Words by Tiana Templeman
The TV phenomenon Game of Thrones has given Dubrovnik a new claim to fame. But you don’t need to be a fan of the show to appreciate everything this compact, historic city has to offer. We arrive by cruise ship, and ensure we’re off the vessel bright and early to beat the crowds, joining one of the early morning walking tours.
Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by Roman settlers. Thanks to its location on a major sea trading route, it developed into one of the most powerful economic entities in the southern Adriatic. The wealthy republic built nearly 2000 metres of heavily fortified walls to enclose the city and spent large sums of money on architectural treasures that were safely housed inside.
We stroll through Pile Gate – the ancient city’s main entrance – as our guide explains that the moat below us was once filled with water and the drawbridge was raised every night. After passing through the historic stone gate, we walk along Dubrovnik’s central pedestrian promenade that’s nearly 300 metres long and paved with limestone.
The wide, picturesque street known as Placa was designed as a decorative thoroughfare and to provide an attractive covering for the city’s main sewer.
Dubrovnik’s sewer and water supply system, which was built in the early 1400s, was a masterpiece for its time and is still operational to this day. We put it to the test by refilling our water bottles at the octagonal Onofrio fountain – with a carved panel on each of its 16 sides, all adorned with an ornate stone head. The brass water spouts coming out of each figure’s mouth are covered in verdigris and the fountain has been worn so smooth from people sitting on its edges that it feels like glass.
This is perhaps the best thing about Dubrovnik – the extraordinary history that’s embraced as part of everyday life, not locked away in a museum. But unfortunately, history has not always been kind to this city.
When Slovenia and Croatia decided to leave the Yugoslav Federation and war broke out in the early ‘90s, no one believed the Yugoslav Army would attack a UNESCO-listed city hundreds of miles from the front line. But that’s what they did. More than 200 people died, 600 were injured and 70 per cent of the city’s historic buildings took direct hits.
These days, evidence of the damage suffered by the Old Town is almost nonexistent – thanks to an extensive and expensive restoration program. It is sobering, however, when our guide points out marble cobblestones pitted with jagged craters – caused by flying shrapnel and buildings with neat lines of small holes where they were strafed by bullets.
I try to imagine what it would be like to sit in my lounge room at home while listening to gunfire and the sounds of fighting on the
streets outside. But I can’t even begin to understand what it must have been like for the people of Dubrovnik.
After pausing to remember those who fell in the war, we walk through Luza Square. Our guide fills our heads with the sounds of vendors spruiking their wares and ancient scales clanking, as exotic spices from across the sea are weighed and measured.
“The marketplace is the heart of any city,” she explains. We are then introduced to the ‘ell’ – the Dubrovnik Republic’s ancient unit of length, measuring the distance between the fingertips and elbow of the statue of a knight on a pedestal in the middle of Luza Square.
Our tour then takes us far away from the well-worn paths mentioned in our guidebook. We venture into tiny laneways high above the city, where we glimpse local residents sitting in secluded gardens while inhaling the spicy aroma of somebody’s home-cooked lunch. At the end of the tour we slip inside the Old Pharmacy Museum, which is located inside a Franciscan monastery just off the Placa. The ancient tonics and poisons lining the shelves date all the way back to the 15th century.
This pharmacy remains the third-oldest in operation in Europe and is filled with fascinating artefacts. Original prescription books describe remedies dispensed by the Franciscan friars, many of whom were self-taught pharmacists. I purchase a bottle of rose-scented face cream made according to the friar’s original recipe. Its sweet fragrance has me thinking of Dubrovnik long after we return home.
Average Flight Time
SYD-DBV: 25 hrs
MEL-DBV: 24 hrs 50 mins
BNE-DBV: 23 hrs 25 mins
(via Abu Dhabi)
AEST - 10 hours (10 hrs behind Australia)