There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Dubrovnik (2), Inside the Walls: Part 6 of The Balkans

After returning from Korčula on Monday evening we walked down to the old town for dinner which we ate in a restaurant lining an alley off the main street. A squadron of swifts (or possibly martins) patrolled overhead, squeaking loudly as they hoovered up the insects.

My tuna steak and Lynne’s unspecified white-fish fillets were Mediterranean in style, though the accompanying chard – the Balkan’s favourite vegetable – reminded us where we were. Our dessert, pancakes with sugar and lemon, adhered firmly, though no doubt accidently, to Welsh tradition.

The city was quiet and it was only after dinner, when we strolled around the market square and along the wider streets leading up to the Jesuit Church that we found much in the way of animation. A substantial number of people live in the old city, but most of the hotel accommodation is outside, so the evenings are relatively tranquil. Shops and restaurants do better during the day, but although Dubrovnik is often crowded, the local traders are not happy. Cruise ship passengers in their thousands are bussed from the deep water harbour or ferried from the offshore anchorage. They follow their guides, crowding out the major attractions, but return to their ships to eat. Many spend nothing at all, their visits being too brief to bother with acquiring any Croatian Kuna. Most businesses accept Euros, but many traders see cruise passengers as a nuisance, crowding out those tourists who are prepared to spend money. I can see their point; we found the cruisers less intrusive than in Tallinn in 2011 but we were not in Dubrovnik at the peak of the season. Plans are being discussed to limit the number of cruise ship passengers to 7000 a day, which still sounds a big number to me.

The wider streets leading up to the Jesuit Church
 The following morning dawned blue and encouragingly warm, but the hitherto uncannily accurate weather forecast sellotaped to the hotel reception desk suggested rain later. We took an umbrella.

 Down at the Pile Gate buses were arriving and the crowd was building. Most were milling around waiting to be told what to do, so we pushed our way through. Inside the city it was relatively peaceful.

We made our way down to the Rector’s Palace, pleased to be well ahead of the rush. Our 70 Kuna (£8) tickets were also valid for the Maritime and Ethnographic Museums.

Outside the Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik
The Rectors were the elected governors of the Republic of Ragusa from 1370 to 1808. During this time Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was called before the 20th century) was independent, though under the ‘protection’ of first the Hungarian crown, then the Ottoman Empire and finally Habsburg Austria. In 1808 it was absorbed into Napoleon’s Illyria.

The palace, built in 1441, is now the city’s main museum and we started in a room lined with portraits of illustrious Ragusans of the past, politicians and scientists, poets and philanthropists, not to mention the rectors themselves - a full collection of the great and the good, with a leavening of the bad and the ugly.

The inner courtyard of the Rector's Palace
We worked our way past the roman artefacts, past a pair of bronze jacks – metre high figures holding large hammers who had once stood in the bell tower and struck the hour - and around a collection of chests with locks of labyrinthine complexity. Reaching the inner courtyard with its marble staircases just ahead of the first tour group we stepped briefly inside the Rector’s jail.

Lynne detained in the Rector's prison
Upstairs there were displays of furniture, costumes and sedan chairs and yet more portraits. There was also part of the head of St Blaise, the city’s patron saint, in an appropriately skull shaped reliquary. By the time we had finished we felt we had a feel for city life through the ages, and set off to find the Maritime Museum.

We knew pretty well where it was, in a nearby corner of the city wall, but although we found signs to it we were unable to find an entrance. We returned to the square outside the Rector’s Palace for a restorative espresso.

It is perhaps surprising that in a city so dedicated to tourism, the whole of a substantial city square is given over to a market, not a tourist market but a produce market selling basics like onions and potatoes – and of course chard. A few stalls sell more frivolous food items, and we bought some honeyed nuts and candied peel to take home as presents (and we kept some, too - they were excellent). There are also a few stalls selling tourist tat. I fear that in ten years time stalls selling fridge magnets and Croatian football shirts may outnumber those selling spuds and onions.

A seller of honeyed nuts and candied peel
Dubrovnik market
From the market we followed our map along the alleys on the seaward side of the city, climbing up and down stairs between tall stone houses until we reached the Ethnographical Museum, only to find it was closed on Tuesdays.

Looking over Dubrovnik from the Ethnographic Museum
The sky was darkening as we descended towards the main street, passing the small Domino Church and the house of Marin Držić. We had not heard of him, he was not mentioned in the guidebook and there was no information in English. He was, I now know, a renaissance poet and playwright not perhaps the Croatian Shakespeare, but more of a Ben Jonson.

We popped into the Serbian Orthodox Church, originally built in 1887 but recently restored. Dubrovnik never had a big Serbian population and there are even fewer now, but the church has a good collection of icons. We had plenty of time to look at them, and company to look at them with, as a sudden rainstorm cleared the streets.

After the rain we made our way back to the main drag, passing the highly regarded photographic exhibition ‘Homeland War’. After recent visits to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, The War Museum in Sarajevo and the still shattered streets of Mostar, we could not face yet another dose of man’s inhumanity to man.

Crossing the main street into the alleys on the landward side, we headed for the synagogue. After a week of mosques and churches, both catholic and orthodox, it seemed only fair.
The entrance is through an unassuming door in a narrow street. A flight of stairs leads to a ticket office and a small museum running through the history of Dubrovnik’s Jewish community, now almost extinct after war time persecution and subsequent emigration. Man’s inhumanity to man seems inescapable.

Further stairs brought us to the synagogue itself, its dark wood panelling and deep red curtains giving it a strangely cosy feel. It claims to be the second oldest synagogue in Europe, but no longer serves a community large enough to hold services. There are the inevitable ‘no photographs’ signs, but as we were alone I turned off the flash and took a couple anyway - it could do no harm, and no one would know. On the way out I noticed that the ticket office was lined with screens. CCTV cameras, it seemed, covered every corner of the synagogue. Nothing was said, so either the guardian had not noticed or did not care.

The Dubrovnik synagogue
Higher up and nearer the wall we reached the Dominican Monastery. The attraction was the monastery’s collection of pictures which included a Titian. We walked round a pleasant cloister and into the museum where Lynne was immediately attracted by the relics of saints. There was the head of St Luke, a bit of King Stephen of Hungary, St Dominic’s finger (well it is a Dominican Monastery) and assorted bones from St Damianos and St Stephen Uroš II Milutin (oh, that St Stephen). If you have no idea who most of these people were (and why should you?) click on the links and let Wikipedia lighten your darkness.

Cloister of the Dominican Monastery
Most exciting was the forearm of St Blaise. Having seen his head in the Rector’s Palace earlier I thought it might be entertaining to visit every church in Dubrovnik and see if we could collect enough parts to build our very own St Blaise. Dubrovnik’s patron saint was an Armenian bishop, physician and martyr. He was killed by being attacked with iron carding combs and is usually depicted holding such a comb. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (non-Catholics may find this link helpful), so praying for St Blaise to intercede will undoubtedly cure a sore throat and he is generally efficacious throughout the whole ENT area.

In the next room we found the forearm of Thomas Aquinas (there are bits of people all over the place) and a collection of silver and gold chalices, chargers, monstrances and other religious paraphernalia. There is also the Titian, a painting of St Blaise (who else?) posing with Mary Magdalen, Tobias and the chap who paid for the picture.

The church itself is huge with more paintings and sculptures, some ancient, some modern including a particularly impressive modern Madonna and Child in metal.

Leaving the monastery we found a restaurant lining a relative large and almost step free lateral street. Sipping complimentary vermouth, Lynne selected squid, while I chose ćevapčići (diminutive versions of the ubiquitous Bosnian variant of kofta) partly to show off my growing confidence with Balkan pronunciation.

Well fed, we set off to locate the maritime museum. After further fruitless searching I was prepared to give up, but Lynne was more determined – well, we had already paid – and suggested we ask somebody. Like most men I hate asking directions, being loathe to admit my ignorance of anything to anybody, so I let Lynne do the asking. We soon found ourselves climbing a set of stone steps cunningly hidden between two sections of wall. 

The history of Ragusan sea-faring was illustrated by navigation instruments, flags, figureheads, weapons and models of 17th, 18th and 19th century ships. We also learned about the stone quay outside the harbour where, in time of plague, foreign boats could land their cargoes without threatening the locals with any nasty foreign diseases. The quay is still in (non-plague related) use, we could see it through the window of the museum, but there were no cargo ships. It was a large exhibition and we were there a good while. When we came to leave we discovered firstly that it was raining hard, and secondly there was a second floor. On other days we might have skipped it, but not this day.

The plague quay
Dubrovnik Harbour
Upstairs there was more of the same plus a section on fishing techniques.  Twenty minutes later we peered out of a window and found that the sky had turned black, the rain was horizontal and the sea was distinctly choppy. We returned to the extensive collection of videos on medieval shipbuilding techniques. We watched several, as did a lot of other people; it is amazing how interesting such things become when the alternative is standing in the rain.

Eventually it eased off and we made our way back up the hill under the shelter of our prudent umbrella.

After a shower and a rest we dined in one of the restaurants near our hotel, but returned to the old city in the morning - we had paid for the Ethnographic Museum and we were damn well going to see it. It was interesting enough, as these things go, but I would not have walked that extra mile had we not already bought the ticket. We found a few more presents in the market then it was time to check out and take a taxi to the airport and thence home.

Thus ended our first trip to the Balkans. Dubrovnik is beautiful if a little too touristy for our taste, but we enjoyed Sarajevo and Mostar, and we may well return to this region in the not too distant future. [and we did, to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in May 2015]

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