Unique Hand Embroidery Traditions Tell Story of Croatia’s Konavle Valley

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Saving the distinctive hand embroidery of Croatia's Konavle Valley has been a personal mission of the dynamic Antonia Ruskovic Radonic.

Just a half-hour from the congested streets of Dubrovnik, the tranquil village of Čilipi in Konavle Valley is home to the Konavle Valley Museum, of which Antonia is the director. The museum features a rich collection of Konavle Valley hand embroidery, textiles, and folk costumes, offering visitors insights into the history of the Croatian people.

The Konavle County Museum features more than 600 exhibits, including stunning male and female folk costumes; hand embroidery and other textile handcrafts; jewelry; weapons; musical instruments; furniture, and a number of practical items. The ethnographic collection of the history of Croatia displays gorgeous artistry that any textile lover will relish–but the exhibit is important because of what it reveals about the history, customs and lifestyle of living in this border region.

In this interview, Konavle County Museum director Antonia Ruskovic Radonic gives us a rich interpretation of the beautifully-wrought craft of the region's hand embroidery and its cultural and historical significance. She also shares her moving personal experience of living through the Croatian War of Independence, and how it called her to embark on a cultural quest.

Antonia Ruskovic Radonic
Antonia Ruskovic Radonic, director of the Konavle County Museum in Čilipi, an expert on the history of Croatia. Photo: Meg Pier

On the border of Montenegro, Konavle Valley was devastated in the 1991-1995 Croatian War of Independence, known locally as the Homeland War. During the war, the Museum was set on fire and destroyed by the Serb-controlled Yugoslavian People’s Army. The Museum was renovated in 2007 and presents both preserved pre-war items as well as pieces purchased and donated to the museum in the post-war period. The majority of the exhibits were gifts from the local population of Konavle, and include pieces by the Konavle Association of Embroiderers. Prior to the war, the museum was furnished like a typical Konavle house with furniture, utensils, and a fireplace.

In 1991, Antonia was 18 years old when the Croatian War of Independence began. Since the war ended in 1995, Antonia has made it her mission to preserve the rich textile traditions associated with the way of life of the people of her home in Konavle Valley, which is southeast of Dubrovnik.

Antonia is an academic painter, cultural preservationist, and the founder of AR Atelier art shop in the Konavle Valley. Because of her profound interest in the Konavle Valley traditions and handicrafts, she has organized several educational programs aimed at protecting and conserving the history of Croatia.

Antonia has studied the production techniques of historic Konavle embroidery, and her work led to the publication of an in-depth book on the ancient customs and costumes associated with silk production in this region. Her work has been closely linked to helping this border region recover its customs after the devastation of war, keeping alive a history of unique Slavic culture that has remained distinct for over 2,000 years in this tiny and beautiful region of Eastern Europe.

For a richly rewarding and enjoyable experience, a visit to the Konavle Valley is an essential day trip from Dubrovnik. For now, let Antonia share the history of Croatia, along with the story of her personal connection to the traditions of Konavle Valley. I know you’ll find her insights fascinating!

Rustic Scenery and Sophisticated Hand Embroidery

Meg: Can you give a 10,000-foot view of the history of Croatia, the Konavle region, and its unique hand embroidery?

Antonia: The Konavle region is the southernmost part of the Republic of Croatia. It’s about 25km long but very thin, 3km wide. To the south is the Adriatic Sea. The north is a ring of mountains. On the very far east is the Montenegro region, and on the very far west is Cavtat, the suburbs of Dubrovnik.

This little region and the people living here have provided food for wider regions throughout the history of Croatia. This has remained the same territory geographically and historically for almost 2,000 years.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
There are 32 villages in Konavle Valley, a place of distinctive beauty and well worth a day trip from Dubrovnik.

Ten years before the Ottoman Empire invaded and changed the map of Europe, the Republic of Dubrovnik bought the Konavle region and preserved it from Ottoman influence. That’s what made Konavle customs, Konavle costumes, Konavle embroidery sophisticated because the Republic of Dubrovnik was very organized and very powerful for a small country surviving in between two huge nations, Venetians and Ottomans. The Republic of Dubrovnik deeply influenced Konavle in all ways: diplomacy, order, laws, culture, shaping the area into what it became in the 20th century.

Connection Between Living on Border and Preserving Traditions

Meg: How do you think that was possible for the Republic of Dubrovnik?

Antonia: They had diplomats all over, in all the countries in the Mediterranean. They were providing information and trading for freedom. We were always a huge trading state: textiles, spices, and everything that was adorable in Europe, came through our borders from the east and from the Mediterranean. Honestly, the Republic never had a huge army. The population of approximately 90, 000 people could not afford to maintain an army that could withstand these empires.

The Republic of Dubrovnik bought the Konavle region because it is the only nearby place that can produce wheat and other agricultural needs. When you’re living in Dalmatia, then you eat fish and vegetables, put in olive oil and a glass of wine, and in the Konavle region, you can have all this with cheese and bread! And some prosciutto, too!

That’s the difference. That’s why the Konavle people were always higher on a social scale, always richer than the people from outside of our region. The region of Konavle is so rich, and diverse, with a mild climate and a lot of water.

The costumes and the customs in this region are an archaic story. All over the Mediterranean the techniques for embroideries were being communicated and interwoven. It’s only in the Konavle region that the techniques and customs have been independently preserved without outside influence.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
Konavle Valley betrothed couple, c. 1900. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

The uniqueness comes from not changing tradition quickly like in the Mediterranean regions, and you know why? Because living on the border makes people marry in between their own, so the home tradition does not change.

Konavle Valley Infiltrated by Outsiders

Meg: Right, which almost makes the preservation of the customs that much more of a responsibility. It has endured.

Antonia: Of course. It’s like a mission.

Meg: Some people might think that a border region would make it more likely that wives and spouses would frequently migrate here from other places.

Antonia: No, because in other places wives pray differently! Over this mountain, you see, the people were Muslim. And over this mountain, just ten minute's drive, the people are mostly Orthodox.

The people of Konavle married people from within the Konavle region. Marriages from across the borders were never practiced because of the different religions. Marriages with people from Župa, Primorje, or other areas were mostly not practiced, and if they did, they remained reserved for those who would leave Konavle.

Marriages with people who are originally not from Konavle started after the First World War when women from Konavle would marry into the city, while female representatives from the other areas began coming to Konavle only after the Second World War. Women from Konavle were happy to marry into the city to avoid hard labor.

Because of the trauma of living through so much war, my grandmother would tell me all the time, “Marry whomever you want, but just let them pray the same way you pray”. Why? Because she knows all the wars during the history of Croatia are between the people who pray differently. Religions were supposed to bring us together, but she saw that they are actually pulling us apart. And then lives become even more complicated.

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The Story Behind Antonia's Passion

Meg: I’ve never actually heard it said that way, and appreciate the wisdom in that. How did your upbringing guide you into becoming the protector of the region’s hand embroidery?

Antonia: I was born in Dubrovnik. My parents lived in the village of Cilipi in Konavle, but my mother was a very busy businesswoman and my father a sailor, so they let my sister and I live with our grandmother in Dubrovnik.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
From the "Life of Paper" workshop in the Department of Archaeology and Monumental Heritage. Photo: Muzeji i galerije Konavala

My grandmother moved to Dubrovnik from the Konavle region when she married. However, she never stopped being a Konavle woman, and all the things that were done in Konavle we had to do with her in Dubrovnik. So, we had to collect grass. We had to collect herbs. We wanted to produce silk. We had to do the hand embroidery. She really raised us with so much appreciation of the Konavle region’s customs.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
Photo: Muzeji i galerije Konavala

When I was in high school I moved back to my parents’ house in Cilipi as I was mature enough to care for myself while they worked. I was there until ’91. It was such a wonderful time. But in my fourth year of high school, the war started and we became refugees.

They told us that we would be displaced for two or three days, so we just took a few things. But we stayed displaced for two and a half years. I still managed to finish school though and I entered university in Zagreb for Philosophy and Indology [study of the history and culture of India and Eastern Studies]. Then, later on, I entered the Academy of Fine Arts.

Fleeing Konavle Valley As War Breaks Out

Meg: Could you tell me more about the war and how being a refugee shaped your connection to the Konavle region?

Antonia: I remember that first day of the school year. We went to school and the Army was flying over, performing maneuvers. I got so scared. This was the first time in my life that I had seen anything like this.

I remember in the evening, after school, my mother came to us. She told us that we have to leave because there is some gunning and bombing on the border. As we drove that night to Dubrovnik, we had to turn off the car lights so as not to be seen.

Just the day before, I went to school by bus and everything was okay. Now, I’m riding my motorcycle behind all the cars going in one line, leaving the region. Only a few people were allowed to stay, mostly old people and men who were mobilized in the Army.

When we came to the city, within a few days we realized would not be going back soon. The Yugoslav Army was entering, burning the houses and just moving forward.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
Dubrovnik during the Homeland War, 1991 - 1995, photo credit: Wikipedia, Creative Common

Most families went either to Dubrovnik or further. There were 30 of us in my grandmother’s apartment in Dubrovnik. All the cousins - everybody. Basically, you could either take refuge in a family member’s house or at a hotel.

Forced to Leave Home

The bombing seemed endless. There was a large boat running a direct line from Dubrovnik. Just two of them a week were taking people away from Dubrovnik--all the pregnant women, all the children, all the young women. Everybody who was not capable of fighting or staying in these conditions was supposed to leave the city.

We didn’t want to go though. First, my one grandmother didn’t want to go, then my other grandmother didn’t want to go. My mother went to Zagreb just before the occupation, because she was the manager of a huge tourist agency. She had to reorganize the work so employees would have salaries.

I stayed and assisted my grandmothers with my motorcycle, bringing water, bringing food. We had no water. We had to wait in line for water. We had to go to the sea to the toilet because we were left without electricity too.

Two Different Lives Between Dubrovnik and Zagreb

Meg: Where did you get your food?

Antonia: We live in a mild climate. We could go fishing and there was always one of these shops organized, too, with canned food. So we were eating out of cans.

In November of that year, my sister, me, and our grandmothers went to Zagreb. When I came to our capital, I remember walking the streets and looking at tomatoes in the middle of winter in the grocery shops. They had tomatoes, zucchini; they had everything! And we didn’t even have water there in Dubrovnik.

Meg: Because Zagreb wasn’t affected?

Antonia: No. It was full of refugees, but it had a normal life. They were connected with other parts of the universe, but we were isolated in Dubrovnik. I managed to stay in Zagreb for one month and a half. But I took the train, then a bus and boat that was available back to my grandmother’s house in the springtime.

You just cannot stand knowing some things, you know? Your friends are down there in Dubrovnik, with no food, and no electricity while your friends in Zagreb are having fun, going out.

That is a moment when you know where you belong.

Making Art Out of Garbage in Konavle Valley

Meg:This experience led to your work preserving the region’s hand embroidery and your book. It’s an incredible body of work.

Antonia: I came back to Konavle after finishing my studies in Zagreb. The houses were being restored. Life was coming back slowly. Half of the people were back. Yet, the place was still full of garbage, broken furniture, and the like. We were cleaning up and since I couldn’t get a job as an art teacher, I organized an association for children to do art.

There were about 100 children in Cilipi and we called our organization MALIRACI for the towns of Mala, Likovna, Radionica, and Cilipi. We began cleaning up the old places and recycling the garbage into art.

Our first location was the upper floor of this museum before it was renewed. This building was burned completely in the war. They had started renovating the bottom floor and created a loft that was secure enough for this second-story space. So, in the meantime, while the renovations continued, the activities of my association for the children were held here.

We had no windows, nothing really, but we were painting and having fun. Every Saturday we went for some trips in the Konavle region to collect some wood.

Konavle Hand Embroidery Threatened by Economy

Very soon after, I got a job in the school. In teaching those children the history of Croatia and spending time with them I realized that they had no idea about hand embroidery. They didn’t know anything about silk production. Hand embroidery was something for old women. It takes centuries for some traditions to grow, and just ten years of war is enough gap to almost lose it forever.

I started getting interested in silk production. At that time there was an attempt by the humanitarian association in Dubrovnik, DESA, to form an agreement with some French producers of silk. A silk museum in Lyons France provided eggs and small mulberry trees for the Konavle region.

Unfortunately, it was a short-lived interest. They brought more than 100 trees here that got dry, completely. Those beautiful French trees with huge leaves!

So, I started feeding the silkworms. I planted my own mulberry trees and worked as much as possible with the children to teach them traditional techniques and create a new generation of weavers.

Hand Embroidery Traditions
Photo: Meg Pier

I also saw that women who were doing the hand embroidery for some extra money were making less and less embroidery. They were trying to gain more money for their work, but they weren’t putting up a higher price. They didn’t make the competition based on quality. They made it out of who will make it for cheaper.

It came out then that they were selling the hand embroidery of old, but not Konavle style embroidery. I realized they were doing Slavonian or Herzegovinan stitches because they are easier to do.

Collection of Traditional Hand Embroidery

You see, Konavle hand embroidery is really sophisticated. The texture, the structure, everything is richer than in other regions in Croatia. So, these women were using stitches from other regions, not understanding the value of the uniqueness of the Konavle type of stitch and that it is not done anywhere else in Croatia.

I explained to these women what we are losing. But every time I would approach, they would say, “Oh, you are telling me something about embroidery. I was embroidering before you were born!” I was offending them.

Hand Embroidery Traditions | Antonia Ruskovic Radonic
Antonia Ruskovic Radonic and colleagues prepare an exhibit at the Konavle County Museum, a worthwhile day trip from Dubrovnik. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

I realized I needed to change my approach. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll collect all the patterns that exist in Konavle embroidery though out the history of Croatia.’ We have huge family collections in Konavle, and I had so many people in my studio and I had a framing shop. So it worked because there is a special pride for the tradition and everybody who toured their family house after the war took his grandmother’s or mother’s or great-grandmother’s best embroidery and brought it to us to frame. And I took pictures of every single one that came into my shop and collected those for years.

History of Croatia Repeats Itself

Meg: How interesting that one interest of yours - framing - facilitated people bringing the lace to you?

Antonia: Yes, see people don’t like to open the cupboards for you unless you are a very intimate friend. People here are afraid of enemies, afraid of war. They believe if you see the gold they have in their houses, tomorrow somebody will rob your house. But when you publish something, they want to show you, as their things will then be forever somewhere.

Meg: Right, and is that fear mostly that somebody’s going to steal it?

Antonia: Yes, this is the nature of the border. We have this fear. Every single war that was going on in our region created burning. We say that Napoleon is burning it in the morning, and the Russians in the evenings. Every single war makes an environment where bandits from outside of our region come down and steal. After they steal, they burn, so there are no traces of this.

That’s the way life is here. My grandmother says that three times in her life wine casks were broken and wine was floating all the way down to the field from the village she was living in. So, it’s always the same story repeating.

Preserving the Patterns and Way of Life of the History of Croatia

Meg: I can understand this fear then. So...this work collecting samples, led to the book.

Antonia: The book, yes, but I didn’t mean for it to become a book. I just wanted to protect this embroidery. I started collecting them to create proof of our traditions. I stopped collecting them when almost two years passed of seeing only repeating patterns. Nothing new was coming so I said, “Okay, this is it for now.” Who knows how many of the patterns we lost, but at least we have what we have left.

Meg: And how many were there? How many patterns?

Antonia: Maybe two to three thousand pieces altogether. But amongst them, 350 are authentic to Konavle. To protect this collection, I brought it to the Ministry of Culture. They told me that that is not possible, because it would have to include the protection of Herzegovina, Slovenia, and all other stitches of this kind.

history of croatia
Photo: Muzeji i galerije Konavala

So I tried to explain to them that it’s not the same, in the Konavle region this hand embroidery stitch developed into a very sophisticated thing. It’s unbelievable how very precise and systematically 350 pieces could be divided into four groups.

Antonia Preserve Traditional Konavle Hand Embroidery

You see, the custom and techniques were not about decoration. This embroidery is the first important information placed on any costume. There is nothing creative that the girl could add to her embroidery. All the girls, for their dowry, make very similar things to each other. It’s very precise and she has to make for her dowry a piece for all the situations of her life - for being old, for being young, for going to church, for going to work, for every day, for special occasions, for marriage, for being buried. She even has to make one for when there’s sorrow in the family.

All of them she has to make precise and the luckiest of these women will wear them all.

history of croatia
One of the traditional embroidery patterns exhibited at the Konavle County Museum, a memorable day trip from Dubrovnik. Photo: Meg Pier

Meg: That’s a powerful statement.

Antonia: Isn’t it? Just imagine yourself making this hand embroidery as a girl: including the pieces for when you will have for a celebration when you’re an old woman, 60, 70 years old. Knowing if before that day comes, your father or your husband dies, then you’ll never wear some of these pieces, as custom dictates that then you only wear a widow’s pattern.

history of croatia
Antonia accepts an award from the President of Croatia on behalf of all in the Konavle Valley who were involved in preserving the region's textiles. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

I started a 20-woman embroidery group. On Friday nights, in my studio, we embroidered for two years. I would bring them a new stitch and give it as homework, so next time the members returned the whole one. Then, we would decide the filling colors, then the members would go back and do the next bit of work...two years of embroidering all of those pieces.

Visions Turning Into Reality

Meg: When you started this group did you have a vision?

Antonia: Yes. But I remember my friends from this group told me, two years later, “Antonia, I can tell you how we felt the first day when you invited us. We were all staring at you and you were talking about taking the stitches from the originals and we were like ‘What is this woman talking about?!’

I just knew it was a good thing, however. The women from this group are today volunteers and teaching in the schools.

Meg: Wow. What was the group like?

Antonia: It was all kinds of people, ages 25 to 70. The participants were more or less successful in their pattern production but after that was completed, the embroidered patterns needed to be cleaned and ironed, and, after that, scanned for the book. Then I started then writing the book text that documented the embroidery and its relationship to the Konavle region people. The book’s introduction text is 100 pages and all together, it is 650 pages.

That was the first part of the book, explaining the differences between Konavle stitches and other stitches. The second, the most important part, and the part that shocked me, was how this project became beneficial for everybody. Everybody learned something.

The World's Most Primitive Stitch

And, lastly, I decided I must show how this stitch is done from the reverse side, which is the most primitive stitch that exists on planet Earth. It’s not something that you can draw and do. It’s not something that you can do watching even what somebody’s done. It’s something that you have to do by counting or watching from somebody’s reverse side.

history of croatia
The reverse side of a piece of Konavle Valley embroidery reveals the pattern. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

Women throughout the history of Croatia could not watch each other, rather, they were counting and singing. When you hear the first few lines, then it carries you on in a way.

Meg: Like a rhythm?

Antonia: Yes. If you’re a skillful embroiderer it just takes you. You know when it’s descending when it’s growing. It’s all about descending and coming up.

In other regions, you have to watch it very precisely because, for example, they descend and then they go all the way up, and then you have to know exactly the number to go up, how many lines of the work to jump up.

The Mathematics Behind Konavle Embroidery

Here, no. The Konavle embroidery is just taking you. You don’t have to know by heart the whole line, just a few lines. So, when I was writing down the numbers I figured out that some of the patterns are completely even numbers and some patterns are odd numbers.

So, for example, if you look at this stitch in the book…42224464646442224, and then the same, then 62224424-10-4244226 then 82224. And then you have this pattern…33353133335531333313. It’s always odd numbers here, but then you have 455544431…the middle. If you embroider, you know it’s so funny.

history of croatia
Each stitch of the Konavle Valley embroidery tradition signals information about the history of Croatia. The Konavle County Museum offers an education in this "language" and is an excellent day trip from Dubrovnik. Photo: Meg Pier

Look at this now…3333333343315151334535151535633. This is a very typical one. If you are fond of mathematics then you can get it. I figured out that those that are even numbers are used for working situations, sorrows, and older women. The odd numbers are used for celebrations, marriages, and young girls. When I discovered this, it was incredible to find.

Fibonacci, The Golden Ratio Through Out the History of Croatia

Meg: That’s beautiful.

Antonia: Yes. And here is the best part! Stitches with 5, 3 and 8, 235, and 8 - are used for pregnant women and for just-married women.

It’s the Fibonacci sequence, that each number is the sum of the two preceding ones. That’s the golden ratio. The Fibonacci is the mathematical sequence behind everything that grows on planet Earth, we all grow in these numbers and proportions.

The golden ratio embroideries are worn by only pregnant women, younger women, and engaged women. Just imagine an illiterate woman, a woman who doesn’t think about mathematics. Yet for centuries, these women are embroidering patterns and choosing the one that is most beautiful for the pregnant woman. And with this, giving it protection and growth, like everything else that grows on planet Earth.

I believe so strongly that this golden ratio is the language of aesthetic beauty all over the planet. Every Greek temple is in these rations. Shells are in these ratios. Our physical proportions is in the same ratio, yours and mine, even though we are not the same height. Like the rules for painters during the Renaissance, you had to obey the rules to make great art. In the Renaissance, so many people were producing wonderful art because they were obeying the rules, not because they were talented.

Meg: Yes, and there’s the aspect of discipline also.

Antonia: Discipline, yes it’s so important. The Konavle girls had to make so precise informational profiles, just like the mothers, like their grandmothers.

It was amazing too how the women in my Friday night group here knew how to read the patterns very easily. They had never stitched, but they had aunts and mothers and grandmothers who did, so there was a knowing by heart. I love it.

Different Stitches for Different Cultures

Meg: I can see why you love it. Tell me, what would the circumstances have been for importing other methods into the region?

Antonia: I believe in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century, teachers of embroidery developed an interest in using traditional patterns for the production of utility items, and fashions of the time. They were gathering the girls, teaching them embroideries then from outside the regions. The girls were coming from Cavtat, some of them from Konavle, learning how to stitch Serbian, Kosovan, Macedonian, and all other stitches.

All stitches require skill. The girls would produce all kinds of items for sale, and they earned extra money for their education. The items were sold all over Europe and London, everywhere. It became so popular because Slavic people are rich in their work.

Want to learn more about the unique traditions of other cultures? Check out the Puerto Rican tradition of Santos carving!

Slavic Heritage of Konavle Valley

Meg: To step back, can you define what Slavic is?

Antonia: Slavic people belong to this Slavic heritage and they mostly live in Eastern Europe. They’re Polish, they’re Czech, they are Serbians, they are Croatians, they are Bosnians, they are Bulgarians, they are Romanians, they are north Greek, Macedonian. Slavic heritage includes a pagan pre-Christian heritage, and half of the Slavic people ended up in Catholic and half in Orthodox religion. We share similar customs introduced into our Christian customs. We jump over the fire for St. Johns. We share so much of the customs from pagan times that were re-shaped into Christian customs.

Meg: That’s a great insight into the connection between the different areas of Eastern Europe. Are there other examples of cultural connections?

history of croatia
A photo from the Konavle County Museum shows "leaving the bride's house" in the village of Močići, c. 1940. The museum's exhibits are a window into the rich cultural traditions of the region and well worth a day trip from Dubrovnik. Photo courtesy of  Konavle County Museum.

Antonia: The Konavle women’s costume is a type of a very archaic costume that was replaced in most regions of South Europe by Mediterranean costumes, especially Levantine costume. If you see a man and a woman from Konavle, you see their costumes don’t belong to each other. He’s Eastern Europe and she’s Western Europe archaic. That’s also proof that we are on the border!

history of croatia
Konavle Valley wedding, 1890. Image courtesy of Konavle County Museum

This white skirt here, every girl has to make long before her marriage day. Now everybody always asks, ‘How do they know the size they will be so many years into the future’? 

The answer is the very wide belt.  The belt can always be narrower or wider, and the whole skirt itself is made from squares.  There are no curves. So, you can tear out a square with a knife. That makes it archaic as well. The only curve we have is around the neck.

On men’s clothes, however, there are so many curves. This is the Levantine the newer type of costume, that is worn from Odessa to Tolaido.  It’s everywhere in the Mediterranean. 

folk costumes
One of the folk costumes exhibited at Konavle County Museum. Photo: Meg Pier

I cherish these things that were made in the region, that were produced here.  For me, that’s the best track for identity, how they made something, why they decorated it.  They didn’t want to be beautiful while making their clothes. They wanted to be informative and practical about the history of Croatia.

Wedding Traditions Throughout the History of Croatia

Meg: Is there an over-arching meaning behind all the symbolism associated with wedding customs?

Antonia: Harmony, the importance of ceremony, and the sequence of events are important if we want to avoid chaos. For that reason, there is the time of year, i.e. the date when the ceremonies take place. Each part of the ceremony must be completed, or there would be disharmony and chaos. The scientific research so far has discovered the origins of all the customs which are still practiced today, in known old ceremonies which were organized and harmonious. Regarding the wedding ceremony, it’s a ceremony that ensured wealth and a prosperous future for the new community.

In our culture, as well as in the wider geographical region that Croatia is a part of, the bride is brought in, i.e. married into the other family, so that she could ensure the extension of the family line and the name of that other family. Thus the entire community is there to provide that. Many wedding roles must be filled so the transition would go according to plan. As much as the marriage community is an affair between a man and a woman, to the same extent, the creation of such a community is the affair of the community, the family, the village, and the ethnic group that brings the queen bee to her new hive (uljište), according to predefined rules.

The seemingly simple procedure in pre-marriage life concerning the transition from a boy to a groom and from a girl to a bride was abundant in customs, beliefs, and other mandated procedures. It was also a stage for trepidation and fear, and in the happiest forms, for love and happiness. It is a journey that more or less everyone went through, some with more and some with less abundance, regardless of the form of the wedding that follows.

wedding traditions
Konavle Valley wedding participants in front of their house, c. 1930. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

According to the female storytellers we spoke to, if they could choose the house into which they were to marry, they would often consider better economic conditions as the reason for their choice, for example, they had indoor plumbing, or they did not keep cattle in their household. Marriages were made to achieve better living conditions. In the middle of the century, it was desirable to marry into families who lived in the city, to avoid the hard life of working in the fields.

Social Significance of Traditional Folk Costumes

Meg: There is an intriguing hat in the exhibit that has the pins in it. Can you explain that tradition?

Antonia: That’s very archaic. There are very few left in Europe. They have one or two horns on the head, which are there for fertility. This motif was widespread; you can see it on all the women’s heads if you look at Botticelli’s or Raphael's paintings from this time. You can see very often some hairdos with a horn, with lace or a veil or a scarf. And that’s something that has all but disappeared from the Mediterranean.

In the 13th century, it’s noted that the Dubrovnik Republic forbade wearing this type of head coverings actually, because it shows whether the woman is married, or not married, and even whether she forgot herself with somebody: meaning that she had an affair, she was raped, she had a child from before the marriage. It’s really quite awful, so the Dubrovnik Republic forbade the custom, but in Konavle it stayed until the 19th century.

history of croatia
Tied-up cap that was part of the Konavle Valley folk costume, c. 1905. Image courtesy of Konavle County Museum

When the woman would place a linen cloth around this wooden shape of a horn, she’d pull the needles in, using 16 to 33 needles. They are either copper, silver, or gold-plated. Sometimes the heads are made from metal and sometimes, for the poorer family may be, they are made from Murano glass. The women were praying while stitching and putting this together. It’s a ritual that we do not know a lot about from archaic times.

history of croatia
Hondelj, a headdress of a married Konavle Valley woman in the 19th century. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum.

I’m so sorry that I wasn’t born 100 years ago and couldn't truly experience the history of Croatia. There was so much more of the crafts, handwork, skills, and homemade textiles.

Specific Headdresses for the Recently Betrothed

Up until the second half of the 19th century, while married women wore traditional headdresses (hondelj), a betrothed young woman would tie a scarf around her cap to show that she is betrothed. A tied-up cap as a symbol of a betrothed woman would be a cap wrapped in a flax scarf that was usually worn on the hondelj, and it had short dark stripes along the edge. On the wedding day, the wreath would be placed instead of the cap, and after the wreath, a hondelj would be placed on the head. A tied-up cap, as a unique example, is a part of the Bogišić Collection in Cavtat.

history of croatia
Konavle Valley betrothed couple, c.1900. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

After abandoning the hondelj and the tied-up cap, the difference between a betrothed and a regular young woman would be expressed with standard caps and caps decorated with gold embroidery (kapa zlatača), which gradually became a part of the small symbol. Since the end of the 19th century and until the second half of the 20th century, the young women would wear small caps made of red felt wrapped with a blue kordun (ribbon), and after the betrothal, they would wear caps decorated with gold embroidery. At the wedding, a wreath would be placed on the cap decorated with gold embroidery (or a wreath was already made on another red cap) and after the wedding, a white scarf was worn.

The History of Croatia, A Culture of Gift Giving

Meg: It’s fantastic that you are preserving the customs. In another exhibit, there are knives that were part of women’s costumes. Can you tell me about those?

Antonia: The knives that they wore were part of the engagement gift. When the man becomes engaged to the woman, he has to give gifts twice: once at the beginning of the engagement, and the second time just before the marriage. Marriages were held around Christmas when there is no agricultural work to be done.

When the engagement starts, he gives her a hat and a knife. The red hat with a golden decoration he would have bought in the Tersia shop. Tersia ar craftsmen who tailors and decorates clothes for people, especially gold-plated textile items popular all over southern Europe. That’s the only thing she would wear that she didn’t make herself, besides the woolen jacket decorated with metal, that he also buys her just before the marriage. The knives were either silver or copper; they were for protection.

history of croatia
Tersia are craftsmen who tailor and decorate clothes for people, especially gold plated textile items that were popular all over southern Europe. Photo: Meg Pier

The last gift right before the marriage would be all the jewelry from the groom’s house: rings and small earrings, big earrings, all kinds of buttons. The bride is given the jewelry and she possesses it until her son marries and then she has to give it to her daughter-in-law. The daughters are always wearing jewelry from the husband’s house.

history of croatia
Rings from the collection of the Konavle County Museum. Photo courtesy of Konavle County Museum

That’s how jewelry is owned: Jewelry belongs to a house, not to a person. You can just wear it for a time then give it away. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s how we should treat planet Earth.

Meg: Yes, I agree.

Enduring Human Connection of Konavle Valley

Antonia: Borrowing...there’s so much to learn from tradition.

Meg: Yes, there is. Can you tell me a little bit more about the history of the building that the Konavle Heritage Museum is in?

Antonia: Once our project of protecting and listing embroidery and silk production of Konavle gained recognition from the government in Zagreb, it allowed us to get into every kindergarten in every school. Every kindergarten in every school in Konavle now feeds silkworms and has embroidery classes. We had a party here for all embroiderers in the schools. I gave them little gifts for the summer because they were very hardworking.

We have a wonderful story about something that happened here in this museum. I don’t know how but the previous curator before the war had a feeling that something bad would happen. She organized a few people from the village to help her pack everything, all the textiles. They packed it and hid it in the cistern. They stored everything into the cistern, and cemented it, so when the house was burned in the war all the fabrics were saved.

Meg: Wow, that’s wild. That’s wonderful.

Antonia: It’s a beautiful story. When the Yugoslav Army burned the whole village, the Army opened up the cistern and one of them wanted to throw a bomb down there. There was a man there in the village, a Montenegrin, who told them that all they had in the museum was hidden there. A Commander from the Yugoslavian Army actually stopped the soldiers from ruining it and commanded they give the museum items found in the cistern to the Dubrovnik police to accept it. This was arranged so that a few of the locals were invited to go in the car to take it all to the police.

Just imagine this. So many risked their lives in so many brave situations from both sides to preserve some human decency and the history of Croatia.

How Croatia's Many Borders Influenced the History of the Croats

Cultural Identity is Extremely Important to the History of Croatia

Meg: What a great story. What was the house originally?

Antonia: Originally the house was the village cooperative. And 100 years ago, it was built for the buying and selling of goods, and later on, it was so many different things.

Meg: What are your hopes for the future?

Antonia: The children. We have to provide education for these kids. How food is produced. The clothing you wear--what is it made from? Okay, it’s from a shop. But how did it come to the shop? From the factory?

They don’t get it. They don’t get that the threads they wear are made from animals and herbs. They don’t get that food comes from animals and herbs. We are raising new generations completely divided from the source of all the things they need for their life. That’s why we have museums, to provide knowledge, not to be pretty.

Meg: Why do you consider cultural identity to be important?

Antonia: There is something about ‘oh, my country is the most beautiful’, ‘my city is the most beautiful’. It’s from these circles, I believe, that we have a sense of pride. If you have something that functions somewhere for centuries, it feels like your duty to keep it alive. I have heard so many times that when somebody does the embroidery very easily and is not from the region, someone will say, “Oh, you do it like a Konavle girl”.

Meg: Could you say then that it’s about belonging?

Antonia: Of course, that need of belonging somewhere, yes. But it’s subconscious. People, when they go somewhere, they always carry their heart and their brain, and somewhere, they carry their heritage and cultural landscape.

Experience a Traditional Folk Dance Performance!

The Konavle County Museum is open on weekdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. and on Sundays from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. If you go on a Sunday, you can experience an hour-long exhibition of Konavle folk dancing, music, and singing that takes place at 11 a.m. outside St Nicolas Church. The village is extremely tiny and the Museum and church are both on the perimeter of a square.

How to Get There

View of Cavtat from a water taxi coming from Dubrovnik. Photo: Meg Pier

Planning to make a day trip from Dubrovnik to Konavle Valley? It’s an easy and spectacularly scenic 30-minute drive on the D8 highway to Čilipi, but my favorite way to make this journey is via one of the many water taxis that can be found on the harbor in Dubrovnik and go frequently to Cavtat, about every hour in high season, The journey is a little bit longer, about 45 minutes, but the views approaching Cavtat and Dubrovnik, as well as along the coast, are breathtaking. The cost each way is about 100 kuna (or about $15 U.S.) and I think it’s well worth it! From Cavtat, you can find a taxi stand just a couple of blocks back from the waterfront. The drive to Cilipi is a mere three miles and a quick ten minutes!

An Amazing Place for Lunch!

history of croatia

Antonia recommended a nearby restaurant for lunch, Restaurant Konavoski Dvori in the tiny village of Ljuta, which is another quick ten-minute drive. The restaurant is set alongside the River Ljuta, and the area is incredibly picturesque, with a series of old stone mills nestled on the riverbanks. Not only does this establishment offer mouthwatering food prepared in a traditional style, but the setting is also absolutely charming–thanks to the erection of an inventive platform, we sat atop the flowing waters of a crystal clear stream, with brilliantly-colored blue & green dragonflies as our companions.

More on Croatia and War

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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