While the islands bask in their sunny, lavender-scented glory, Dubrovnik waits at the southernmost tip of Croatia, like a matching bookend to the region’s other main city, Split. But Dubrovnik is much more than the final stop on a typical Dalmatian sailing trip: it is the most historical, charming, and beautiful destination in a region full of highlights.
Dubrovnik could be forgiven if it completely self-destructed. It’s one of those cities, like Venice or Santorini, that looks like nowhere else on Earth. Naturally, everyone else on earth wants to come and see it. Cruise ships arrive by the dozen into Dubrovnik’s traffic-choked new port, Gruž, alongside crowded ferries from Italy and sailboats from the islands. On the busiest days of summer, you’ll wait in a bottleneck just to pass through the main gates leading into the old town; a tolerable inconvenience for tourists waiting to see a UNESCO-listed site, not so fun for the nearly 1000 locals who call it home. Under these circumstances, how can you blame a city for selling itself to the same devil of tourism that has claimed cities such as Prague, becoming a theme park of exorbitant prices, fake jewellery and locals dressed as caricatures of themselves? Somehow, Dubrovnik has avoided all of that.
Even with the crowds, Dubrovnik retains its small-town feel. Spend two days there and you’ll start recognizing faces on the street: the long-haired waiter you flirted with at last night’s dinner; the old woman who sold you a bracelet in the main square, or the man who plays a wooden guitar all day at the base of the Onofrio fountain. The most incredible part of it all: spend a few more days there, and they’ll start to recognize you too.
These are the descendants of the people who built Dubrovnik from the cobblestones up. They who loved their city so much, they spent 500 years protecting it with walls so strong that it took no less than Napoleon himself to breach them. Dubrovnik today is a living museum to that indestructible spirit of its past.
For most of that past, Dubrovnik was known as the Republic of Ragusa. Its golden age was between the 14th and 17th centuries, when it was considered the Fifth Maritime Republic of the Mediterranean, right up there with Venice, Genoa, Amalfi and Pisa. While it matched its rivals in trading prowess, Ragusa, unlike its showier counterparts, was not full of grandiose statues or important monuments. For this reason, not to mention its impenetrable walls and willingness to pay off an enemy or two, invaders left Ragusa alone. Thus, it was able to prosper. Ragusa became an enviable nation of noblemen, students who studied at the Sorbonne, skilled artisans, entrepreneurs, and sailors who joined Columbus’ expeditions. It was home to one of Europe’s first pharmacies, the only one still operating today. It had Europe’s first arboretums, one of the earliest orphanages, a refuge for elderly people, and was one of the first nations to abolish slavery, a feat which the citizens celebrated by adopting their traditional white flag bearing the word Libertas, for freedom.
While their social progressiveness was a source of pride, the greatest legacy of the Ragusans was their architecture. There’s the 16-sided Onofrio fountain which greets visitors inside the main gate, built in the 15th century to provide citizens with water from a well 12km away. It became a lifeline during the Black Plague, when the gates were closed to prevent disease from reaching the residents within the walls. Or the Rector’s Palace – another Onofrio creation, built in Gothic and Baroque style – which once housed the ruling party and now hosts summer concerts.
Of course, there’s one jaw-dropping aspect to Dubrovnik, the first sight of which makes people understand why Lord Byron’s nickname for Dubrovnik, “The Pearl of the Adriatic”, has stuck since the 19th century: its Old Town Walls. They were started in the early Middle Ages, but it was the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the fall of Bosnia a decade later, that lit a fire under the Ragusans to start fortifying their city. They got everyone involved, from architects straight out of Renaissance Florence, to everyday visitors who were asked to bring stones from whence they came to assist with the construction.
The walls wrap all the way around the historic old town and the old port, several metres thick at some points, two kilometres long and up to 25 metres high. You can climb up and walk all the way around the perimeter, with views of the bright blue Adriatic on one side and the shining stone town on the other. Along the way there are jewellery-vendors, artist-stalls, shops selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and beer. The self-guided walk takes around two hours, but it’s best to take a whole afternoon to complete it, so the heat doesn’t wear you down. Spend timing spotting the hidden artifacts along the way; an ancient guillotine down one alley, the rusted old cannons pointing out to the sea, or the statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise, perched on several buildings with a model of the fortified city in his hands. Ragusa’s walls were made to shelter them from danger, although, when they built them, the Ragusans could never have predicted how many attempts at destruction their city would have to endure.
In 1667, a major earthquake levelled three-quarters of the city, flattening the grand Franciscan Monastery and half of the Rector’s Palace. Just as Ragusa was getting back on its feet, Napoleon arrived. His Army occupied the city until 1815, planting the French flag where the Libertas banner had flown, and leaving behind a fortress on a hill above town, which has recently been converted into a war museum. When the French Revolution ended, Dubrovnik came under brief Austro-Hungarian rule. It was finally united with the rest of Yugoslavia in 1918, and given its Slavic name: Dubrovnik.
For most of the 20th century, tourism in Dubrovnik, and all along the Croatian coast, boomed. But that all changed in 1991 when Yugoslavia broke apart and war erupted across its former states. Dubrovnik, just across the border from Montenegro, became a prime target.
The city was nearly destroyed by Serbian and Montenegrin forces. In November, 1991, an incessant shelling war was waged against the defenceless town, which had been demilitarized in the 1970s to prevent it from becoming a casualty of war. Its residents were trapped inside, blockaded by sea and by land, their water supplies cut off, food scarce, watching their old town burn. The Stradun – Dubrovnik’s longest road, slick and shiny today under the footsteps of so many enchanted visitors – became a firing target for snipers, similar to the streets of Sarajevo a year later. The old town, once a safe haven for the Ragusans, became a trap for the Croatians as enemy forces fired on the town from the hills behind it. In six months, two out of every three buildings were damaged, and nearly 200 civilians killed.
Through all the destruction, there was a silver lining. While lesser-known Croatian cities, such as Vukovar and Osijek, were destroyed without much attention from the international community, it was the attack on Dubrvonik, a beloved UNESCO treasure, that made the rest of the world finally take notice of the war. Shortly thereafter, Serbia lost the propaganda war, and the EU recognized an independent Croatia.
All the holes have been repaired, the fires put out, and the only the maps inside the two Old Town gates show the spots where shells once landed. There is a heartbreaking museum inside the Renaissance Sponza Palace called the “Memorial Room of the Defendors of Dubrovnik”, which has photos and stories of those lost during the war. And the most subtle, yet powerful symbol of the war can best be seen from atop the walls; while you’re looking down at the stunning city, you’ll notice the differently-coloured orange tiles on all of the roofs: there are the vibrant orange replacements to the half-million tiles destroyed by shelling, while the others are the rustic, burnt ones that lived to tell the tale.
Today, Dubrovnik is as laid-back as any other coastal town. You’ll spend your days shopping in narrow alleyways, feasting on white coffee and dark chocolate ice cream, and jumping up on a step outside the Franciscan Monastery because a local kid told you to try it. You’ll have fresh seafood at restaurants like Kaptain’s Konoba, where the waiter, Elvis, sits outside in his sailor’s uniform, smoking cigarettes while he awaits the end of his shift when he can run to Troubador, Dubrovnik’s famous jazz club. You’ll have drinks at one of the Buza bars; secret hideaways set to a cool, Frank Sinatra soundtrack that can only be reached if you find the hidden holes in the wall to get there.
And as wonderful as it is to be lost in the streets of the city, the best way to appreciate it is to get far away from it; preferably in a kayak. The best day I’ve ever had was the first kayaking trip I took in Dubrovnik. Five of us strapped ourselves into our bright orange kayaks on a secluded beach while our guide, Domagoj, showed us how to fasten our kayak skirts, whispering that there were lifejackets if we wanted them, but a person would have to try really hard to drown in the salty Adriatic.
We paddled away from the beach until we were surrounded by the sparkling blue sea. As the old town came into view, the walls rising out of the water, we all stopped and stared. We forgot the cruise ships, the blinding white heat, the bustling Gruz port and the new town sprawling on the other side. Dubrovnik, seen from the water, seems to be something only you have discovered, like no time has passed between now and 500 years ago when it was built. Behind those walls are the proud, resilient Ragusans who made them, knowing just how precious was the thing that they needed to protect.
Written by and photos by Andrea McDonald for EuropeUpClose.com