A walled, sea-battered city lying at the foot of a grizzled mountain, Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination, and it’s not difficult to see why. An essentially medieval town reshaped by Baroque planners after a disastrous earthquake of 1667, Dubrovnik’s historic core seems to have been suspended in time ever since.
Set-piece churches and public buildings blend seamlessly with the green-shuttered stone houses, forming a perfect ensemble relatively untouched by the twenty-first century. Outside the city walls, suburban Dubrovnik exudes Mediterranean elegance: gardens are an explosion of colourful bougainvillea and oleanders; trees are weighted down with figs, lemons, oranges and peaches.
For the Croats themselves Dubrovnik serves as a powerful metaphor for freedom, having spent much of its history as a self-governing city-state independent of foreign powers. The city played a more than symbolic role in the war of 1991–95, when it successfully resisted a nine-month Serbian-Montenegrin siege. Reconstruction was undertaken with astonishing speed, and the fact that conflict took place here at all only reveals itself through subtle details: the vivid orange-red hues of brand-new roof tiles, or the contrasting shades of grey where damaged facades have been patched up with freshly quarried stone.
Why does the city look the way it does? Why all those walls and bastions? It was first of all a refugee colony for the people of Epidaurus (today’s Cavtat), who fled from invading Avar and Slav tribes. At that time the land south of Stradun, as the main thoroughfare through the Old Town is popularly called, was an island, offering some protection from attack, but, of course, the walls began to grow up to give those first fearful citizens their shelter.
That was in the 7th century. At that time, these lands were under the protection of Byzantium. Following the Crusades, Venice took over, and then the Croatian-Hungarian kingdom. But in the 14th century, by the force of skilled diplomacy, the nobles of Dubrovnik bargained their freedom, and this became a city-state which flourished for four centuries, maintaining independence from feared invaders such as the Turks, and, indeed, cultivating profitable relations with them.
The skill of the people of Dubrovnik in trade and in many other areas led to this tiny city state, then known as the Republic of Ragusa, becoming such a powerful force in the Adriatic that it seriously rivalled Venice’s dominance in the region.