topics: architecture, history, Venice, Ottomans, Napoleon; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: April 11, 1998

Food of the Day: seafood risotto

Our continuing search for alternative sources of carbohydrates has led us to this delicious dish: the seafood risotto. Technically an Italian specialty, but widely offered on the Dalmatian coast, seafood risotto is a rice dish prepared with a variety of fresh seafood - shrimp, mussels, clams, and oysters. Seafood risotto not only gives us a break from pasta, but also allows us to sample the fruits of Croatia's fishing industry.

Person of the Day: Slaven Tolj click to view a photograph

Even though away from the team, andrEa showed that she is still hard at work for BikeAbout by putting us in contact with Slaven Tolj, a local artist with an international reputation, who acts as an administrator for the Otok Art Gallery and Club. Dubrovnik has always been a refuge for Croatian writers and artists, particularly while Dubrovnik was an independent republic (until 1806). The city later became a center for the Croatian literary movement in the 19th century. The tradition of Dubrovnik as an artist's city has continued, and Slaven, with the Otok Gallery and Otok Club Performance Space, is in the middle of it.

Even though he did not know anything about our project beforehand, Slaven quickly took an interest in us, helping us to find a place to stay, allowing us to keep our bikes in the Otok Club, and letting us use Otok's Internet connection so we could send out our dispatches. Finally, he did his best to introduce the team to Croatia's formidable nightlife. For all these things, we are eternally grateful.

Place of the Day: Dubrovnikvisit the World Heritage Site pagevisit the World Heritage City page

Often called the "pearl of the Adriatic," and recognized by UNESCO's World Heritage Center as a World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page and the Organization of World Heritage Cities as a World Heritage City visit the World Heritage City page, Dubrovnik used to be one of the premier tourist destinations in the Adriatic. It certainly deserves to be. A perfectly preserved (with parts carefully restored) medieval city, Dubrovnik is a special place, with an unusual, almost magical charm. Although the BikeAbouters are fairly well traveled, they agreed that the only city that could compare was Venice - not for the obvious Venetian influences on the architecture, but for its similarly remarkable interplay of stone, sea and light.

Seeing medieval Dubrovnik in the early morning, before the streets filled with people, magnified the city's allure. Without people in the way, we were better able to appreciate the city's remarkable architectural and visual harmony. The marble streets match the marble of the churches click to view a photograph, official buildings click to view a photograph, statues click to view a photograph, and fountains click to view a photograph, giving the city a consistency and balance that transcends the blend of architectural styles. Baroque churches stand next to Renaissance government buildings, next to neo-Gothic fountains, yet all seem to fit perfectly. Everywhere we looked, we found details that are a feast for the eyes - figures carved in relief on the side of a church click to view a photograph, the spout of a fountain click to view a photograph, the tower of a monastery. click to view a photograph We found all to be enchanting.

Further, the narrow, car-free streets, culminating in steep stairs that seem to climb the rocky slopes behind the town click to view a photograph click to view a photograph or in broad plazas full of strolling people, give the city its distinctly medieval atmosphere. On some residential streets, we could easily imagine having been transported back in time to the Middle Ages. click to view a photograph That is, until some smartly dressed native popped out of his home to say hello.

The history of the city is just as unique as its beauty. Founded in the 7th century AD, Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was then known, became a wealthy commercial city with one of the largest merchant fleets in the Mediterranean. Although controlled by the Byzantines and Venetians for a time, Dubrovnik managed to maintain its independence after 1358 by paying large tributes to powerful protectors, first the Hungarians and later the Ottomans. This independence (often backed up by careful neutrality) helped the city obtain important trading concessions throughout the region of the Adriatic Sea, Western Europe, and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, between the 14th century and the end of the 16th century, Dubrovnik was the most important trade link between Western Europe and the Turks. Trade brought wealth, and this wealth in turn helped fund construction projects that transformed Dubrovnik into the gem we see today.

Yet, the single largest factor in determining the current look and feel of Dubrovnik came not from economic success, but from natural disaster. In 1667, a devastating earthquake destroyed most of the city. Only through the extraordinary efforts of local residents and an influx of capital from abroad was the "Stari Grad" ("old city") restored and rebuilt. Many of the new buildings were constructed in the Baroque style, dominant during that era, which helps to explain the many Baroque churches and public buildings. Since 1667, Dubrovnik has frequently faced other catastrophes, including another powerful earthquake in 1979, and the man-made calamity of shelling by the Yugoslavian army in 1991 and 1992. Amazingly, it has survived, and remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

With its capture by the armies of Napoleon and its subsequent incorporation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Dubrovnik's importance as a center of trade diminished. Ironically, just as competition in trade made Dubrovnik and Venice arch-enemies from the 13th to the 19th centuries, both these cities now rely on the tourist trade that has made them rivals for visitors ever since. BikeAbout, in its usual non-partisan fashion is determined to visit both and savor them equally. See this spot in a few weeks to compare Venice to Dubrovnik.

Tech Fact of the Day: republics

While most of the Balkans were once ruled by foreign monarchs, warlords or sultans, Dubrovnik remained an independent republic from 1358 until 1808 when the French Emperor Napoleon (whose troops had captured the city two years before) put an end to it.

The term republic simply identifies a form of government that does not have a monarch as a ruler. A republic does not necessarily have to be a democracy, though it certainly can be - for example, the United States is a republic (remember the "Pledge of Allegiance"?). The Ragusan Republic (Dubrovnik was known as Ragusa during this period) is a good example of this. For most of the republic's existence, a group of non-elected aristocrats controlled the government and ruled without the expressed consent of the citizens. But there was no monarch (king or queen), so it was a republic.

Group Dispatch, April 11
picture of Padraic

Having had to sleep (or not sleep) sitting up on the ferry from Bari, the BikeAbout team arrived in Dubrovnik looking and feeling groggy. Sure, our four km ride in the rain from the ferry port to the center of Dubrovnik woke us up a bit. Cycling through traffic during a rainstorm is always better than a splash of cold water to the face waking up is important. And a good thing too, we needed all our senses to appreciate our first encounter with the beautiful streets of medieval Dubrovnik (see the Place of the Day), and not to slip on the wet marble paving stones.

After changing money, buying a phone card, and arranging a meeting with Slaven, our contact in Dubrovnik and Person of the Day, we holed up in a local café to escape the rain and await Slaven. When Padraic and Ethan returned from the pastry counter drooling and reverently chanting "donut" in a low voice, Anthony and Corinne knew that BikeAbout had arrived in a country that adhered to Italian standards of pastry quality. Despite our damp clothes and weary eyes, our first glimpse of Croatia had turned out to be wholly positive.

Soon enough Slaven joined us. We shared another cup of coffee and our Web site with him, and then, following his lead, we rolled our bikes through town click to view a photograph to some private rooms he helped us find (just off the Placa, medieval Dubrovnik's main street). We stashed our bags there and then quickly followed Slaven again back over to the Otok Club (see Person of the Day for more about this) to store our bikes. On the way back we bought a picnic lunch to be devoured later in our rooms out of the rain. While Anthony, Corinne and Padraic took naps, Ethan (who somehow managed to sleep on the ferry) caught up on work.

Later in the afternoon, the group took a post-nap tour of the city. Taking advantage of a break in the clouds, we picked up our cameras and set off to explore the city. We walked out of the Pile gate click to view a photograph to admire the city from outside its walls click to view a photograph, first down by a rocky inlet near the city gates click to view a photograph, and then, from the steps click to view a photograph click to view a photograph of a nearby fortress. click to view a photograph

After re-entering the city and admiring the Onofrio Fountain click to view a photograph, we split up and just started wandering... here, there and everywhere. Anthony and Padraic found practically every street (and every dead end) in town. Admittedly, their tour revolved around finding a suitable restaurant for dinner rather than discovering Dubrovnik's architectural and cultural gems.

Reunited later that evening, we all headed off for dinner before a late meeting with Slaven at the Otok Club. While Padraic, who seemed to have caught the illness that had stricken Anthony in Bari, returned to the rooms, the rest enjoyed a wild night out on the town courtesy of Slaven and some other locals.

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