Dubrovnik: Historical ties

LIKE many of you, I lament the loss of the cravat. Not quite wearing a tie, not quite a slob, you have the best of both worlds: casual while being elegant. But did you know a tie is a cravat – ‘tie’ merely referring to the fact the cravat is knotted at the collar?

And ‘cravat’ is a corruption of the word Croat, Croatian mercenaries are the ones to thank for introducing to the rest of Europe in the 16th century the fashion of men wearing a piece of lace about their necks.

Well, I did not know these things – until I came to Dubrovnik, where it’s quite a big deal. In fact, every October they have a Day of the Tie when they celebrate the iconic neckwear and decorate several prominent statues with their own large-scale versions.

The rest of the year, though, there seem to be no more ties around than anywhere else in Europe. There may even be less, given that most of the people in the streets are tourists off the cruise ships that anchor offshore, under the muzzles of the cannon dotting the city’s magnificent ramparts.

The tenders shuttle back and forth, starting unfeasibly early, but the good news is that the ships disappear in the evening, leaving you to enjoy the romantic old streets – or rather, lovely wines – of Dubrovnik in relative isolation.

Even during the day, you can get lost down a narrow passageway, the high walls shading you from the heat of the sun and the everyday bustle of the city centre, sometimes just a few metres away.

The first must-do for every visitor – and the only one for many – is to walk the city walls. At almost 2km, it’s worth taking a break along the way to descend and enjoy one of the many cafés, perhaps one specialising in the seafood for which the area is famed. The walls are one of the most scenic in Europe and some of the strongest, buttressed by five fortresses.

Dubrovnik was a powerful free state in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries but was brought to its knees by an earthquake in 1667 that killed 5,000 citizens and razed most of the public buildings. The city introduced free medical care in 1301 and the first pharmacy – which you can still visit – was opened in 1317. A refuge for the elderly opened in 1347 while slave trading was abolished in 1418 and an orphanage opened in 1432, illustrating that the protection thrown around its citizens was more than just physical.

Around every bend, there is reminder of Dubrovnik’s glorious past, from the marble pavements of the Placa, the broad main street, polished to a sheen by the passing feet of centuries, to the ancient cathedral and churches. Inside the main entrance to the city, the Pile Gate, is a 16-sided drinking fountain designed by Onofrio de la Cava in the mid-1400s. Taking its water from 12km away, the fountain was an obligatory washing place for visitors in the days of plague. Now, in the heat of summer, it is still a place for tourists to cool down, while a few touts try to charm them away to nearby restaurants.

Dubrovnik’s more recent history is marked by the damage to walls and paving dating to the eight-month siege of the early 1990s, when shelling by the Serbo-Montenegrin army hit almost three-quarters of the buildings in the Old Town. Unesco estimated the cost at US$9million but restoration work has gone ahead at a remarkable pace, leaving little evidence of the horrors of that time. The distinctive terracotta roofs of the city, using tiles handmade around the human thigh, have been sympathetically rebuilt.

Climbing the hills behind the city for a better view of it, the biggest danger now seems to be the constant rushing traffic on the coastal highway. I’m left with the impression that Croatia is in a hurry to get somewhere: building sites are everywhere, new cars abound, there’s energy is in the air.

Fortunately, the love of good food and drink seems to have seeped into the fabric of the city, perhaps a legacy of Italian domination that has also left its mark on architecture. Besides shops selling wonderful ice-cream and good coffee, pavement cafes and restaurants abound, with fish, shellfish and vegetables providing fresh ingredients for simple meals. Around the harbour, you can sit and eat fish within sight of the Adriatic – no tie required.

I flew to Dubrovnik with British Airways (ba.com, 0844 4930787) and stayed at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik (www.hilton.co.uk/dubrovnik).

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