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Dubrovnik on a Silver Platter

Walking the city walls of Dubrovnik, you are served history on a silver platter, a history shaped by shrewd diplomats.

At Pile Gate, a good starting point, a white poster depicts how Grad Dubrovnik, the old city, was attacked by the Yugoslav army in 1991-92, distinguishing between direct hits, shrapnel and fires, with an abundance of tiny triangles to symbolize all the damaged roofs. The gravity is emphasized by another poster showing that Dubrovnik, the pride of Croatia, is a World Heritage site.

The local authorities really highlight the recent war, and it works, for the posters are popular. They indicate, too, how speedy the reconstruction has been, thanks to international aid. The war poster is definitely not diplomatic, a bit surprising in a city whose skilful diplomacy made it possible to remain an independent city republic for 450 years amidst hostile neighbors like Hungary, Venice and Turkey.

Dubrovnik, until 1918 named Ragusa, is guarded by St. Blaise, the city's patron saint appearing everywhere, including a little niche above the entrance to Pile Gate. On the inside of Pile, a steep narrow flight of steps climbs the wall, with a ticket-office midway also hiring out electronic guides, ready to inform you in ten languages as you do the circuit.

A Bird's Eye View

The roofs immediately catch the eye: thousands of new red tiles, still without the patina of the roofs that survived, among them the Franciscan Monastery just below. The best viewpoints are found on the northern side. There, the circular Fort Mincheta gives you an almost aerial view of Dubrovnik and the sea surrounding it - like a huge silver platter - on two sides.

The fortified city is backed by mountains that nearly push it into the glittering sea. However, the gargantuan walls stay where they've been since the 13th century. Through the ages, they were reinforced with bastions, round towers and square forts, even supported by two detached fortresses near the sea, Revelin and Lovrijenac. The irregular rectangle of walls measures 1940 meters, with sides up to 25 meters high and 6 meters thick, thickest landwards.

Tiles obviously come in different versions: plain red, red with relief or red with beige stripes, the latter harmonizing with the stone walls of the houses. The pointed roofs, often with bay windows, sport chimneys surprisingly unmarked by the war. Many balconies and terraces have been turned into blossoming gardens. Between the houses, solitary palms and cypresses appear; a suitable contrast to the clean white sheets drying in the wind.

On one balcony, an elderly lady, dressed in a reddish vest matching her dyed hair, is chatting with her plants, knowing they will respond with lovely flowers to the delight of herself and every tourist passing by. The alley she lives in, all the alleys actually, turn slightly left on their way down to Placa, the main street traversing the city from Pile Gate in the west to Luza Square in the east. You can easily make out people strolling on the Placa's shining white flagstones.

Centuries Ago

If inspired to look into the past, 1358 might be a good place to commence. That's when Venetian supremacy ended and Ragusa became an independent city republic, basing its wealth on trade and a dominant merchant fleet. The ability to avoid armed conflicts was remarkable, due to diplomatic representatives at a large number of consulates abroad, who promoted trade and territorial interests and precluded potential dangers. Staying independent did cost tributes to the King of Hungary, though, and later to the Turks.

Although slave trading was abolished in 1418, all men were not equal in Ragusa. The ruling class were the noblemen, despite an upcoming class of wealthy merchants and shipowners. It was an aristocratic republic headed by a Rector, elected for merely one month. Real power belonged to the Grand Council and the Senate; a Small Council was their executive body. Judging by a flourishing scene of art, science and literature, the authorities were apparently quite openminded.

On an April day in 1667, Ragusa exploded in a devastating earthquake, killing 5000 citizens, just the strong walls were intact. Beautiful buildings in the Gothic and Renaissance styles - palaces, churches and monasteries - were in ruins, only the Sponza Palace and the front of the Rector's Palace at Luza Square survived. Gradually, the city was rebuilt in the more modest Baroque style. The republic as such was disallowed by Napoleon in 1808.

Today's Diplomats

Returning to the present day, the Dominican Monastery awaits you in the northeastern corner, a luxuriant courtyard framed by four wings adorned with new tiles. The neighboring Fort Revelin, outside the wall, seems unaffected and ready to serve as an outdoor stage during the next Dubrovnik Festival in July and August. In cooperation with St. John Fort opposite, it protects the other city gate, Ploce Gate, and the oasis of Dubrovnik, the Old Port.

The southern wall is breathtaking with the silvery sea down below. Daredevils have occupied the rocks in order to sunbathe and swim. Even tiny cafes have found a foothold on the rocks. As if to offset the dramatic surroundings, the lazy voice of Dean Martin makes everybody relax. Less dramatic, yet somewhat secretive, is the green islet of Lokrum right ahead. A sailing trip there would reveal to you what Dubrovnik truly is: a pearl on the Adriatic.

Landwards, the view is completely different now, with the houses so near that you can almost touch the washing hanging in their gardens or pick a pomegranate. Down at street level, Katerina is getting ready for the day, a blond lady in a whitish folk costume from Konavle, sitting the whole day on the steps embroidering and selling her finery, constantly answering questions politely and patiently. Like the lady with the flowers, she is one of those everyday diplomats who leave a special impression on visitors.

Back at Pile Gate, you have the entire Placa, the main street, at your feet, and it's time to take a closer look at the treasures of Dubrovnik. Along your way, you will certainly meet others of today's diplomats, in the shape of waiters, bartenders and owners of rooms to let; some of them more reliable than others. Nothing is wrong with their ambition to make money, but once in a while, they fail to give you proper value for it, thus violating a local tradition of decent and diplomatic conduct.