Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is chock-full of historic, architecturally charming towns and cities, but few would question that the queen of them all is the walled old quarter of Dubrovnik, thought to have been founded in the 7th century but according to some theories dating back even much earlier, to ancient Hellenic times. In any case, this eight-square-mile cluster of stone buildings and red-tile roofs has as a result become one of Europe’s more popular cities and tourist destinations – not to mention a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For most of its history the city was called Ragusa, in the Dalmatian language of its founders and early inhabitants as well as in Italian, which became its official language due to the influence of the Venetian Republic (like Italian, Dalmatian is a Latin-descended Romance language ); it got its current Slavic name Dubrovnik when, after World War I, it became part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. From the Middle Ages through the early 19th century, Ragusa was an increasingly powerful, tolerant, and progressive maritime republic like Venice at the time – although due to the ups and downs of history and politics it became subject to various kingdoms, states, and empires including Venice itself, Hungary, and the Ottomans. In the 19th century it became part of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary.
A Full Recovery: Old News Already!
Dubrovnik tourism benefited from the boom in Dalmatian tourism in the 1980s during the last years of Yugoslavia, but was extensively damaged by bombardment during the war that followed the declaration of Croatia’s independence in 1991. I remember visiting in 1997 and seeing shattered buildings and teams still picking landmines out of the surrounding hills. But by the middle of the decade just past, everything had been made good as new, and tourism came back stronger than ever.
It’s not that there are a huge number of “sights” to see (though there are some not to miss, including St. Blaise’s Church and several fine museums). For me, more than anything it’s about basking in the beauty of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture; people-watching at sidewalk cafés; shopping for traditional jewelry; and taking in cultural events like the delightful Dubrovnik Summer Festival. At night, especially, the main street, the marble-paved Stradun (above, one of my favorite nocturnal shots anywhere), takes on a romantic, almost magical gleam. It’s sure good to see Dubrovnik back.