Wars, Orphans and Orbs: Dubrovnik’s Old Town

My travel buddy for life XFE and I live in a part of Northern Virginia/Greater Washington DC area known as Old Town. It’s pretty cute. Full of cobblestone sidewalks, antique shops, and historic buildings with plaques announcing that George Washington once drank some cider on this exact location. Most of the old houses, churches and pubs were built in the 1770s, which is one of the reasons it’s the third oldest historic district in the country.

But, our Old Town is a pimply preteen compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Dubrovnik's Stradun Street in Old Town
Old Town’s Stradun Street

Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum. I don’t even know where Epidaurum is or was. I think it’s part of Greece or Rome or something, but I couldn’t say for sure. Let’s just say, shit is that old.

I had read a history of Croatia, including the sly way that the rich merchants in Dubrovnik were able to play conquerors off each other and avoid being occupied themselves. Dubrovnik stayed an independent city-state until the French came along in the early 1800s.

Funny wall decoration in Old Town, Dubrovnik
Funny wall decoration in Old Town

Despite my considerable, newly-acquired Croatian expertise, we decided to continue our custom of hiring a tour guide for the day to show us around the city. After searching around on the Interwebs a bit, I found a great new website called ToursByLocals.com. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You click on “Find a Tour” and the website gives you a whole list of local tour guides along with their qualifications, photos, expertise, prices, and recent reviews. It was totally like Match.com for tour guides.

We picked Almira as our tour guide, asked if we could have an earlier start time, and ToursByLocals handled the rest. Almira emailed us within 48 hours of our request and we were confirmed. We’ll definitely be using them again.

Our Dubrovnik guide, Almira
You can see Almira. That’s her hat on the bottom left.

The morning of our tour, we walked the 30 minutes from our hotel to Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town. Almira was right on time and very friendly. Armed with water and sun hats, we started our walking tour right outside the gate in a public square where executions took place during World War I (Italians executing Croats).

Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
“Your execution super spot since 1308”

Almira explained to us how the Epi-Greek/Roman people established their settlement on the island and named it Laus, while just across the way at the bottom of Srd Mountain, the Slavs had their own little settlement called dubrova which meant oak forest. When the channel that separated these two settlements was filled in the 12th century they were united. The main street through the Old Town is called Stradun but in Croatian, it’s known as Paca, which derives from the word for “dirt,” signifying the dirt road that was filled in to connect the two settlements.

Stradun in Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another view of the Stradun

Right inside Pile Gate, Almira showed us a map that shows you where the Old Town was damaged during what Almira and other Croats call the Homeland War, the Croatian War for Independence from Yugoslavia and an emboldened Serbia. We sat silently perusing the map while behind us vendors sold ice cream and school children ran around trying to give each other the Croatian version of cooties.

The primary evidence of the war can be seen in the rooftops. All the roofs in Old Town—which you can clearly see from the top of the city’s medieval wall walk–are made of distinctive orange terra cotta tiles. More than 70% of Croatia’s red roof tiles were destroyed during the Balkan Wars, so everywhere you look, there are new tiles interspersed with old tiles. There was quite the collection and conservation effort after the war, with nations around the world donating replacement tiles made in Toulouse, France.

View of roofs in Dubrovnik, Croatia

It was quite sad to see beautiful old medieval wars pocked with shrapnel, but it’s nothing compared to the damage seen by other cities in Croatia. In fact, it was the attacks on Dubrovnik, a much-beloved UNESCO-protected Heritage Site that finally galvanized the international community to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s enough of that. It’s all well and good to annihilate some podunk little village in the middle of nowhere, but let’s not go after a cultural and artistic center.”

Red roof tiles in Dubrovnik, Croatia
What’s that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.

After our tour, XFE and I went to the War Photo Limited museum, a two-story museum owned and operated by a photographer who had covered the Homeland War. It was very well done and a gut wrenching experience. It’s difficult to see contemporaries–people wearing similar clothes to you, using common  everyday brands that you use—and seeing them in the midst of war right in their own streets. Instead of seeing photos of brave soldiers, you saw photographs of people just trying to walk down their street and getting hit by sniper fire.

Streets of Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we walked out of the cool, dark museum and out into the sunny narrow streets of the Old Town, I had to blink away what I’d just seen. We walked quietly through the beautiful narrow streets, our sandals skimming the slippery, worn down stones that made up the streets. We stumbled across church after church, many of them featuring statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise. There are, according to Almira, 27 St. Blaise statues throughout the tiny city, including three seated figures and one in profile.

St. Blaise Church, Dubrovnik
I can’t spot it, but I’m sure there’s a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.

We walked past St. Nicholas church. Good old Saint Nick was the patron saint of fisherman, so of course he has a church in this port city. What I didn’t know is that St. Nicholas is often pictured with three gold orbs, which were a dowry he gifted to three poor sisters. He threw the first two orbs through their window, but he threw the third down the chimney, which is why he’s associated with chimneys.

We also went past a tiny window with a sort of Lazy Susan swivel that was used by noble ladies to drop off their unwanted babies in the dead of night. Apparently, Dubrovnik is also home to the oldest orphanage, which was established in the Old Town in the 1400s. In another romantic touch, according to Almira, the babies would be given a half coin piece and the mother would keep the other half. That would allow the disgraced noble woman to come back and retrieve her child someday, if her circumstances had somehow changed.

By now, we’d worked up a good appetite and were ready for a mid-day glass of white wine, so we headed to one of Almira’s recommendations for lunch, Kobun, which lies at the top of some stairs that are very similar to the Spanish Steps in Rome. After a leisurely lunch of mussels for me and monkfish for XFE, we walked past some stalls selling jewelry, including a type of necklace called a Dubrovnik button, also called Konavoske Puce. It’s like an open filigree design that’s used in necklaces and earrings. I picked one with a bit of coral, which is also very popular in this area.

Croatian mussels

It was a very pleasant and illuminating day. In the battle of the Old Towns, I’d have to give Dubrovnik a slight edge over Old Town, Alexandria. But just barely. After all, we’ve got George Washington plaques all over the place to tell us how important everything is.

Dubrovnik's farmer's market
Dubrovnik’s farmer’s market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.
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