Dubrovnik’s religious heritage

On assignment in Croatia, Wanderlust reader Vicki Matthews uncovers a city of churches, monasteries and synagogues

4 mins

There’s a little church by the sea, right by the sea – almost in it, in fact. Such was my impression of ‘Our Lady of Danče Church’ (also known as the ‘Church of St Mary’). I was almost envious of the nuns having a break from their toil in the carefully laid gardens of herbs, vines and fruit trees.

My eyes were absorbing the green of the trees surrounding me in Gradac Park, the rocks of the Pile coast, the peninsula of Lapad and of course the Fortress of Lovriljenac. The sea could be seen twinkling on Dubrovnik’s Old Port, beyond the eastern wall.

The sound of the waves hitting the rocks was a gentle rhythmic beat, mixed with the male voices of a conversation close by; otherwise there was just peace and quiet, solitude from the hordes in Dubrovnik’s Old Town and the October sun. What a place in which to meditate on life both now and that of eternity.

Religion and faith is a subtlety often missed by a quick visit; so much is overlooked and misunderstood with only a fly-through down Stradun (the main street).

But religion is ingrained in Dubrovnik’s history of diplomacy and peace: evident in the existence of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the heart of the city, in spite of the relatively recent War of Independence.

The Franciscan Monastery at the western Pile Gate, and the Dominican Monastery at the eastern Ploče Gate, set the scene for the tone of the city. Icons adorn each of the city’s old gates, where citizens both young and old cross themselves on entering; the flowers decorate the frames in contrast to the white limestone walls.

Inside the gates, shops and coffee bars are adorned with icons and pictures of saints, in subtle reverence of faith and trust. Similarly, there are pictures of Mary, saints and crosses hidden among the wares of jewellery and paintings for sale, as well as rosary beads adorning buses and cars.

Less subtle are the religious buildings dominating the eastern side of the Old Town: the cluster of the Church of St Blaise, the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church (and College). The former is the church dedicated to the patron saint of the city, martyred by the Romans, who is celebrated on the 6th February each year. Its understated baroque style comes alive during mass, when voices are raised to God and the coloured stained glass windows inside spread colour like faith onto Luza Square at night, reverberating the city’s faith onto the shining limestone pavement like glass.

A further reminder of the dominance of religion is the cross that adorns Mount Srd, declaring the majesty of Jesus high above the city. The cross was erected in 1935 to celebrate 2,000 years since Jesus’ birth and can be reached by cable car.

There’s a lot to discover off the beaten track, away from the crowds, that also shows the religious history and life of the city. See if you can spot the 30 churches originally from trade guilds that are spread around the streets - some where people still worship, some derelict and some which are used for exhibiting art or other crafts. Use the Isus insignia (IHS) and bell towers to discover them.

Also take time to visit Dubrovnik Synagogue, the second oldest in Europe, on Jew Street (Ulica Žudioska). As well as religious relics there are articles from a seemingly forgotten history of the city: notices from 1941 declare the restriction of the movement of Jews, and on display a yellow band worn during Nazi-occupied Europe. An understated humble frame contains the names of the city’s 27 Holocaust victims. 

The question I find myself asking is, if Dubrovnik had still been a republic (Republic of Ragusa, 1358-1806) at the time of the Second World War, would things have been different for its ingrained faith, religion and diplomacy?

I am brought back to the present by the religious graffiti in Gradac Park proclaiming ‘Jesus Isus’. Ironically, this is no new phenomenon. On Ulica Zlatarićeva, graffiti remains from 1597 - written by a priest, who, frustrated with children playing ball up against the church walls, scrawled ‘peace be with you, remember you are going to die as are those who play ball’.

History and faith are living and alive in this city, and waiting to be discovered.

Vicki Matthews travelled to Dubrovnik with Wanderlust Journeys.

Want to take a trip with the Wanderlust team to improve your travel writing or photography skills? Find out about upcoming trips here, including assignments to Istanbul and Berlin.

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