Dubrovnik is well known for its distinctive ‘Old Town’, encircled with massive stone defensive walls, medieval architecture and well-preserved buildings with terracotta rooftops.
Having arrived in Dubrovnik as our first port of call in Croatia, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the ancient city and decided to take advantage of the convenient bus that runs regularly past the marina.
The bus stopped just in front of Pile Gate, one of the two grand entrances to the old city. Above the gate is the statue of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city standing guard. The gates have thick wooden doors and are accessed from the outside by crossing a stone bridge and a small wooden drawbridge. The daily opening and closing of the city gates was personally attended to by the Prince.
Once through the gate you are enclosed within the immense city walls.
Rather uniquely the role of ‘Prince’ was bestowed upon trusted local male citizens on a monthly basis. Each month, the Senate elected a new Prince, who settled in the luxurious ‘Prince’s Palace’ from where he ruled the city. To ensure that the Prince was not distracted from state business, he was not allowed to leave the palace to attend to his own affairs or receive visits from any of his relatives, including his wife!
The Prince lived on the upper floors during his reign with the lower floors of the palace housing government offices, court, jail, powder magazine, and armory. The Prince’s Palace has been destroyed repeatedly by numerous fires, earthquakes and a gunpowder explosion, but every time it has been rebuilt, nowadays it has elements of renaissance and baroque styles.
In similar design, Sponza Palace stands next to the Prince’s Palace and has served a variety of public functions, including as a customs office and bonded warehouse, mint, armoury, treasury, bank and school.
Stradun Street is the main street of the old town. It is only 300 meters long and crosses the town from east to west connecting the Prince’s Palace with Pile Gate entrance.
Originally the street was a marshy channel separating the island called Ragusa (just a coincidence, not to be confused with our winter base in Ragusa, Sicily) from Dubrava on the mainland opposite the island. The island was merged with the mainland in the 13th Century when the marshy channel was filled and paved with marble slabs.
Many of the buildings in Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was then called) were destroyed in the 1667 earthquake. Originally the houses which line the street were not so uniformly designed, but following the earthquake and a large fire which broke out immediately afterwards, a law was passed which specified the layout of all future residential buildings constructed in the city. Because of this, all of the houses lining Stradun Street now share the same pattern and were rebuilt in the specific style.
We walked through the towns narrow stone streets and there was something new to see at each corner we turned, with an abundance of monuments, churches, forts, monasteries, fountains and palaces all fitted in to a relatively small area. Most have been rebuilt since the 17th Century earthquake and all are very well preserved.
We eventually came to the the old city harbour, it is a quaint little harbour where ships and boats were built and repaired.
For many centuries St. John’s Fortress protected the harbour and had been the main defence of the city against enemy ships and pirates from the sea.
The city’s prosperity was based on maritime trade and during the 15th-16th century became one of the largest and most important centers of trade and shipbuilding in Europe.
Concerned with the increased risk for contracting infectious diseases, especially the plague, the residents of Dubrovnik built infirmaries to isolate those who arrived at the city. All merchants, particularly those arriving from plague-affected places must remain in quarantine before entering the city. This all sounds very familiar!
The defensive walls have maintained their original form and were not destroyed even during strong earthquakes. There are still two kilometres of well maintained walls completely surrounding the city so we took a walk along them. At strategic points lookout towers and fortresses are built into the walls. Some parts of the walls are up to 25 meters high and 6 metres thick with openings from which cannons and guns could be fired, some still with cannons in place. The power of these fortifications are considered to be one of the most sophisticated defensive systems of the Mediterranean at that time.
Minčeta tower is the largest structure on the wall, the top of the tower provides stunning views of the town and its surroundings.
The collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent war in the late 20th century was an ordeal for the city. Many buildings were damaged in mortar shelling during the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991–92, but most of the city has now been restored.
From the top of the walls, you can see the extent of the shelling damage in the 1990s by the rooftops: those with bright new terracotta tiles suffered damage and had to be replaced.
Dubrovnik Marina is a lovely safe secure marina where we stayed for a couple of days before heading off to explore the surrounding islands.