Treasures of Dubrovnik
Note: Wanderlust editor in chief Don George recently published the first collection of his own travel stories and essays, The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. The collection presents 35 pieces, set in 24 countries, from 40 years of world-wandering. The story below, reprinted from the book, describes a particularly poignant encounter with a resident of Dubrovnik in the fall of 2000, one of those unexpected meetings that become one of our most precious souvenirs.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Dubrovnik in the fall of 2000. On the one hand, I knew that the city had long been considered the jewel of the Adriatic and was a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the other hand, I had heard that it had been largely destroyed by bombs in the early 1990s. Was I going to find rubble or restoration?
Happily, the answer was the latter. While 68 percent of Old Dubrovnik’s 824 buildings were hit by bombs in an eight-month siege during the Yugoslavian civil war—leaving holes in two out of every three tiled roofs—the damage is hardly noticeable now. Most of the buildings have been meticulously repaired. And the old walled city is again truly an extraordinary jewel.
But the tale of Dubrovnik does not have an unambiguously happy ending. While the city itself has been largely rebuilt, the tourism on which the city depends has not been restored. And in this sense, the damage done by the shelling remains.
I happened to arrive on All Saints’ Day, 30 October, and people were walking through the streets with armfuls of flowers to be laid at their ancestors’ graves. This seemed a particularly appropriate introduction to a place where the past is such a powerful presence.
I signed up for a guided tour, which began with a bus trip to the outskirts above the city. From that vantage, Dubrovnik’s Old Town seemed an exquisite labyrinth of honey-tinted stone buildings with terra-cotta roof tiles of red and orange, preserved within thick stone walls. It was an astonishing, almost fairy tale sight.
Then we walked through those gates, and the tale darkened. One of the first sights greeting visitors to the Old Town is a map that shows the damage done by bombs and grenades from October 1991 to May 1992. It is thick with black dots and triangles. “The worst day of the siege,” the woman leading my group said, “was 12 December, 1991. On the day, 600 shells fell on the city.” Six hundred shells.
“See up there?” she continued, pointing to a green hill within easy eyesight of the town, not far from where our bus had stopped. “That’s where the guns were set. For months and months they just kept sending bombs onto the town. In all, 200 people in Dubrovnik were killed during this time.” Nine years later, her voice still quavered.
This woman—I’ll call her T—proved a passionate guide to Dubrovnik past and present. She explained how, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Dubrovnik had been a commercial and cultural center that rivaled Venice. Extraordinary treasures had been created and collected here; merchants from afar passed through and marveled at its splendors. Ships were sent to Syria, Egypt, France, and Spain.
The city’s fall from these heights began in 1667, when an earthquake devastated the area. But despite that destruction, T said, the plan of the city itself is little changed from the Middle Ages. She pointed like a proud parent to the geometric precision of the city: the six-foot-wide alleys that rise off the main street; the steep stairways between age-blackened stone facades and freshly painted wooden shutters; the strings of bright laundry festooned against the sky.
On one side street a shopkeeper was hastily stringing up an American flag. “This flag is to welcome the sailors from the USS George Washington,” T said. “We are so grateful to the US Navy for stopping here. The sailors are good visitors; they enjoy our town and spend money. We need more tourists!”
Later in the tour, she said that about 50,000 people live in greater Dubrovnik, but that in the Old City itself, there are only about 4,000 people. “I couldn’t live here!” she said. “Everyone knows everything—where you went last weekend, what you’re having for dinner, what you and your husband are fighting about.”
The treasures of the town came to life through her descriptions—the beautifully detailed Franciscan monastery complex, and its 13th-century pharmacy, the third oldest pharmacy in Europe, where people still line up to get their medicines prepared; the 15th-century Onofrio Fountain, whose water is still drinkable; the 15th-century synagogue, the second oldest in Europe; and the 17th-century Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. The treasury here houses Dubrovnik’s most precious works, T said, leading us into a room filled with a giddying array of golden artifacts. In the old days, she added, this room was impenetrable to foreign invaders; to open its doorway, three keys had to be used simultaneously.
We walked on for a couple of hours, past so many architectural and artistic glories that I began to feel almost drunk. The ancient walls of the city seemed like a jewel box, and the buildings, streets, and artworks its gems.
But it was T herself who made the most lasting impression on me. She was probably in her mid-forties—though her sculpted face seemed older—with graying golden hair covered with a silk scarf. “We are poor,” she said at one point, “but we are proud.” And I noticed then how the hems of her meticulous suit were frayed and how the scuffed sides of her fashionable boots had been rigorously shined.
When our tour ended, I asked if I could buy her a drink and she sank wearily into a chair at the Café Festival.
She told me about her children and her husband, about her efforts to make ends meet—growing their own vegetables and fruit, sewing their own clothes, guiding when the tourists were in town. She told me how difficult it was to cope with the ravages of the war, how it had changed the atmosphere throughout the region. “Now the borders are open,” she said with a sigh, “but it’s not easy to get together again as neighbors after the war.”
And she told me how it had changed the atmosphere within Dubrovnik itself. “I am tired of so much gloominess!” she exclaimed. “Before the war, everyone was so happy. There was music and dancing in the streets every night. And such laughter! We had the Mediterranean spirit. But now—bah!—everyone is so gloomy. I am tired of the complaining! We need to move on, you know?”
I pictured how her life might have been before the war: lifting a glass of wine in a café, dancing on the cobbled streets. She was laughing, and the ancient buildings of Dubrovnik were glittering.
When I looked at her again, she was staring at me. “Our women are famous for being very beautiful—perhaps you have noticed?” she said, and smiled. And for a moment the spirit of Old Dubrovnik shone again in her eyes.
It is easy for us as travelers to take from the world. We go somewhere and we eat feasts, visit monuments and museums, snap pictures, meet people. Over and over, we replenish ourselves. The challenge, often, is to figure out how to give back to the places that nourish us. But in the case of Dubrovnik, this challenge is easily answered. Just go there. Do it as an homage to the treasures of the past. Do it as a testament to the idiocy of war and the resilience of the human spirit. And do it as a tribute to wonderful people like T, who deserve so much more—and who offer so much in return.
Reprinted with permission from The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. Copyright 2015 by Don George. Published by Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House, Inc.
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