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EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik, Croatia – Part 2

Dubrovnik city wallWe woke to a warm, sunny October day and prepared for our morning trek on the walls of Dubrovnik. We’d heard that on top of the fortifications the sun can be intense and there were few shady places, so we slathered on sunscreen, donned baseball caps, and stuffed water bottles into our daypacks. Then we headed in the direction of the Stradun, the streets deserted at six-thirty on a Sunday morning. Or so we thought.

Dubrovnik jam festival As we turned the corner, the hum of excited voices filled the air. Unbeknownst to us, we were in for a sweet treat. Today was the last day of the Croatian festival of jams and jellies. The event is held in front of the Church of St. Blaise, and over thirty small producers exhibit more than a hundred types of jams, jellies, and marmalades: orange, fig, plum, lemon, cherry, strawberry, and other fruits, and in all possible combinations. And to add to the festive mood, all exhibitors dress in the costumes of their regions.

As enticing as it was to linger at the jam and jelly displays, we wanted to beat the tourist crowds, so we continued on to the nearest ticket office at the Ploče Gate. There, we stopped briefly to photograph the dozens of cats and kittens waiting patiently for a woman to feed them.Women at Dubrovnik jam festival

A few minutes later, we began our mile-and-a-quarter trek atop the massive stone fortifications that encircle the city. For almost as long as Dubrovnik has existed, so have the walls, which were beefed up during the fifteenth century because of threats from the Ottoman Empire.

If you are interested only in speed-walking the wall, it can be done in an hour, or so we were told. However, we devoted the entire morning to the walk, interested in capturing all of the views and taking our share of photos. The day before, we had purchased a guidebook and therefore had a general understanding of the history of the City—with a capital C according to the inhabitants—and the construction of its walls.

From our lofty perch atop the ramparts, there were magnificent vistas in all directions, and we paused to photograph every one. The first thing that captured my attention was the sea of reddish-orange roofs that stretched to the cobalt-blue Adriatic—a captivating visual. Upon closer examination, I noticed the difference in color between the older tiles and the newer bright orange tiles, replaced after the recent siege of 1991-1992. Although I saw a few damaged structures from the bombings and signs of buildings under repair, the City has made remarkable progress in restoring Dubrovnik to its original state.

Dubrovnik Minceta Fortress wall Engrossed in what it must have been like to man the city walls during a siege, I walked slowly along the narrow stone passage to the Towers of St. Lucy and St. Barbara, and then climbed to the top of the Minčeta Fortress for a panoramic picture of the Adriatic.

At the Bokar Fortress, Dave stopped to consult the guidebook on the history of the walls, while I snapped photos of everything from the rooftops, to the sea, to arrow slits cut into the bulwarks, to cannons, and even the moat below the defensive walls—a total of over a hundred pictures on this morning alone.

During one of these history interludes, I meandered to the outer edge of a wall and peered over the side into what looked like someone’s private garden; a peaceful, sun-dappled yard. Three walls framed the stone patio where a table and two chairs sat. On one wall, bridal wreath bushes in bloom hugged the crumbling stone. On the other a fuchsia bougainvillea sprawled across the enclosure, and on the wall closest to me thrived glossy-green trees. Of what kind I had no idea, until a soft breeze kicked up the clean, inviting scent of lemon. Then I saw the fading blossoms on the citrus trees.Dubrovnik city walls

At the Tower of St. Mary, we took a water break. Here, on the highest point of the peninsula, was the site of the original settlement. As we closed in on the noon hour, the number of tourists had increased, and despite the posted signs telling wall-walkers to proceed counterclockwise, not everyone heeded the rule. However, a couple ahead of us sent a group of ten packing in the right direction, so we could make our way to the bastion of St. Margaret, then the Fortress of St. John, without dodging oncoming tourists.

After our hike along the wall, which reminded me of my backpacking days but without the heavy pack, we had worked up quite an appetite. So back at street level, we cut through the Stradun from the Ploče Gate to the Pile Gate, on the lookout for a lunch place.

At the gate, we had a rather lengthy delay as we waited for the cast of Game of Thrones to conclude shooting a scene. Finally, we crossed the Pile Bridge and immediately spotted Restaurant Dubravka 1836. More interested in giving our feet a short break than anything, we each relaxed with a glass of a local wine, ordered seafood salads, and ate our meals with four friends—pigeons—looking on.

Dubrovnik Fort LawrenceWe worked off lunch with a trek up the hill to Louvrjenac, the Fort of St. Lawrence, an impressive limestone fort that gave us a stunning vista back across the water to the walls of Dubrovnik. Engraved on the lintel above the fort’s gates is a message for the world: “Freedom cannot be sold for any gold.”

We returned to the Stradun at a slow gait, taking in the sights and the sounds of the jam and jelly festival as it wound down. On the steps of the Church of St. Blaise, a group of men appeared and serenaded the crowds, singing a cappella. Then church bells resounded throughout the City, an uplifting and moving experience.

That night, we ate dinner at Restaurant Gallus, and the owner engaged us in a lengthy and informative conversation regarding the 1991-1992 siege. He apologized for interrupting our meal with his musings. We quickly responded by thanking him for this personal perspective on the harsh realities of war. He left us with these words: “There is nothing more precious in the world than freedom.” Next week, we board a bus for Split, Croatia.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia.”

EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik City Walls

We arrived back in Florence around 8:00 p.m. from our Tuscany tour and were ready for a quick meal and a good night’s sleep because we had to be up early to catch a flight from Florence to Munich, then from Munich into Dubrovnik. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to check out of our hotel. In our half-asleep state, the drive to the airport was a blur. After a two-hour layover in Munich, we boarded our flight to Dubrovnik. Continue reading

EUROPE 2011: Tuscany Tour

Author Pat Krapf Visits Siena Italy
Arriving in SienaOn our schedule for day two in Florence was The Best of Tuscany Tour, a full-day walking excursion in the region. Our meeting point was in front of the Santa Maria Novella train station, where we had arrived the day before. This time we walked the distance, an easy ten-minute jaunt. We found the Walkabout sign at the taxi stand and confirmed with our guide Becky that we were indeed in the right location to catch the bus.

Piazza del Campo in Siena As soon as everyone boarded, we departed for our first destination, Siena, a medieval city where the Palio di Siena is held twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th. The Palio is a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo. The event is televised and draws large crowds to watch ten horses and their riders, dressed in colors that represent ten of the seventeen contrade (city wards), vie for a trophy. The trophy is a palio, a banner cherished by the winner of the competition. It bears the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When we visited, La Girafa ward had just won the banner. You may recognize the Piazza del Campo from a scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Fountain on the Piazza del Campo, Siena

After we left the imposing, shell-shaped square of the Campo, our next stop was the Duomo, Siena’s cathedral. The white-and-dark green-striped church sits atop the highest point in Siena and is visible for miles. But what I was eager to see was the uncovered floor of the church, which can only be seen for six to ten weeks each year, generally including September. The rest of the year the floor is protected to guard it against the wear of visitors’ shoes.

Duomo in Siena Once inside the church, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the change in light. When they did I was not at all prepared for the incredible work of art before me. The entire walking surface is a spectacular inlaid marble mosaic floor, the most ornate of its kind in Italy.

Crafted by forty artists, the undertaking spanned the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. The floor consists of fifty-six panels of different sizes—most rectangles and some hexagons or rhombuses. The panels create an interlocking marble carpet throughout the apse and the nave of the cathedral. They depict the sibyls, scenes from the Old Testament, allegories, and virtues. Most are still in their original state.

After a long time staring at this masterpiece, I finally looked up and noticed the graphic effect of the black-and-white marble stripes on the walls and columns. Black and white are the colors of the civic coat of arms of Siena. My gaze followed this striking black-and-white combination to the vaulted ceiling, which is decorated in blue and adorned with gold stars.

A vineyard on the Tuscany tour Our visit wasn’t rushed, but we did have lunch reservations, and it was time to leave the cathedral for our next stop on the tour, a working farm near San Gimignano. But first, the group made a detour for gelato.

Surrounded by the picturesque Tuscan countryside, Fattoria Poggio Alloro is an organic farm with vineyards, olive groves, fruit trees, vegetables, saffron, and verdant pastures for their grazing herd of prized Chianina beef cattle, one of the oldest breeds in the world and at risk of extinction. The family-run farm also raises bees, chickens, rabbits, guinea fowl, and pigs.

We lunched in the main dining room of the restored farmhouse, which overlooked undulating hills of row upon row of lush green vineyards. We began with bruschetta, followed by pasta with a meat sauce, green salad, and bread. And, of course, wine accompanied the meal, red and a white, the grapes grown and the wine bottled on-site. For dessert, almond biscotti to dip in the farm-produced grappa. Wisely, I sipped a half glass of wine throughout lunch and passed on the grappa, handing mine to the burly man seated across from me, who was happy to receive the liqueur. We still had an afternoon of exploring to do, and I wanted to be alert for sightseeing.

Tuscany tour - San Gimignano San Gimignano is a small medieval village located about halfway between Florence and Siena. The city was built atop a hill and has a panoramic view of the Elsa Valley. It was named in honor of Saint Geminianus, a bishop from Modena who is said to have saved the town from the invading Huns.

The village thrived the most in medieval times because it sat along the Via Francigena, an important pilgrimage route that connected Rome to Canterbury. When the many faithful set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, they needed overnight accommodations.

 

We arrived in Pisa in mid-afternoon and took a leisurely walk around the cathedral square and snapped shots of the Leaning Tower. Besides the tower, what I really wanted to visit was the Jewish cemetery, just outside the Piazza dei Miracoli, but it was closed. Disappointed, we walked back to the buses and soon boarded ours for the return trip to Florence. Next week, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Dubrovnik, Croatia.”