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Within the Adriatic fortress of Dubrovnik, cafés, churches and palaces reflect 1,000 years of turbulent history

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“In many respects, the 4,000 people living within Dubrovnik’s old city walls function as they did hundreds of years ago,” said Nikola Obuljen, 64, president of Dubrovnik’s city council, as he ambled across a limestone thoroughfare polished by centuries of foot traffic. “Venice has palazzos and the RialtoBridge, but Dubrovnik is a functioning Renaissance city where people live in the houses and shop at the markets.”

 

I first came to Dubrovnik in 1999 as a visitor searching for an eye in the Balkan storm. Kosovo then was in flames; Belgrade under siege. Bosnia remained intact only by force of international fiat. I needed a respite from Sarajevo, where, working as a journalism instructor, I happened to live a mile from a mass grave. That devastated city was recovering from the war that had ended there only the previous year. But as I drove south from Sarajevo toward Dalmatia, Bosnia’s once-fertile farmland offered only a succession of ghostly hamlets ethnically cleansed of inhabitants. Mostar, the last major stop before the Dinaric Alps, had been reduced to rubble. The Ottoman bridge that for centuries had spanned the NeretvaRiver was destroyed, a casualty of the malignant xenophobia then infecting Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

But as I traveled down the coastal highway beyond the mountains, the air began to warm, scenes of destruction grew less frequent and police actually began to smile. At the village of Ston, gateway to the PeljesacPeninsula, I entered the old, 530-square-mile Republic of Dubrovnik, which enjoyed an independent status for a millennium, to 1808. For the next hour, I meandered past fishing villages nestled beneath foothills verdant with vineyards. In the distance, an archipelago seemed to float in the mist. And then it appeared in the twilight: a walled city rising from the rocky coast like an Adriatic Camelot.

 

Dubrovnik was founded at the start of the seventh century amid the chaos that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Its first residents were refugees from Epidaurus, a Roman settlement farther down the Adriatic coast that had been overrun by invaders. To escape, the Romans moved to a forested, stony island separated from the coast by a narrow channel. They called the settlement Ragusium, derived from a word for rock. Croats, invited to Dalmatia by the emperor Heraclius to help fight the barbarians, soon joined them. Their name for the town was Dubrovnik, from an old Slavic word for woodland.

 

It was a propitious location. Midway between Venice and the Mediterranean, the city—its name now shortened to Ragusa— also lay on the east-west axis between Catholic Rome and Orthodox Byzantium. Washed by the prevailing sirocco (south wind) that drives ships north toward Venice, it was a natural port of call. It also was the terminus of the caravan route from Constantinople. As trade increased, the city’s strategic importance grew. For Renaissance popes, the Christian Republic of Ragusa proved a vital bulwark against advancing Islam. Ottoman sultans, on the other hand, viewed the town as a vital link to Mediterranean markets for their Balkan provinces.

 

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