old town, almost 70 percent were struck by shells. Dubrovnik's walls sustained 111 direct hits and there were 314 more on Dubrovnik's baroque buildings and marble streets. UNESCO and other international organizations rushed to the rescue. Teams of skilled workers laboured through most of the rest of the decade to restore the town to its former glory.

The area around Dubrovnik was originally called Ragusium by the Romans. The town of Ragusa was formed in the seventh century when Byzantine coastal residents took refuge there to protect themselves from barbarian invasions. City walls were quickly built to protect the new settlement. Ragusa made its living from trade with its Mediterranean neighbours. Over the next 400 years Ragusa became increasingly prosperous and attracted unwelcome rival attention. In 1205 it fell under the control of Venice but it managed to break away 150 years later.

By the 15th century the Republic of Ragusa was trading with the Near East and Europe and a major rival of Venice for control of the Adriatic waterways. It maintained its independence from powerful neighbours through cunning diplomacy and used its wealth to expand its cultural influence. But the seeming inexorable progress of the town was cruelly destroyed in one act of nature.

In 1667, Dubrovnik was devastated by a major earthquake which destroyed most of its Renaissance art and architecture. After the earthquake, Dubrovnik fell into decline, hastened by the emergence of other European naval powers. It was Napoleon who finally put an end to the republic in 1806 when he entered the city and announced its annexation. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna ceded Dubrovnik to Austria to whom it remained attached until 1918. It passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which renamed itself as Yugoslavia, before finally becoming Croatian after its horrible baptism of fire in 1991.

(pic shows the extent of damage to Dubrovnik during the war)

By then, Dubrovnik was a household name across the world. The city began to develop its tourist industry in the late 19th century. Luminaries such as Lord Byron, George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie were awed by the town and Dubrovnik became a major tourist centre in post-war Yugoslavia. Christie spent her second honeymoon here. GBS said “if you want to see heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik”.

The London Times would seem to agree. The city walls of Dubrovnik made their recent list of the world’s 50 best walks. It described the hour-long circuit of the old town’s battlements as unforgettable, as it was “around an Escher-like collection of sand-castle sentry posts, helter-skelter stairways and crumbling catwalks, all poised on high cliffs against the bluest bit of the Adriatic.” And having walked around the walks, I can see the point of this Adriatic pearl of wisdom.

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