The Republic of Ragusa

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Croatia  ,
Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Croatian town of Dubrovnik was once the city-state of the Republic of Ragusa. Unlike most of the Croatian coastline, Dubrovnik was able to throw off Venetian domination to become a rival trading power-house. At it's peak, the Republic of Ragusa was the third largest merchant fleet in the world (or at least Europe), with hundreds of vessels, 80 consulates around the world and trade routes reaching as far as the Indian Ocean. Although not terribly impressive apart from their age, Dubrovnik claimed the third-oldest operating pharmacy and the second-oldest synagogue in Europe.

The strength of the city was it's massive walls, which had survived the years intact. I bought a ticket and an audio tour and spent two hours walking the circuit around the top of the walls in the late afternoon. With little shade, and a hot Croatia, I wouldn't recommend it at noon, but it was pleasant enough in the early evening. The audio tour was a good way to learn about the history while enjoying a bird's-eye view of the town as well as important structures in the surrounding area, and of course some of Dubrovnik's the best views of the sea.

Venice was never able to conquer it's rival, and a sizable annual tribute to the Ottoman Empire kept the city safe from land-based invasion. In the end, the Republic of Ragusa died of natural causes. A massive earthquake in 1667, with subsequent fire and looting, reduced the once mighty city to rubble. Although almost all of it was rebuilt or replaced, the city never regained it's place amongst the trading elite. It was eventually absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after which it followed the usual East Coast Adriatic story of conquest by Napoleon, return to the Empire, incorporation in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, occupation by Italy in WWII, inclusion in Yugoslavia, then Croatian independence. It's current primary enterprise appeared to be tourism.

While the city escaped serious conflict for most of its existence, it was shelled by the Yugoslav Army with the help of Montenegrin militias in 1991, during Croatia's bid for independence. When I visited, just about all of the damage has been repaired. The only obvious sign tourists were guaranteed to see was a poster placed at the main gate marking in detail every spot that was damaged during the war. As the city was a UNESCO World Heritage site, Dubrovnik received extra outside attention and funding for repairs when it was safe to rebuild.

There were some photos of the war I saw in the Rector's Palace (Knežev Dvor) Museum. They were presented in black and white. I know black and white is supposed to be more dramatic, but it made me feel like I was looking at damage from WWII. If they were color, I believe they would have had more immediate impact as an event that had taken place in my lifetime, and was probably still living in the hearts and minds the town's adult residents.

Of course, the intent could have been to distance the events from the mind of the viewer. There was certainly no cloud of past wars hanging over the tourist-packed old town. The mood was particularly lively as tonight was the first night of Dubrovnik's summer festival. A fireworks spectacular had been planned for the old town harbor. There was also a meeting of European ministers and a giant cruise ship in port adding to the commotion.

Apart from the walls, Dubrovnik was dotted with little museums, monasteries, and of course all of it contained the original Renaissance architecture (or restored versions of it). The city had a strict building code even in previous days. After a serious fire early in the town's history, only stone structures were allowed to be built within the town walls. Like a modern day neighborhood association, there were also codes about blocking the access to sun and breeze of neighboring houses. Even during previous reconstructions, such as the period following the 1667 earthquake, steps were taken to recreate the original buildings as closely as possible.

Although this ethic of adherence to older architectural forms was impressive, by and large, the result was fairly uniform, blocky buildings. Apart from the usual suspects, religious and civil buildings, there was not a lot of interesting architecture. Compared to Split, the walls were far more impressive, but the buildings within those walls, far less.

There were a few interesting church features I hadn't seen before. In the Franciscan Monastery (Franjevački Samostan) marble columns on the main altar twisted in a snake-like form, rather than taking the typical straight shape of columns in most Baroque altars. Another church, the Church of St Ignatius (Crkva sv Ignacija), had a grotto for one of the altars. The original was one of the oldest built in Europe, dating from 1885. In this grotto-type altar, a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes sat back in an area constructed to resemble a cave, but surrounded by flowers. Closer to the viewer, a woman knelt in veneration.

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