This Latin inscription can be found above the entrance into the Lovrijenac Fort in Dubrovnik. Freedom was and still is, the leitmotif of the city of Dubrovnik and its inhabitants. This is, without a doubt, the most popular destination in the Balkans and definitely the most visited city in Croatia.
So what is so special about Dubrovnik, how did it become the way it is today, and why is it so often associated with the idea of freedom?
Located right on the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik was an important transit point between the East and the West, especially in the Medieval times when the New World had not been discovered yet.
The Mediterranean was, therefore, where all important and rich harbours flourished, transferring goods from East to West. The most powerful were the Republic of Venice, an absolute hegemony that controlled all the trade paths on the Mediterranean.
Still, Dubrovnik was a serious threat to Venetians, as well as a desirable target. Along with the rest of the Adriatic coast, Dubrovnik also was under Venetian rule. Yet, its inhabitants managed to gain some autonomy and develop into a respectable maritime city.
The city was well-known for its skillful diplomacy; Dubrovnik had a policy of neutrality in international conflicts and keeping good relations with its neighbours.
Its merchants travelled freely wherever they wanted and the city developed a respectable fleet that travelled all over the world. While travelling, Dubrovnik merchants weren’t interested in conquering lands they’d been to, but were sailing under a white flag and were only interested in trading. The white flag contained a word in Latin: “Libertas”, which means freedom.
Dubrovnik was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The first pharmacy was opened in the 14th century, and it’s also one of the first ones in Europe. Slave trading was abolished in 1418. In the 15th century, a water supply system was constructed by the Neapolitan architect and engineer Onofrio della Cava. He completed the aqueduct with two public fountains.
Apart from the Republic of Venice, Dubrovnik was threatened by the mighty Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Despite that, the city found a way to efficiently balance between Venetians in the West and Ottomans in the East.
In the 16th century, Dubrovnik accepted Turkish tutelage and the payment of taxes to Ottomans, in return to obtain the right to free trade throughout Turkish Empire. This way, its influence in the area increased furthermore.
In the 16th century, the Venetian Republic had seen the beginning of its decline. This was a perfect opportunity for Dubrovnik to gain more autonomy. The city entered its Golden Age, with its prosperity based on maritime trade.
The Great and Small Council, along with the Senate were ruling the city, guarding its peace and prosperity. Larger ships were being built, and Dubrovnik’s merchants reached the furthest parts of the world, sailing throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, getting to England and Germany, India and the Americas.
This was the age of Renaissance, which found its followers in Dubrovnik as well as in other parts of Europe.
The city was home to numerous poets and authors, such as Marin Držić and Ivan Gundulić, who wrote about the beauty of freedom, calling it “beautiful, precious and sweet”.
One of the most important Croatian scientists, Ruđer Bošković, was born in Dubrovnik. Bošković was engaged in astronomy, mathematics, physics and philosophy; he produced a precursor of atomic theory and made many contributions to astronomy.
The Republic of Dubrovnik gradually declined after the earthquake in 17th century, which overlapped with the crisis in Mediterranean shipping, when the Atlantic route became far more interesting. The Republic was abolished by Napoleon and his generals in 1808, after they seized it two years earlier.
It’s easy to see the remnants of the Medieval Republic of Dubrovnik. Its city walls are the major attractions for visitors. This is one of the best preserved fortified complexes in Europe.
The walls are around 1900 meters long, encompassing five forts and sixteen towers altogether. One of them is the Lovrijenac Fort, mentioned at the beginning. It is situated in the west of the Old City and is the symbol of Dubrovnik’s freedom.
When in Dubrovnik, stroll the Stradun street, one of the most popular not only in Dubrovnik but in Croatia. This is the main promenade and meeting point but is also an equivalent to London’s Oxford Street with its many shops.
Stradun divides the Old City into its northern and southern part and is home to the famous Onofrio Fountain. This fountain is named after Onofrio Della Cava, the same architect who constructed Dubrovnik’s water supply system in the 15th century.
A statue of a medieval knight holding a sword, the famous Orlando Column, found its home in Dubrovnik as well. Orlando, or Roland how he is called throughout Europe, was used as a symbol of a city under the protection of the Hungarian-Croatian King.
Therefore, it can be seen in many other cities as well. According to legend, Orlando and his fleet saved Dubrovnik from a Saracen siege in the 9th century. To express their gratitude, the citizens erected this column in Orlando’s honour.
The Dubrovnik Cathedral isn’t unfortunately preserved in its original shape but was rebuilt in the 18th century. Legend says that the English king, Richard the Lionheart, donated a lot of money after surviving a shipwreck near the Island of Lokrum in the end of 12th century on his way back from the Crusades.The church was allegedly built with his money.
The Dubrovnik Summer Festival is the most popular event in Dubrovnik today, bringing the Medieval city alive every summer. It was founded in the 1950s, with the idea of bringing the renaissance and baroque atmosphere of Dubrovnik and theatre together.
The works of many Croatian authors and poets are brought to life during this festival, along with famous classics of European dramatic art: Shakespeare’s works, for example, are well adapted to the historical scenery of Dubrovnik. Attending this festival might be the best way to spend your summer vacation this year!
If you’d like to learn more about Croatia, we have a free eBook: The Early History of Croatia. You can download it here for free.
Have you been to Dubrovnik? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!