We were relieved to find that despite a gloomy weather forecast on Croatian breakfast TV the sun was shining again because there was much more of Dubrovnik yet to see so after an excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel we caught the bus once again into the city.
The streets were busy this morning and the bus quickly filled up as it crawled through the early morning traffic competing with local people going to work and a procession of taxis ferrying people from the cruise ships in the harbour making their way like us to the old town. Even though it was early it was already heaving and we had to negotiate crowds of people as we entered the city walls for the second time.
The medieval city of Dubrovnik was founded in late antiquity and grew first under Byzantine and then later under Venetian rule before becoming an independent republic in 1358. It developed into an important maritime and trading power that rivalled the Venetian Republic and reached its zenith in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It even managed to keep its political independence under Ottoman rule, which began in 1526, but it was sacked in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, and lost its status as a city-state two years later. It came under French rule and was ceded to Austria in 1815. A century later, it became part of Yugoslavia.
First we walked along the polished white paving stones of the main street occasionally taking detours into intriguing little side streets and mysterious alleys. We admired the reconstructed Rector’s House and the Cathedral, wandered through a street market and then to some of the quieter little streets underneath the walls that we had walked yesterday.
The old city dates from the thirteenth century, when the imposing fortifications began to be built and the elegance and charm of the historic centre is a perfect blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Not surprisingly the place had an Italianate feel with pizzerias and waiters pestering for business in that unique Italian sort of way but we didn’t mind this and just politely said no thank you in an English sort of way and walked on.
About mid morning we visited the Rector’s House museum which had a few rooms with interesting exhibits, a dungeon and a shop and although we thought we had bought a multi-visit ticket we were disappointed to find that we hadn’t when we tried later to use it to enter the maritime museum, and despite my perfectly reasonable request, there was no chance to upgrade it after the initial purchase and error. So we didn’t see the maritime museum!
By the time we had walked underneath the walls of St John’s Tower and into the old harbour I was beginning to understand why in 1929 George Bernard Shaw described Dubrovnik as ‘Paradise on Earth’ and I was sure already that it was a place that deserved to go into my top ten of must see places.
This nearly wasn’t possible of course because during the war of independence Dubrovnik was attacked by the Serbian-Montenegrin army and besieged for six months during which time about two thousand shells rained down on the walled city, damaging seventy percent of its buildings and two-thirds of its famous red roofs. Dubrovnik’s ancient heritage was threatened with destruction and we stopped to look at a plaque within the central streets that showed all of the major strikes on public buildings and churches, cobbled streets made of Dalmatian stone and irreplaceable statues and monuments.
Europe and the World watched most of the dreadful events of the Yugoslavian wars on television screens but took no action but for the west at least the destruction of Dubrovnik overstepped the mark and brought pressure on the warring factions to stop. It was almost as though the World was prepared to watch ethnic cleansing, death and destruction in cities with names that meant little to them but when a UNESCO World Heritage Site was attacked and a city that was seen to belong to the World and not a single place, collectively they said ‘enough is enough – STOP RIGHT NOW!’
At the beginning of the bombardment, the city was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger and quickly after it was over UNESCO launched an action plan to save Dubrovnik and the reconstruction work began. To rebuild the roofs the original sixteenth century rafters had to be strengthened and almost half a million tiles had to be replaced. The original tiles had been made in the village of Kupari, about fifteen kilometres from the city, and dated from the time of the Dubrovnik republic but the workshops had been closed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and specialists faced the task of finding a kind of tile which could as far as possible be made using the original materials and methods of construction. Eventually French and Croatian specialists managed to recreate the original technique and the famous roof line was perfectly restored.
The cost of the restoration was estimated at $20 for the old city within the walls and $30 million for the urban area as a whole. Much of the funding came from the new Croatian government and the Dubrovnik Reconstruction Office but also with aid from private Croatian sources and from UNESCO itself. Croatian and international teams of architects, sculptors, restorers and other experts managed to complete the bulk of the work within seven years and in December 1998 Dubrovnik was taken off of the danger list.