Once overcrowded Adriatic city now poignant example of power of social distancing
Stradun, Dubrovnik's 300-metre main street, used to be packed with tourists
A lifetime ago, in early 2020, Dubrovnik, in Croatia, was one of the best (or worst?) examples of how globalisation, cheap flights, cheaper accommodation and the dictates of Instagram could turn photogenic places into a nightmare. Its medieval cityscape, countless "inspirational" photos on the Internet and the fame of being Game of Thrones's King's Landing had caused Dubrovnik to become full to the brim. Its cobbled streets and alleys, stairways and ramparts, cafés, restaurants, hotels, churches and museums were packed, shoulder to shoulder, by a crowd happy to share with their Instagram followers that they were in yet another it-place.
This is no more. Today, the streets of Dubrovnik are as empty as anywhere else in the Covid-19 stricken world, and this is the silver lining: now is the best time to actually see the famed city without the hazard of being crushed to death by other visitors, and to reflect on the city's poignant history.
Dubrovnik was born from crisis. In the 7th century AD, Slavs were settling the Balkans, slowly and steadily changing a population dynamic that had existed for millennia, carving away influence from what had remained of the Roman Empire. Overwhelmed by the new arrivals, the inhabitants of an ancient city on the Adriatic coast, Epidaurus (not to be mistaken for the Epidaurus in Greece famed for its ancient theatre), moved to a rocky island just off the mainland. The place was inhospitable but safe. Over the following centuries, due to a combination of local ingenuity, luck and location, it became an important trading post claimed at times by all the ambitious powers in the region, from Byzantium and Venice to Serbia and Hungary.
Orlando's Column is dedicated to a legendary hero who saved Dubrovnik from the Saracens. The clocktower still announces the time with a 16th century bell
In the late 14th century, Dubrovnik became an independent merchant republic, and remained so until 1808 and the Napoleonic Wars. During these fortunate centuries, Ragusa's merchants knew no borders, and would trade all over the region, including deep within the Bulgarian lands, which at the time were under Ottoman domination.
This is when Dubrovnik became the beauty it is today. Carving out a place to live on the rocky outcrop now connected to the mainland, its citizens created a walled citadel of stone, criss-crossed by a grid of paved streets. There were palazzos for the wealthy, sturdy homes for the ordinary people, and beautiful churches for the whole community. At the heart of the city stood the Rector's Palace, the headquarters of the local government.
By the 19th century, however, various factors including the spread of nationalism, competition among empires, and the development of new technologies and trade routes had rendered Dubrovnik redundant. After a short period of French rule, the city, now only a shadow of its former prosperity and independence, was incorporated into Austria. After the Great War, it became part of Croatia and federalist Yugoslavia.
Having a cup of excellent coffee in the central square remains a part of the ultimate Dubrovnik experience
The interwar years were a time when tourists discovered Dubrovnik's quaint and romantic charm. When Dame Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a doorstopper travelogue about the pre-Second World War Western Balkans, visited Dubrovnik, she noted enough foreign visitors to make the observation that the local hotels were "filled with people who either are on their honeymoon or never had one." Interestingly, the same could be said for the tourists visiting in the 2010s.
Tourism flourished after the Second World War, when Dubrovnik became a star destination in Socialist Yugoslavia and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The breakup of Yugoslavia almost put an end to this. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, Yugoslavian forces besieged and heavily shelled the city for several months.
Dubrovnik, fortunately, recovered, although the shiny roof tiles of restored houses still betray areas of former destruction. Now it faces another calamity, this time caused by the slump in international tourism.
Outside the city walls, at the Old Harbour, a monument bears silent witness that the city has survived worse, through the ingenuity and care of its people. In the 14th century, when the Black Death ravaged Europe, Dubrovnik pioneered a method of protection against infectious disease that is still used today. To protect itself from the plague, it created a quarantine quarter, the lazarettos, where ships and travellers arriving from infected areas had to stay for 40 days before entering the city. These quarters became a whole neighbourhood in 1590-1642, when another deadly disease, cholera, was decimating the population. Today, the former lazarettos are a cultural venue, a welcome sign that with timely action hardships can be overcome – and hope restored for the future.
The Covid-19 pandemic achieved what seemed impossible: it emptied Dubrovnik's streets and alleys
Thanks to clever policies, the city's fortifications have protected it not only from enemies but also from infectious diseases