A Virtual History Tour of Dubrovnik's City Walls
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
In this blog post, I'm going to take you back to one of my favourite towns in one of my all favourite countries - Croatia! After falling in love with Split during a spontaneous trip in 2016, my bff Sadie and I decided to visit Split and Dubrovnik at the end of the summer of 2017. Croatia is such a beautiful country, and it's close to rivalling Italy as my favourite in Europe!
I never consider it a hindrance when I'm particularly snap-happy on a trip, but I did take a LOT of photos during our walk around Dubrovnik's city walls. I'm finally putting them to good use today, and will be taking you on a virtual photo tour of one of Dubrovnik's most well known attractions, while we look back on how the city became the icon it is now.
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#1: Dubrovnik is home to Europe's third-oldest pharmacy, which opened in 1317 and is still in use today!
Starting at Pile Gate - arguably the most well known entrance to Dubrovnik's Old Town - a relatively steep climb up to the walls rewards you with an unobstructed view over Stradun Street, the main street in the Old Town.
The prominent tower you can see to the left of Stradun Street is part of the Franciscan Church and Monastery, belonging to the Order of Friars Minor. It is inside this monastery that Dubrovnik’s oldest pharmacy is located! Its opening in 1317 was just one of the many ways in which Dubrovnik - formerly known as the Republic of Ragusa - proved itself as a forward-thinking city. Ragusa also introduced its first medical service in 1301, abolished slave trading in 1418, and established a 12-mile long water supply system in 1438! #MindBlown
#2: Dubrovnik’s city walls - originally made from wooden palisades - were considered to be one of the greatest fortification systems of the middle ages
Today, thick stone walls line the bounds of the Old Town - up to 25m in height, and as thick as 6m on the land side of the city. While the city was first enclosed by wooden walls in the 9th century, they were strengthened in the 15th century while under threat of attack from the Turks.
However, the initial wooden walls were very highly regarded, as they were never breached by a hostile army during their existence, not even during the 15-month long invasion by the saracens in the 9th century! (“Saracens” was the term used to refer to Arabs and muslims during this time.)
#3: During its peak, Dubrovnik had colonies in Morocco, France, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Poland, England, Scotland, Ireland, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Savoy, Lucca, Greece, Illyria, Armenia and Lebanon!
Dubrovnik’s economic success has historically been based on maritime trade, with this success peaking in the 15th and 16th centuries, when its economy rivalled that of the Republic of Venice. Seafaring trade was another of the city’s assets, with Dubrovnik's merchants travelling all over the world, founding settlements as far away as India and America. At its height, Dubrovnik had colonies in eighteen foreign nations!
#4: Dubrovnik’s high regard for personal liberty drove its economic success
While many countries and republics measured their success by conquering others, Dubrovnik traded and sailed under a white flag on which the word “freedom” was featured. The local Latin-Dalmatian aristocracy considered personal liberty to be of the utmost importance, and this flag was adopted following the abolition of slave trading in 1418.
#5: While an earthquake was one of the initiators of Dubrovnik’s decline, the city walls remained strong
The view from this postbox-shaped embrasure would have changed numerous times since the height of Dubrovnik's power in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was after this time that the Republic started to decline due to a combination of effects of the Mediterranean shipping crisis, and a catastrophic earthquake in 1667. Not only did the earthquake kill over 5,000 of Dubrovnik’s citizens, it levelled most of its public buildings, and had knock-on effects throughout the whole Republic. Despite the extensive damage, the city’s walls remained largely unaffected.
#6: Since the 15th century, both Slavic and Italian languages have been spoken throughout the Republic
Serbo-croatian was the language spoken by the majority of Ragusan citizens, referred to generally as “slavic”, and often written in cyrillic. While Latin was the official language until 1472, medieval glagolitic (the oldest known slavic alphabet) tablets have been discovered near Dubrovnik, suggesting that this script was once used in the city.
Italian was spoken among the Dalmatian-speaking merchant upper classes, with heavy Venetian and Tuscan influence.
#7: The Republic of Ragusa was abolished in 1808, following an invasion by Napoleonic forces two years earlier
In 1806, forces from Napoleon’s Empire of France entered the neutral Republic without permission, demanding that their troops be allowed to rest and recuperate in the city before continuing to the Bay of Kotor. This turned out to be an act of deception, and the troops occupied the city in the name of Napoleon.
To exacerbate the situation, Russian and Montenegrin troops also entered Ragusan territory, fighting the French army, but raiding and pillaging along the way. These invasions culminated in the siege of Ragusa, during which time 3,000 cannonballs are known to have fallen on the city.
Following the siege, in 1808, the Republic of Ragusa was abolished, and its territory amalgamated into the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy.
#8: Austrian “allies” hijacked an insurrection of the Ragusan people, and took control of the city for 96 years
Following seven years of French occupation, Ragusan people of all social classes rose up in an insurrection against the Napoleonic invaders in an effort to take back their Republic. With the help of British forces, Ragusa successfully forced the French to surrender on the island of Šipan, of Lopud, and in the town of Ston; the insurrection then spread throughout the mainland, and inside the walls of the city.
While the Austrian Empire sent forces to help their Ragusan allies, their true intention was to replace the French occupation with their own. False promises made to the temporary governor of the Ragusan Republic led to Ragusan forces being held outside the city while Austrian forces were allowed to enter following the surrender of the French.
Following further dirty tactics on the Austrians’ part, as well as blatant contradictions to numerous agreements and treaties signed by the Austrians themselves, general Milutinović assumed complete control of the city in early 1814.
#9: Dubrovnik had an electric tram service which served the city between 1910 and 1970
The transport nerd in me was really quite excited to learn that Dubrovnik had an electric tram service for 60 years! The original line ran from Pile Gate on the western side of the Old Town, north west to the port of Gruz, where cruise ships now stop. This original line was subsequently extended to Dubrovnik’s railway station, just beyond the port, and a second line added to serve the peninsula of Lapad, also north west of the Old Town.
#10: Dubrovnik has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979
While part of Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik - the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ - was granted World Heritage site status by UNESCO in 1979, after which time the city would be provided with resources and aid to ensure the preservation of its unique character. This has benefitted Dubrovnik during and following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which was set into motion only a few months after it gained this status.
After Croatia declared its independence in June 1991, the Old Town and its walls withstood shelling and air strikes by the Yugoslav People’s Army during the seven-month-long Siege of Dubrovnik. In the early 1970s, Dubrovnik had demilitarised in order to avoid becoming a casualty of war, and so its defences were almost non-existent when attacked.
Following the siege, 67% of buildings in the Old Town were damaged, and 1% had burned down entirely. Efforts to repair and restore the Old Town and its iconic walls took place during the 1990s and early 2000s, mirroring the city’s original style, as per UNESCO guidelines. A map near Pile Gate now identifies the locations of all the artillery hits Dubrovnik suffered during the 1991 siege; you may also be able to identify some of the city’s newer buildings by their brighter-orange roofs!
It is considered a testament to the resilience of the city’s centuries-old walls that more buildings in the Old Town weren’t destroyed during the 1991 siege, and proof that they were more effective in resisting modern weaponry than contemporary structures elsewhere in Dubrovnik.
I hope you enjoyed our little history tour around Dubrovnik's city walls! I never enjoyed history as a subject at school, but I love learning about the history of my favourite travel destinations - bringing the subject to life definitely helps! I think learning about the places we travel to - in terms of their context and culture especially - adds so much more to the travelling experience, and it's definitely something I want to make sure I do more of!