Of all the lovely towns along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, Dubrovnik may very well be the most picturesque. Beneath the frowning limestone mass of Mount Sergio, the brilliant white marble of the city’s walls contrasts with the blue waters.
At its peak, Dubrovnik was a very successful competitor of Venice, and one of the most prosperous commercial powers in the world. But in spite of the rivalry with Venice, the origins of both cities were quite similar. The disintegration of the Roman Empire allowed barbarian tribes to raid and pillage settlements along the coast.
Refugees and survivors fled to off-shore islands where they could better defend themselves, and found a new life in harmony with the sea.
Sometime around the year 639, the Avars sacked the Greco-Roman townvit of Epidaurum, not far from modern Cavtat. Fugitives found their way to a small rocky island, where others from Salon and nearby towns were attempting to preserve something of their former way of life. Their earliest fortifications were crude, and their ships were small, but they survived nicely. They called their new town “Ragusa” because it was founded on rocks.
Dubrovnic: “jewel of the Adriatic”
George Bernard Shaw was enchanted by this beautiful city: for him, it was paradise. Dubrovnik has a remarkable history. An independent, merchant republic for 700 years (abolished by Napoleon in 1806), it traded with Turkey and India in the East (with a consul in Goa, India) and had trade representatives in Africa (in the Cape Verde Islands). It even had diplomatic relations with the English court in the middle ages. (There is a letter from Elizabeth I on display in the City Museum in Dubrovnik). Its status was such that powerful and rich Venice was envious of this Croatian-Slav city.
The old town was completed in the 13th century and remains virtually unchanged to the present day. Tall ramparts surround it and there are only two entrances to the old town which lead to the Stradun, the city’s promenade. One of the greatest pleasures for many visitors is to have a drink in one of the nearby cafes and watch the world go by, whilst they themselves are being watched by the city patron, St. Blaise, or Sveti Vlaho as the locals call him. In 1991/2, the Serbs shelled the city causing considerable damage, but thanks to local efforts and international aid, the old town has been restored to its former beauty.
Its massive stone ramparts and splendid fortress towers curve around a tiny harbor, enclosing graduated ridges of sun-bleached orange-tiled roofs, copper domes, and elegant bell towers. In the 7th century AD, residents of the Roman city Epidaurum (now Cavtat) fled the Avars and Slavs of the north and founded a new settlement on a small rocky island, which they named Laus, and later Ragusa. On the mainland hillside opposite the island, the Slav settlement called Dubrovnik grew up. In the 12th century, the narrow channel separating the two settlements was filled in, and Ragusa and Dubrovnik became one. The city was surrounded by defensive walls during the 13th century, and these were reinforced with towers and bastions during the late 15th century.
Enter the old town through the Pile Gate – in front is the Stradun. Here you will find the Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438. On the right is the Franciscan Monastery, with one of the oldest functioning pharmacies in Europe, in operation since 1391. At the other end of the Stradun, you will find the locals’ favorite meeting place, the Orlando Column, with the nearby Sponza Place and the baroque church of St. Blaise. Here is also the Rector’s Palace, built in 1441, which is now a city museum packed with valuable and historic exhibits. Opposite the palace through a narrow street is a square, Gunduliceva Poljana, which is the site of the busy morning market. In the same square is the Jesuit Monastery from the early 18th century. From here you can head for the little old town port and visit the city walls, built between the 13th and the 16th centuries, which encircle the city and which have been remarkably preserved.
The city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. During the war for independence, it came under heavy siege, though thanks to careful restoration work, few traces of damage remain.