All Things Ecclesiastical

As you will see next month, in my final Croatian posting, I wasn’t in the Dubrovnik area with my usual determination to unearth interesting nuggets of history or design. Many of my other city trips have been aided by a GPS app on my phone which enables me to record where the images were taken, and sometimes it even works!  That wasn’t the case in Dubrovnik because I wasn’t here for the buildings at all, and so whilst my reflex response to a baroque painting or architectural feature was still to record it, my brain wasn’t so disciplined in recalling where I was at the time.

Consequently I have images shot in a number of churches in Dubrovnik old town but can’t be certain which is which. I can look at them chronologically and therefore have some idea of where I might have been at the time, but the old town is so compact that that is far from infallible so please bear with me.

Let’s start with a disappointment and an example of my lack of preparation.

If, as most visitors do, you enter through the Pile Gate, you’ll pass Onofrio’s fountain on your right as you make for Stradun, the main street.  Dominating that space on your left is the Franciscan monastery, whose campanile is one of the tallest structures here.  Naturally I went straight into the church but found it lacked impact or imagination.  There are some second-rate mouldings, a positively funereal colour scheme, and a dominating pulpit emerging from the walls.

Between these features stretches of plain plaster and velvet drapes were more akin to someone’s living room so I wasn’t in a hurry to linger.  My mistake, because elsewhere in the complex is a pharmacy.  A pharmacy that has been operating for 700 years.  The oldest in Europe.  I didn’t see it.

And now things get messy.  You might think that given the saint’s importance that the church of St Blaise would be Dubrovnik’s cathedral, but 100m along the same street is another great church and this is the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Their proximity and the multiple entrances mean that I can’t be sure where I was when capturing images of the interiors.

Externally there is no doubt for though they are both domed buildings made from the same coloured stone the large golden statue of the town’s patron is easily spotted.

And it would be easy to think that those are major sites, but there are other monastic compounds and if you opt to walk the walls one more great church becomes apparent, high above the central area.  This is St Ignatius, the great baroque church built by the Jesuits and completed in the 18th century (though bizarrely it houses the oldest bell in the city which was cast over 350 years earlier).

The Italian influence is apparent in the reliquary statue, grotto, rosaries and frescoes that decorate the interior, the latter being a particularly obvious demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, though it’s the approach that underlines this.

Spanish Steps anyone?


Glorious Food?

In the last year I’ve delivered a lot of training on the subject of the forces that drive change and how organisations respond to those forces. One of the examples that seemed to emerge regularly from those discussions was the way in which the UK has become more of a “foodie” nation. We talked about what might have influenced that (TV chefs, foreign travel, availability of ingredients, immigration) and the way in which some businesses have thrived or changed as a result (Waitrose, Marks & Spencer).

Much of that has been as a result of Italian influence; the writing of Anna Del Conte, restaurateurs like Carluccio, Contaldo and Locatelli, and the passion for Italian food shown by TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.  So might the Dalmation coast of Croatia, as a former territory of the Venetians, have a great food culture?

There are enough influences to suggest that there might be.  Apart from the Italians, Turks and Hungarians have occupied these shores, though of course that doesn’t guarantee culinary success; our own Norman invasion and decades of links to Northern France didn’t seem to inspire a great tradition in England!

At this point I should caveat what is to follow; I’m in no position to genuinely critique the regional gastronomy.  I spent only 10 days in the area (and yes I know it only took me half that time to be certain of the quality found in Bologna), and aside from a couple of ventures into Dubrovnik was confined to the island of Lopud where I stayed in a large and modern hotel complex, eating  both there and in some of the small restaurants around the bay.

The hotel pizzeria was reliable and with a large group of us that included teenagers that was no bad thing, but it’s hardly revelatory.  The other food in the hotel was often disappointingly adequate, with one exception.  That served at the wedding banquet was tasty and showed some signs of an attempt at presentation, but it didn’t generate enough enthusiasm to rate a recommendation.

This daughter survived!
This daughter survived!

In Dubrovnik there are plenty of choices that aspire to style and flair, though I only ate at one, where I had a delicious lunch incorporating something akin to a tuna burger.  As did one of my two daughters.  We were both ill later, though to be fair that could be coincidence.

We also experienced some horrible pasta and salads back on Lopud.  I’d read that the island was once predominantly used for herding sheep yet there were no delicious lamb dishes here because they’ve all gone.   Why?

I suspect the answer to all of this disappointment goes back to the nation’s history of communist rule and war.  The former would have discouraged the development of quality food, the latter would have rendered it financially difficult.  I’ve experienced something similar before.

Fear not though.  Dalmatia has a secret weapon.  All that coastline guarantees one thing; the freshness of the fish and when simply grilled and served with local vegetables it can be truly delicious and generous in its servings.  There’s something to be said for sticking to the knitting.

There’s another thing to be said for a place serving fresh fish.  They often have a great sea view.




Maritime Powers

_pw_6011During the Rio Olympics I was in a Croatian bar with the ubiquitous TV showing live sport, though as the games were in progress it wasn’t showing football.  The event in question was sailing, and though I understood neither the captions nor the commentary, all I could see was the GB had a competitor vying for a medal.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries Great Britain was a world superpower based on one particular asset.  The size of her navy.  Only the Dutch rivalled us a master of the world’s seas.  As an island nation that’s not too surprising; we had relied on seafaring skills for food supplies, defence, trade and transport throughout our history and were at that stage building an empire with our navy at its heart that would transform the wealth of the nation.  (Damn those Wright brothers!)_pw_5072

Although I lived in a town with its own yacht club for many years, I never really developed much knowledge of sailing beyond being able to identify a laser class vessel by the insignia on its sail.  Consequently I had no idea whether the men in the British boat (470 class) were likely world beaters or not.  As it happened they were not and finished in 5th place (though we did top the medal table for sailing overall).  Instead the gold medal went to Šime Fantela and Igor Marenić, the Croatian entrants.  No wonder it was being given such prominence in the bar.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at their success however, for Croatia has its own maritime history.


Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik
Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik

Prior to the exploits of Columbus, the Mediterranean was the most important body of water to Europeans and a succession of Maritime Republics held sway, of which Venice was one of the most important and enduring, but Amalfi, Pisa, Columbus’ home Genoa and more also established themselves as city-states whose power was derived from the sea.  And then there was Ragusa, though now we know it as Dubrovnik.

Of course the region produced natural sailors; modern Croatia may be small but its coastline is the most indented in the Mediterranean and runs to over a thousand miles in length.  Then add in over 1200 islands and you have over 2500 miles of coastline; being sailors was inevitable.  If you live on one of those islands (only 45 or so are populated) the boat is more important than any other vehicle, and so just like Venice, they put them to good use; one morning on the ferry to Dubrovnik we  were delayed in Koločep by a group of men who climbed aboard to unload a pallet of roofing tiles.  No cranes or derricks here, the whole job was completed in a matter of minutes by human chain.

Dubrovnik’s arsenal may not have had the size or significance of its Venetian counterpart (and now it’s a swanky restaurant) but this walled city held its own for 450 years until Napoleon intervened.  I think they deserved that gold medal.




What the Blaises?

How is your throat today?  A little sore?  Or maybe you’ve some wool that needs unravelling?  More seriously perhaps you’re at risk of imminent invasion?
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who you gonna call?

Perhaps a man who was martyred early in the 4th Century?

_pw_5094St Blaise, St Blazey, San Biagio, St Blasius, San Blas; his reputation spread throughout the Christian world, so what made him so influential?  (In Croatia he is Sveti Vlaho.)

The former physician turned bishop miraculously cured a child who was choking on a fishbone (thus becoming the patron saint of throat problems).  His execution consisted of being beaten with a stick, having his flesh ripped off with iron combs (hence the patron saint of wool combers) before he was beheaded.  That death at the hands of the Romans was by virtue of his religion rather than as a result of any significant political act.

On route to Sebastea for his execution he reputedly intervened when meeting an old woman whose pig had been snatched by a wolf, Blaise somehow persuading the wolf to release the pig to the woman.  To repay this act she apparently brought two candles to light his cell as he awaited his end._pw_6220

His remains rest in the Italian town of Maratea’s basilica, or at least some of them do.  Parts of him are also to be found in Dubrovnik, where he finally seems to have done something of note.  Over 600 years after his death in Turkey, he appeared in a vision to a priest of St Stephen’s cathedral in the Croatian city, to warn of an attack by the duplicitous Venetians whose fleet had anchored nearby, ostensibly to refresh their water supplies, but according to Blaise, to assess Dubrovnik’s defences.  Why this long-dead Armenian should feel the need to intervene in the politics of two Mediterranean city states is unclear.

_pw_6243Whatever the spectre’s motivation, he was immediately venerated in the city, remaining part of the states iconography until Napoleon’s arrival centuries later (ironically the same individual who ended Venetian independence).  Blaise’s head and hands (and of course a part of his throat) are paraded each year on the 3rd of February,

In modern-day Dubrovnik the Saint’s patronage lives on.  You can barely turn a corner without encountering some image of Blaise, who is characterised by the model of Dubrovnik that he carries with him.  If you think you’ve heard this story before, then you may be confusing him with Petronius of Bologna, who also had a predilection for miniaturised municipalities.

Mistaken identity is easily avoided though – the twin towers of Bologna make it easy to spot that city’s patron if you should bump into them both at a party.




I’d never come across St Blaise before Dubrovnik, and then what should I find on a day in Richmond, North Yorkshire?  Not sure a pub is an appropriate tribute!

Walking the Walls

Arguably Dubrovnik’s most famous feature, one of the experiences that most visitors to the city consider to be mandatory is a walk along the defensive walls.  Similar in age and circumference to those of Berwick they differ in many significant ways.  The builders in Berwick had access to plenty of earth and so the stone walls of the fortifications there are a mere metre or so thick, their strength coming from the great earth ramparts which buttress them, giving them the strength to withstand artillery attacks.  Five arrowhead bastions were spaced at key points.

The land around Dubrovnik is of a stonier affair, so no great earthworks here, just stone and lots of it.  Making use of the seaward cliffs the Croatians built upwards (82 feet at their peak) to add greater stature, but backing up that height was depth.  In places the walls reach 6 metres in thickness, even at their narrowest where they face the sea, they are three times the thickness of those at Berwick.

Revelin Fort (right) alongside city gate
Revelin Fort (right) alongside city gate

Four forts are stationed around the walls, though technically the Revelin fortress is entirely separate, the term being a corruption of rivelino, a fortification built opposite weak points in a city; in this case one of the city gates.  This one was built to counter a threat from a Venetian landing.

Bokar Fort

At the opposite side of the city is the Bokar fortress, a solid rounded block that dominates the main entrance at the Pile gate.  This is a message in stone and that message is “you shall not pass”, whether by land or sea.

Housing both the city’s aquarium and the maritime museum is the St John fortress, a series of buildings that expanded into each other to form one structure that dominates the port entrance.  The defensive side is rounded, with a sloping “skirt*” at ground level, but facing the the wall is completely straight producing an appearance of having been sliced in half.

Minceta Tower

Which leaves the Minceta Tower; the epitome of medieval castle defence.  Big, tall, round and placed at the highest corner of the walls; you can’t miss it, which is perhaps the point.  It must surely have been an intimidating sight for anyone contemplating a land offensive.

The walls survived a multitude of sieges over the centuries, including that of the Yugoslav army in 1991/2 where the ancient walls proved far more resilient than many of the buildings within despite the original builders having no idea of the fire power that a modern army may deploy. Nevertheless by the end of the 20th century over $7m had been spent on restoration and you can detect the new patches where clean smooth masonry has been installed.

Maintaining them will continue to be a costly business but this may not be a problem.  The _pw_5253-edit-editCroatians have steadily increased the price of access over the years (approx £15 per adult when I visited) and this doesn’t seem to have deterred visitors.  Records were broken in 2016 when over 9,000 people walked the walls on a single day in July.  Over the year the total fell just short of  million putting those post was restoration costs well into perspective.

And what’s they attraction?  Great views over the city and the island of Lokrum beyond, a chance to escape the baking heat bouncing off the walls in the city streets, or just a fantastic way to get your bearings?  Perhaps it’s just something that has to be done, and if you can cope with some of the vertiginous aspects you should do it.  For photographers they provide some interesting angles on the ground below too!


*In a strange coincidence I’ve discovered the word for such a slope twice on the same day; firstly by reading William Boyd’s Sweet Caress and using my kindle dictionary to query an unfamiliar word, and then encountering that word again only a few hours later watching Only Connect.  It’s clearly destined to be part of my vocabulary now.  Glacis.

Game, Set & Watch

The ‘Old Town’ of Dubrovnik is the original walled city, the heart of the maritime Republic of Ragusa, and though the city has long outgrown those walls and established a new port on the other side isthmus that joins the Lapad peninsula to the mainland.  Nevertheless the original buildings and layout have been largely preserved, and this, combined with the proximity of the botanical gardens and nature reserve on Lokrum (an island just a few hundred metres from the old port) have made it a superb location for film and TV work._PW_6764

_PW_6428In March this year the main street (The Stradun) was apparently taken over for the shooting of the next instalment in the Star Wars franchise to the delight of the Mayor, who sees the tax revenues of high spending film crews as a boost to maintaining the city, but the dismay of the tourists whose photographs were ruined by cables, floodlights and a rogue spaceship.

It’s a difficult conundrum.  After the physical and economic devastation of war in the early 90’s the opportunity to bring in additional revenue is very appealing, but such a small town can only accommodate so many people and if the hotels and restaurants a full of film crew then the tourist is squeezed out and may not return.  They may even be unable to enter the city at all; one lunchtime the flow of people through the narrow entrance at the Pile Gate became completely gridlocked.

Still its a nice problem to have.  Better be faced with trying to manage your popularity than having nothing to offer, and it’s a similar problem to that faced by their former rulers in Venice who must struggle with the choice between the revenue of the cruise ships and the damage they do to the very buildings that attract them.

And when the film is released, will those city walls be crammed with a new breed of visitor intent on walking in the footsteps of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren?  If so they may be disappointed, for while the creamy coloured stone of the old town is certainly photogenic, it will be enhanced by physical and CGI “extensions” to the point where it is difficult to recognise.  Those already walking the town in search of sets from their favourite TV show are learning just how different reality can be, though it doesn’t stem the flow of fans from around the globe.  As my youngest daughter Holly put it “King’s Landing is the same in any language”.  Those who seek the Iron Throne will find it (with the word “replica” in small print) in a photo studio down a narrow alley.  The “original” is in a studio in Belfast where Star Wars also benefitted from the vast spaces that were once the shipyards that produced Titanic.   I mean the ship, not the film!

Sorry – just had to join in!

Spot the Difference?


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