Dubrovnik is exhausting.
To go almost anywhere within the Old Town of Croatia‘s iconic city once you stray from the flat Stradun, the main drag, you need to climb and descend uneven, often steep stairs. They do lead to remarkable things, so the effort pays off, but not without breaking a sweat.
I had already escaped the tourist-laden Stradun one day with a short boat ride to the peaceful island of Lokrum. The next day, I escaped again, this time by hiking up one of those intimidating staircases. This one, tucked between Pile Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old Town, and the small 500-year-old St. Savoir Church, took me above it all for the best views of the city and its surroundings.
I was standing atop the defensive limestone walls of the city, a magnificent engineering feat that began in the 12th century and continued through the 17th, and that, since 1979, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wasn’t here alone—about a million people per year want to see it, too. But if you time it right, in the morning and especially when the cruise ships haven’t bullied their way into town, you can avoid the onslaught.
From this initial vantage point, I looked down at the entire length of Stradun, lined with churches, shops, restaurants, cafés, and a small square with a fountain at either end, and then up at the green and brown hills rising from the city’s eastern fringes.
The sun-baked loop around the walls clocks in at about 1.2 miles. Like the city itself, this is not a flat walk that makes for a simple stroll. Hundreds of steps all along the circuit lead you up and down as the walls follow the rise and fall of the contour of the land. Since the time of their initial construction, the walls have been reinforced by bastions, turrets, three circular and 14 quadrangular towers, battlements with crenellations and merlons, gates and drawbridges, and nearly half a dozen forts (some with walls nearly 40’ thick). A moat that used to run around the outside of the city walls provided additional defense capabilities.
I turned toward the sea to begin my trek. The walls facing the Adriatic Sea measure anywhere from five to 16’ thick, built to defend the city from sea-based attacks. Below me, a single cannon (one of 120 that had defended the city) pointing toward the water rested on top of cylindrical Fort Bokar, built in the 1460s as one of the main defenses of the western part of the city. Across the small harbor, St. Lawrence Fortress stood ready to defend Dubrovnik from atop a rocky promontory, 121’ above sea level.
As I continued, I became mesmerized by the striking blue color of the Adriatic Sea. It was easy to appreciate the walls’ command of this sweeping view, easily enabling the city’s defenders to spy attacking vessels. Today, you can partake in a much more peaceful activity at one of the most scenic sections of the walls—enjoying a morning cup of coffee at one of the cafés that overlook the sea, with the green island of Lokrum breaking the surface like a gargantuan leviathan.
The passages expand and narrow as you proceed. Walkways that often shrink down to the width of only two trim adults can open to broader open spaces, like small, irregular squares. A small watchtower or turret here and there jutting out from the walls provides additional vistas of the sea as well as of the walls themselves and the rocks on which they were built. Every now and then you’ll catch a glimpse of a statue of St. Blaise, the city’s patron saint, set in a niche in the walls, keeping watch for invaders.
In addition to the expansive panoramas of what’s all around Dubrovnik, the walls offer a more intimate peek at the city itself. Church domes and towers, and those iconic orange-tile roofs, become eye-level attractions. When you look down, you’ll find all those little signs of daily life among the citizens of one of Croatia’s most visited cities—vine-covered trellises, balconies with flowerboxes, an inviting sunroom, a full-length basketball court, and clotheslines strung with fresh laundry, sagging under their weight from house to wall.
The walls curve at St. John Fortress, a mammoth structure from the mid-14th century that prevented pirates and enemy ships from accessing the main city harbor on the east. Upon first sight of intruders, the inhabitants of Dubrovnik would close the entry to the port by stretching heavy chains between the fort and a jetty. Today, the fortress houses an aquarium and a museum that spans such topics as ethnography, the Republic of Ragusa, the Age of Steam, World War II, and sailing and navigation techniques.
Turning inland, the walls can reach up to a thickness of 20’ and a height of 80’. The complexity of the entire system becomes even more intricate here, with the land-facing walls featuring gates and bridges, and supported by additional slanted walls as defense against artillery fire.
Over the centuries, the walls have withstood the Venetians, Bosnians, Ottomans, British, Austrians, Russians, and Communists, and even the vicious Serbian and Montenegrin siege during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991–92. We owe their resilience and longevity not only to the knowledge and skill of the construction workers from half a millennium ago (a strong earthquake in 1667 left them largely unaffected), but also to both continual upkeep and repairs and the brilliant diplomacy of the city’s leaders, who skillfully managed alliances and walked a fine line between both Eastern and Western powers for centuries, managing to stave off attacks. As one of the great fortifications of the Middle Ages and one of the largest and most complete in Europe, Dubrovnik’s walls continue to embrace one of the continent’s most beloved cities—and to provide visitors with a unique experience.
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