Pearl of the Adriatic

19:49, Oct 28 2012
dubrovnik belfry
VISTA: A church belfry rises above the roofs of Dubrovnik.

Can you trust the opinion of a man described famously as ''mad, bad and dangerous to know''?

Possibly not if one was planning to lend him money or was considering a romantic dalliance with him.

However, on the subject of Dubrovnik on Croatia's Adriatic coastline, Lord Byron, who in more ways than one got about a bit, got it exactly right.

dubrovnik stradun
THE STRADUN: Dubrovnik's marble-paved main street was once a channel separating the original island town from the mainland.

Byron, one of the greatest poets in the English language, described Dubrovnik as ''the pearl of the Adriatic''. Byron, who was famed not only for his poetry but his financial excesses and scandalous personal life, died in 1824, so it's probably fair to say that he was fortunate to see Dubrovnik before the ravages of 20th-century conflict and mass tourism struck.

However, despite the impact of both war and, rather ironically, peace-time visitors, Dubrovnik is still one of the most captivating cities in Europe.

Most visitors today get their first glimpse of Dubrovnik from the land side, but for most of the five centuries that Dubrovnik was an independent city state, most visitors arrived across the vividly blue Adriatic Sea.

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dubrovnik wall
SOLID PROTECTION: Dubrovnik's city walls stretch for nearly two kilometres and, together with bastions, forts and towers, form a sophisticated defence system.

Imagine for a moment being on a small sailing vessel approaching the dramatic coastline of what is now Croatia, with its barren limestone mountains rising up almost vertically from the sea.

The waters are studded with islands and the coast is a maze of peninsulas, coves and tiny harbours.

But then ahead comes into view what even several hundred years ago, when the Mediterranean was ringed with walled cities, would have been some of the most imposing and impressive ramparts in the region.

dubrovnik harbour
INLET: Dubrovnik's old harbour as viewed from the medieval city walls.

Dubrovnik is encircled with nearly two kilometres of stone ramparts, in places up to four to six metres thick and up to 25 metres high.

Along its length are bastions, towers, forts and fortresses.

Most of the fortifications were constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries.

dubrovnik coast
BREATHTAKING: Dubrovnik, on the Croatian coast.

Such massive protective works were definitely necessary, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries, for by then Dubrovnik was one of the wealthiest city states in the Mediterranean.

Sea trade was its lifeblood, but those same seas also constantly posed a threat of invasion by rival powers.

Ironically, some of the worst damage to be inflicted on Dubrovnik occurred not through attack from the sea but, first, as the result of a devastating earthquake in 1667 and, much more recently, an assault from the land side less than 20 years ago.

After the breakup of the former socialist nation of Yugoslavia, much of the Balkans was plunged into war.

Although Dubrovnik was by then listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, it was attacked by rebel Serbs, volunteers from neighbouring Montenegro and the Yugoslavian Army in 1991-1992.

The Siege of Dubrovnik lasted seven months, leaving more than 100 residents dead and resulting in damage to more than half the city's historic buildings, including the walls).

Today, at first glance the damage caused by these attacks (the funicular station high on the hills above the city was a convenient base for the Serbs) is hard to spot.

However, the tell-tale signs as one walks around the walls are the colour of the roof tiles. More than 50 per cent of the city's roofs needed repair, but sadly the local source of the roof tiles had long since closed. Restorers had to bring in tiles from Slovenia and Italy, which although of the right size and shape, were a different colour. The patchwork of new and old is clear to see.

However, no doubt the passage of time will weather the bright orange tiles and the battle scars will become just part of the city's centuries-old history of power struggles, takeovers and skirmishes.

The walk around Dubrovnik's walls can take several hours, depending on how many photographic stops one succumbs to. It's hard to resist the combination of the pale limestone walls, terracotta roofs and blue Adriatic Sea.

There are wonderful views across the city itself and the sea that surrounds the city on three sides. Dubrovnik, when it was first established in the seventh century, was a small island. It was linked to the mainland in the 11th century, when the narrow channel between the two was filled in. This channel is now the town's main street, or Stradun.

Dubrovnik is now firmly on the cruise-ship itinerary, which means in the mornings especially the Stradun is a sea of humanity.

While the walls are not on most cruise-ship visitors' itinerary (some have only a few hours to visit Dubrovnik) and are thus a haven from the crowds, eventually one has to dive into the throngs to appreciate the beauty of the city from ground level.

It's an almost overwhelming collection of Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic architectural masterpieces - palaces, churches, monasteries and fountains. You just have to get past the crowds.

Yet, as often is the case, it's only a matter of moving one block away from the main arteries to find semi-deserted alleyways and quiet courtyards. Sadly, one of the most interesting buildings is on everyone's list of things to see, so the chances of finding oneself alone in the Franciscan Monastery, parts of which date back to the 13th century, are slim.

The monastery is famed for its pharmacy, which has been functioning continuously since 1317.

The pharmacy museum features mortars, jars and laboratory equipment in use from the 14th century.

The current pharmacy is on the opposite side of the cloister and carries on dispensing among the hordes of visitors. Sometimes, however, the staff's patience wears thin: when one of my party tried to photograph the interior through a window opening, into the cloister it was slammed shut.

In the centre of the cloister is a garden where the monks once grew medicinal herbs. The original 15th-century well still stands in the centre.

Also firmly on the tourist trail is the Rector's Palace, which was built in the 15th century.

Dubrovnik was famous for its democratic system of government. Each ruler or rector, as he was known, was appointed only for a month. He had to move into the palace without his family and was forbidden to leave for anything other than official duties for the entire month. As a further reminder of his duty to serve the people, there's an inscription carved above one of the doors of the palace which translated says: ''Forget personal worries, worry about public matters''.

When the crowds get too much, find a streetside cafe/bar, order a drink, watch the passing parade and letthe surroundings sink in.

Dubrovnik's church bells struck the hour while I was doing this, ringing out just as they have for centuries. If I had been battling through the crowds, guidebook clutched in sweaty hands, I might not have noticed.

I suspect Lord Byron would have been of a similar persuasion, but he might not be the best role model.

The Timaru Herald