• elzbieta bilicka


Updated: Dec 28, 2018

One of the great advantages of being a piano student is that you have many excuses to travel around the world. If you're canny enough you can find plenty of opportunities that will be no burden on your budget- many competitions, festivals or summer academies offer scholarships or various funding options. Also, ministries of culture in most countries or private cultural organizations have special programs that cover summer camps for musicians and any other travel expenses connected with their education or performing.

The Sponza Palace and the Franciscan Monastery

This summer I participated in workshops with Maria Joao-Pires in Dubrovnik, the most popular tourist destination in Croatia. The entire value of the city lies in its medieval old town surrounded by about 5 m (16.4 feet) tall walls that run almost 2 k (1.2 miles). This is a trade mark of Dubrovnik, figuring on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 1979. It was a filming location of a few blockbusters, eg. 'Games of Thrones' TV series, the new 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' and 2017 'Robin Hood'. Once you walk thorugh the walls you literally have a feeling that you've been pushed roughly 13 centuries back by some time machine. If you cut the shops , restaurants and wild crowds of tourists out of the picture you may get an impression that nothing has changed here since the early medieval times. This is an illusion, though.

The old town suffered quite recently from the artilery bombardment during the Siege of Dubrovnik, a part of the Croatian War of Independence, which lasted between October 1991 and May 1992. Almost 90 civilians were killed, most of current Dubrovnik citizens remember these events and this is a very sensitive topic. I've had a chance to meet a few locals and my impression was that they don't like to talk about the details (the subject was often covered by the joke "It was so much better then - the city was utterly empty, no tourists whatsoever... the only drawback was that you could die any moment"). It also seems to me that there's a lot of unspoken anger and frustration left in people after those times. The older generation is extremely sensitive and hostile towards their Jugoslavian neighbours and anything connected with their culture. If you happen to speak Serbian, don't dare use it in a conversation with an elderly Croatian. On the other hand, the young generation seems to handle the difficult history of their countries pretty well - at some point we were having dinner with a guy from Serbia, two girls from Croatia and one from Bosnia and Herzegovina, all sitting at one table and talking with each other in their own languages that, they claimed, are almost the same.

Anyway, the damage of the old town is not visible at all now. Once you push yourself through the entrance gate (in the summer expect to stand in a long line) sightseeing route is almost obvious since the city is extremely compact. You start next to the fountain. If you fancy natural medicine and cosmetics, visit a medieval pharmacy on the left which offers herbal creams, drugs, mysterious elixirs and air conditioning (priceless in 35 centigrade, 95 degrees Fahrenheit, August heat). The pharmacy is not the easiest to spot, there's no banner or indication- you need to walk inside the gate leading to the museum. The pharmacy is the right door at the and of the passage.

The Main Street with the Franciscan Monastery

When you come back to the Main Street, keep walking towards the church tower of the Franciscan Monastery which you will see ahead. You'll pass plenty of gift shops, restaurants (avoid these ones- Dubrovnik in general is famous for skyrocketing prices but eating on the Main Street is a financial suicide for a student) and banks. If you have to exchange the money - Croatia's currency is the kuna - use a bank, not one of many agressively advertised exchange points at the city gates (for obvious reasons). Also, while you're on the Main Street, enjoy the stroll for this is the widest street in the old town of Dubrovnik; hence, the relatively fast flow of pedestrians. Watch out not to slip on the sidewalk- the stones are so polished by milions of tourists that they are literally glittering.

When you reach the Franciscan Monastery, take a few pictures of probably the most beautiful building in Dubrovnik which you'll have on your right, St. Blaises's Church. It faces another famous sight, the 16th century Sponza Palace. Next to the Franciscan tower the street turns right and you can either keep walking it and pass the characteristic Rector's Palace with a beautiful porch with columns and arches on your left or walk through the gate under the Franciscan tower and get to the marina. You'll find a few open-air restaurants, there (the locals don't recommend them, though) and a passage to a stone pier, the point from where you can get the best view over the Lokrum Island. You can take a boat trip there from this marina, it's said to have a plenty of great beaches and super posh restaurants. Beware not to miss the last boat back, though, because staying over the night on the island is legally forbidden. The sea police patrol the Lokrum every evening and deport the disobedient with a fine back to Dubrovnik. If you get tired from the crowd and wish to find a few moments of a relative silence, come to the pier in the late evening but don't walk on it, turn right where it starts instead and walk on stones surrounding the walls as far as you can. This is a bathing and diving spot for teenagers but the later it gets, the fewer people are left and if you're patient you might get a few quiet minutes with the sea, the Lokrum Island ahead and the moon above.

The Rector's Palace

Back within the walls, the Rector's Palace offers a special treat for music lovers in the summer. Each July and August Dubrovnik Summer Festival hosts local and international musicians. During our workshops, we had a chance to listen to Daniil Trifonov's recital. The square shaped, one-storey, atriumlike venue with no roof on top is really worth seeing. Accousticswise it's not too convenient but Trifonov's no beginner so it didn't disturb him at all. His ability to create trancelike moods with the softest piano seemed to enchant the entire hall, packed so tightly that people were hanging like grapes from between the columns on the first floor.

This short list covers all must-see monuments in Dubrovnik. But of course, the old town hides much more. There are countless narrow streets filled with a whole colony of wild cats. Be prepared that they'll rub against your legs when you eat in one of the open-air restaurants with excellent sea-food. From time to time you'll spot a passage through the walls to tiny, stony beaches if you'd like a quick swim, though expect that they'll be stuffed with people.

All in all, Dubrovnik is an interesting and a definitely picturesque city but I wish I had visited it in a less busy time of a year. I think such a tourist congestion simply spoils the whole experience. The town's walls are incredibly heated up themselves but the wild crowds of people add to this and make it truely unbearable. Though if you manage to go to Dubrovnik in a cooler time, get a chance to walk the streets in a normal paste and actually see all the monuments with no people in the view, I say it's definitely a place you can fall in love with.


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