Travel/Croatia: A living history lesson

Travel/Croatia: A living history lesson

By VIVIENNE MACKIE

Dubrovnik's nickname is the "Pearl of the Adriatic," an apt and justified moniker for the Croatian city.

The Old Town, with thick medieval walls, juts into the sea. Inside the ramparts, the pedestrian-only Old Town is a jumble of narrow, steep alleys leading up from the seafront and quiet cobbled lanes.

The main promenade (the Stradun) runs through it, roughly west to east from the Pile Gate to the Old Port, and the steepest lanes lead north off it, to the top walls and the Buza Gate. A third gate, the Ploce Gate, is roughly on the northeast corner of the city.

On the ground, it's hard to realize that there is actually a street plan — especially as you toil up a really steep, stepped lane — but when you take the cable car to the top of Mount Srd behind the city and look down, the almost-grid layout is very obvious.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Dubrovnik was a major maritime power that rivaled Venice and had the third-biggest navy in the Mediterranean — the time of its Golden Age.

Busy merchants, the salt trade and ship building made the city rich, and many of the buildings we see today still hint at this wealth.

In 1667, an earthquake destroyed much of the city, but a few convents, monasteries and palaces survived. The rest of the city was rebuilt in Baroque style, and wandering around the Old Town feels like being in living history.

The city was badly damaged again in the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992 as Croatia separated from Yugoslavia, but again the citizens rebuilt and repaired their city in its original form as much as possible. The biggest reminder of this war is all the new, bright-orange roof tiles.

Today, Dubrovnik is definitely a tourist mecca and can often feel over-run with visitors, especially when multiple cruise ships dock. But, it is still a gorgeous city and well worth a visit. In fact, staying for a few (or more) days and wandering in the evenings when the cruise ships have left gives a chance to get a better feeling for the charm of the city.

One of the best attractions in Dubrovnik, and definitely the best way to get your bearings, is walking along the city walls (Gradske Zidine). There will be crowds of people and it will be horribly hot in the summer season, but it's still worth doing.

Pick up a map at the tourist office first and arm yourself with a hat, good walking shoes and plenty of water. There are three entry points for the walls: one at the Ploce Gate near the Dominican Monastery, one just inside the Pile Gate and the third near St John's Fort, which overlooks the Old Port (near the Maritime Museum).

Whichever one you use, all people must walk the walls in a counter-clockwise direction. Once on the wall, you cannot leave and come back, so plan to do the whole loop, which is roughly a mile and a quarter.

We started early one morning at 8 to try and beat the heat and entered at the Pile Gate, which was close to our hotel rooms. The Pile Gate entrance has a ticket office just inside the walls before you climb the steep steps.

It cost us 100 kuna (about $15) each, which also gave us entrance to the Fort of St. Lawrence on the other side of the small bay beyond Pile Gate (which is valid for the same day only). We ambled slowly, stopped frequently to take photos and to marvel at the view and also stopped twice at a couple of the cafes/rest areas for a long cool fruit juice (can also use the bathrooms), so it took us until about 11 to finish the circuit.

Strolling along the top of the walls gives amazing views of the whole city from different angles. For a lot of the time, you have steep cliffs and the sea on one side and a maze of orange roofs on the other. As mentioned earlier, many buildings were badly damaged during the 1991-1992 siege, and the rooftops had to be replaced. The bright orange tiles are the newer ones, but some buildings salvaged the old tiles. In some parts of the city, there are still ruined houses. Use the map to pick out different landmarks, which are like a guide to the city's history.

The walk on the walls is quite wide and is very steep in places, requiring climbing up and down many steps. There have been walls here basically since the city was founded. Like so many other fortifications on the Croatian Coast, these walls were strengthened in the 15th century when the Ottoman navy started threatening.

Several substantial forts with guard towers are dotted around the perimeter, with rounded walls so that canon balls would glance off them without causing too much damage. These forts also kept out potential invaders during the Republic of Dubrovnik's Golden Age and also protected the residents during the horrific 1991-1992 siege by Yugoslav forces.

Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana resident, is an ESL teacher and freelance travel writer. Her visit to Croatia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia was a highlight of all her travels. See her blog at http://viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

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