Dubrovnik is not only stunning, it’s an engineering marvel. So much so that its medieval walls saved many lives during the Serbo-Croatian War in the early 1990s.
We’ve been to many walled cities, but Dubrovnik has absolutely taken our breath away. It’s incredibly beautiful and is considered among the 10 best preserved walled cities in the world. We went on a walking tour of Dubrovnik’s 2 km long walls to learn more about the city’s history up to present day.
Most history books cite Dubrovnik’s origins in the 7th century, but a recent archeological find involving a Byzantine basilica and Greek artefacts suggest that settlement of the site is actually much older.
The walls themselves were constructed and modified several times between the 12th and 17th centuries. Walls facing the hillside were made much thicker (6 metres) than those facing the ocean, as more powerful and heavier canons could be transported across the land.
The fortress built on the rocky outcrop to protect Dubrovnik from seaward enemies had thinner walls facing the city, so that it could be easily retaken if an invader managed to seize it.
Despite the planning, the walls were never breached. Dubrovnik was very good at diplomacy, and managed to align itself with various empires to ensure its protection and sovereignty. The city reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries as a powerful centre of trade and commerce, and an early adopter of modern laws and institutions.
In 1806, Dubrovnik surrendered to Napoleon, who subsequently built a large fortress at the top of the hill overlooking the city. This may not have been to the liking of its inhabitants, but would prove important for citizens at the end of the 20th century.
Since the death of Tito in 1980, Yugoslavia had been slowly dissolving. In 1991, a referendum held in the state of Croatia showed the majority of Croats wanted to end their union with Yugoslavia. This exacerbated tensions with Serbia, who wanted to create a greater Serbia state within Yugoslavia by unifying Serbian minorities in other Yugoslav states, including those within Croatia.
War broke out between Croatia and Serbia in 1991. At the time, few thought Dubrovnik would be attacked because it was a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sadly the city came under siege for seven months, and sustained over 650 direct hits from the Yugslav People’s Army (JNA) commanded by Serbs.
Our guide was 11 at the time, and has vivid memories of the conflict. She said that food and water were scarce, and mostly came from a single vessel that was allowed to make humanitarian deliveries. Residents took shelter in the medieval fortifications, but were sometimes killed by sniper fire or shrapnel when they went outside.
The JNA took the hilltop from above the city, but were never able to take the fortress that Napoleon built. It seems that engineers from both the Middle Ages and Napoleon’s era could outwit even modern technology.
Looking at the view from above, it’s incredible that only 114 were killed during the siege. The rooftops are telling as many are bright orange, signalling a new roof. When the war finally ended in 1995, the city was on UNESCO’s list of Word Heritage in Danger. Money was earmarked to restore the damage, and it was removed from the list in 1998.
Today brings much happier times for the city as tourism keeps growing by leaps and bounds. Many people visit the city to see the backdrop to their favourite tv show or film. HBO uses Dubrovnik as the backdrop for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. The second episode of the third Star Wars trilogy was also recently filmed in the city.
Our guide says she now needs to learn both Korean and Hindi, as tv shows for audiences in India and Korea have also been filmed in the city. We saw many Korean tour groups taking selfies in odd places with guides!