Dubrovnik is sometimes described as a “living museum”, where its people live alongside one of Europe’s most stunning medieval walled cities. Naturally, locals commuting to work, doing the school run or their weekly shop may seldom pause to admire the finer points of the old town’s baroque architecture or even its picturesque location, squashed between the Dinaric Alps and the emerald waters of the Adriatic. Instead, they are more likely to curse while circumventing the fully-pedestrianised old town or, when on foot, squeezing through its narrow marble paved alleyways between the throngs of tourists that Dubrovnik, like any decent museum, usually attracts.
Yet that day I stood alone on the city walls, gazing over red-tiled roofs to the tranquil waters beyond, and the silence was deafening. Viewed from above, this Louvre of the Balkans no longer seemed alive. Or, for Game of Thrones fans (for whom Dubrovnik is King’s Landing), the set was empty. The walls themselves represent a monumental feat of medieval engineering. Up to six metres thick and twenty-five metres high, they run for almost 2km around the city, punctuated by watchtowers and sheltering palaces, monasteries, churches and gardens among other treasures. They afford views of the city’s “exhibits” from multiple angles, but to see them tourists must usually inch their way along in Indian file subject to a strict one-way system and serviced by loos and cafes en route.
But that December day, with Europe yet to get moving again after its COVID lockdowns, I passed only three other beings – a couple “selfying” their way around the ramparts and a ginger cat sunning himself on a bastion – and I was free to violate the one-way system with impunity. Largely uncontaminated by the modern world (cable car aside), my views over the old town to the bay and mountains beyond probably differed little from those surveyed by the watchmen of the ancient Republic of Ragusa centuries earlier as they scanned the horizon for invading armies.
Compared to other medieval city states in the region, Ragusa retained a high degree of autonomy under the successive suzerainties of Venice, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, thanks to skilful diplomacy and leveraging its position as a major mercantile power that linked trade between East and West. Indeed, the Republic only fell as late as 1806 when Napoleon invaded. Its system of government was quite unique too: a landowning and mercantile oligarchy ruled through Major and Minor councils under a Rector who they elected to serve a term of just one month, a safety valve which some modern-day electorates stuck with unpopular leaders might well be envious of! This liberal-minded and prosperous state fostered other distinctive features such as medical services that were ahead of their time, a public water supply and the abolition of the slave trade in 1416, making Ragusa among the first states in Europe to do so.
Dead or alive, visitors will love Dubrovnik, as much for its fascinating history as for its stunning location.