For many western Europeans, southeastern Europe and the Balkans are still draped in a veil of ignorance, prejudice and images of strife and civil war. So when I was invited to a wedding in Dubrovnik last year, I was a bit puzzled by the choice of location and I couldn’t help but wonder, “what’s the attraction?”
Now that obviously says a lot more about me than about Dubrovnik and Croatia and in fact, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Croatia has a long, rich history that spans central Europe’s most prominent kingdoms, dukedoms and rulers from the Habsburgs to the Ottomans, as well as the more recent Yugoslav republic. Such a colourful history has brought with it a rich culture and the country is home to no less than seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, with many more on the government’s tentative list for potential future nominations.
I do in Dubrovnik
The wedding ceremony was held at The Pucic Palace, an impressive 17th century baroque building which has been transformed into a boutique hotel, located right in the heart of the Old Town. The couple had made sure everybody had the chance to stay at this romantic hotel so the morning after the celebration, while other guests were nurturing headaches from an epic night, I snuck out to explore further.
Dubrovnik is often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, and walking the narrow cobblestone-laid streets of this once important sea power it is not hard to see why. The streets are lined with beautiful medieval, Renaissance and baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. The cathedral, which is the seat of the Diocese of Dubrovnik, was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1667 destroyed large parts of the Old Town and today stands as an excellent example of typical Roman baroque architecture. The Dominican monastery in the east part of the city dates back to as early as 1225 when the Dominicans established it there, but the actual buildings, which are built in Gothic style, were not completed until the 14th century.
Time to Split
If time is a constraint, as it was for me, it’s hard to make it around to all of the seven heritage sites. But a half day’s drive north of Dubrovnik, in the region around Croatia’s second largest city, Split, and further north in Šibenik and Trogir, three more heritage sites await. We rented a car on our last day in Dubrovnik and left the city behind for the summer traffic along the Adriatic coast. The drive, which took just over 5 hours including the occasional provisioning and photo taking stop, was very picturesque, but the traffic was rather bad and if I were to do it again, I would probably come outside of the summer high season.
In Split, the ancient palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian commands beautiful views of the city’s sea port and is part of the wider complex that comprises a cathedral, churches, fortifications and palaces. The complex, built in the late third and the early fourth centuries as a place for Diocletian to retire to, is one of the largest and best preserved architectural and cultural landmarks on the Adriatic Coast and probably the reason why Split even exists today. The eastern part of the peristyle is home to Diocletian’s mausoleum, an octagonal structure whose roof is supported by 24 columns, proudly representing Roman architecture. One of the special things about the Diocletian palace is that it comprises so many different types of architecture, depending on the building and the history behind it.
After a long and hot afternoon at the palace complex we decided it was time to leave the city behind and head towards Trogir, another heritage site, on a small island on the other side of the bay from Split. Traffic out of Split in the evening was definitely a lot less busy than into the city around noon, and we thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long drive around the bay to Trogir. The main attraction here is the historical presence of the place. Greek colonists first settled the island in the third century BC and ever since then, under the domination of first the Greeks, then the Romans and the Venetians, Trogir has maintained its urban traditions. Walking around the town, there is an abundance of churches, palaces and monuments bearing witness to a long rich history. Much like Dubrovnik and Split, the city features various architectural styles from different periods such as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. At night, the city seems even older, when the lights create shadows on the cobblestones and in the many arches found around the city.
The next day, we got up with the sun and headed north along the coast to Šibenik. There is a shorter route, but since we weren’t in a rush we figured we might as well get as much out of the rental car as possible. The drive isn’t long at all, but it’s beautiful and we took our time, stopping in Primošten along the way. The town is known for its vineyards, which are currently under consideration to become Croatia’s eighth UNESCO World Heritage site, and I would lie if I said we didn’t visit a winery – or two – on our way to Šibenik.
Šibenik’s contribution to the world heritage list is the Cathedral of St. James, the seat of the diocese of Šibenik. The so-called basilica, a latin term most often associated with large and important churches, was added to the list in 2000 and it is the main attraction in the town. What makes this cathedral different from others in the region is the way in which various architectural styles have been blended into the same structure, most likely because it took three architects a century to build the cathedral. The structure is made entirely from stone, which put added demands on the building techniques used, demands that were met by a combination of solutions from three distinct building traditions. Namely those from northern Italy, Dalmatia and Tuscany during the time. The feature that made the biggest impression on me was the elaborate stone carvings in the frieze, depicting the very detailed faces of children, men and women.
I saw history come alive in and around Dubrovnik and I now believe Croatia to be one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
A wedding to remember:
- Dubrovnik Luxury Weddings can assist with everything from choosing the reception venues, arranging bands, photographers and florists to organise accommodation, baby sitters, excursions and other services. http://www.dubrovnikluxuryweddings.com
- The Pucic Place is the place to stay in the middle of Dubrovnik’ Old Town. The rooms are tastefully designed to match the exterior of this 17th century stone building. The hotel’s Defne restaurant serves excellent seafood. http://www.thepucicpalace.com
- The Konoba Bed & Breakfast in Šibenik is within walking distance of the cathedral and it is run by a friendly Dutch family. http://www.bbdalmatia.com
- Enjoy the view from restaurant Kadena in Split. Their day-to-day freshly caught seafood specials are worth a try! http://www.restorankadena.com