Dubrovnik: from war zone to tourist hotspot

Looking out over the mass of tiled roofs from the famous city walls it’s hard to believe the traumas that the city of Dubrovnik and its residents has been through in the last 20 years. The near perfect uniformity of the earthy red colour hints at a world recently restored, yet the evidence of a seven month siege and a mortar pounding from land and sea are increasingly hard to find.

For a long time now Dubrovnik has been the main draw of many a Mediterranean cruise. The narrow steep lanes leading off the central street are home not only to some of the region’s finest buildings but also to tens of thousands of tourists, spilling each morning from the giant cruise ships that dock nearby. It is one of the world’s most photogenic cities and around each corner is another quaint alley, a beautiful church or an old wooden door that hints at a mysterious and colourful past.

Dubrovnik from the city walls

Dubrovnik from the city walls

Most visitors appear to stay on or very near to the main street running through the heart of the city. Those who do want to explore will inevitably venture onto the wall (around 4,000 had on the day we visited, according to the cheery man who greeted us and relieved us of our €10 each to access the walls). I have to admit to having second thoughts for a moment at paying such a high price, before deciding that I shouldn’t be such a skinflint and that it was one of those things that just had to be done.

Dubrovnik from the city walls

Dubrovnik from the city walls

And the views from the walls are admittedly impressive. The full circuit takes around an hour to complete at a leisurely pace and offers many perspectives on the city, especially when viewed in the late evening light (we arrived at 5pm). The views from the new cable car are supposed to be even more impressive – it runs up the side of the nearby hill and as I scoured the slope I reckoned we could scramble up there in well under an hour. Sadly our short time in the city prevented us from making the climb ourselves to check out the view.

The city wall, Dubrovnik

The city wall, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik does appear to have a daily high and low tide of humanity. From around 9.30am, the time when the cruise ship passengers have enjoyed their buffet breakfasts and followed their flag-bearing guides into the city, the streets become awash with eager visitors from around the world. Cameras shield the faces of the tourists as they half listen to the descriptions of this old city, oozing with fantastic legends of trade, war and intrigue. The cafes are chock full of those same people resting their legs while admiring the views that greet the visitor wherever they look. Yet at around 6pm the city exhales and the swarms retreat to their floating hotels, leaving the bars and cafes to the small yet still substantial number of tourists who have filled Dubrovnik’s many land-based hostelries.

Dubrovnik's main thoroughfare

Dubrovnik's main thoroughfare, Stradun

The ghost of Dubrovnik past

Yet it’s not hard to find signs of the 1991 shelling if you look around. Immediately below the city walls there are still areas of rubble where buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and where the international restoration work did not reach.

Among the ruins of the 1991 shelling

Among the ruins of the 1991 shelling

The graphic below shows the extent of the attacks, each black mark signifying the location of a mortar. Looking at this plan it becomes clear that not only were many of the buildings affected by the war, but that every Dobrovnik resident would have lived through their own hell at that time. For them the masses of tourists now shuffling through their city must be a blessed relief when set against the very recent past that they have endured.

Map showing the extent of the shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992 (click to enlarge)

Map showing the extent of the shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992 (click to enlarge)

For those with an interest in the Yugoslav conflict or in world-class photography there is an exhibition that I would highly recommend while visiting Dubrovnik. The War Photo Limited is a powerful and emotive collection of some of the world’s best war photography. The images on show portray the brutality, the futility and the tragedy of conflicts all over the world. Yet while the professionals behind the cameras have gone to extraordinary lengths to show the human dimension of these inhumanities, I couldn’t help but think too of the bravery and single-mindedness of these photographers to capture these uncompromising images, and wonder about the emotional cost that they had borne for bringing these pictures to the world’s attention.

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9 Responses to “Dubrovnik: from war zone to tourist hotspot”

  1. Beautifully written, beautiful city. Classy post here.

    September 27, 2010 at 7:55 pm
  2. Looks like heaven on Earth for the eyes. Not so much for the brain when you’re aware of the tumultuous history. Looks like Dubrovnik is one of these up and coming new tourist destinations!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:02 am
  3. Another awesome post as always Andy! I’ve been to Croatia but not Dubrovnik. However, we drove through some of the worst war torn villages and it is amazing to see the damage to buildings and the destruction that was done that still stands years later.

    September 29, 2010 at 9:02 am
  4. Loved my visit to Dubrovnik 18 months or so ago – definetely is the jewel of the Adriatic and the walk around the walls and every changing views were great. I also highly recommend checking out some other lesser known towns along the coast from Slovenia, through Croatia and then into Montenegro, where you won;t get the cruise boat traffic but still get some beautiful architecture, food..etc

    It may have finished but when I was there they had a good little photo exhibit of the siege of Dubrovnik in the Sponza Palace near Placa gate. Seeing the War Photo Limitied exhibits after that really was a reminder that war is futile and sadly still all over the world.

    Great post.

    September 29, 2010 at 9:05 am
  5. Thanks for all the great comments. And yes, to all who have yet to visit Dubrovnik, it is well worth a visit despite the growing negative impression that the cruise ship crowds are bringing to the city.
    Andrew, thanks for the information about the Sponza Palace – we never got to see it but it sounds like an exhibit that’s well worth a look.

    September 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm
  6. I’ve heard about Dubrovnik as a special destination for several years now… Your photos are really lovely, and they capture the texture and depth of that city well. I especially like the cat photograph!

    September 30, 2010 at 1:35 am
  7. Croatia is on the top of my must-see destinations and reading your post has only further convinced me to travel there. I’m very intrigued by the war history and how this country has emerged from it.

    September 30, 2010 at 11:29 am
  8. Excellent pics and roundup of what makes Dubrovnik such a special place. I’ve had nice long-ish stays there a couple of times, on a kind of working holiday setup where we played in the evenings (I’m a jazz musician) on a lovely restaurant patio in exchange for food and lodgings. Daytimes were our own and were of course spent swimming and exploring. One great excursion not mentioned here is the trip out to nearby Lokrum island for a wander through lovely gardens and some more private swimming.

    Overall the place is amazing, the people are great and if you can manage to visit outside the cruiseship high season, it’s darn close to paradise!

    October 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm
  9. Excellent article thank you. We returned from Croatia/Italy yesterday! Starting in Dubrovnik..(The crowds were a shock to the system but we managed to avoid many of them.)
    We spent a day swimming off Lokrum, drinking coffee and hanging out. Dinner with friends in the evening in the city, lots of photos.
    After a couple of days we hired a car and dissapeared northwards…ferry to Hvar, two days …then across to Split, Plitvic, and onwards into the rural, beautifully remote areas…stayed in Foli (try that) visiting Pula,Safari Beach Bar… kayaking then crossed borders Slovenia to Trieste, Italy, finishing off with the best coffee on the planet and a flight back to damp U.K.
    I was in Croatia during the conflict (92) as a photographer, scary times and war is NOT glorious in any way.
    Seeing mortar damaged homes last week left a chill.
    Great people, Tourism will make some masive changes over the coming decade…see it while you can.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm