their structures and characters


Merida's street names

Venice as maze

Antananarivo's thousand villages

Istanbul and the City of the blind

Seven-Gated Thebes

Four-Gated Thebes

Hundred-Gated Thebes

Aswan at cusps of earth and sky

Bivalve Dubrovnik

Atrani between headlands

Three-bayed Watamu

Deep-Moroccan Marrakesh

There will be more.


Guy Ottewell

Bivalve Dubrovnik

A Yugoslav ship taking me from Greece to Trieste touched at Dubrovnik, but I must have seen little beyond the harbor. I was more impressed, farther along that Dalmatian coast, by Split, a city built inside a building: that is, the old part of the city, a dozen or so blocks, is inside the square walls of a single huge building, the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The very name, Split in Croatian, Spalato in Italian, comes down from Latin palatium, “palace.” Or so I thought and so was the belief, but scholars now tell us it derives from an earlier settlement called Aspalathos, which was the Greek word for the spiny broom. This shrub coats the hillsides of the Dinaric range with the yellow of its small flowers, and that was what first impressed me when I came back years later to Dubrovnik, looking down from a plane.
        The second impression was the intense delight of putting my bicycle together in the small airport and riding out past what I at first took for a garden. It was a polje, one of the blocky depressions in the karst limestone landscape, floored with turf and poppies. I would have liked the fourteen-mile ride along the sunny upland to go on for ever. When I paused to sketch the first view down to Dubrovnik nestling by the sea, a military policeman on a motorcycle paused to determine whether I was a spy. I came down, down to the walled city and entered it through a twisty side-gate in one of the gates,

and spent a week rambling among the details of the masonry.
        You can walk around Dubrovnik along the top of its protective wall,

which enchains various towers and castles. Projections on the southern side look down crags to the sea, and on the northern side into what used to be a moat. And on the inner side you can sometimes look down into courtyards and see people hanging out their washing or playing cards. Steps descending from the wall involve it in the upper ends of little streets,

all of which slope away down from it. The two networks of streets, southern and northern, meet in the one level and wide street, called the Placa or the Stradun (formerly in Italian the Stradone).
        The Stradun is like a river of white stone polished smooth by feet. For in the evening it is filled with a river of strolling people: here as in other Mediterranean lands life is made happy by the promenade, called in Dalmatia the korzo. Over the heads of this river of people, half way up to the eaves of the Renaissance palaces on either side, skims a layer of birds — swifts and swallows in their thousands, consuming an invisible layer of midges.
        At one end the Stradun opens past a tower to the harbor. At the other, the strolling people flow through a square containing a round fountain-house

and out through a gate

and over a bridge across the moat, into the older part of the newer town. Like other old walled towns, Dubrovnik's is dwarfed by more recent sprawl, especially onto a peninsula to the northwest. (Split's sprawl is far larger.)
        The wall-girt city is like a clam, a bivalve shell that has been laid open. Or it's like a theatre, with two audiences looking down on the Stradun, the stage where social life happens. It looks like two communities facing each other with a river between them, and that is what it once was. The images of “river of stone” and “river of people” came into my head before I knew that the Stradun once was indeed a river, or at least a channel.
        On one side was the island city Ragusa, on the other the shore community Dubrovnik. The wider region (called in ancient times Illyria, in the twentieth century Yugoslavia) was once part of the Roman empire, and as this retreated it left a population of Latin-speakers; they were overrun by Slavs and Hungarians, but communities speaking Romance (that is, Latin-descended) languages survived: the Romanians, the scattered groups called Vlachs, and the Dalmatians along the Adriatic coast. Some of these Dalmatians, in the seventh century, took refuge on the island from the Slavs. (Archaeologists now think their settlement was not the first: there may have been a Byzantine and a still earlier Greek one.) Just across the narrow channel, Slavs came to live, and they called the place Dubrovnik because it was “wooded.” The two communities merged, and probably “Ragusa” was what you called it if you were speaking Ragusan, “Dubrovnik” if you were speaking Croatian. (There is a more ancient city called Ragusa on a hilltop in Sicily. The name, I think, has a sexy ring for Italians because of its similarity to ragazza, “girl.”) The Ragusans for a long time tended to be the aristocracy, but one of the many admirable aspects of the flourishing state developed by the joint community was its honoring of liberty: it was a pioneer in abolishing slavery, and the motto “Libertas” on the pennants of its trading ships earned them welcome around the world. It was early with almshouses and hospitals, was a refuge for Jews. Ragusa was a Maritime Republic that rivalled the Italian ones of Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi (and had a cross-Adriatic alliance with Ancona so as to get around Venice for trade with northern Europe). It was a power out of proportion to its size; its policy was to rely on trade rather than territory, of which it had only a narrow strip along the Dalmatian coast. At other times it had to compromise with larger powers, and came under the rule, at least nominally, of Byzantium, Venice, Hungary or the Turks. Trade declined, as for Venice, after the opening of new routes to the East; the Ragusan language gradually died out; an earthquake smashed the city in 1667, so that only a few of the beautiful palazzi date from before then. Napoleon put an end to the Ragusan republic, as he had done to the Venetian, and on that day the Ragusans painted all their flags and coats-of-arms black in mourning.
        After I was there, Yugoslavia (“southern-Slav land”) broke up and war broke out among its peoples. Close above Dubrovnik looms 1400-foot Mount Srdj like an enormous loaf. From it, starting in October 1991, Serbian artillery bombarded the gem-like town for seven months.