Dubrovnik is at the southern tip of Croatia and across the Adriatic from Italy. It was Lord Byron’s “Pearl of the Adriatic” and George Bernard Shaw’s “… paradise on earth”.
I was blown away by Dubrovnik’s beauty and charm. Traffic free, it's a joy to explore, a pedestrians dream and is one of the world’s best living and breathing walled cities. In mid December the weather is mild and the city was full of local life with hardly a tourist to be seen; it can be choked with cruise passengers in summer.
In the 12th century the Republic of Dubrovnik was a successful maritime trading power, a major rival to Venice – no a sensible situation, as it led to a Venetian invasion in the 13th century and 150 years of Italian rule.
Everyone wanted a piece of Dubrovnik. Napoleon’s forces occupied the city, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed it until the end of WWI and after WWII it was the Soviet Union's turn. But it was the 20th century when the Balkans became a watchword for strife, instability and insoluble political dilemmas. Croatia fared quite well under Yugoslavian communist president Tito but when he died in 1980 Yugoslavia imploded.
It was only a matter of time before the old Balkan conflicts re-emerged. In October 1991 the Serbian led Yugoslav army laid siege to Dubrovnik, cutting off water and electricity supplies and shelled the city from land, sea and air. Fortunately the cities large 15th century Onofrio fountain was fed from underground springs that the Serb’s didn’t know about.
On December 6th 1991 5,000 shells rained down on the city and snipers shot civilians in the streets. 200 defenders and 100 civilians were killed during the siege and 70% of its buildings sustained damage. The restoration work since the war has been on a magnificent scale and preserved shrapnel and shell damage now needs to be pointed out to visitors.
Today Dubrovnik is again a top European destination; it's a true medieval walled city with drawbridges and 18-foot wooden gates that secure the city, used to great effect during the 1991 siege.
The first thing to do in Dubrovnik is to walk around on top of the city walls, parts of which were built in the 8th century. It takes an hour stroll the 2km around the entire city. In places the walls are 25m high and up to 12m thick and the rooftop views are superb, the perfect way to understand the city's layout.
Of course there's a cathedral, museums, palaces, churches, treasures, icons, bizarre reliquaries (gold covered arms, legs, heads and 'the nappy of Jesus') but what few other cities offer is the joy of traffic free strolling along the Stradun (or Placa), Dubrovnik’s grand marble paved main street. It's a joy to explore little shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants in squares and alleyways that criss-crossing the city. Eating black risotto (cuttlefish flavoured and coloured with its own ink) straight from the pot at the harbour front Locanda Peskarija is perfect dining.
The city is famous for having the world's, or at least Europe’s, first public pharmacy in 1317, abolishing slavery in 1416, over 400 years before Britain and America, and for inventing the necktie. This was originally a cravat, from the French for a la Croat, which evolved into our familiar necktie in London towards the end of the 19th century.