Renaissance palaces, ecclesiastical treasuries and medieval libraries may be the city’s most impressive attractions, but the soaring city wall is Dubrovnik’s most imposing feature. Protected by two freestanding forts, the wall, more than a mile in circumference, surrounds the old city and contains five round towers, 12 quadrilateral forts, five bastions and two corner towers. The wall is a magnet for first-time visitors who, for the equivalent of $2 (15 kuna), can spend the entire day on the battlements gazing out on the Adriatic, peering down into convent cloisters or contemplating 1,400-foot MountSrdj to the north while sipping cappuccino atop a crenellated turret.
After Venice’s failed attempt to breach the walls in the tenth century, Dubrovnik was not seriously threatened again until 1806, when Russians and French fought over the city during the Napoleonic wars. The French finally commandeered it in 1808.
“Those stone balls aren’t for cannon; they were made to drop on invaders,” says Kate Bagoje, an art historian and secretary- conservator of the Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities, a civic association that maintains the city walls. “And those slits in the wall,” she adds, striding across a parapet on the fort of Lovrijenac, “were for pouring down hot oil.”
Ironically, the strength of old Ragusa lay not in its ramparts but in the Rector’s Palace; from here, the aristocracy governed their republic through a series of councils. Surrounded by greedy empires and quarrelsome city-states, the city leaders had two great fears: being occupied by a foreign power or dominated by a charismatic autocrat who might emerge from their own noble families. To ensure against the latter, they invested executive power in a rector who, unlike the Venetian doge, who was elected for life, could serve for only one month, during which time his peers kept him a virtual prisoner. Garbed in red silk and black velvet and attended by musicians and palace guards when his presence was required outside the palace, the rector was accorded tremendous respect. But at the end of the month, a member of another noble family unceremoniously replaced him.
Maintaining independence was a more challenging task. Save for a few salt deposits on the mainland at Ston, the tiny republic had no natural resources. Its population was not large enough to support a standing army. Ragusa solved the problem by turning its brightest sons into diplomats and regarding the paying of tribute as the price of survival.