Dubrovnik has to be the pearl of a trip to the Balkans. Knowing this would be a great location, we left it to the end of our trip, which was also convenient for our return flight back to Dublin. Dubrovnik was the historic city state of Ragusa, one of the major forces in the Mediterranean and the chief rival to Venice. The amazing fortifications and defenses which survive to this day, meant that the city stayed independent even as the areas around it were invaded and taken over. However, two major forces that caused lots of wreckage were an earthquake in 1667 and the
Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991. The former flattened almost all the houses and palaces inside the city, with the exception of the Sponza Palace and part of the Rector’s Palace, so most of the city is effectively about 350 years old these days.
During Tito’s era post WWII, even as other cities had ugly, functional communist era edifices erected, Dubrovnik kept its medieval charm. This was deliberate – it kept the city a tourist magnet and a hard currency cash cow.
In 1991 the Serbian dominated Yugoslav Peoples Army surprisingly attacked Dubrovnik, which had been far from the fighting. The old city was bombed from the air and shelled from land and sea. After eight months, the Croatian army broke through, but not before more than 100 civilians had been killed and 30,000 people forced out of their homes.
Today, one really can’t see any evidence of this damage, except that 2/3 of all the roofs in the old city were damaged and if you look at the roofs, those with bright colors were damaged, the few that survived are much darker.
These days Dubrovnik is back to its former splendor and tourism is back in full force. The city is again a major Adriatic cruise destination. We learned that one of the reasons nearby Kotor in Montenegro is on the rise and has so many cruise visitors is that Dubrovnik is essentially at capacity and so the cruise lines needed a new place to go. Apart from the several ships in port, which is about 2 Km from the old city, we also observed an additional ship at anchor on the far side of the city, whose passengers presumably have to be tendered into the city, but who also probably had a much prettier view from their decks.
We actually began our exploration of Dubrovnik just outside town at the Trsteno Arboretum, a lovely oasis of calm and vegetative beauty. This is also a Game of Thrones shooting location and if you are a GoT nut, you should definitely consider coming to Dubrovnik as lots of filming was done in and around the city.
There are Game of Thrones walking tours where guides take people to some of them and show, through photos, how the locations were transformed into what is seen on screen. For anyone who does watch GoT, you definitely experience some deja vu moments as you walk through the city.
The old city has only a couple of gates, and the Pile Gate is the main entrance today. Above the drawbridge is a small statue of St. Blaise, the town’s patron saint who holds a model of the city in his hand. Images of him are seen all over the city and interestingly sometime he holds the model in the right hand, other times the left. On one occasion there were a couple of ceremonial guards in uniform stationed by the gate. Amazingly I was able to find a break of a couple of seconds when there was not a mob of tourists coming or going. Really this picture is very deceptive – a few moments before and later this space was just about wall to wall people.
Every city has its main drag, and the Stradun is the 300 yard long main street in the old town that takes you from the Pile Gate all the way through to the Sponza Palace and an exit to the Old Port. Along the way there are old churches, fountains, and shops, just as there have been for centuries.
In front of the Sponza Palace is Orlando’s Column – which was the historical location for the town crier to make their announcements. The higher he stood up the column, the more important the news. An interesting bit of local trivia is that this statue’s forearm length was a standard unit of measurement for the city.
Around the corner from the Sponza Palace is the other old main building that pre dates the 1667 earthquake, the Rector’s Palace. The Rector was a role similar to the Doge in Venice. Worried about any one person becoming too powerful the Rector was a position that was rotated on a regular basis – monthly! Imagine if we had mayors that only served a one month term. Seems to me that the Rector probably treated their time at the Rector’s Palace like a hotel stay. It would hardly seem to be worth it to move all your stuff in, only to have to move it out a few weeks later.
Probably the main attraction in the city is walking the City Walls. This is quite an expensive ticket, but the views are very impressive and make it a must do. Plus you get a good workout climbing up and down the steps in various areas. We were fortunate that it was a cool day, which made it very pleasant. I could see how it could become a bit arduous if it was especially warm. There are three spots at which one can enter or leave the walls, but one it only allowed one entrance and one exit, so we made sure to do a complete circuit of the walls which rewarded us with amazing views over the old city and out over the ocean and the nearby coastline.
The northernmost, highest part of the walls is dominated by the Minceta Tower, seen in the adjacent photo. On the far side of the city is the wearhouse like St. John’s fort, protecting the harbor. Most of these old builidngs house low grade museums which we chose to skip.
The same ticket for the walls is also good for visiting the fort of St. Lawrence just outside the Old City. We learned that the ticket could be used the following day, so we kept this for when we returned to the old city the next day.
The Fort of St. Lawrence is on the opposite side of a small bay near the Pile Gate and is a most impressive location. No wonder Dubrovnik was able to remain an independent city state when most of the surrounding areas fell to different conquerors.
The interior of the Fort is unfurnished, but offers a number of different “looks” that Game of Thrones took good advantage of to make a number of ficticious locations from one property.
Perhaps the best overall view of the old town comes from the nearby hills peak of Mount Srd above the city. There is a cable car that
runs from the old city to the ruins of an old Napoleonic fortress from 1810. This was an area that Croatia was able to hold in the Siege of Dubrovnik and was strategic in the defence of the city. However, since we still had our car, we instead drove ourselves up several switchbacks to get to the same place. Looking down, one gets to see the Old City and the coast, looking inland one sees the nearby mountains in Bosnia. One is warned not to wander off the beaten path as there is still a concern that in remote areas there may still be mines left behind.
Outside the sea wall side of the Old City is an unusual Cafe called Buza. Walking along the Old Walls it looks like the walls descend vertically into the sea, but in fact there is a narrow sliver of rock between the walls and the water. There are actually two Buza Cafes, which I guess complete with each other. They provide a series of terraces hugging the rocks and indeed you can sit on the rocks to have your drink and be rewarded with a unique refreshment experience. To get here you have to enter the old city, climb up through the old city streets and squares to get to the base of the walls, then find a narrow doorway that takes you outside the walls and onto the narrow terrances.
From Dubrovnik it was time to fly back to Dublin and spend another week helping my parents.