Viewed from the sea, and at first sight, the place somewhat resembles Monte Carlo with its white villas, palms, and background of rugged, gray hills. But this is the modern portion of the town, outside the fortifications, erected many centuries ago. Within them lies the real Ragusaa wonderful old city which teems with interest, for its time-worn buildings and picturesque streets recall, at every turn, the faded glories of this “South Slavonic Athens.” A bridge across the moat which protects the old city is the link between the present and past. In new Ragusa you may sit on the crowded esplanade of a fashionable watering place; but pass through a frowning archway into the old town, and, save in the main street, which has modern shops and other up-to-date surroundings, you might be living in the dark ages. For as far back as in the ninth century Ragusa was the capital of Dalmatia and an independent republic, and since that period her literary and commercial triumphs, and the tragedies she has survived in the shape of sieges, earthquakes, and pestilence, render the records of this little-known state almost as engrossing as those of ancient Rome.
Until I came here I had pictured a squalid Eastern place, devoid of ancient or modern interest; most of my fellow-countrymen probably do likewise, nothwithstanding the fact that when London was a small and obscure town Ragusa was already an important center of commerce and civilization. The republic was always a peaceful one, and its people excelled in trade and the fine arts. Thus, as early as the fourteenth century the Ragusan fleet was the envy of the world; its vessels were then known as Argusas to British mariners, and the English word “Argosy” is probably derived from the name.
These tiny ships went far afieldto the Levant and Northern Europe, and even to the Indiesa voyage frought, in those days, with much peril. At this epoch Ragusa had achieved a mercantile prosperity unequalled throughout Europe, but in later years the greater part of the fleet joined and perished with the Spanish Armada.
And this catastrophe was the precursor of a series of national disasters. In 1667 the city was laid waste by an earthquake which killed over twenty thousand people, and this was followed by a terrible visitation of the plague, which further decimated the population. Ragusa, however, was never a large city, and even at its zenith, in the sixteenth century, it numbered under forty thousand souls, and now contains only about a third of that number.
In 1814 the Vienna Congress finally deprived the republic of its independence, and it be-came (with Dalmatia) an Austrian possession. Trade has not increased here of recent years, as in Herzegovina and Bosnia. The harbor, at one time one of the most important ports in Europe, is too small and shallow for modern shipping, and the oil industry, once the back-bone of the place, has sadly dwindled of late years.
Ragusa itself now having no harbor (worthy of the name, the traveler by sea must land at Gravosa about a mile north of the old city. Gravosa is merely a suburb of ware-houses, shipping, and sailor-men, as unattractive as the London Docks, and the Hotel Petko swarmed with mosquitoes and an animal which seems to thrive and flourish throughout the Balkan Statesthe rat.
The old Custom House is perhaps the most beautiful building in Ragusa, and is one of the few which survived the terrible earthquake of 1667. The structure bears the letters “I. H. S.” over the principal entrance in commemoration of this fact. Its courtyard is a dream of beauty, and the stone galleries around it are surrounded with inscriptions of great age.
Ragusa is a Slav town, but altho the name of streets appear in Slavonic characters, Italian is also spoken on every side and the “Stradone,” with its arcades and narrow precipitous alleys at right angles, is not unlike a street in Naples. The houses are built in small blocks, as a protection against earthquakesthe terror of every Ragusan (only mention the word and he will cross himself)and here on a fine Sunday morning you may see Dalmatians, Albanians, and Herzegovinians in their gaudiest finery, while here and there a wild-eyed Montenegrin, armed to the teeth, surveys the gay scene with a scowl, of shyness rather than ill humor.
Outside the cafe, on the Square (where flocks of pigeons whirl around as at St. Mark’s in Venice), every little table is occupied; but here the women are gowned in the latest Vienna fashions, and Austrian uniforms predominate. And the sun shines as warmly as in June (on this 25th day of March), and the cathedral bells chime a merry accompaniment to a military band; a sky of the brightest blue gladdens the eye, fragrant flowers the senses, and the traveler sips his bock or mazagran, and thanks his stars he is not spending the winter in cold, foggy England. Refreshments are served by a white-aproned garcon, and street boys are selling the “Daily Mail” and “Gil Blas,” just as they are on the far-away boulevards of Paris.