We decided to go to Dubrovnik because it came highly recommended by friends for its history and coastal location, and we could afford to go. No one told us that the Croatian city also held one of the largest collections of relics that we would likely ever see.
After an initial walk around the walled Old Town, some seafood and very welcome cold beers, we researched all the things we wanted to do. None of them involved Game of Thrones or Star Wars (both of which have used Dubrovnik as a backdrop on countless occasions) but most involved architecture and cemeteries. I used to just look for the nearest or most impressive cemetery when going abroad, but after the breathtaking Reliqaury Treasury I now thoroughly research relics too.
Our holiday apartment was on a hill above the centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town and there were a number of interesting sights along the walk to the city walls. The first was Boninovo Cemtery, one of the largest in Dubrovnik with nearly 2000 graves covering a multitude of religions. It seems that the cemetery was initially founded by the Jewish community in the early 1800s, and subsequently other religions followed suit, acquiring space of their own at Boninovo. The mix of religions – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish – as well as the evolving styles, meant that the sprawling cemetery was infitinitely interesting. The cemetery seemed to be laid out rather like an old mansion, eccentrically built and forever extended. Every gate we went through or edge we reached seemingly revealed another part of the cemetery, in a different style and of a different age. There was an underground columbarium, simple mausoleums with beautifully rusted gates and endless white stone markers. By one road entrance to the cemetery, there was a florist who also sold a variety of memorial candles, the kind that come in religious designs made of red plastic. I’d only ever seen these for sale at Highgate Cemetery (and in their gift shop) so I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to buy one knowing I was just going to take it home rather than place it on a grave. We walked passed the shop twice a day for a week and on the last day I bought myself a beautiful heart-shaped one. The florist didn’t seem to mind at all.
There was another cemetery, almost the polar opposite of Boninovo, we found by accident while talking a walk to the Capuchin monastery and an abandoned pub. After some research I believe it was a Home Guard cemetery, but it didn’t seem like it was still in use. It was very small, with creaking gates and long grass. There was one, large monument opposite the gates against the wall. I have no idea what it said. It does not appear on google maps and for most taphohiles would not hold much interest, but I like finding places I wasn’t looking for. The cats that sat on the gravestones did not seem peterbed by us being there.
The day after this chance find came another, but in every way more spectacular. As I’ve mentioned before, I go into every Catholic church and cathedral I come across in the hopes of finding a relic. I find the idea of displaying someone’s bones or blood as a kind of talisman in the name of Christianity, fascinating. We were wandering around the Old Town, probably trying to find a hidden bar we’d read about on Tripadvisor, when I saw what I thought was a simple church with its door open. It turned out to be a cathedral, but the outside was giving nothing away. We almost missed what was inside too, as it was covered in scaffolding and plastic sheets. As we walked around Dubrovnik Cathedral, my eyes keen for a relic, I spotted pressed medallions in one of the side altars. They were under glass and seemed to show guilded legs. Recognising these as saintly medals for followers to wear, I began looking for the leg in question. There was some laminated information pinned to a column nearby, thankfully in English, which showed the Holy Treasury, including legs, torsos and heads. It also described its location in the cathedral, which I would have missed. An unassuming lady behind a small table was taking an entrance fee, the handwritten sign did not exactly promote the Treasury, and we followed her gestures to go through the plastic sheeting. An automatic light lit up the small side room as we entered revealing a floor to ceiling collection of saintly body parts. I was in awe.
Behind a plastic screen there were gold guilt legs, arms, craniums, whole torsos, enough to make up several complete bodies. Carved wooden boxes held scraps of cloth and bone and other things too small or dusty to see. There were reportedly pieces of the cross and baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth among the collection. We stood there for several minutes just trying to take it all in. With the protective screen so close to the entrance door it was difficult to get a good view of everything and being a well behaved tourist I adhered to the sign that said ‘no photography’. Thankfully no other visitors came in while I was craning and crawling around to see as much as possible. The only photo I took was one of me outside the cathedral grinning like a loon (above), it really was one of the highlights of the trip and my spooky little life. I’ve included a photo from the Atlas Obscura however, as descriptions do not do it justice. It was odd though, that a room filled with saintly parts didn’t feel moving in anyway, other than the shock at seeing so many in one place. It was almost as if the more there were, the less rare and special they seemed. It was still amazing.
We took the obligatory island boat trip (well worth it) and were rewarded with remote chapels and untouched cemeteries. On Kolocep Island, we discovered a small cemetery and a tiny church, Crkvica sv. Nikole na groblju, which only opens one day a year – All Saints Day, the day after Halloween. It being September all I could do was peek inside and imagine what it looked like.
The only let down on this holiday, macabre sightseeing-wise, was that we didn’t make it to the haunted island. Nobody lives on the island of Daksa and locals refuse to go there after the massacre in 1944. According to reports, and forensic investigations, suspected Nazi sympathisers in Dubrovnik were rounded up and taken to Daksa to be shot and left to rot where they fell. They had no trial and their families were warned not to ask questions or risk the same fate. They have since been buried and a memorial raised. On our boat trip to the other, inhabited islands, we asked one of our crewmen about the possibility of going to Daksa. He simply said no boats went there, and the only way to get there was to swim as there was nowhere for a boat to moor because of the rocks. He said he had swum out there but seemed reluctant to say much more. We saw it from our boat but got no closer to my dismay.
I have no doubt that I will go back to Dubrovnik. Apart from the amazing seafood and breathtaking views, there are relics I have yet to discover and, more importantly, a haunted island I have yet to set foot on.