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The most beautiful jewel of Croatia’s cultural heritage, the old city of Dubrovnik, is located in the southernmost part of the sunniest Croatian tourist region of all: the Dalmatia-Dubrovnik area. It comprises one county, the County of Dubrovnik-Neretva, which extends almost entirely along the shore. And within it, Dubrovnik, the most beautiful and the most important, but by no means the only, cultural gem.

Also in this part of Croatia is the island of Korčula - the home of Marco Polo - the green islands of Mljet, Lastovo and the Elafiti with their picturesque settlements; the Pelješac peninsula, with its vineyards and the especially fine houses built by sea captains; the magical Konavle valley; the fertile River Neretva delta. The area of Dubrovnik underwent a quite distinct historical development, for it was here, in the period between the 13th and 18th centuries, that Croatian culture and art flourished, while the remainder of Dalmatia was under foreign rule. It reached its zenith in the 16th century, when the power of the famous Dubrovnik Republic was at its mightiest.
The vista of the OLD CITY OF DUBROVNIK, approached from the route way above the sea, from the direction of Dubrovnik airport, is one of the best known panoramas of Croatia and of the whole of the Mediterranean area. Indeed, the first sentence of the description of Dubrovnik in the UNESCO List of World Cultural Heritage begins with words: “Pearl of the Adriatic on the Dalmatian coast...”, for few are the cities which enjoy such a wonderful position on a rocky shoreline above the sea, and few are the places where Medieval stone walls and fortresses are so well preserved.

And they are there for a good reason: the beauty and wealth of Dubrovnik have made it the target of many would-be conquerors, including those engaged in the most recent war, fought in the final decade of the 20th century. Today, however, the cannons on the walls of Dubrovnik are not manned by soldiers but by a multitude of peace-loving tourists and performers in numerous theatre productions, folklore manifestations and other cultural events.

The main artery of Medieval Dubrovnik within its walls is Stradun at the western end of which is the Large Onofrio Fountain, while at the eastern end, in Luža Square, stands Orlando’s Column, symbol of the freedom of Dubrovnik. Luža Square is the most popular gathering place for tourists and one of the main venues for various events, particularly the main cultural events taking place as part of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.  Around Luža Square are the most important secular buildings of Medieval Dubrovnik: the Gothic-Renaissance Ducal Palace, once the centre of the Dubrovnik Civic Authorities, and Sponza Palace. Both date from the 15th century, as indeed does the majority of all key buildings in the Old City. In the Ducal Palace there is a lovely atrium, today a popular stage for theatre performances . The interior, which now serves as a museum, contains numerous items of old furniture, paintings and sculptures, even the sedan-chairs of Dubrovnik’s nobility. Sponza Palace, once the custom house, and today the Archives of the City of Dubrovnik, also has a beautiful atrium.

The main sacral buildings of the Old City are also set around Luža Square: the church of St Blasius, patron saint of Dubrovnik, and the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. Both boast the sumptuousness of the Baroque, as they were built towards the end of the 17th century, following the catastrophic earthquake which struck Dubrovnik in 1667. In the cathedral there is a wonderful organ, and a treasury with precious exhibits the most important of which is the reliquary of the head of St Blasius.

The city nucleus of Dubrovnik contains several finely-built monasteries with superbly appointed interiors. Within the Jesuit monastery is the church of St Ignatius, the walls of which are adorned with frescoes; the Franciscan monastery which houses a collection of old apothecaries’ utensils, while the Dominican monastery displays a rich collection of paintings and a finely appointed courtyard. Among the sacral edifices of other denominations is the 15th-century synagogue, the second-oldest in Europe when measured by continuity of use.

Dubrovnik is famous for its museums too, attracting close to half a million visitors each year. Alongside the most popular, in the Ducal Palace, there is the Maritime Museum where one can learn everything about the maritime history of Dubrovnik, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The surroundings of Dubrovnik do not abound in monumental buildings, but those that are there have been superbly blended into the greenery of the environment, particularly in the southernmost corner of Croatia, the fertile valley of KONAVLE.

The geographical position of this area, bordered by high mountains, has ensured that the Croatian national identity within it has remained particularly strong. This is demonstrated by, among other things, the preservation of folk costumes and the traditional architectural heritage, such as the Konavoski dvori (Konavle House) at the source of the small River Ljuta. The ethnographic treasures of Konavle are kept in the Ethnographic Museum in Ćilipi. The most southern part of Konavle, and of the entire Croatian mainland, is the tiny peninsula of Prevlaka, whose significance lies in its strategic position of control over the entrance into Boka kotorska Bay in neighbouring Montenegro, which is why Prevlaka is still dominated by a monumental fortress.

The central settlement in Konavle is the picturesque town of Cavtat, birth place of the great Croatia painter Vlaho Bukovac. His parental home has been transformed into a gallery of his paintings. The second treasured adornment of Cavtat is the Račić Family Mausoleum dating from 1921, the work of the Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović.

Extending west of the city is the Dubrovnik littoral, famous for the summer houses of its most illustrious citizens. On one such estate, in the lovely village of Trsteno, the most beautiful arboretum in Croatia has been cultivated. Growing in a relatively small area is a wide variety of subtropical plants, flowers and trees. The entire arboretum has been conceived as a landscaped park with sculptures, the best-known among them being a statue of the Greek god Poseidon, standing in front of a lovely fountain. Throughout the arboretum rest places have been arranged from whence one can enjoy views of the open sea.

Still further west is, nature-wise, the most special part of the Dubrovnik region: The River Neretva Delta, with preserved wetland landscapes and picturesque places like the old town of Opuzen. Where once stood ancient Narona, today is the village of Vid, adorned by a statue of Prince Domagoj’s Archers, defenders of Croatian independence in the early Middle Ages.

Setting sail from the Dubrovnik littoral towards the island of Korčula the route takes us past the wine-growing PELJEŠAC peninsula. The old centre of the peninsula is the small and lovely town of Ston sitting on the isthmus joining the peninsula to the mainland. Stretching between Ston and neighbouring Mali Ston (Little Ston), renowned for its cultivation of oysters, are the impressive defensive walls, with partially preserved remnants of old fortresses.

In the western part of Pelješac is Orebić, its largest settlement, famous for being a centre of sea captains. The strong maritime tradition of Orebić is demonstrated by two collections: one in the Maritime Museum, and the other as part of the holdings of the Franciscan monastery on the hill above the town. From this vantage point, next to the church of Our Lady of Angels, one can enjoy unforgettable views of the Pelješac channel, Korčula and other islands.

KORČULA, the largest island in the Dubrovnik area, also offers a wealth of grand and wonderful buildings, particularly in the island’s homonymous capital. Its present-day appearance dates mostly from the period between the 14th and 16th centuries when, in contrast to the rest of the Dubrovnik area, it belonged to Venice. Korčula is almost unique for the fish-bone pattern arrangement of its streets, and for its preserved Gothic-Renaissance buildings.

The most striking among these buildings is the Cathedral of St Mark with a richly decorated exterior and interior, in which hangs a painting by the great Venetian painter, Tintoretto. The second most important sacral building is the Franciscan monastery on the small island of Badija, located close to the city, whose exterior is also richly decorated. The Museum of the City of Korčula contains exhibits ranging from the oldest of times down to the 20th century.

But most intriguing for visitors to Korčula is the house of the Polo family, for it is from here that its most famous son came: that great world adventurer, Marco Polo. The people of Korčula lovingly maintain their heritage, as can be seen by the organization of church festivities, and even more so by the medieval play of chivalry, the Moreška, which is traditionally enacted once each year through the streets of the city.

Two towns located in the west of the island, Vela Luka and Blato, also boast a valuable cultural heritage. Situated above Vela Luka, praised in a lovely song, is Vela Spila (Great Cave), the most important prehistoric locality in Dalmatia. Findings from the cave have included numerous items of pottery, objects made of stone and bone dating from the Neolithic period, and decorated graves. The enchanting town of Blato, located in the interior of the island and which once contained the largest settlement of all the Adriatic islands, is today well known for its high quality standards of agriculture and its preserved ambiental architecture.

The two most remote islands of the Dubrovnik area, MLJET and LASTOVO, are better known for their natural heritage (Mljet National Park and Lastovo Nature Park) than for their cultural heritage. That however, does not mean there are no interesting cultural monuments on those islands. The most important of these is the 12th-century Benedictine monastery situated on a tiny islet in the middle of the Great Lake, within Mljet National Park.
On Lastovo it is the homonymous settlement that catches the attention: it is spread in the fashion of an amphitheatre on the slopes of the mount overlooking a fertile field It is also known for the imagination shown in the shape of house chimneys, preserved folk costumes, and a carnival with a quaintness all of its own. And rising on the most far-flung isles in the waters of Lastovo, Sušac and Glavat, are very special architectural pearls: old, 19th-century lighthouses.

And now, at the very end of our journey through Dalmatia, and Croatia as a whole, it would be remiss of us not to make mention of the Elafiti islands which spread out before Dubrovnik, with their enchanting summer houses and castles dating from the most glorious period of the famous Republic of Dubrovnik. Most of them are located on the island of Šipan, the most beautiful among them being the 16th-century Renaissance castle of the Stjepović-Skočibuha family.

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