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Entries in Croatia (3)



Our first day together while engaged to be married. We spent the day indulging in the pleasure of our together, exploring the beautiful city that we had made our own. We wandered up and down the main street, a broad pedestrian avenue, the only street in the city that wasn’t a narrow alley. It had originally been a channel which divided two small villages, which was filled in with dirt and converted to a major road when the villages merged to become Ragusa. The main road later served to link up the port entrance to the main (and for a long time, only) exit to the surrounding region (Pile Gate), so many important buildings were built around it, such as a Franciscan Monastery, Onofrio Fountain (built in 1438) and Sponza Palace. 

Sponza Palace was originally built as a Custom’s House (a very important public building for a city so riveted to the maritime trade), but has now been converted to a memorial to the defenders of Dubrovnik. As a part of Croatian Yugoslavia, the facists had lead a holocaust of Serbs, Jews and Roma until Tito overthrew them and instated the communist state. The communist Yugoslavia lasted until Croatia left in 1991, due to Slobodan Milosevic’s ideas of “Greater Serbia”, resulting in an anti-Serb feeling in the new Croatian state. This lead to massive discrimination of ethnic Serbs (who wanted autonomy rather than be a minority among Croats), and the infighting gave Serbia and Montenegro an excuse to attack Croatia, where they focussed their aggression on the Dalmation spit, laying siege to Dubrovnik in October of 1991. The siege lasted for a year, and many of the southern towns were occupied by the Serbs, but Dubrovnik did not fall due to the defences on the surrounding hills (including some built by Napoleon). The city was badly damaged though, and 100 military and 200 civilians died in the siege. The Sponza Palace has a small memorial now with photos of all those who died, and photos of Dubrovnik during the siege.

We also visited St Blaise’s Church, built in 1715 to replace the earlier church destroyed by the devastating 1667 earthquake (so severe that it killed 4000 people, out of the population of 6000). St Blaise became the patron saint after he allegedly came to the Rector in a dream to warn of Venetian attack. Inside the church we looked through the treasury, while macabrely enough consisted of mostly gold and jewel encrusted reliquaries for his skull, arms and legs. We also took a walk around the city walls. The walls are enormous, encircling the entire old city, 2km in length and 25 metres high. They were built between the 12th and 14th centuries, with an additional lower outer wall built once canons became common in war, to provide the extra protection of curved walls. From on top of the city walls you can see how perfect the city is, every building historic, the city packed full and clinging to the edges of the cliffs. The defences include two round towers and fourteen square towers. We started at the north-east and walked around widdershins. Each corner we turned gave us a new view, over the city and over the Adriatic. Looking down the tall steep walls you can hardly see where they turn into stone cliffs before plunging into the sea. We walked around to Fort St John, the defences protecting the port. The massive fortress included a heavy steel chain that was drawn across the port every night, to prevent enemies sailing inside. Opposite Fort St John is the old quarantine house, which was built after plague killed 2000 in the city, to isolate foreign sailors before letting them into the city. Oddly enough, inside Fort St John is now an aquarium, where all the labels for the various fish (plus octopus and one sea turtle) include fishing advice. Keeping the theme, next door to the aquarium was a seafood restaurant.

In the evening we walked around the city with a local guide to point out the defensive features. She told us about the two stand-alone forts protecting the city. Fort Lovrjecnac protected Pile Gate, and was built when Ragusa found out that Venice intended to build a fort there. Ragusa quickly erected the fortress, so when Venice turned up with ships filled with building materials they just turned home. The fortress protects the Bay of Colours (so called because the Guild of Dyers used to be based there), and is 12m thick of the seaward side, but only 60cm thick of the Ragusa side, so that if it was ever taken Ragusa would be able to retake it easily. Fort Revely is the other stand-alone fort, and protects the port. It was converted into the treasury after the earthquake destroyed the city. The path to Fort Revely winds past the Dominican Monastery (which was built as an earlier defense). Of interest, the gaps between the base of the banisters on the path into the Monastery were later sealed with mortar, so as to protect the modesty of ladies going to mass from men so uncouth as to gaze upon their ankles. After our inspection of the cities defenses we had dinner in the old arsenal, which was once a dry dock for building and repairing ships.


Proposal plans B to D

My Plan B to propose to my dearest girl was during sunrise by the bay, watching the city walls start to glow with warmth. We had planned to spend the day by taking a day tour around Montenegro, the world’s newest country. We woke up early to watch the sunrise, walked outside and it started pouring down with rain. I sighed, we went back inside until it was time to leave for Montenegro, and I started considering a Plan C.

The Slavic history of Montenegro began in the 6th century, when Emperor Heraclius invited the Slavic tribes into the empire to repeople Ilyria, in doing so pushing the local Shkipetars back to the Albanian highlands. With the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire soon after, the Serbians nations became independent. While Serbia was taken in the battle of Kosovo in 1389 by the Turks, due to the difficulties of controlling the highlands, Crnagora (Montenegro) remained effectively independent. With the independence of Serbia in 1815, Montenegro was able to develop from a highland refuge into a state, with a ruler who was both King and Bishop (until 1851, when Danilo Petrovic Njegus the second fell in love with Darinka Kuekuic, and had to formally separate Church and State in order to marry her, also secularising and reforming the legal system). This also allowed Montenegro to take control of its coast, which had constantly changed of hand between Venice and Austria. After WWII, Montenegro joined with Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vojvodina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia to form Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia joined the Tripartite Alliance in 1941. Tito overthrew the Facist government in 1945, forming a communist republic allied with Stalin (but non-aligned by 1948). While most of the republics split off in 1992, due to the racial tensions caused by the “Greater Serbia” attitude after Tito, Montenegro remained joined with Serbia until the 3rd of June this year.

Our first part of the tour to Montenegro drove south from Dubrovnik along the Dalmation Coast. It was really obvious why the coast had such a different history from the mountains, the thin strip of shore has tiny cities sitting on excellent ports facing the Adriatic, while the mountains go straight up, preventing any easy access inland. We visited the city of Kotor, which had been constantly taken by Venice and Austria. The city sits on what is called a fjord, but is actually a series of three bays, giving it an excellent harbour. The occupying forces built a wall around the city that extends to the top of the first hill, to protect from invasion from the highlands (knowing that it was impossible to push inland from the port, and being focussed on the seafaring trade anyway). In the bay is a church called The Lady of the Rock, on an island formed by dropping stones in that spot every 22nd of July. The old town (Stari Grad) was small and pretty (especially the Orthodox St Nicolas’s), similar to Dubrovnik except the new areas surrounding the town had been rebuilt in modern styles after the earthquake, so it didn’t have the same atmosphere. Since it wasn’t quite as romantic as Dubrovnik (and because unlike Ragusa, Montenegro stayed independent through war) I decided to wait until we were back before proposing.

We drove up into the mountains, requiring many switch-backs on the narrow roads, to reach the Slavic highlands. The area was beautiful and green, with low bushes and rocky outcrops rather than farmland. We stopped to try honey wine, Montenegro beer and cheese sandwiches, then we drove to Centinje. In Centinje we looked Nicolas I’s house (built in 1871), converted into a museum showing the last royal family’s clothes, bedrooms, dinner sets, and dead polar bears. From Centinje we drove to Budva, with another charming Stari Grad, and Bar, a tourist town for Serbs, with a long beach and a commercial 1000 year-old walled city.

Back in Dubrovnik, I had decided on a Plan D for proposal. We would go to a nice romantic restaurant, then after dinner I would take my special girl up to the stairs that look down on the city from the Franciscan Monastery. As we walked through the town my love started to tell me about Orlando’s Column, in the centre of the town square. Orlando’s column was built in 1419 to celebrate the defeat of the first serious Venetian attempt to end the independence Ragusa in 972. The column celebrates the greatest knight of the Middle Ages, who had become a symbol for nobility and independence. Plus it is functional too, with the distance from Orlando’s the fingertips to his elbow (of the right arm) being the standard unit of measure, the Ragusan ell.

In Ragusa, the column became the symbol of liberty, and from 1419 flew the independence flag of Saint Blaise (in 1990 it flew a white flag saying “Libertas” in the same spirit). My dearest was telling me how the column was the centre of the city, with all proclaimations of importance being made from its steps. On an impulse I improvised on Plan D and suggested that my love stand on the steps of Orlando’s column. I then told her how much she had changed my life, how she brings me more joy and delight than I could ever imagine, how much I admired and respected her, how I loved her completely and utterly for the wonderful person she is, and I asked her to marry me. My dearest girl, beautiful in every possible way, blinked in surprise and said “yes, of course”. We then had to sit down to calm her shaky legs, and she told me how happy she was to be engaged to me, how she had secretly hoped I would propose but hadn’t expected it, and how she was almost as impressed that I had thought to bring along a ring size-converter as she was with the engaged ring itself.

After talking together on the steps of Orlando’s column for fifteen minutes, we slowly walked hand in hand to an Italian restaurant, where we talked together over a bottle of wine until they closed. A perfect end to a perfect day, and a perfect start to a perfect life together.


Proposal plan A

Our holiday started in Dubrovnik. After contemplating just how much wonder and delight my special girl brings into my life, I had decided to propose to my dearest on the first day of our holiday together in this very romantic place. Even before I had reached Dubrovnik I thought it sounded perfect. Founded by Latin refugees from the fall of Epidaurum in the 6th century CE, the city of Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was known until recently) maintained its independence for over a thousand years in a very turbulent region. They fought off original attempts by Venice to occupy the city, but mainly, Ragusa kept its independence by diplomacy. They relied on massive walls surrounding the city (built ever higher), protected with a tiny civilian militia, to protect against fortes, but most of the attempted invasions where prevented by the skilful Ragusan diplomats. In fact Ragusa was often used as the meeting place for warring regional factions to sit down and work out peace treaties. While the rest of the Dalmation coast constantly traded hands between Austria and the Republic of Venice from the 12th to 14th centuries, Ragusa grew as a important port and trading partner. Even during the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, tiny Ragusa was the only region to remain independent from the Turks (apart from the inhospitable Montenegran highlands), having purchased a peace treaty at the price of 120 000 gold ducats per month. For its context, Ragusa was highly progressive, being peaceful and relatively secular. In 1808 Ragusa invited Napoleon inside, ending its independence and introducing the progressive Napoleonic Code. This is a city that I felt my dearest and I could have a real affinity with.


I arrived in Dubrovnik five hours earlier than my beloved, and the minute Dubrovnik came into view I was breathless. The city is simply stunning, a gorgeous old town, untouched by recent development, sitting on narrow ledge of land between the mountains and the Adriatic.

I ran around the city to scout out the most romantic places to propose at, planning to propose that night after my love reached town. I decided that a stroll through town would be a perfect start, then perhaps we could get some icecream and sit on the city walls overlooking the ocean. My dearest had told me that she would meet me at our apartment (a quirky six story building deep in the old city, where the owners opened the front door by using an elaborate arrangement of strings from the sixth floor), but very anxious to propose, I put the ring in my pocket and went to meet her at the bus stop. Several hours after she should have arrived, I started to worry. Running backwards and forwards from the bus stop to our apartment I was sure she had not snuck in, and calling the airport her flight had come in, only an hour late. A few more hours, and I started to panic. The airport told me she had left an hour ago in a taxi, bad advice to complement the bad advice they gave her, the reason why she had ended up stranded at the airport, needing to hitch into town. Finally, at 2am on the last check at the bus station before calling the police and embassy, I saw my love walking towards the bus stop, and all the panic swept out to be replaced with love. Needless to say, Plan A was out.