(NewsMadura) — Lord Byron called it the Pearl of the Adriatic when he passed through it on his Grand Tour in the early 1800s.
Fast forward 200 years and the mighty walled city of Dubrovnik still stands as a symbol of strength and stability in a region that has seen quite a bit of turmoil and darkness.
Now it is preparing for the return of visitors after more than a year of pandemic-forced closures. Having endured the ravages of over-tourism, the people and businesses are planning a more sustainable future that will bring the city’s history and tradition to the fore, without compromising its sheer beauty.
While the Covid nightmares of 2020 and 2021 may have been unimaginable for so many, Dubrovnik has a long and storied past when it comes to dealing with highly contagious diseases.
In 1377, when the city was at the center of the maritime republic of Ragusa, the rulers decreed that sailors, merchants and traders coming from areas affected by the plague should be sent to special quarantine facilities.
Prepared for the pandemic
Dubrovnik’s Old Town skims along the Adriatic coast.
DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP via Getty Image
“Almost 800 years ago, we knew all about quarantine,” said Ivan Vukovic, one of Dubrovnik’s leading travel guides. Vukovic explains that arrivals from high caseload areas were initially sent to the small islands of Mrkan and Bobara, just off the coast, where they would spend a month in isolation.
By the 17th century, officials had built Dubrovnik’s now-famous Lazarettos, hulking, prison-like facilities where many arrivals were isolated to prevent widespread infection. It all sounds painfully familiar in this time of hotel quarantine, albeit without the luxury of a good bed and internet.
Vukovic explains that the location of the Republic of Ragusa between east and west meant that sailors and merchants from all over the world would come to Dubrovnik.
“Only the people who came from contaminated areas or suspicious areas [had to quarantine]’, he says, echoing how many countries are now guarding their borders. “If a plague epidemic broke out in the Middle East, all those travelers in the Lazarettos would be isolated.”
Vukovic adds that there is evidence of health certificates and even social distancing. “In the Middle Ages, they were able to track down the disease… They were able to track down the contacts that were involved, and they knew about the infection.
The Franciscan monastery of Dubrovnik invented innovative ways to limit infections in the Middle Ages.
“When it comes to [Covid-19], we actually deal with it [with] the rules of the Middle Ages. History repeats itself.”
Other reminders of Dubrovnik’s medical history can be found in the Franciscan Monastery, in the heart of the city. Dating back to 1317, the pharmacy is the oldest of its kind still functioning in Europe and key to Dubrovnik’s ability to survive the worst plague.
Brothers devised clever ways to dispense their drinks, with draws and partitions used to shield patients and pharmacists. Payments would be made in a special box and kept for 10 days to prevent infection. A 14th-century form of contactless payment.
While there are many reminders of pandemic, Dubrovnik is not just a place to learn lessons about infection control that we all could have done in early 2020. This is a place that is very proud of its Croatian traditions and uses them to heal wounds and beyond the trauma of the events that shook this part of the world in the 1990s.
Protecting ancient beauty and tradition is part of Dubrovnik’s identity.
The ancient Linđo dance is still central here, explains Jelica Čučević.
“Even today, in the present time, there is no festivity or opening of any festival without a Linđo dance. Linđo should be there… it’s part of a tradition for centuries, you know? It’s part of the joy. It’s part of life, so that’s very important.”
učević has been dancing the Linđo since 1980 and today is part of the Linđo Folklore Ensemble, which shows these tricky moves to the tourists who come to explore Dubrovnik and its past. Of course, those who take it seriously should wear traditional costume to fully experience its delights.
But 30 years ago, dancing the Linđo alone posed a serious, life-threatening danger to the people of Dubrovnik. When the Yugoslav army laid siege to the city from October 1991 to May 1992, snipers picked innocent victims walking in the streets. Meeting to dance was challenging and almost impossible.
Jelica Čučević shows Richard Quest some traditional dance steps.
“It was very dangerous to walk the streets at that time, but somehow, at that time… we found a way to send a secret message, you know, that we care about each other.” two o’clock in the afternoon in a familiar place,” says Čučević. She was, she says, young and a little fearless, like many dancers, and refused to see their beloved tradition destroyed. Her strength and steadfastness speak to a wider sense of community in Dubrovnik.
“There’s a deeper connection that’s part of our tradition. These are our roots, so it’s very important to pass them on from generation to generation.”
The coastal town of King’s Landing from “Game of Thrones” is also home to a vibrant and legendary sailing culture.
Though Dubrovnik’s ancient walls betray little of that era, it doesn’t take long to find monuments to that most challenging period in the city’s history. And none are more grim or fascinating than the Belvedere Hotel.
Perched high on the cliffs above the azure waters of the bay, this once opulent site was home to Croatian refugees who came to Dubrovnik to escape the advance of Serbian soldiers. It was destroyed during the brutal months of the siege and has remained in that same ruined state for the next 30 years, a stark reminder of how much Dubrovnik suffered during that time.
The Belvedere was only open for six years before the siege, but in that short time it had built a reputation as one of Europe’s finest hotels.
“It was the best in the Adriatic, as I remember it as a kid,” says Ivan Vukovic. “It had everything from the outdoor pools, you could go to the beach, my mom went shopping [there]”My father went to the restaurants with his friends.”
Today, nature has recolonized the Belvedere, with mature trees growing out of the masonry. However, the views from the one-off suites remain as spectacular as they were in the early 1990s. Yachts slip by, the horizon dotted with beautiful islands, the water shimmers in all its glory.
“It’s nice to have it as a reminder of how we got our own country, as an independent country from the 90s, and also to see what happened here, because people have to learn the mistakes,” says Vukovic.
An end to overtourism?
Lockdowns gave locals a chance to reconnect with Dubrovnik. Now they are ready to remind tourists why this Croatian city is called the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’.
The UNESCO status could not protect Dubrovnik’s Old Town from the attention of mortar shells and gunfire. But in the decades since the war and independence, its spectacular walls and fortifications have helped it become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, not to mention the set for major TV shows like ‘Game Of Thrones’.
Pre-pandemic, locals struggled with the sheer numbers of people coming here, cruise ships pouring in and causing major congestion.
About a million cruise passengers arrive in the city each year, with up to 9,000 a day streaming through the narrow streets. In 2019, officials went to great lengths to issue an effective ban on new restaurants, closing 80% of souvenir stalls and limiting cruise ships to just two a day.
However, when the summer of 2021 started, all was quiet. And for restaurateur Darko Perojevic, despite the challenges of Covid, the change of pace means he can once again enjoy his home in the heart of the city.
“I would never leave the old town, this is Dubrovnik!” he says, pointing to the buildings that used to attract so many visitors. “The old town is Dubrovnik. I mean if you go to other neighborhoods it’s not for me… it could be Split, it could be Zagreb or I don’t know… Oakland. You know it’s all the same What makes Dubrovnik is the old town.”
Despite the fact that Perojevic’s Azur restaurant is dependent on tourists and its status for many as a living museum, he likes to remind tourists that it is a place where people have roots.
“It’s also home to people who live in the old town like me,” he says. “So I see this as my living room.”
Locals have reclaimed the streets of Dubrovnik from tourists during the pandemic.
“My fear is that we are going back to the pre-Covid thing, mass tourism and just too many people,” he adds. “It’s bittersweet. We’ve got the city to ourselves again, but you know, financially it’s going down a little bit… I think we’ve learned a lot, and I think we’ll definitely reset some things and we know where we don’t wanna go.”
Darko believes the pandemic has given him and other local residents the opportunity to approach tourism in a new way. He is, he says, optimistic for the future.
On the water
While the old town defines Dubrovnik, so does the sea. From the city’s position on the routes of cruise ships and the superyachts that lie across the bay, it is clear that the water is a major part of its charm. But that love goes back centuries, to when merchants sailed here. Today, the small-boat locals enjoy nothing more than tacking and enjoying the peace and quiet of the ocean.
“For us, it’s always a part of life,” says Dado Butigan. “It’s just… you go on a boat, you go for a swim and that’s it. It’s part of our DNA because we’re blessed with this coast and with the sea and everything. And you just have to use it.
“You feel peace and quiet when you open the sail and all you hear is the wind and the waves and a few birds. You just feel relief… It’s like real happiness, I’d say.”
To get an even better idea of how much boats and yachts enjoy this aquatic paradise, it’s worth taking the cable car from Dubrovnik to the top of Srd Hill. Here you can see the majesty of the old city and the waves of the sea.
From this vantage point, Dubrovnik looks like a toy city. Something you just want to scoop up, put in your pocket and take home. Picture perfect in every way. Above all, it is expensive. It is remarkable to see what it has endured in both ancient and modern times, and that it still stands proudly.