Dubrovnik leaves me with a range of complex and contradictory feelings. It is a town sized spectacle sculpted in stone. The quaint grandeur and sophisticated monumentalism of its historic structures are beyond compare. As blinding rays of sunlight strike the Dalmatian stone, radiance in its purest form becomes apparent. Areas in the later afternoon that become consumed by shadow are the settings of refinement and repose. Nothing could be more pleasant than the Old Town’s magical splendor in these moments, but it can also be spectacularly unnerving. There is something a little too perfect about the walled Old Town for my taste. It has reached such a level of refinement that it does not feel quite real. Dubrovnik is one of the finest examples of the impulse for historic preservation and structural restoration. Nonetheless, something about it does not feel right. Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, also had misgivings about the Old Town.
Positively Pedestrian – Staying In Gruz
In the first of two sections in her book devoted to Dubrovnik, West begins in Gruz. This outlying district was where she and her husband stayed. I could not help but feel a certain kinship with West since Gruz is where my wife and I have stayed on two different visits to Dubrovnik. Gruz offers a reminder of a much more normal world than the one found within the Old Town’s walls. Reading West’s description of Gruz brought the place back alive within me. It was fascinating to think I had unwittingly walked in West’s footsteps. We had crossed paths by traveling in the same spaces, separated by an interval of eighty years. She did not really care for Dubrovnik. West thought Gruz was much more tolerable. I would never call Gruz normal – I doubt West would either – but when compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town it is positively pedestrian.
Like Rebecca West, I found Gruz more pleasurable than Dubrovnik. For me, this had to do with the fact that prices were nowhere near as extortionate as those in the Old Town. For West and her husband, it was not a question of affordability. The couple stayed in Gruz because they were unable to find accommodation in the Old Town and so picked this bucolic district in which to stay. When West told her husband that she did not care for Dubrovnik, he wrongly thought that it might be because they had been unable to secure accommodation in the Old Town. On the contrary, it was the Old Town which left West in a state of semi-depression. This did not surprise me. What did was that West had the courage to say it. She mentions among other things, “the appalling lack of accumulation observable in its history.”
Splendor On Steroids – A Seductive Intensity
Dubrovnik has been prone to collapse on occasion due to natural cataclysms. This has caused a discontinuity with its past. Dubrovnik would rebuild its way back to a look of prosperity after each catastrophe. This has continued right up into contemporary times with damage from the 1991-92 siege all but swept under the marble. The Old Town does not feel like an organic development. Instead, it appears as a showpiece, a baroque display case with Renaissance and Gothic elements thrown in for good measure. One gets an overwhelming sense of wealth. Likes anything based on wealth and vanity, its character is profoundly superficial. If one cares to only judge a book by its cover than Dubrovnik’s is a gilded, beguiling. leather bound rare edition, The Old Town plays to that overweening desire for artifice that man welcomes as a corrective to the harshness of life. Dubrovnik proves that man can only stand to suffer so much of reality. The Old Town eschews the real, for a type of splendor on steroids. Its charms are showy, flagrant, and intensely seductive.
I love and hate Dubrovnik in unequal measure for its beauty and the pervasive pathos that lurks in the design of every detail in the townscape. The Old Town comes as close to attaining perfection as any place I have ever been. I find that to be terribly disturbing because in my mind, nothing could be worse than perfection. It is the end, a point of no return. Where does a person or place go after perfection? Reading West’s sections on Dubrovnik I got the sense that this bothered her as well. She does not explicitly say so, but I could sense it in her words. West admires Dubrovnik, but does not like, let alone love it. For this I can commiserate with her. The Old Town is like walking into a fairy tale, except this one is real. At times, it can seem downright ahistorical. That seems like a strange thing to say about a place that lives off its legacy.
Core Values – Easy On The Eyes
One would be hard pressed to find another place – other than Venice – whose present existence almost totally relies on its adherence to the past. To this end, all the main sights in the Old Town look as though they have had the past refined right out of them. I was surprised – though I should not have been – to find that even the old “medieval” walls are quite modern in places. The ramparts that afford tourists the opportunity to walk along the walls did not exist in their present form until the 1980’s. Dubrovnik is deceptive like that. Relying as much upon a restored artifice to make one believe that this was always the way it has been. In truth, Dubrovnik is one of the youngest “medieval” towns in existence today.
Besides its main attractions, the Dubrovnik that exists today is a product of the post 1667 earthquake era. The idea that the Old Town is a perfect picture of preservation turns out to be a false one, but truth and historical verisimilitude have always had an uneasy relationship. Dubrovnik is history as we want it to be. The present state of the Old Town says as much about modern historical sensibilities as it does older ones. Rebecca West saw Dubrovnik for what it was, rather than what it wanted her to believe. It may have been easy on the eyes, but that was hard for her to tolerate. I can vouch for the fact that it still is.