Dubrovnik has always been Croatia’s tourist Mecca, but more recent years have seen its popularity soar beyond anyone’s wildest dreams as a result of the hit series “Game of Thrones,” not to mention films such as “Star Wars,” James Bond movies and “Robin Hood.”
I used to live in this glorious southern Dalmatian city, often referred to as the Pearl of the Adriatic, before relocating to the Croatian capital of Zagreb several years ago. I recall fondly my memories of life there. But I’m acutely aware that the passage of time tends to paint over every discomfort with the soft tones of nostalgia and that’s something nobody seems to be immune to.
The last couple of years I spent as a resident in Croatia’s southernmost city were dominated by crowds of people visiting not to learn more about the unbelievably well-preserved history this UNESCO protected city boasts, but by those caring little for Fort Lovrijenac, and wanting to take selfies at King’s Landing instead.
I’ll admit, as someone with close ties to Dubrovnik, I made a point of never watching so much as a single second of “Game of Thrones.”
I even got to a (rather irrational) point where these crowds of tourists who couldn’t care less about the place which banned slavery in the 1400s but instead wanted to purchase cheap GoT souvenirs irritated me. Instead of complaining, I thought I’d take you through some of the real history of Dubrovnik, the little city at the very tip of Croatia which is so much more than films, car commercials and mass-produced fridge magnets.
Dubrovnik’s origins still aren’t entirely clear
First things first; the name Dubrovnik is derived from the Croatian word dubrava, which means oak grove. The Latin name for the city is Ragusa or Ragusium, and although the name Dubrovnik was used in the Middle Ages, there was no official adoption of it until 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It’s important to note that there are two versions of history when it comes to the founding of Dubrovnik, one takes place on an island named Laus in the seventh century and another involves the Greeks a bit later in the eighth.
In Version One, Dubrovnik was founded during the 7th century on an island named Laus, which provided shelter for refugees fleeing from Epidaurum (modern day Cavtat, situated close to the Montenegrin border). The refugees from Epidaurum allegedly rebuilt their lives on Laus, while other settlers arrived on the mainland, naming their settlement Dubrovnik.
Eventually, the two settlements united under the name of Dubrovnik and the channel between them was filled in, giving way to the famous Stradun, Croatia’s most exclusive and arguably most beautiful street.
Version Two only came to light in 2007, when archeological excavations came upon an 8th century Byzantine basilica which indicated that there was a large settlement there, contradicting the Laus theory. It was then deemed that construction in Dubrovnik began before Anno Domini, and even more weight was given to the 2007 findings after other discoveries were unearthed which included Greek artifacts.
Speculation around the idea of Laus and a channel ever having existed was also fueled when naturally occurring sand was found following drilling.
Dubrovnik was once an autonomous state
Did you know that Dubrovnik and its immediate surrounding area was formerly a self-governing, autonomous state that flourished in peace and prosperity for some five consecutive centuries?
Meet the Republic of Ragusa, a place which abolished slavery, opened a hospital and a pharmacy, introduced running water, and never invaded another. Dubrovnik was once populated by – you guessed it – the Romans, then Dubrovnik fell under the Byzantine Empire, then under the sovereignty of Venice following the Crusades in 1205 before the Treaty of Zadar granted it semi-independence as a Vassal
state of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1358.
Dubrovnik was self-governing from the 14th century all the way up until 1808. Due to tensions with the mighty commercial power of Venice, Dubrovnik allied with Ancona, the maritime republic and rival of Venice. This rather unlikely alliance allowed both cities to not only develop alternative trading routes, but
also to resist frequent Venetian attempts to secure greater control over all Adriatic ports.
Dubrovnik was never occupied by the Ottomans
Dubrovnik has always been known for its diplomacy, and while this was most recently showcased during the Croatian War of Independence some 30 years ago, it was also very much in evidence during the time of the Republic of Ragusa.
You’ll likely know that the Ottoman Empire invaded and secured rule over much of this part of Europe, but Dubrovnik – then Ragusa – managed to carve out a workable relationship with the marauding Ottomans through its diplomatic skills. It was ruled by local aristocracy with two city councils who
maintained a social class system.
The Dubrovnik Republic was progressive, abolishing slavery 450 years before the USA was founded, opening one of the very first pharmacies, establishing the very first quarantine hospital and opening an orphanage for abandoned children.
Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro (Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world), goes
Dubrovnik’s famous motto. You can read it in Dubrovnik to this day, the flag raised each summer at the opening of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival has the word Libertas (Latin for freedom) inscribed boldly on it, and the local bus company is even named after the slogan. (See image above.)
The Dubrovnik Republic considered liberty to be of paramount importance, and as such, it was an early adopter of several laws considered to be progressive (and even controversial) at the time. One of the very first pharmacies in Europe (which still operates to this very day!) was opened in 1317, 16 years after the introduction of an official healthcare service.
The first quarantine hospital was established in 1377 and a law was passed to abolish slavery in 1418, 450 years before the founder of the United States An orphanage for abandoned children was opened in 1432 and as most of Europe bathed in its own sewage, Onofrio della Cava (a Neapolitan architect and engineer) constructed a water supply system, complete with an aqueduct, two public fountains and several mills.
This saw Dubrovnik eliminate many diseases which were rampant at the time and which were associated with the open flow of sewage. Onofrio’s fountain can still be seen today sitting proudly at the far end of Stradun and acting as a popular meeting place for locals.
The above, while seemingly extensive, is only a small piece of Dubrovnik’s exceptionally rich history. A shining beacon of social justice, culture and the arts, a cradle of values that have withstood the test of time, Dubrovnik is much, much more than a ”must see” on a mundane list of film sets that celebrate nothing more than fiction.
To visit Dubrovnik and care only for its short-lived roles as Naboo or King’s Landing is to insult not only a tumultuous past, but also to a role model that many – even in the hustle and bustle of the modern day – could learn from.
Read more here about Croatia in Dispatches’ archives.
Lauren Simmonds is the editor of Total Croatia News, the largest English language portal in Croatia. She lives in Zagreb, Croatia, and is a translator, content writer, interpreter and the co-author of "Croatia - A Survival Kit for Foreigners," which was published in 2022.