Monday, September 16, 2013

A Thousand Year Story: From Ragusa to Byron's "Pearl"

It's been a hectic two days here in Dubrovnik.

For starters, I finally met my fellow Americans and my roommate. They're a great bunch to be around, and I really look forward to spending the next few months getting to know them and hanging out. On Saturday we were introduced to DIU properly. DIU is located in the historic Dominican Monastery, just inside the east (Ploce) Gate to the Old Town. It has a fantastic inner courtyard, or cloister, where the monks would go for a peaceful escape from their day to day tasks. Beautiful flowers, trees (including a grapefruit tree, complete with fruit) and white limestone walls with a well made it quite inviting. The monastery we're in right now is not the original-unfortunately that was destroyed in a 17th Century earthquake. Further, the Ploce Gate and the accompanying military fortress on that side was built to protect the new monastery from attack and to prevent attackers from using the monastery roof as a way onto the city walls. As a professor explained, the Dominicans housed a massive number of manuscripts and medieval books in their library, which is still famous for it's collections.

For now, that's all I have on the monastery, which is really only a small (but nonetheless important) part of the city. If you exit the monastery and walk south, eventually you'll pass under the original city gate and enter the main square of the Stradun, or essentially Main Street in Dubrovnik. Just off the square is the famous Sponza Palace, where an important merchant family held lived and conducted business, specializing in the sale of sponges (hence the name Sponza, a derivative of Italian). Within the Palace's walls is what I would call a "Hall of Heroes," a small museum of the 1991-1992 siege of Dubrovnik by Serbian/Montenegrin forces during the Balkan Wars. Adorning the walls are the names and photos of the over 200 locals who died defending their homes while a slideshow plays on the small TV in the corner showing the pictures of the fires and destruction of this beautiful city. It's sobering to think that this was less than twenty years ago, and the only reason that Dubrovnik was not turned to ash was its status as a UNESCO World-Heritage Site. The Ploce Gate fortress played host to the several thousand locals seeking refuge there, and the city suffered  withering fire from the mountains above the city. To think that in this day and age that women and children would have to endure siege is not only tragic but shows how little we humans have changed in over three thousand years of civilization.

On the other end of the square stands the beautiful Baroque Church of St. Blais, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. Designed by an Italian architect whose name escapes me at this time, the interior is beyond description. Though relatively quaint compared to the massive cathedrals of Russia that I visited last year, it nonetheless shares their majestic splendor and sense of holiness, that this is a space not meant for man, but for God. Beautiful Baroque paintings make up the altarpiece, while vibrant stained glass windows play a tapestry of color on the floor of the church. Unfortunately I did not stay long in the Church, as a Mass was going on and I did not want to disturb the worshipers. I will post the pictures I got at a later time.

After our introduction to DIU, we met up with our tour guide, Dijana, for a walking tour of the city. Let me just say that if the Dos Equis man is the Most Interesting Man in the World, then Dijana is most certainly the Most Interesting Woman. She endured the siege, joined up with the infant Croatian Army, smuggled weapons into the city to aid the defense, and ended up becoming a high-level subordinate of the Southern District Commander. Later, she worked on a Caribbean cruise ship as a dealer in the on-ship casino. She now gives tours in her home city and in the surrounding countries and areas. Yesterday, she took our group on a tour of neighboring Lokrum Island, a paradise if there ever was one. She nearly walked our legs off, marching us up a 45-degree incline to see a spot seen on the show Game of Thrones. She then took us down to see the rest of the Island, which has its own fascinating history involving Benedictine monks, a medieval curse, Habsburg emperors, and even Richard the Lionheart (more on that later). Lush botanical gardens and peacocks were common sights around the island, as are stunning cliffs fifty feet above crystalline blue seas, which (go figure) we spent a LOT of time in. Back to the city tour: she showed us various sites around the city, including one of the first (if not THE first) state-run orphanage in the world, one of the first public pharmacies in the West (which still functions as such today), and the Franciscan monastery. Then we climbed the walls.

The views from the walls are beyond description. The walls were specially designed by an Italian engineer to reflect cannonballs and feature various gate houses and formidable keeps at the corners. Simply put, as I discussed with an API coordinator, the city walls are nigh impregnable: they can't be assaulted from the mainland, as during the Middle Ages there were no modern roads lining the slopes, thus making moving troops almost impossible for all but the most determined attackers. Further, the local trees, save for the oaks, aren't suitable for making siege engines. The best bet for an attacker was, as the Venetians tried, to assault from the sea. But the various keeps and sea-side fortifications, not to mention the sheer cliffs that the city is built upon, made this a very risky endeavor, as did the well-armed and trained city militia. (Fun fact: never in its history did Dubrovnik or its Medieval incarnation, the Republic of Ragusa, have a standing army; instead, it relied on the citizen guards and local militias to come to man the walls in case of threat).

Some of you may be asking, so what? What makes Dubrovnik so important anyway? Why should we care? I can cite one reason: The Republic of Dubrovnik was the FIRST SOVEREIGN STATE to recognize the United States of America as an independent nation. Further, as mentioned before, Dubrovnik never had a standing army, nor did it need one. Amazing as it may seem, Dubrovnik was never conquered and remained independent from its birth in the 7th Century to the 1800s, when in 1812 Napoleon tricked the City Rectors into giving in to his army. Needless to say, they desecrated the Pearl of the Adriatic and when they left they took what they could and gave nothing back. Dubrovnik was independent for over a thousand years, relying not on military force but on its merchant wealth, its veritable army of spies all over Europe and the Middle East, and its diplomatic expertise. Ragusan merchants and envoys were known and respected all over the Old World, with its trade ships spanning the globe selling the city's beautiful coral, salt, and gold crafts, as well as their local wines, fruits, and timber. It is very much an important city in European history, and (I'm not joking very much when I say this) very much a city of "firsts." It's a very, very beautiful city, and a perfect place for those who prefer the "Laid-back" kind of life (note: THIS DOES NOT MEAN "LAZY"-Looking at you, Mom!) and leisure. It's not a fast-paced kind of place, and the locals frown on those who give too much attention to work and getting things done. It's this kind of tension between the new globalized emphasis on productivity and the old spirits of knowing the time and place for work and play-that is, traditional culture, where leisure and enjoyment of life's finer (or little) things (and giving thanks for them) are almost more important than productive work that is fascinating to me. Truly, Lord Byron was right when he described Dubrovnik as the "Pearl of the Adriatic."

For now, that's all I have. More to come. For now, I lay down my stylus. 

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