EN VOYAGE – Dubrovnik Calling

At the very bottom of Croatia’s rocky, pine-rimmed limestone coast, Dubrovnik sits all pearly white. Surrounded by small coves pervaded by the scent of pine needles, sea salt and citrus, and lapped by the transparent blue Adriatic sea, it has been called the world’s most beautiful city, has been a cultural melting pot for over a thousand years and boasts a unique, food culture mirroring the city’s long, international history.

With its strategic position at the mouth of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik long been a great center of trade and cultural exchanges.

The city was founded under the name of Ragusa in the seventh century and the town as we know it dates back to 1292. During the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Dubrovnik grew in importance as a stopping off point for boatloads of weary marauders and liberation from Venetian influence in 1358 established Ragusa’s position as an independent republic with its own patron saint, currency and sophisticated judicial and parliamentary system.

Dubrovnik’s golden age was the sixteenth century. As Venice La Serenissima’s’prosperity slowly declined, so Dubrovnik’s soared. The city offered asylum to refugees of all nations and became a creative and intellectual hub. The basis of it all was sea-borne trade, and at its peak the merchant navy fleet boasted some 200 vessels.

Since Dubrovnik was built on poor, arid land yielding little food other than citrus, olives some livestock and wild herbs, the republic maintained good relations with southern Italy and Sicily, both major food suppliers. Relations were also established with the Ottoman Turks, who controlled many trade routes. The cereal trade was particularly well organized, with merchants operating under the auspices of the governing council who issued instructions a year in advance as to when they should arrive with their shiploads of grains. This sophisticated organization system worked well, and the republic experienced only eight famines in 500 years

Through the efforts of the government, the city, which had a population of 6,000 in the late fifteenth century, always enjoyed good supplies of fresh vegetables, especially cabbage and broccoli, specialties of Dubrovnik cuisine to this day. Seafood was never a problem, with surrounding waters rich in squid, langoustines, shrimp and all kinds of fish.

Things started to turn sour for the republic during a general slump in maritime affairs in the seventeenth century. Problems were compounded by the devastating earthquake of 1667, which destroyed practically every building within the walled city. Re-building was swift, extensive and expensive. The arrival of Napoleon in 1808 heralded the fall of the republic, the city was soon after handed to the Austrians, went into decline and eventually became a part of Dalmatia and Croatia. Its fate has been tied to their politics ever since.

Despite its rocky recent history, the essence of the city has been preserved, mostly thanks to a strict building code dating back to the fourteenth century, still enforced today, and more recently due to the town’s listing as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.

Living proof of this glorious, multi-ethnic past, Dubrovnik is still contained within its two km long city walls, the streets are still paved with polished white marble, the buildings clean white limestone and their roofs tiled in pale honey-colored slate. It has a special character and an understated, stylish beauty. It’s the Grace Kelly of cities.

If, in 1991 you saw the news reports of the Yugoslav army shelling Dubrovnik, saw the burning buildings, the destroyed basilicas and heard that at least 30% of the town was blasted to pieces, you might also know that the city today bears little surface marks of the siege.

Ironically it was Yugoslavia that nominated Dubrovnik for world heritage listing in the first place. Only twelve years later they attacked, shelling every object both cultural and economic. Bombardment came from the sea and above, from the craggy hills sloping upwards away from the town and the sea. Even on the quieter days, an occasional volley of machine gun fire would spatter the main streets keeping the citizens in a constant state of fear. As Colin Kaiser, former director of UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites said (quoted in a Unesco Paris interview in July 1992) after a visit in November 1991, ‘there would be shots fired, and nobody knew at what time…it was a state of psychological warfare, the people were edgy, extremely edgy’.

During the war the city died. There was no water or electricity, beautiful buildings were destroyed and people slept in the catacombs under the city walls. Hundreds died, the Franciscan monastery, 500 years old, crumbled – though the foundations survived.

Extensive restoration work has removed nearly all traces of the war, though a few buildings still bear the pock-mark scars of shelling, and of course the psychological effects remain.

Today, while tourism isn’t quite what it was before the war, the city has come alive again. Step inside the city walls and you’ll find a unique food culture different from that of the rest of Croatia. Steady Italian influences are obvious, but there are also ghosts of Western and Oriental flavors long ago fused.

The local restaurants and cafés, known as Konoba, use fresh foods including meat and vegetables, mostly produced organically. Hams, cheese, olives and citrus fruits come straight from the farm and seafood is caught locally.

Within the old city, restaurants line the main street, the Placa, and shooting from it in narrow tributaries are tidy lanes full of bars, restaurants and cafes. Tucked into the coves surrounding the city walls are restaurants in traditional orsans (boat houses), rough stone buildings cut into the hillsides.

Menus across town feature fresh octopus salad, milk seafood salad, oysters, shrimp, lobster, mussels, seafood pastas and risottos, smoked Dalmatian ham with Trappist cheese and local olives. Main courses are usually accompanied by motar salad, a salty, almost fermented dish of the Adriatic motar plant which grows in rockpools.

The black risotto which appears on every Dubrovnik menu is a rich inky dish, steeped in salty flavours, shrimps, garlic, parsley and of course, squid. Another classic is bouzzarra, seafood, usually langoustines, grilled then bathed in a puddle of tomatoes, garlic and white wine.

Along the piazza, women from the nearby Konavale valley display their produce in wooden carts. Here you can buy uneven loaves of homebaked bread or homemade lozaor ‘tractor fuel,’ a throat-burning alcohol infused with rosemary bay and citrus leaves. Another cart may sell dried, sugar dusted figs, bottles of home-pressed lavender oils or tart clementines (we visited in December). Seated on benches, in the pale winter sunlight, old ladies knit and chat, selling their thick booties, socks and caps alongside hand carved and painted wooden fruit.

In the early evening, if you’re visiting in winter when the Bora wind blows from the sea and the cold goes to your bones, step inside one of the tiny, warm bars for a smooth shot of liqueur or hot grappa-spiked coffee. Then make your way to one of the town’s elegant seafood restaurants for a deep bowl of steaming garlicky mussels or a seafood pasta tangled up with tiny octopus tendrils, clams and shrimp, all in a rich sauce of peppers, spices and red wine.

This New Year’s Eve, Dubrovnik put on one of it’s famous parties. Bosnians, Croats, Slovenes and a crowd of international tourists packed into the main piazza at the end of the Placa, where live music continued through the night. The buildings were draped with fairy lights, the crowd went crazy amd the message was positive.

A decade after the war, on New Year’s Eve 2002, the jewel of the Adriatic is well and truly back in business.

Where to eat

Ragusa 2
Zamjina 2
A Dubrovnik institution, Ragusa 2 does the city’s most typical dishes and does them well. Try the Mussels Bouzzara and local red wines.

Lucarica 2
Just beside the beautiful St Blais church, this is the place for a lony lazy seafood lunch. There’s a lovely terrace if the weather’s good.

Restaurant Gveroic Orsan
Zaton Mali 20235
In a converted boat shed perched over the water this restaurant serves excellent local dishes with incredible views and an unbeatable atmosphere.

Where to drink

Gradska Kavana (City Cafe)
Ante Starcevica 7
A raised terrace in the very center of town, this is the place for old world grandeur and people watching.

The Jazz Gallery
Buniceva poljana 2.
A groovy, eclectic bar featuring weekly live jazz. The interior is cosy, and crowded with small wooden tables. The beer is local and the music excellent.

Cafe Festival
The Placa, 9
This funky, crowded cafe offers the best coffee in town, excellent homemade cakes and a basic bistro menu.

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team

Photo: Dubrovnik, the old city (http://www.dubrovnik.hr)

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