In Dubrovnik, Croatia, fantasy and reality live side by side

Special to Washington PostJune 21, 2014 

It was perhaps the ideal introduction to Dubrovnik. I entered the old walled city and standing before me were a few dozen men variously dressed in doublets and hose, heavy tunics and floppy hats, and the brown robes of Franciscan monks.

For a fleeting moment, it felt as if I’d been transported back to a time when Dubrovnik was a powerful center of merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The famous Stradun, or main street, virtually unchanged for more than 300 years, stretched beyond the group, and for a moment there was nothing to suggest that it was 2014.

And then, one of the men pulled out a smartphone and snapped a selfie with another medievally garbed fellow. Almost instantly, they were surrounded by a group of Korean tourists, also eager to capture images of these apparent time travelers.

Dubrovnik has prospered and persevered in equal measure since its birth in the 7th century and boasts exquisite physical perfection. The Old City is renowned for its intact defensive wall, towering forts, a red-tiled roofscape and narrow, climbing streets.

It is these qualities that draw film crews to this spectacular part of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and that have brought Dubrovnik an unusual form of stardom. The city famously plays the role of King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones.”

On numerous occasions during my stay, I would come upon a huge fort, a stunning vista or a claustrophobic street that I recognized from that other, fictional world: the vile King Joffrey’s Red Keep; the packed slum of Flea Bottom; or Blackwater Bay, scene of an epic, bloody battle in one of the finest television episodes ever filmed.

Inevitably, a few operators offer “Game of Thrones” walking tours, pointing out where various scenes are filmed. But on the whole, I got the impression that a city with as illustrious a history as Dubrovnik’s feels little need to rely on television celebrity for its appeal.

Subhed goes herey

Indeed, the real history is as fraught and dramatic as anything in “Game of Thrones.” Since its inception, visitors have included marauding Turks, Arab invaders, a shipwrecked Richard the Lionhearted and Napoleon’s army. It came under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, then under the sovereignty of Venice, and from the mid-14th century, it was the affluent capital of the Republic of Ragusa, a vassal of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire but effectively a free state stretching a short distance up and down this coastline of steep, mountainous terrain and strings of lush islands.

The larger city of Dubrovnik is an attractive coastal town, but it is the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that captivates. The Stradun is one of the most perfectly proportioned main streets I’ve ever walked, the bell towers at either end acting as visual exclamation points bookending the gleaming stone pavement and the cream-colored buildings in between.

The Stradun functions as a spine to the old walled city, with numerous narrow lanes stretching out north and south. Those streets climb up to the ramparts on the land and sea sides, and as you walk up and down the flights of steps, the alleys frame the city in stunning vertical shafts – one street will perfectly frame the dome of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, another will offer a perspective full of stacked terra-cotta rooftops.

The walled city is small, but you can get lost in the crisscrossing streets, finding yourself at yet another cafe-filled square or in front of one of many Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque churches.

But a stroll through these streets acts as a mere prelude to the views available from the most breathtaking attraction, the famous old wall that stretches for one and a quarter miles, enclosing the city like the rim of a bowl. There are two main entrances, by the Pila and Ploce gates. Take Pila for maximum effect – the walk along the west side takes you out toward the azure-colored Adriatic and offers stunning views of Fort Lovrijenac, a.k.a. the Red Keep of King’s Landing, across a small bay, and then along the south-facing sea walls, with a vertiginous drop down to the water.

On this side, my view was pulled out to sea and to the sight of Lokrum Island not far away. But as I continued the circle, it was the city itself that began to command my attention, drawing my eye inward.

The ramparts on the northern wall, facing the land, are much higher and the walls much thicker, nearly 20 feet in places, an indication of where the greatest threat was perceived to lie. The finest view came at the Minceta tower, on the northwest corner, where the collage of bell towers and terra cotta roofs, framed by the sea beyond, was splayed out before me, a breathtaking scene.

Lofty, sublime vistas

Another perspective on Dubrovnik comes with a journey on the cable car that runs 1,300 feet up Mount Srd. From up here, the rooftops merge into one rust-red mosaic, and I could see how perfectly proportioned and self-contained the Old City is.

But the stunning view isn’t the only valuable perspective to be gained at the top of Mount Srd. Adjacent to the cable car station is the Imperial Fort, an imposing relic of the Napoleonic wars that was built in the early 19th century. The fort’s lofty position makes it a critical defensive site, a point most recently proven during the Siege of Dubrovnik that lasted from late 1991 to 1992.

Today, the siege is remembered in a moving exhibition in the Imperial Fort.

During the Homeland War, as it’s known in Croatia, the Yugoslav People’s Army bombarded the city as part of an effort to create a greater Serbia after the breakup of Yugoslavia. A relatively small unit of young Croatian soldiers protected the Imperial Fort, for to lose it would almost certainly have meant losing the city. Dubrovnik sustained enormous damage from the shelling.

Because it’s one of the world’s great historical sites, no expense was spared in repairing the city; the damage is hard to notice unless it’s pointed out. But the Old City has suffered in other ways – a population of 5,000 has now dwindled to about 500, with residents being priced out as accommodations and restaurants cater to tourists at inflated prices.

A welcome illusion

On my last day, in Luza Square at the eastern end of the Stradun, I happen upon a large crowd of men dressed in the costumes of medieval guards, surrounding an ornate pillar known as Orlando’s column. On one side of the pillar is the statue of the legendary Orlando, a Norman knight who defended the city from the Saracens in its earliest years. On the other side is a prisoner, chained, beaten and whipped, his face bloodied and swollen, his forlorn eyes raised to the facade of the Church of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint. A crowd of onlookers gaze at his suffering, curious about his plight.

And then the director yells “cut!” The cameras stop filming, and as the “prisoner” is released from his shackles, he poses with some of the onlookers for photographs, smiling broadly at the attention, his anguish gone.

In this little vignette, I realize, there is something of what Dubrovnik offers: the illusion that past and present, reality and fiction, are coexisting in this magical little place.

It’s an illusion, in truth, that I didn’t want to end.

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