I’ve seen many castles and fortresses on my travels, but none stick in my head like the fortified Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia. If I didn’t actually walk upon its marble streets and touch its historic stone wall for myself, I’d swear it was a modern recreation of another time.
Founded by the Romans in the 7th century, Dubrovnik’s walled village is located on a rocky cliff overlooking the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea, in the Southeastern part of Croatia. The city was known as Ragusa until the end of WWI, when it took its present name.
My first glance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site came from the deck of a cruise ship, which approached from the Mediterranean Sea. From this vantage point I got a panoramic view of the giant stone wall surrounding the city. Jetting 100 feet high from the rocks that line the coast, the 20-ft-thick wall stretches more than 6,350 ft-long as it wraps around mediaeval ramparts, draw bridges, and other castle features. For those wanting a cool, birds-eye view, it is possible to walk along the wall to get a memorable look at the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” the nearby islands, and the Franjo Tuđman Bridge, with iconic triangular, cable-stayed profile.
The barrier took nearly 500 years to complete and was built to protect the town and its prized location from ambitious invaders. Today it is considered one of Europe’s finest surviving fortress walls. It’s easy to understand why George Bernard Shaw once said “if you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
After docking in the modern Port of Dubrovnik, I took a bus to edge of Old Town, where I found an exciting seaside atmosphere. There were kids eating ice cream on green lawns overlooking the water, shops full of tourists and pubs pouring beer. On one side I watched colorful fishing boats bob in the harbor beneath the fortress wall, and on the other side, I noticed hotels blending in with regular homes.
To enter Old Town I walked through the main Pile Gate, where I discovered a medieval world of densely packed brick buildings with arched doorways, marble inlays and red tiled roofs. Many of the buildings are mixed-used with private residences set atop quaint shops and charming outdoor cafes.
The town is dissected by a large and shiny limestone main street, which branches into a network of narrow, sloping alleys and steep stairways, teeming with plants. The bustling, cream-colored main street brightly reflects the sun’s rays during the day and turns them into a sandy glowing hue at night.
The landscape is also speckled with Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces, Renaissance fountains and facades, all intertwined with gleaming wide marble-paved squares and those steep cobbled streets, all of which have also remained unchanged for centuries. Old Town is also home to an 800-year-old Gothic church and Europe’s oldest pharmacy.
As I wandered in and out of the town’s walkways, I was overcome by the aroma of fresh seafood riding a warm Mediterranean breeze. The scent led me to a place called Pink Shrimp Street Food located in a charming little alley off the main street. Here I sat outside and enjoyed a fresh shrimp sandwich with salad and a mug of cold, Croatian beer.
As I ate my lunch I watched people from all over the world stroll up and down the cobblestone streets. If you are out at the right time, the place can be a peaceful village, while much of the time it is bustling with tourists. The place gets about 2 million visitors per year and a good chunk of these people come by way of cruise ship. During the summer, Dubrovnik can welcome up to six cruise ships on a single day.
Cruise lines such as Holland America stop in the Dubrovnik. In fact their ship Oosterdam is leaving on a 12-day Mediterranean Romance cruise October 15 (next month), that departs from Venice, Italy and stops in Dubrovnik. For more information, visit Holland America.