Dubrovnik: An introduction

  • Dubrovnik city walls

    © Rajko Radovanović/Time Out

    © Rajko Radovanović/Time Out

As Ragusa, this was a hub of cultural, architectural and scientific achievement, backed by lucrative maritime trading and a progressive urban infrastructure. Ragusa was the name given to it by refugees fleeing the Roman-Byzantine city of Epidaurum, today’s Cavtat, in the seventh century.

A wily maritime power run by an enlightened council of local noblemen, Ragusa vied with Venice for Adriatic trade. A self-governing republic with its own currency and institutions quickly blossomed. Although a rigid class system ensured that only the aristocracy was allowed to vote; Ragusa had its own public health service.

With no royal intrigue – the Old Town is free of grandiose statues – Ragusa thrived. Whenever the Turks threatened, Ragusa paid them off. Citizenship was bestowed upon the skilled and the entrepreneurial, Jews included. Buildings of marble and stone replaced wooden ones.

Ragusa’s sailors worked a profitable fleet of 300 ships. Some worked aboard Columbus’s to the New World in 1492 – ironically, the first step in robbing Ragusa of its riches when Atlantic trade links began to replace Mediterranean ones in importance.

As the economic tide was turning, a great earthquake struck in 1667. The rebuilding programme called for height restrictions in case of further disaster. Just over a century later, Napoleon’s forces entered Ragusa in 1806. The republic was abolished.

Short French rule saw a swift improvement in the urban infrastructure. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Habsburgs moved in to control Ragusa until their demise in 1918.

As a symbol of Slavic learning and culture, the city was central to the revival of Croatian national feeling. When it became part of the new Yugoslav state, it took its Slav name of Dubrovnik. Ruled from Belgrade, Dubrovnik’s lack of overland transport links and outdated trade saw economic decline and mass emigration to the Americas. At the same time tourism took off, with the 1930s seeing an influx of Czech, German and British travellers.

With the post-war Tito regime throwing the doors wide open to foreign visitors, Dubrovnik became increasingly tourist friendly. In 1991 these same tourists watched the news in horror as Dubrovnik was shelled day after day during a six-month siege. Painstakingly rebuilt, it has since reinvented itself for high-end tourism, most notably where hotels are concerned. Entrepreneurs have upped the ante on luxury lodging – Dubrovnik is now a similar price bracket to the French Riviera.

Meanwhile Dubrovnik’s rich cultural scene is in a state of transformation: the prestigious Julian Rachlin and Friends festival of classical music twanged its last in 2012; while the much bigger Dubrovnik Summer Festival finds itself at a crossroads: is it a mainstream tourist attraction, or should it celebrate ground-breaking contemporary culture?

By far the biggest local talking point is the fate of Mount Srđ, the high plateau overlooking the town where a proposed golf-resort-cum-apartment mega-development has become the focus of impassioned for-and-against debate.