To understand the civilized nature of those who governed the Republic of Ragusa—as the city of Dubrovnik was known from 1358 to 1808—look no further than the city’s motto. In Latin, it read, “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro.” Liberty is not well sold for all the gold.
But the liberty and freedom of Dubrovnik required more than these simple high ideals to protect it from outside influence. It also needed a fortified wall. And so in the 14th century the early founders of the city, fresh off a strained allegiance to the Venetian Republic and recovering from the Black Death of 1348, began work on a barricade that would grow and evolve over hundreds of years. Today, it stands as one of the largest and most complete medieval walls in all of Europe. So solid was its construction that it was never breached. And so perfectly did it help preserve Dubrovnik that George Bernard Shaw, upon visiting in 1929, wrote, “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
It’s easy to understand Shaw’s enchantment. His sentiment was likely an appraisal of the city’s narrow byways and incredibly preserved buildings. But perhaps he also should have written a love poem to the wall; after all, it was the skill of its builders that brought Dubrovnik into the modern age virtually unscathed. Even after the walls were complete, city dwellers rebuilt or maintained it as it aged. It didn’t take long for word to spread of the mighty fortification surrounding Dubrovnik; the city soon gained a reputation as unconquerable throughout Europe and—more importantly—in the land-grabbing Ottoman Empire.
History, however, had other plans. Dubrovnik fell to the army of Napoleon in 1806 and later to Austria in 1814. The city remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until that kingdom’s dissolution with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
The region’s next major conflict, though devastating to the Old Town, tested the strength of the walls like never before. Tragically, almost 70% of the 824 red-roofed buildings within the fortifications were damaged by the Yugoslav People’s Army during the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik. In retrospect, historians have said that the ancient walls held up better against modern weaponry than the more contemporary fortifications around the modern city. Were it not for the strength of those ancient ramparts, much more of the city would have been lost. Since those dark days, Dubrovnik’s Old Town has been lovingly restored.
Today, visitors can walk the entire perimeter of Dubrovnik’s walls—with magnificent views of the red-roofed, stone-cut city below and the sparkling waters of the Adriatic Sea beyond. The walls stretch for 6,360 feet, just over a mile, boast a maximum height of 82 feet, and feature several towers and bulwarks.
Gazing over the rooftops of Dubrovnik provides a remarkable and enlightening perspective. You’ll have bird’s-eye views of the Franciscan Monastery, the Placa main thoroughfare, the charming Old Harbor, the island of Lokrum just off the coast and of course the rocky shore lashed by Adriatic waves. The smaller details you’ll observe bring the city to life, too: children kicking a soccer ball around a schoolyard, laundry draped high above an alleyway or the clatter of kitchen plates through an open window.
It’s a stroll that gives immeasurable insight into this protective and unconquerable wall. Still today, life goes on within its sheltering embrace as it has for centuries.