Richard Nisley

Heaven on Earth -- the city of Dubrovnik
History - World Released - Jan 05, 2014

It’s been called the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” “Venice Without Canals,” and “Heaven on Earth.”

It’s Dubrovnik (DU-bro-vnik), the most popular tourist attraction on the Balkan Peninsula. In the 1970s it was demilitarized to prevent it from ever becoming a casualty of war, and in 1979 joined the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Which makes it all the more shocking that anyone would attack it. But that is what happened at the start of the Yugoslav Wars. The Yugoslav People’s Army surrounded Dubrovnik, set up their big guns, and began shelling the city. Among the casualties was the celebrated poet Milan Milisic.

What prompted the attack? Someone had to be punished. In 1990, Slovenia and Croatia had the effrontery to declare independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Never mind that it was done legally. Slobodan Milosevic, whose base of power was Serbia, didn’t care about losing Slovenia but he did care about losing Croatia. He ordered the attack on two of its most defenseless cities: Vukovar and Dubrovnik.

Why did he pick these particular cities? While the answer is not known with certainty, at the time various journalists speculated that Milosevic selected Vukovar and Dubrovnik because the different ethnic groups and religions in these cities had lived there in rather easy accord. In other words, Milosevic was intent on punishing Vukovar and Dubrovnik for allowing religious and racial tolerance to flourish. The attack on Vukovar was far worse than on Dubrovnik and stands as one of the early examples of “ethnic cleansing” during the Yugoslav Wars.

After several months, the shelling stopped. Croatia eventually won independence (in 1995) but the damage was done. Many died, and the two cities began a long recovery. Vukovar is still recovering, while Dubrovnik has been fully restored and once again thrives as a tourist attraction. The damage inflicted can be seen on a chart near City Gate, showing all artillery hits during the siege, and is clearly visible from high points around the city in the form of new more-brightly colored tile roofs.


Dubrovnik is among the 10 best-preserved medieval cities in the world, and currently is being used to represent the city of King’s Landing in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” One of the best ways to view the town is from atop the medieval walls that still enclose the city. No cars are allowed on the streets.

Like virtually every European city during the Middle Ages, the business of Dubrovnik was business--as a maritime trader. It’s most valued commodity, however, was freedom. In the Middle Ages, the Republic of Dubrovnik had to buy its independence from whomever was strongest, sometimes paying off more than one at a time. Today, after 200 years of foreign rule, the “Pearl of the Adriatic” is once again a free city.

Dubrovnik was founded in the first half of 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum, who established their settlement on an island off the coast of Dalmatia. Directly across the channel, at the foot of the coastal mountain of Srd, the Slavs developed their own settlement under the name of Dubrovnik, derived from the Croatian name dubrava, which means “woods.” The two settlements were united in the 12th century when the channel separating them was filled in.

From the time of its establishment, Dubrovnik was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire; after the Fourth Crusade the city came under the sovereignty of Venice (1215-1358), and by the Treaty of Zadar in 1358 it became part of the Hungarian-Croatian Kingdom, when it was effectively a republican free state. Dubrovnik reached its peak as a Mediterranean sea power in the 15th and 16th centuries. An economic crisis in Mediterranean shipping and, more particularly, a catastrophic earthquake in 1667 that leveled most of the public buildings, proved a huge setback to the Republic’s well-being. Recovery was slow. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops entered the city and the republic came to an end.

Dubrovnik has been described as a well-preserved example of a late-medieval walled city, with a regular street layout. Among the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture are Town Hall (now the Rector’s Palace), dating from the 11th century; the Franciscan Monastery (completed in the 14th century but now Baroque in appearance); the extensive Dominican Monastery; the cathedral (rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake); the Customs House, and a number of other Baroque churches, such as that of St. Blaise (patron saint of the city). Also within the walled city are a pharmacy that’s been in business since the Middle Ages, Europe’s second oldest synagogue, and the world’s oldest arboretum (the Arboretum Trsteno). A number of churches and mansions have been converted into art galleries, and there are various museums devoted to the local folk life and seafaring culture. What you won’t find in Dubrovnik are a lot of trees, as the earth beneath the city is mostly bedrock.

The heartbeat of Dubrovnik is the main promenade, called the Stradun, which by day is an Old World shopping mall and by night is a sprawling cocktail party. Find your way to the bar perched on a cliff above the sea and you can watch ships sail off into the sunset. George Bernard Shaw visited the city in 1929 and was so enchanted he wrote a friend back in England: “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”

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