Dubrovnik: A Medieval Museum

Dubrovnik had a very different vibe and look compared to all the other coastal Croatian cities that we had been to, whether in Istria or in Dalmatia. A big reason for that undoubtedly were the formidable city walls, but even then, the architecture of the buildings looked different and there was an air of opulence and grandeur about the city. This, we came to know later, was because all those other coastal cities had been ruled by the Venetian Republic for a few centuries due to which Venetian influence was prevalent in architecture. Dubrovnik, on the other hand, was itself a very powerful and wealthy maritime republic with its strength, for a couple of centuries, rivalling even that of the mighty Republic of Venice. Dubrovnik’s main source of prosperity was maritime trade, and as Indians, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Dubrovnik had a flourishing trade relationship with Goa in the 16th century and it had even established a trading colony in Goa.

Dubrovnik has also suffered its fair share of misfortunes. The golden age of the republic was abruptly brought to an end in 1667 by a massive earthquake that destroyed the majority of the city’s buildings. Almost three centuries later, in 1991, Dubrovnik again suffered substantial damage due to the heavy shelling during the Croatian War for Independence. Each time it recovered, and today the city, which was accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1979, resembles an open-air medieval museum that reminds the visitors of its glorious past.    

STRADUN

We had spent the morning of our second day in Dubrovnik walking the city’s walls and followed it up with a short visit to Fort Lovrijenac post which it was time to explore the city itself. Every tour of the walled city starts from Stradun, the main street that runs between the two entrances of the city. This street was originally a marsh between a rocky island and the mainland on which two separate settlements developed. The marsh was filled up in the 13th century and the two settlements combined to form Dubrovnik. Today, Stradun is the core of the walled city and is lined with homogenous medieval houses, churches, monasteries, museums, shops, cafes and numerous landmarks.

Stradun – Dubrovnik’s main street

The first of those landmarks was the Big Onofrio’s Fountain with its distinctive large dome and 16 taps on 16 sides. Built in 1438, this fountain was part of the city’s water supply system that originated near a river 12 km away. The fountain’s little sibling, Small Onofrio’s Fountain, was located at the other end of Stradun.

Big Onofrio’s Fountain
Small Onofrio’s Fountain

Just across the street from the Big Onofrio’s Fountain was the St. Saviour Church dating from 1528. It was the only building at this end of Stradun to survive the 1667 earthquake. Adjacent to this small church was the famous Franciscan Monastery and Church which was established in 1317 but rebuilt after being completely destroyed in the earthquake. The only remaining part of the original structure was a portal and a wonderful sculpture of pieta showing Virgin Mary holding her dead son Jesus on her lap. The most interesting part of the monastery was a pharmacy which has continuously been in service since 1317 making it the oldest active pharmacy in Europe. Original items from the pharmacy, along with books, paintings, relics and other artefacts were exhibited in a small museum. In the centre of the monastery was a beautiful cloister decorated with columns and frescoes.

St. Saviour Church followed by Franciscan Monastery
Pieta showing Virgin Mary holding her dead son Jesus on her lap
Interior of Franciscan Church
Cloister of Franciscan Monastery

EXPLORING THE INTERIOR

After exiting the Franciscan Monastery, we took a right turn from Stradun to go deeper into the heart of the city. Compared to Stradun which was bustling with tourists, the inner city, full of narrow alleys and staircases sandwiched between buildings, was much quieter and oozed old-world charm. Soon we arrived at the next point of our tour – Marin Držić House. As the name suggests, this was where Marin Držić, one of Croatia’s literary greats especially renowned for his comedy plays, lived in the mid-16th century. The house, which has been converted into a museum, contained exhibits related to the writer’s life and plays.

Bust of Marin Držić
Marin Držić’s bedroom and study

A short distance away from Marin Držić House was the much larger and more interesting Ethnographic Museum. This museum was housed in one of the most important buildings in Dubrovnik Republic – a granary constructed in 1590. The museum gave a glimpse into the local life with the help of costumes, textiles, utensils, pottery, photographs and agricultural tools and equipment.

Various artefacts in the Ethnographic Museum

Pictures in the Ethnographic Museum explaining the process of making olive oil

One of the most prominent landmarks of Dubrovnik is Jesuit Staircase which was built in 1738 and modelled after the world-famous Spanish Steps of Rome. The staircase led us to a small square which was dominated by the grand Church of St. Ignatius dating from 1725. We had read that there were some magnificent frescoes inside the church but we avoided going inside as a wedding was taking place in the church. The day must have been pretty auspicious because we came across two other weddings while strolling around Dubrovnik. Right next to the church was the slightly dilapidated building of the esteemed Jesuit College.

Jesuit Staircase
Church of St. Ignatius
A wedding in the Church of St. Ignatius
Building of Jesuit College

Our next stop was the iconic Dubrovnik Cathedral. It seems that this spot has been reserved for churches since many centuries as excavations under the cathedral have found evidence of a church from the 6th century and another from the 12th century which was destroyed in the earthquake. The construction of the current cathedral began soon after the earthquake and finished in 1713. Befitting its stature, the cathedral was majestic from outside, graceful from inside and contained some stunning pieces of art. One of those, a painting above the main altar, was the work of the master Italian painter Titian.

Dubrovnik Cathedral
Main altar of the cathedral and Titian’s painting above it
The stunning marble altar of Saint John of Nepomuk

Located just a few steps away from the cathedral was the most important building of the Republic of Dubrovnik – Rector’s Palace. The palace served as the residence and office of the rector who was the elected head of the government. Many must have enjoyed the comforts of this palace since the term of the rector was limited to just 1 month. Since its construction in the 12th century, the palace has been rebuilt and repaired numerous times after getting damaged by gunpowder explosions and the earthquake. Thus, it is a striking combination of various architectural styles. The palace housed the Cultural and Historical Museum and showcased some amazing exhibits that included sculptures, paintings, furniture, utensils, costumes, coins and weapons. On the first floor were the quarters of the rector which had been beautifully decorated to recreate the medieval era. Away from this opulence, there was also a dark and cramped prison where prisoners were forced to spend years in poor conditions. Overall, this museum was the best among all the museums we had visited in Dubrovnik.

Rector’s Palace
The ground floor atrium of Rector’s Palace
This handrail in the palace is one of the most ingenious we have ever seen
The first floor of Rector’s palace
Paintings in Cultural and Historical Museum housed inside Rector’s Palace

A small gate by the side of the palace led us to the old city port which was the source of all trade, and consequently, the wealth of the Dubrovnik Republic. The large Arsenal building, distinctive because of its three arches, was a shipyard used for the construction and repair of famed Dubrovnik galleons.

Old city port and Arsenal building with three arches
View from the old city port

We returned to the walled city via the same gate and walked towards the Stradun. On the way, we passed a large building which was the site of the City Hall and Marin Držić Theatre.

City Hall and Marin Držić Theatre

BACK TO STRADUN

After spending almost 2.5 hours exploring the inner city we were back at Stradun, but this time opposite to the end from where we had started. This end of Stradun terminated with a square called Luža which was surrounded by many important buildings and landmarks. The most notable among them was the Dubrovnik Bell tower. This soaring bell tower, which also had an elegant clock, was first constructed in 1444 but demolished and rebuilt in 1929. The most fascinating aspect of the bell tower was Maro and Baro – two green-coloured bronze statues that strike the original two-tonne bell with their hammers. After the tower’s reconstruction, the original Maro and Baro were shifted to the Rector’s Palace and their replicas have since been tasked with ringing the bell.

Dubrovnik Bell tower
Replica Maro and Baro in the bell tower
Original Maro and Baro in Rector’s Palace

To the left of the bell tower was the Sponza Palace which served as a customs office, state mint, state treasury and bank over the centuries and today houses the Dubrovnik archives containing thousands of documents. The palace, built from 1516-1522, was one of the very few buildings that withstood the 1667 earthquake and thus, it can be seen in its original form.

Sponza Palace

In the centre of the Luža square stood Orlando’s Column portraying the image of the knight Orlando who, according to legends, embodies bravery and freedom. In the medieval times, this was the spot where public announcements were made and punishments were dished out. Interestingly, Orlando’s right forearm was used as an official measure of length during the times of the Dubrovnik Republic. 

Orlando’s Column

CHURCH OF ST. BLAISE

The spectacular Church of St. Blaise was one of the buildings that encircled the Luža square but we have mentioned it in a separate section because of its importance which, symbolically, surpasses even that of the Dubrovnik Cathedral. The reason behind this is that St. Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik and he is so revered that his statues, often holding a model of the city, are found on the facades of almost all the important buildings and gates of the city.

St. Blaise looking over the town from the top of the church

This church also has a special connection with India. As we mentioned in the beginning, the traders of Dubrovnik had established a trading colony in Goa. In this colony, they built a Church of St. Blaise in 1563 which was a replica of Dubrovnik’s church. Even the bell for the church in Goa came from Dubrovnik. In 1706, the original Church of St. Blaise in Dubrovnik was destroyed completely by a terrible fire. It was rebuilt in a different style in 1715 but the replica church in Goa still stands and is a testament to how the original church in Dubrovnik looked.

The highlights of the church’s interior were the ornate main altar and some incredible stained glass windows.

Main altar of Church of St. Blaise

On emerging from the church, we saw that a crowd of girls and women had gathered in the Luža Square, and before we could comprehend anything, they started dancing acrobatically.

It was a Zumba session!!

In front of a 300-year-old church!!   

In the centre of one of the finest medieval cities in the world!!

Well, now we could honestly say that we had seen everything in Croatia. The Zumba certainly enlivened the place with some tourists also joining the event.

Zumba session in the Luža Square

We enjoyed the atmosphere for a while, and then as our last act we left Stradun and reached St. Dominic Street where we walked past the 14th century Dominican Monastery and finally exited the city bringing an end to an exhausting but enthralling day.

Dominican Monastery seen from the walls earlier in the day
Stairs in front of the Dominican Monastery

ONE LAST LOOK

In the night, we somehow again gathered strength and went back to the walled city for some night shots. The city, devoid of tourists at this time and lit up with yellow lights, looked magical.

Stradun
Church of St. Blaise
Rector’s Palace
Old city port and Arsenal
Jesuit Staircase
Church of St. Ignatius
One last look at Dubrovnik

Next morning we left our apartment at 11 a.m. and took a cab to the thoroughly unimpressive Dubrovnik airport. At 3 in the afternoon as our flight took off, we bade farewell to amazing Croatia that had given us memories for a lifetime.

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