It’s easy to understand why the people of Dubrovnik are proud of their city – it just takes one look. It takes a little more effort, however, to understand how deeply this pride runs, and how many, how varied and how rich and justified are the reasons for this pride. And, thank goodness, this pride manifests itself in a way that is very easy to fall in love with: the people of Dubrovnik also take pride in their strong tradition for good manners and hospitality. It’s not an empty or boastful pride.
Why does the city look the way it does? Why all those walls and bastions? It was first of all a refugee colony for the people of Epidaurus (today’s Cavtat), who fled from invading Avar and Slav tribes. At that time the land south of Stradun, as the main thoroughfare through the Old Town is popularly called, was an island, offering some protection from attack, but, of course, the walls began to grow up to give those first fearful citizens their shelter.
That was in the 7th century. At that time, these lands were under the protection of Byzantium.
The skill of the people of Dubrovnik in trade and in many other areas led to this tiny city state, then known as the Republic of Ragusa, becoming such a powerful force in the Adriatic that it seriously rivalled Venice’s dominance in the region. And during the heyday of the city’s development, art and culture flourished, leading to a love for harmony in ones surroundings, a love of music, and a love of literature which much shaped the language of Croatian that we can hear today.
This love of beauty is visible with every step in the Old Town, this living museum and famous World Heritage site. It can be seen in the galleries, on the theatre stages, and in its annual culmination at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. It can also be heard – this is a city of music too, of classical music, but also taking care of the folk vernacular of the coast and hinterland.
Beauty is only skin deep, and happily this will to harmony also manifested itself in a rather liberal political system which, for example, abolished slavery at a very early stage (1418). And alongside this respect for humanitarian concerns also came, naturally, the love of freedom. That’s why you’ll so often see the word “Libertas” emblazoned on everything from flags to the sides of buses.
It’s hard to believe that this miraculous freedom of the tiny Republic of Ragusa, and this economic and political might lasted all the way to the beginning of the 19th century when the Dubrovnik nobles were tricked by Napoleon to letting his armies into the city in 1806. So it’s no surprise that the sense of individuality and collective pride is still so strong. It results, happily for visitors, in a very unique, visible and well-preserved culture that’s a joy to uncover.
The folk tradition
The people of Dubrovnik and the surrounding regions proudly maintain their folk tradition, which you can still see at festivals, folklore performances, and processions on feast days; in museums and sometimes even on your waiter in rural restaurants. Every region, and in some cases every settlement had its own style of folk attire, which often showed the social status of the wearer. So, for example, in Konavle, where the tradition is perhaps strongest to this day, unmarried girls wore red pillbox hats decorated with gold braid, while married women wore stiffly starched headscarves shaped like horns, to scare their menfolk into submission, we presume.
The costumes, mainly in white, red and black fabrics, were decorated with embroidery, particularly on decorative fabric breastplates with gold silk tassels on women, and waistcoats and cummerbunds on men. Silk was produced and coloured at home. On special occasions, people wore fine velvets and silks richly embroidered with gold thread, a style influenced by Dubrovnik’s excellent trading links with the nearby Ottoman Empire. Luxurious clothes indicated the wealth of the owner, but rich folk lent fine clothes to poorer neighbours to ensure a good celebration.Jewellery has for centuries been a way for women in particular to invest their wealth. Dubrovnik at its zenith, had many goldsmiths and silversmiths who, in addition to adorning the city’s churches and palaces also made jewellery, an integral part of folk costume. You can still buy traditional earrings in gold or silver filigree, large hoops or drop earrings adorned with baubles. If you’d like to take home an original Dubrovnik souvenir, you can also find tiny backstreet workshops where women produce tablecloths, bags, purses, pictures, slippers and more embellished with traditional embroidery.In Dubrovnik there are several women’s’ groups who engage in reviving traditional crafts such as folk dress, which originally arose to lift the spirits of victims of war. One such group is Deša group, who have their centre at Lazareti. They are currently engaged in a project to rescue the traditional colourful dress of Mljet island from oblivion.On your travels around the region, you can meet many more facets of folk culture. If you’re on Korčula island, you may meet a procession of drummers in medieval costume on their way to a performance of the traditional Moreška sword dance (performed across the region in high summer). And if you’re lucky enough to be on distant Lastovo in the two days before Ash Wednesday, you’ll see the Poklad festival, eagerly awaited every year by the islanders, and a riot of fun, celebrating the salvation of the island from attack by Catalan pirates in 1483. The men dress in scarlet traditional costumes with embroidered sashes and hats decked with more flowers than Ladies Day at Ascot – a truly unique experience! Linđo - The folk tradition is very much connected with music and dance. During the Dubrovnik Summer Festival you will surely have the chance to see Linđo, Dubrovnik’s foremost folk troupe, going strong since 1964. The region’s folk music is centred around a one-stringed instrument called a Ljerica. Legend has it that one Niko Lale was an especially talented player even though one of his fingers was broken. One day, he had enough of working in the fields and screamed “No more farming for me!” – oddly, in perfect English. From then on he was a full time party animal and became known as Linđo.