Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, is a rare surviving walled city by the sea. This former maritime republic once welcomed merchant ships from all over the Mediterranean. It now welcomes cruise ships from all over the world. For many visitors, their first site of this historic walled city is usually by sea, which makes it an exceptionally rare, special experience. Dubrovnik also bears the distinction of being the city where its walls have been most recently put to the test. In 1991 the people of Dubrovnik took shelter behind its walls during a siege that lasted nearly a year. Both the wall and the citizenry survived the war. The entire old city of Dubrovnik, along with its wall, is a UNESCO Wrold Heritage Site.
The area where Dubrovnik now stands has been inhabited since Byzantine times. Like early Venice, it became a refuge for those fleeing barbarian invasions from the north and east. Primitive fortifications protected the promontory during the early Middle Ages. Originally named Ragusa, the settlement stood at the heart of the Dalmation Coast which served as a frontier between the Byzantine east and the Roman west.
For centuries Ragusa was little more than an automonous backwater. Its importance as a seaport grew quickly during the Crusades, and by the 13th century it had become an importang trading center. Venice, the great maritime power of the Adriatic Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, was quick to take advantage of Ragusa’s strategic position and incorporated it into its trading empire. It was under the auspices of the Venitians that Ragusa began to grow into a major mercantile power in its own right. The Venetians and wealthy local merchants turned Ragusa into the Pearl of the Adriatic, as it would later be known. In addition to magnificent public buildings and churches, a great wall was constructed to protect the city.
Ironically, it was this wall that helped Ragusa to establish its independence from Venice in 1358. Although nominally a vassal state of Hungary, and though constantly threatened by the encroachments of the Venetians, Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Ragusa remained effectively independent for the next four and a half centuries. It was only with the arrival of Napolean in 1806 that Ragusa was finally occupied by a foreign power. Ragusa remained under foreign domination, first the French and then the Austrians, until the end of World War I. Even in later years, the walls of Dubrovnik were constantly enlarged and improved. This proved useful well into the 20th century.
In the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, the city of Dubrovnik, historically a Croat city, endured an assault by Serbian and Montenegran forces. The Siege of Dubrovnki lasted for nearly a year. Croat forces, heavily outmanned and outgunned, held out behind the heavily bombarded city walls. Althought the walls and city sustained severe damage, the population came through relatively unscathed. Most of the damage was quickly repaired, and by 2000 the city walls largely returned to the normal business of welcoming cruise ships and tourists. For those who interested in seeing military fortifications that have withstood the test of time, it doesn’t get any better than this.
The city of wall of Dubrovnik represents the combined efforts of seven hundred years of construction and expansion. They appear much today as they did in the 17th century. The walls on the land facing side are as daunting as any fortification in Eastern Europe. The main wall is 80 feet in height and up to 20 feet thick in places. This wall is actually protected by a smaller outer wall that was designed to withstand and absorb artillery fire. A trio of gates, numerous towers, and a deep moat crossed by narrow bridges complete the landward defenses.
As impressive as the walls are by land, city fortifications are actually best appreciated from the sea. In fact, for many visitors the first sight of Dubronik is from the decks of a cruise ship on the seaward side. Perched dramatically along the chalky cliff line, this is one of the world’s most recognized seaside fortifications. The sea wall is anchored by the St. John Fortress, which was built to protect the harbor from enemy ships. Other key structures in the city’s defenses are the Bokar Fort and the Minceta Tower.
The Walls of Dubrovnik completely encloses the old city and the city harbor on the rocky promontory that juts off from the Dalmatian Coast, approximately 80 miles south of Sarajevo. The walls are are a partially open site, but entrance is required to most of it. They are open daily from 8:30am-7:30pm. The cost of admission is kn50. Web: www.tzdubrovnik.hr (official website).
Surrounded by powerful states and empires on all sides, the Dalmatian Coast became has been heavily fortified since the Middle Ages. A trio of nearby fortress helped to protect the approaches to Dubrovnik: the Falcon Fortress, the Imperial Fortress, and the Prevlaka Fortress, all three of which can be visited as an easy day trip. Probably the best surviving fortresses in Dalmatia are Kamerlengo Castle in Trogir and the Nehaj Fortress in Senj. Also nearby are Ozalj Castle and Trakoscan Castle.