Jun 272018

On this date in 1358, the Republic of Ragusa, centered on Dubrovnik in Dalmatia, became independent from Venice and remained an independent maritime enclave until 1808. I am sure that if you ask the average English speaker where Ragusa is (or was), they will have no idea. If you ask a French, Italian, or Dalmatian speaker you are likely to get a more informed answer because in those (and other) languages, Ragusa is another name for Dubrovnik. Its Latin motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (It is not good to sell your liberty for all the gold [in the world]). The Republic of Ragusa was a compact area of southern Dalmatia – its final borders were formed by 1426 – comprising the mainland coast from Neum to the Prevlaka peninsula as well as the Pelješac peninsula and the islands of Lastovo and Mljet, as well as a number of smaller islands such as Koločep, Lopud, and Šipan. In the 15th century the Ragusan republic also acquired the islands of Korčula, Brač and Hvar for about eight years. However, they had to be given up due to the resistance of local minor aristocrats sympathizing with Venice, which was granting them some privileges.

According to the De administrando imperio of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, the city was founded, around the 7th century, by the inhabitants of the Roman city of Epidaurum (modern Cavtat) after its destruction by the Avars and Slavs ca. 615. Some of the survivors moved 25 kilometers (16 miles) north to a small island near the coast where they founded a new settlement which they called Lausa (“rocky island”). Excavations in 2007 revealed a Byzantine basilica from the 8th century and parts of the city walls. The size of the old basilica clearly indicates that this was a sizable settlement at the time. There is also evidence of older settlements (possibly Greek).

After the Fourth Crusade, Ragusa came under the sovereignty of Venice from 1205 to 1358. In this period it adopted Venetian laws and customs. After Venice was forced in 1358, by the Treaty of Zadar, to yield all claims to Dalmatia, Ragusa became an independent republic although it was to be a vassal of Louis I of Hungary. On 27th June 1358, the final agreement was reached at Visegrád between Louis and the Archbishop Ivan Saraka. The city recognized Hungarian sovereignty, but the local nobility continued to rule with little interference from Buda. Ragusa profited from the suzerainty of Louis of Hungary, whose kingdom was not a naval power, and so they had little conflict of interest. The last Venetian conte left, apparently in a hurry.

In 1399, the city acquired the area between Ragusa and Pelješac, called the Primorje (Dubrovačko primorje). It was purchased from Bosnian king Stephen Ostoja. A brief war with Bosnia in 1403 ended with Bosnian withdrawal. Between 1419 and 1426, the Konavle region, south of Astarea (Župa dubrovačka), including the city of Cavtat, was added to the Republic’s possessions. In 1458, Ragusa signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire which made it a tributary of the sultan. When in 1481 the city passed into Ottoman protection, it was to pay an increased tribute of 12,500 ducats. For all other purposes, however, Ragusa was virtually independent and usually allied with Maritime Republic of Ancona. Ragusa could enter into relations with foreign powers and make treaties with them (as long as they did not conflict with Ottoman interests), and its ships sailed under its own flag. Ottoman vassalage also conferred special trade rights that extended within the Ottoman empire. Ragusa handled the Adriatic trade on behalf of the Ottomans, and its merchants received special tax exemptions and trading benefits. It also operated colonies that enjoyed extraterritorial rights in major Ottoman cities.

Merchants from Ragusa could enter the Black Sea, which was otherwise closed to non-Ottoman shipping. They paid less in customs duties than other foreign merchants, and the city-state enjoyed diplomatic support from the Ottoman administration in trade disputes with the Venetians. Ragusa reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, when its maritime mercantile regime rivalled that of Venice and other Italian maritime republics.

Ragusa adopted what are now regarded as modern laws and institutions early in its history: a medical service was introduced in 1301, with the first pharmacy, still operating to this day, being opened in 1317. An almshouse was opened in 1347, and the first quarantine hospital (Lazarete) was established in 1377. Slave trading was abolished in 1418, and an orphanage opened in 1432. A 20 km (12 mi) water supply system, instead of a cistern, was constructed in 1438 by the Neapolitan architect and engineer Onofrio della Cava. He completed the aqueduct with two public fountains. He also built a number of mills along one of its branches.

The city was ruled by the local aristocracy which was of Latin-Dalmatian extraction and formed two city councils. As usual for the time, they maintained a strict system of social classes. The republic abolished the slave trade early in the 15th century and greatly valued liberty. The city successfully balanced its sovereignty between the interests of Venice and the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

The languages spoken by the people were the Romance Dalmatian and common Croatian. The latter had started to replace Dalmatian little by little since the 11th century among the common people who inhabited the city. Florentine and Venetian became important languages of culture and trade in Dubrovnik. At the same time, Dubrovnik became a cradle of Croatian literature.

The economic wealth of the Republic was partially the result of the land it developed, but mostly because of seafaring trade. With the help of skilled diplomacy, Dubrovnik merchants traveled lands freely and on the sea the city had a huge fleet of merchant ships that travelled all over the world. From these travels they founded some settlements, from India to the Americas, and brought parts of their culture and flora home with them. One of its keys to success was not conquering, but trading and sailing under a white flag with the Latin word “Libertas” (freedom) prominently featured on it. The flag was adopted when slave trading was abolished in 1418.

Ragusa gradually declined due to a combination of a Mediterranean shipping crisis and the catastrophic earthquake of 1667 which killed over 5,000 citizens and levelled most of the public buildings, and consequently negatively impacted the whole well-being of the Republic. In 1699, the Republic was forced to sell two mainland patches of its territory to the Ottomans in order to avoid being caught in the clash with advancing Venetian forces. Today this strip of land belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina and is that country’s only direct access to the Adriatic.

In 1806, the city surrendered to the Napoleonic army, since this was the only way to end a month-long siege by the Russian-Montenegrin fleets. At first, Napoleon demanded only free passage for his troops, promising not to occupy the territory and stressing that the French were friends of Dubrovnik. Later, however, French forces blockaded the harbors, forcing the government to give in and let French troops enter the city. On this day, all flags and coats of arms above the city walls were painted black as a sign of mourning. In 1808, Marshal Auguste de Marmont abolished the republic and integrated its territory first into Napoleon’s kingdom of Italy and later into the Illyrian provinces under French rule. This was to last until 28th January 1814 when the city surrendered to Captain Sir William Hoste leading a body of British and Austrian troops who were besieging the fortress.

I have visited Dubrovnik several times because Croatia is home to a set of traditional dances that are related to morris dancing and other European dances that I have researched and written on for 4 decades. Colleagues have organized academic conferences in the region, and I have also brought dancers to perform alongside locals. One of my favorite dishes when I visit is octopus salad, a dish much loved by locals as a first course. All I really need to do is describe the dish for you to get the idea. It is made from slices or chunks of octopus with vegetables, sometimes potatoes or lettuce, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, and chilled. The trick is knowing how to cook the octopus so that it is tender, because it is all too easy to have it turn out tough and rubbery. Local cooks have all manner of “tricks” which are more superstition than useful. Some will tell you to add a splash of wine to the cooking water and add the wine cork to it when cooking, for example. This is a waste of time.  There are 2 mistakes that novice cooks make all the time: (1) cooking the octopus too quickly (2) cooking the octopus too long. What I did not know for many years is that you do not have to immerse octopus in water to cook it.

Start by peeling an onion and studding it with cloves. Place it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid and place the octopus beside it. Put the lid on and set the heat under the pot to the lowest possible. The rule of thumb for cooking time is 1 hour plus 30 minutes per kilo. Croatian cooks poke the onion with a fork, and when it is soft in the middle the octopus is ready. However, what counts as “soft” is a matter of experience. The bigger the octopus, the bigger the onion, also. Remove the octopus from the pot and let it cool to the touch. Cut off the head, and then cut the tentacles into chunks (keeping the tips whole). Now it becomes cook’s choice. Toss the octopus with a vegetable or vegetables of your choice. This could be salad greens, or diced, poached potatoes, or even just chopped parsley – or any combination. I have had it all ways. Dress the salad with extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, toss again to coat evenly, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Serve in small portions on chilled plates.

Oct 082013


Today is Independence Day in Croatia. In June 1991 Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, with the declaration officially taking effect on 8th October of the same year. It still took 4 years of war with Serbia for the sovereignty of the nation to be lasting, however. But eventually Croatia became self governing following 900 years of domination by other states. 8th October is also significant because it was the coronation date in 1076 of Dmitar Zvonimir, who was, for all intents and purposes, the last king of an independent Croatia before it fell under the control of foreign powers.

Ethnic Croats probably arrived in the area of present-day Croatia during the early part of the 7th century. By the 9th century Croatia consisted of two duchies, which combined to become a kingdom under Tomislav in 925. The kingdom of Croatia retained its sovereignty for nearly two centuries, reaching its peak during the reigns of kings Peter Krešimir IV and Dmitar Zvonimir.

Not much is known about Zvonomir although he holds a prominent symbolic place in contemporary Croatia as a great leader of a free Croatia (hence his coronation date and Independence Day coincide). He was crowned on 8 October 1076 at Solin in the Basilica of Saint Peter and Moses (known today as the Hollow Church, an archeological site) by a representative of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). After the Papal legate crowned him, Zvonimir gave the city of Vrana and the Benedictine monastery of Saint Gregory to the Pope as a sign of loyalty. He is also known for building a three-naved basilica near Knin, his capital, and the city is today nicknamed “Zvonimir’s city”. He continued the expansive and pro-Roman policies of his predecessor, maintaining a close alliance with the papacy. He supported Gregory in his fight for supremacy over the Holy Roman Empire, and made many domestic reforms, including the abolition of slavery.

There are several versions of the story of Zvonimir’s death. The most commonly accepted one, recorded by Thomas the Archdeacon, asserts that he died of natural causes.  Another account, from the Presbyter of Doclea, says that on 20 April 1089, desiring to heal the East-West Schism Pope Urban II asked Zvonimir, his strongest Balkan ally, to come to the military aid of Alexios I Komnenos against the Seljuks. Zvonimir convened the Sabor (council of nobles) at Kosovo Polje near Knin that year to mobilize the army on behalf of the pope and the emperor, but the nobility refused him and a rebellion erupted, leading to Zvonimir’s assassination at the hands of his own soldiers. His death marked the collapse of Croatian royal power. A legend arose, known as the Curse of Zvonomir, that as he lay dying he swore that because of this betrayal, Croatia would be ruled by foreigners for 900 years.


When Zvonomir’s successor, Stjepan II, died in 1091 Ladislaus I of Hungary claimed the Croatian crown. Opposition to the claim led to a war and eventual union of Croatia and Hungary in 1102 the terms of which are not clear, but which seemed to have given Hungary some control over Croatia. For the next four centuries, the Kingdom of Croatia saw increasing threat of Ottoman conquest and struggle against the Republic of Venice for control of coastal areas. The Venetians gained control over most of Dalmatia by 1428, with the exception of the city-state of Dubrovnik which became independent. Ottoman conquests led to the 1493 Battle of Krbava field and 1526 Battle of Mohács, both ending in decisive Ottoman victories. In 1527, faced with complete Ottoman conquest, the Croatian Parliament elected Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg to the Croatian throne. From that point until 1918 Croatia was under Habsburg domination with constant threats from Ottoman Turks, as well as Venetians and the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1918, after World War I, Croatia was included in the unrecognized State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs which seceded from Austria–Hungary and merged into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  A fascist Croatian puppet state existed during World War II. After the war, Croatia became a founding member and a federal constituent of Second Yugoslavia, a socialist state. In 1991, as part of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Croatia declared independence.

I spent several summers shortly after the Croatian War of Independence on islands off the Dalmatian coast conducting fieldwork on local culture, participating in conferences, and assisting local governments in their efforts to expand tourism.  As such I had considerable opportunity to sample the cooking of the region dominated by seafood from the Adriatic, combined with locally produced olive oil and wines.  Octopus features in many dishes, most especially the signature salata od hobotnice, octopus salad, as well squid in crni rižoto, black risotto, made by boiling the rice in squid ink.  You can make a very quick and cheap version of this by placing a tin of squid in its own ink in with some rice as it is boiling, draining the rice when it is cooked, and then mixing it with the heated squid and ink.

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Although seafood heavily predominates in Dalmatian cooking, there are traditional meat dishes due to the fact that island families often keep goats for milk and sheep for wool and meat.  Here is a recipe for tripice na Dalmatinski (Dalmatian style tripe) I got from a cook on the island of Lastovo. This is one of those recipes that is enjoyed in many countries, each with a slightly different regional twist.  However, the basics are the same: tripe and bacon simmered in a tomato and garlic sauce.  Most of the variations concern the kind of bacon to be used, and, believe me, this makes a considerable difference.   My favorite is pancetta, which is fairly easy to come by in the deli meat section of good supermarkets.  Pancetta is sometimes referred to as Italian bacon, but it is quite different from other kinds of bacon.  The meat is taken only from the belly, so that it is very fatty.  It is cured in salt and spices, but it is not smoked.  When it has finished curing it is rolled in sausage shapes and sliced very thinly.  It adds a much more delicate sweet meaty flavor to tomato sauces than ordinary bacon.  Basically, though, you can use whatever cured pork you favor.  Prosciutto is excellent, as is Canadian or Irish back bacon.  Even if you use plain old supermarket bacon you will still be rewarded with a hearty and robust meal.  Sheep or goat tripe is best for this dish but ox tripe will work.


Tripice Na Dalmatinski


1 ½ lbs fully cooked tripe, cut in bite-sized chunks
6 slices pancetta (or an equivalent amount of cured pork or bacon)
1 onion
1 cup light stock (veal or chicken)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper


Cut the pancetta slices into 4 or 6 pieces and gently fry them in a little extra virgin olive oil so that the fat is rendered, and the meaty portions are well cooked but not crisp.  Remove the pancetta from the pan and reserve.

Thinly slice the onion and sauté in the oil and bacon fat until soft.  Finely mince the garlic and add to the onions for an extra minute.  Do not let the garlic take on any color.

Heat the stock and dissolve the tomato paste in it, then add this mixture to the garlic and onions.  Bring to a gentle simmer and add the tripe, pancetta, and the chopped parsley, plus a few grinds of black pepper.  Continue to simmer for about 30 minutes.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and crusty bread.

Serves 4.