Dubrovnik, Croatia: A mysterious 700-year-old pharmacy hidden inside a monastery

An open book sits on a narrow bench, its yellowed pages illustrated with botanical drawings of strange-looking herbs. To the side, a hand-painted table is littered with brass weights and medicine jars, strewn about as if Dr Jekyll himself has just left the building. In one corner an alcove is strung with chalices and chains.

"The Old Town of Dubrovnik is home to the third oldest operating pharmacy in Europe," our local guide Vesna says. She points to an array of implements that look as if they've come from a torturer's toolbox. "Yet most visitors don't know about it."

Through the Pile Gate and a side step beyond the main thoroughfare (Placa) we've stumbled upon a 700-year-old apothecary hidden inside a 14th-century Franciscan monastery. "The friars had more than 2000 recipes," Vesna says. "Everything from quite ordinary drugs to secret poisons and potions."

We had set out early with Vesna, walking the city walls before the crowds arrived, meeting artisans, taking shortcuts like the locals, and, when a sudden storm sent day trippers scurrying back to their cruise ships, finding ourselves inside a medieval pharmacy.

That's the joy of joining a small group tour like Gypsian Boutique Tours, a family-run business which gives you the chance to stay a few nights inside the Old Town, not a few hours.

Inside the museum (included with the Dubrovnik Card) we learn that the Friars Minor pharmacy has been in the health care business since 1317, when the monastery was established after being shifted inside the city walls from the Pile area.

Friars, it turns out, were the original pharmacists, a skill borne of their desire to take care of their sick brothers, as well as the wider community. Over the centuries they painstakingly reproduced their findings in pharmaceutical manuscripts and books.

The monastery library is considered to be one of the most significant in Croatia, a wealth of 20,000 treasures, including manuscripts, parchment fragments, paintings and a complete set of calligraphic books with instructions on how to "ease the pain of one's neighbour".

For me, the joy of travel is less about ticking big-ticket items and more about finding random threads that pull the tapestry of a city's history together; such as the pockmarks as evidence of shelling during the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik; a surviving sculpture of the Pieta from the 1667 great earthquake; a tablet with information about the 20,000 Dubrovnik residents who died of the plague in 1527.

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Leaving the museum we find another thread, a mid-14th-century Franciscan cloister and medicinal garden shaded by palms and fruit trees. It is here that those religious researchers experimented with herbs and flowers, magic and mint.

Built in Romanesque-Gothic style, the cloister is bound on four sides by arches and slim double columns, each decorated with a different capital of plant, human and animal-like figures. Treading the marble pavers, still slick from the earlier shower, we make our way across the square, the aroma of orange blossoms and rose petals wafting on the breeze. I'm immediately caught in a flight of fancy, seeing in my mind's eye a solitary friar walking between the rows, the hem of his tunic brushing against the sodden soil.

Back inside our last stop is the working part of the pharmacy where products made according to ancient (and secret) Franciscan recipes are available for purchase. When an assistant assures me that a rejuvenating lotion made from the creme of roses will make me look 10 years younger, I hand over the cash faster than you can say amen.

I'm in need of a miracle, and if you can't trust 700 years of devout research, I don't know what you can.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/croatia

tzdubrovnik.hr

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Zagreb via Dubai, with Croatia Airlines operating connections to Dubrovnik. See emirates.com/au

TOUR

Gypsian Boutique Tours offers a 13-night small group tour of Croatia from Dubrovnik to Zagreb from $6310 (airfares excluded). Phone 1300 831 985 or see gypsianboutiquetours.com.au

Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Gypsian Boutique Tours.