Discover hidden treasures in Dubrovnik: Silk Production in Konavle
Discover unique tradition of silk production and an amazing local delicacies
Once the capital of a wealthy trading republic, today the coastal city of Dubrovnik is the most-visited destination in Croatia. It’s a stunningly beautiful, atmospheric walled citadel. But there is so much more to discover in the county surrounding the medieval stronghold. From scenic Mediterranean landscapes to delicious local cuisine, from interesting old settlements to beautiful traditional crafts, you don’t have to go far to discover wonderful hidden treasures in Dubrovnik. One particular craft, however, has a fascinating history that may surprise you. Let’s have a look at Dubrovnik’s unique tradition of silk production.
A brief history of Dubrovnik
Local folklore suggests that refugees fleeing a nearby Roman city founded the city in the 7th century AD. Recent archeological studies and finds, however, appear to refute the stories, proposing that older Greek settlers actually founded Dubrovnik. Either way, the city grew steadily on the back of trade and shipping, protected from attacks by sea or land by enormous medieval rampart walls that still stand today.
After the Christian Crusades ended, Dubrovnik came under the control of the Republic of Venice, until a peace treaty in 1358 gave the city relative independence. And by the 1500s, Dubrovnik was the capital of the wealthy sea-faring Republic of Ragusa and at the very pinnacle of its golden age.
It had a large merchant fleet to rival Genoa and Venice in size, trading throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It had diplomatic representatives in over 50 foreign ports. And its citizens were a fabulous mix of weather-beaten sailors, diplomats, hard-nosed salesmen and rich, canny merchants who knew how to make money and spend it, too.
Life was becoming much more sophisticated, with interest expanding and spreading into the arts, culture and the finest products money could buy. But sadly, the republic didn’t last, finally falling, like its Venetian cousin, to Napoleon’s army in 1806. More recently Dubrovnik came under Austrian and then Yugoslavian control, before finally becoming part of the newly-formed country of Croatia after achieving total independence in late 1991.
Exploring Konavle, south of Dubrovnik
As the wealth of Dubrovnik grew, its territory also expanded. In the 15th century the republic bought land to the south, around the attractive towns of Konavle and little Cavtat, taking in some wonderfully hilly terrain, bounded by the glorious Adriatic Sea to the south and the Konavle mountains to the north.
The sparse rocky area is dotted with simple, rural architecture, a little agriculture and some spectacular views out over the Adriatic. But it also holds the secret of one of the most important hidden treasures in the area around Dubrovnik. This is where Croatia’s silk-makers live. Let’s take a closer look.
The silk making ladies of Konavle
Within the region, Konavle has been renowned for the production of silk thread from live silkworms for centuries. And silk has become an intrinsic part of local tradition, particularly as a key element of local costumes, both for men and women. But how on earth did silkworms make the epic journey from China in the East to Dubrovnik?
The Chinese discovered how to extract silk from the cocoons of the silk worm as long ago as 2850 BC. And as the silk fabric that could be woven from it was so luxurious and sought after, they guarded the secret of where silk came from for hundreds of years. Theft or trying to transport silk worms out of China was considered so serious that it was punishable by death.
But secrets never last forever and Europeans finally learnt all about the mysteries of silk when a pair of Christian missionaries smuggled some silkworm pupae out of China in the 5th century BC. It would take another 2,000 years before silk production would start in Dubrovnik, however, with production starting in the 1400s and quickly becoming a vital part of local heritage.
To see silk production for yourselves and learn more about one of the most fascinating hidden treasures in Dubrovnik, topped off with some fabulous rural cuisine, why not take our fabulous full-day Konavle silk road tour? You’ll kick off in the coastal resort of Cavtat, pronounced Savtat, to visit the museum of Vlaho Bukovac, one of Croatia’s celebrated modern painters, and stroll along the beach promenade. And then it’s on to the silk workshop in Konavle.
Silk production first started in Konavle in the 15th century and the process hasn’t changed a bit, 600 years later. Your expert guide will take you to one of the last places where silkworms are raised and harvested in Europe, explaining how they’re cultivated, what they eat and how the thread is obtained. But Konavle artisans don’t just grow and spin silk thread, they also weave and embroider it into their regional costume. In fact, each new generation of women learnt the art of silk production as part of the preparation for their wedding, since silk was the most important material and decoration for their bridal clothes.
Today many locals still wear silk and embroidered clothing on special occasions so make sure you check out the fabulous embroidered collars, cuffs and belts worn by both men and women, especially at weddings. It’s an absolutely enthralling process and a unique opportunity to see centuries-old skills still at work.
After all that wonderful sightseeing, the ideal way to recharge your batteries is with lunch at a typical farm in the village of Cilipi. If you’re expecting a restaurant, however, think again. This is a family-run, private farmhouse normally closed to passing callers, but you are specially invited in to see how a traditional Croatian household is run. We buy our produce at supermarkets and convenience stores these days, while the family on this farm grows their own fruit and vegetables, and raises chickens and livestock. It’s truly one of the most delightful hidden treasures near Dubrovnik. And they’re extremely hospitable too, sharing their produce with you over a glass of wine.
So you’ll be well fed, enjoying prosciutto and homemade cheeses, followed by the main dish of peka. Made from a combination of veal and seasonal vegetables drizzled with Dalmatian olive oil and sprinkled with a wonderfully aromatic handful of herbs, peka is typical of the area. But the way it’s cooked is the highlight — Dalmatians typically use an iron, bell-like dome (isopod čripnje) nestled in their fireplaces, or even a special open-air oven, so that the peka cooks slowly. And the result is a delightfully tender meat dish to feast on. It’s another of the hidden treasures in Dubrovnik and is totally delicious so don’t miss it!
Ultimately, if you’re looking for some off-the-beaten track treasures near Dubrovnik for your next trip, make sure you speak to our lovely travel experts for help with your booking. Clearly you can’t go wrong with a visit to one of the last silk producers in Konavle. And a private lunch in an authentic Croatian farmhouse kitchen is a definite plus. So how soon can you have your bags packed for an unforgettable trip to Dubrovnik? Bon voyage!