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Magic Kingdom

Within the Adriatic fortress of Dubrovnik, cafés, churches and palaces reflect 1,000 years of turbulent history

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The fisherman had set the nets the night before and now, as the cathedral bells began to chime the start of a new day, they steered the small dory through Dubrovnik’s harbor gate and into the Adriatic. The boat turned into the wind and churned along the massive city wall that 12 centuries before with- stood a 15-month siege by marauding Saracens. Off to port loomed the pine-forested island of Lokrum, where King Richard I of England, the Lion Heart, was rescued from a shipwreck, it is said, while returning from the Third Crusade in 1192.

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“Sometimes out here I feel as if I’m living five centuries ago,” said Nino Surjan, 60, as he slowly began hauling in nets studded with small tuna. “Kids today learn about Croatia, but when I was growing up we studied the Republic of Dubrovnik—a magical place that survived more than a thousand years without an army or a king.”

 

When the foredeck was littered with fish, Surjan produced a bottle of rakija (a plum brandy), took a generous gulp and handed the flask to Miho Hajtilovic, who leaned on the tiller and turned the vessel toward home. Time seemed to flow backward as the dory puttered past Renaissance palaces, the domes of Gothic churches and the medieval redoubt of Lovrijenac, outside the city walls, guarding the seaward approach to the city.

 

History resides everywhere here. “I was a child during the Italian occupation of parts of Croatia in World War II, and I still remember when the Partisans won that war,” the 71-yearold helmsman said. “Today, Tito’s communism seems to have vanished in the wind. I think it’s easier for people who have a past to put their lives in perspective.”

 

While Surjan coiled the nets, Hajtilovic loaded the fish onto a small dolly and manuevered it through the narrow harbor gate to the morning market in Gundulic Square . Already, sidewalk cafés along Stradun, the main pedestrian way, were filling with people absently watching clerics, tradesmen and professionals scurry to work. Up a narrow lane, a group of children straggled past a 16th-century church.

 

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