Dubrovnik's motto, Libertas ("liberty"), which is plastered across the sides of buses and the city's tourist literature, speaks volumes about the city's self-image and the idealized way in which it is perceived by others. For several centuries the city-state of Dubrovnik – or Ragusa as it was then known – managed to hang on to a modicum of independence while the rest of this coast fell under the sway of foreign powers. The Venetian Lion of St Mark is conspicuously absent, while statues of St Blaise (Sveti Vlaho), the symbol of Dubrovnik's independence, fill every conceivable crack and niche in the city.
An essentially medieval city reshaped by Baroque town planners after a disastrous earthquake of 1667, Dubrovnik's historic core seems to have been suspended in time ever since. Set-piece churches and public buildings blend seamlessly with the green-shuttered stone houses, to form a perfect ensemble relatively untouched by the twenty-first century. Outside the city walls, modern Dubrovnik is comparatively bereft of sights but exudes a Mediterranean elegance: gardens are an explosion of colourful bougainvillea and oleanders, trees are weighted down with figs, lemons, oranges and peaches.
Few visitors will notice any remaining signs of the 1991–92 Siege of Dubrovnik, during which over two thousand enemy shells fell on the old city. Reconstruction has been undertaken with astonishing speed, and the old town is pretty much back to its normal self. The fact that conflict took place here at all only reveals itself through subtle details: the vivacious orange-red hues of brand-new roof tiles, or the contrasting shades of grey where damaged facades have been patched up with freshly quarried stone.