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.
The success of Dubrovnik’s tourist industry has brought a certain degree of complacency and self-satisfaction. The city’s museums are the most disappointing of any major Croatian city, and – despite a few honourable exceptions – the local restauranteurs are focused on raising prices rather than culinary horizons. Certain aspects of the city’s appeal remain immune to tourist numbers, however; most notably the uniquely beautiful setting and the unjaded straightforwardness of the Dubrovčani themselves.
Dubrovnik is worth a visit at any time of year, although spring and summer – when life spills out onto the streets and café tables remain packed well into the night – bring out the best in the city. Croatia’s cultural luminaries visit the town during the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in July and August, bringing an added dash of glamour to the streets, while the main event in winter is the Feast of St Blaise on February 3, when the patron saint of the city is honoured by a parade and special mass, followed by much drinking and eating. Be warned though: Dubrovnik’s popularity with cruise liners can lead to big crowds during the day, when the Old Town can resemble a vast theme park-cum-souvenir shop for ship-borne day-trippers. And though Dubrovnik is increasingly an all-year-round destination, note that a good half of the city’s hotels are closed from November through to March, and a lot of restaurants take the whole month of January off.
With a population of a little over 49,000, Dubrovnik isn’t as large as you might think, and although it sprawls along the coast for several kilometres, its real heart is the compact Old Town. Doing the circuit of the city walls is the one Dubrovnik attraction you really can’t miss, and it’s worth doing this early on in order to get the feel of the place. The rest of the Old Town can easily be covered in a day and a half – although once you begin to soak up the atmosphere you’ll find it difficult to pull yourself away. Running above the town to the east is the bare ridge of Mount Srđ, the summit of which provides expansive views of the town and the coast. The best place for swimming and sunbathing is the islet of Lokrum, a short taxi-boat ride from the Old Town.
The main tourist resorts south of Dubrovnik, Župa Dubrovačka and Cavtat, are within easy reach of the city by public transport. In addition, Dubrovnik’s port is the natural gateway to the southernmost islands of the Croatian Adriatic, with the sparsely populated, semi-wild islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan providing beach-hoppers with a wealth of out-of-town bathing opportunities. Slightly farther out to sea, the green island of Mljet is one of the most beautiful on the entire coast – you’ll need a day or two to do it justice.
Dubrovnik was first settled in the early seventh century by Greco-Roman refugees from the nearby city of Epidauros (now Cavtat), which was sacked by the Slavs. The refugees took up residence in the southern part of what is now the Old Town, then an island known as Laus – a name that later metamorphosed into Ragusa. The Slavs, meanwhile, settled on the mainland opposite, from which the name Dubrovnik (from dubrava, meaning “glade”) comes. Before long the slim channel between the two was filled in and the two sides merged, producing a symbiosis of Latin and Slav cultures unique in the Mediterranean. Ethnically, the city was almost wholly Slav by the fifteenth century, although leading families consistently claimed Roman lineage, and the nobility actively preserved the use of both Latin and Italian in official circles, if not always in everyday speech.
Initially subject to Byzantium, the city came under Venetian control in 1204. The Venetians stayed until 1358, when they were squeezed out of the southern Adriatic by Louis of Hungary. Officially, Dubrovnik became a vassal of the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom, although it effectively became an independent city-state.
The Ragusan Republic
The emergent Ragusan Republic was run by an elected senate – fear of dictatorship meant that the nominal head of state, the Rector (knez), was virtually a figurehead. However, the republic was by no means a democracy: the city’s nobility was the only section of society allowed to vote. Civic peace was ensured by allowing the rest of the citizenry full economic freedom and the chance to grow rich through commerce. Dubrovnik’s network of maritime contacts made it one of the major players in Mediterranean trade, but the key to the city’s wealth was its unrivalled access to the markets of the Balkan hinterland. The Ottoman Empire, having absorbed the kingdoms of both Serbia and Bosnia, granted Dubrovnik this privileged trading position in return for an annual payment. Dubrovnik established a network of trading colonies stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, from where wheat, wool, animal hides – and, for a time, slaves – could be shipped back to the mother republic before being re-exported to the West at a fat profit. As commerce grew, so did the need to protect it, and the republic extended its borders to include the whole of the coast from Konavle in the south to Pelješac in the north, as well as the islands of Mljet and Lastovo.
Culture and diplomacy
Mercantile wealth underpinned an upsurge in culture, producing a fifteenth- and sixteenth-century golden age when the best artists and architects in the Adriatic were drawn to the city. It was during this period that many of the urban landmarks of present-day Dubrovnik were completed: Juraj Dalmatinac and Michelozzo Michelozzi worked on the town walls, Paskoje Miličević drew up plans for the Sponza Palace, and Onofrio della Cava designed the Rector’s Palace, as well as the two fountains that still bear his name.
Suzerainty over Dubrovnik had passed from the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom to the Ottoman Empire by the early sixteenth century, but shrewd diplomacy and the regular payment of tributes ensured that the city-state retained its virtual independence. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Dubrovnik enjoyed the protection of both Spain (Dubrovnik ships sailed with the Armada in 1588) and the papacy, but usually avoided being dragged into explicitly anti-Turkish alliances. In fact, wars between the Ottomans and the West usually led to increased revenues for Dubrovnik, which exploited its position as the only neutral port in the Adriatic.
Decline and fall
Decline set in with the earthquake of 1667, which killed around five thousand people and destroyed many of the city’s buildings. Bandits from the interior looted the ruins, and Kara Mustafa, Pasha of Bosnia, demanded huge tributes in return for keeping the robber bands under control. Kara Mustafa’s death during the Siege of Vienna in 1683 allowed the city the chance to rebuild, producing the elegantly planned rows of Baroque town houses that characterize the centre of the city to this day. However, the Austro-Turkish conflict of 1683–1718 seriously affected Dubrovnik’s inland trade, a blow from which it never really recovered. By the eighteenth century Dubrovnik’s nobility was dying out, and commoners were increasingly elevated to noble rank to make up the numbers; anachronistic feuds between the Sorbonnesi (old patricians) and Salamanchesi (newly elevated patricians, named after the universities of Sorbonne and Salamanca, where many young Ragusans studied) weakened the traditional social fabric still further.
The city-state was formally dissolved by Napoleon in 1808. The French occupation of the city provoked a British naval bombardment, while Russian and Montenegrin forces laid waste to surrounding territories, destroying much of suburban Dubrovnik in the process. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna awarded Dubrovnik to the Austrians, who incorporated the city into the newly formed province of Dalmatia. Political and economic activity was henceforth concentrated in towns such as Zadar and Split, leaving Dubrovnik on the fringes of Adriatic society.
The modern era
The symbolic importance of Dubrovnik long outlived the republic itself. For nineteenth-century Croats the city was a Croatian Athens, a shining example of what could be achieved – both politically and culturally – by the Slav peoples. It was also increasingly a magnet for foreign travellers, who wrote about the city in glowing terms, save for Rebecca West, for whom it was too perfect and self-satisfied: “I do not like it,” she famously wrote. “It reminds me of the worst of England.”
Already a society resort in West’s time, Dubrovnik enhanced its reputation for cultural chic with the inception in 1949 of the Dubrovnik Festival, one of Europe’s most prestigious, while the construction of big hotel complexes in Lapad and Babin kuk to the north, and Župa to the south, helped make Dubrovnik one of the most popular tourist destinations in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s. After repairing the damage done during the 1991–92 siege with remarkable speed, Dubrovnik quickly recovered its position as Croatia’s premier vacation spot.Read More
Food and drink in Dubrovnik
Food and drink in Dubrovnik
The choice of fish and seafood in Dubrovnik is as fine as anywhere in the Adriatic, with the waters around Mljet and the Elaphite Islands particularly rich in squid, lobster and shells. Oysters from nearby Ston also feature heavily on local restaurant menus. Among the dishes associated with Dubrovnik in particular are Šporki makaruli (“dirty macaroni”), tubular pasta served with a goulash sauce; and rozata, a vanilla-flavoured custard dessert similar to crème caramel.
The vineyards of the Konavle produce respectable red wines of the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Plavac varieties, as well as Kadarun, an autochthonous light and fruity rosé.
The siege of Dubrovnik 1991–92
The siege of Dubrovnik 1991–92
Few thought that Dubrovnik would be directly affected by the break-up of Yugoslavia: no significant Serbian minority lived in the city, and its strategic importance was questionable. However, in October 1991 units of the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), supported by volunteers from Montenegro and Serb-dominated eastern Hercegovina, quickly overran the tourist resorts south of Dubrovnik and occupied the high ground commanding approaches to the city. The bombardment of Dubrovnik began in early November and lasted until May 1992. Despite considerable damage to the town’s historic core, Dubrovnik’s medieval fortifications proved remarkably sturdy, with the fortresses of Revelin and St John (more familiar to tourists as the site of the aquarium) pressed into service as shelters for the civilian population.
The logic behind the attack on Dubrovnik was confused. Belgrade strategists unwisely considered it an easy conquest, the fall of which would damage Croatian morale and break the back of Croatian resistance elsewhere on the Adriatic. The attack on Dubrovnik also presented an effective way of dragging both the Montenegrins and the Serbs of eastern Hercegovina into the conflict, not least because it seemed to promise them ample opportunities for pillage. Attacking forces employed a mixture of bad history and dubious folklore to justify their actions. Dubrovnik’s links with medieval Serbia, and the fact that so many leading Ragusan families had originally come from the Balkan interior, were unconvincingly offered up as evidence that the early republic had been part of the Serbian cultural orbit. In a particularly twisted piece of cultural logic, opportunist Serbian intellectuals painted modern-day Dubrovnik city as a cesspit of Western corruption that could only be purified by the macho values of the Balkan hinterland. A special edition of the Montenegrin magazine Pobjeda published in November 1991 and entitled The War for Peace argued, with startling mendacity/hypocrisy, that Dubrovnik was under the control of Croatian ustaše (World War II fascists) and therefore deserved to be conquered.
Contrary to Serbian–Montenegrin expectations, Dubrovnik’s hastily arranged defences held out, and in the end the siege was broken in July 1992 by a Croatian offensive from the north. Once Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia had been re-established, Croatian forces continued their push southwards, liberating Cavtat and Čilipi.
Sea kayaking in Dubrovnik
Sea kayaking in Dubrovnik
Sea kayaking is a popular pastime in Dubrovnik and shoals of orange-bibbed paddlers pulling into Banje beach has become one of the city’s most characteristic sights. A trip usually involves a group excursion in one-person kayaks, led by an instructor, and is an exhilarating way of seeing the walled city and its surrounding islands from a maritime perspective. Previous experience is not necessary, and the pace is gentle enough to suit most people of average health.
The most common excursions are a half-day trip round Dubrovnik’s walls and the nearby island of Lokrum (around 260Kn per person), or full-day tours to the slightly more distant islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan (around 400Kn per person).
Adriatic Kayak Tours Zrinsko-Frankopanska 6 t 020 312 770, w adriatickayaktours.com.
Adventure Dalmatia Ivana Matijasevića 6 t 091 566 5942, w adventuredalmatia.com.
Perla Adriatica Frana Supila 2, just outside Ploče Gate t 020 422 766, w perla-adriatica.com.
The daily trip to the beach is a way of life for Dubrovnik folk, and locals discuss their favourite bathing spots in the same way that British people talk about the weather. What follows is a list of beaches that offer something special in terms of atmosphere or fine views.
Busiest of the town’s beaches, a mixture of fine shingle and sand just east of the Old Town, backed by trendy cafés, and with good views of the island of Lokrum. It holds a special place in the heart of Dubrovnik folk, as almost all of them spent at least part of their childhoods here. With much of the beach now covered in sun-loungers for hire, Banje has lost a great deal of its egalitarian bucket-and-spade charm.
Unlike its Brazilian namesake, this is a small crescent comprising pebbles and imported sand on the northwest side of Babin kuk (bus #6 from the Old Town). Owing to its proximity to Gruž’s port facilities the water here is not the cleanest, but the combination of enjoyable cafés and good views of coastal mountains make it a good place to hang out if you’re in the area.
Boulder-strewn stretch of coast popular with the locals, a few minutes’ walk southwest of the Lovrijenac fortress. Great if you like frying on top of a rock.
A lovely crescent of mixed shingle and sand immediately below the hotel, with good views of rocky Boninovo bay. As an east-facing beach it loses the sun by late afternoon/early evening. Free to residents of the hotel, a small charge for everyone else.
Shallow bay on the southwest side of Lapad peninsula, with a shingle beach that soon gets overcrowded owing to the proximity of Lapad’s package hotels. The beachside buildings are somewhat ugly, but it’s the safest beach for kids and there are a lot of facilities round about. To reach it, take bus #6 (destination “Babin kuk”) to Lapad.
A smallish stretch of pebble at the bottom of a cliff, reached by steps which descend from the coastal path midway between St James’s Monastery (Samostan svetog Jakova) and the Belvedere hotel – a good twenty minutes’ walk east of the centre. Fantastic views back towards the Old Town. West-facing, so catches the afternoon and evening sun.
The Dubrovnik Summer Festival (Dubrovačke ljetne igre; July & Aug; w dubrovnik-festival.hr) stages classical concerts and theatre performances in the courtyards, squares and bastions of the Old Town. The emphasis is very much on high culture: the festival usually includes plays by Shakespeare and Marin Držić, a major opera, symphonic concerts and a host of smaller chamber-music events. Seats for some of the more prestigious events often sell out well in advance, but it should be possible to pick up tickets for many performances at fairly short notice. The full programme is usually published in April; for details and ticket booking information check the website. Once the festival starts, tickets (30–200Kn) can be bought from the festival information points, usually located on Stradun or outside Pile Gate.
The festival is followed almost immediately by Julian Rachlin and Friends (w rachlinandfriends.com; Sept), a short season of classical concerts featuring the world-renowned violinist and a host of other big-name guests, with events taking place in atmospheric venues such as the Rector’s Palace and Revelin Fortress. Lastly, the Mali Glazbeni Festival (w parkorsula.com; June-Sept) is a season of rock, jazz and ethno concerts in Orsula Park, on the hillside east of town.