Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The medieval city in Croatia is having a geek-culture moment as the setting for King’s Landing in the HBO series (not to mention the new Star Wars movie). But not everyone appreciates all the attention.
DUBROVNIK, CROATIA—Ivone Alvarado and Miguel Gomez planned to take in all the sites of Europe. The couple mapped out their vacation in June, a long sojourn from their home in Bogotá, Colombia, with stops in France, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. Then they added time for one final, more unusual destination: Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and the picturesque medieval city of Dubrovnik.
“We saw a film by a Mexican filmmaker who travels and films his trips,” Alvarado says, noting that they’d never heard of Dubrovnik before. “Because of that, we came here.”
What sold the couple on the Croatian city was its link to “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s cinematic adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Gomez, who wore a “Winter Is Coming” t-shirt underneath his DSLR camera, says that the show brought him to Dubrovnik, once he learned that scenes set in the fictional Westeros capital of King’s Landing were filmed here.
Hollywood seems to have discovered Dubrovnik. Parts of The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga that opens on December 15, also take place in the fortress town. Filming wrapped this year on a new Robin Hood film starring Taron Eagerton, Jamie Foxx, and Jamie Dornan (and produced by Leonard DiCaprio). The 25th James Bond film is reported to begin shooting in the city in January 2018.
Dubrovnik hasn’t seen so much attention from film studios since Captain America was filmed here. (No, not Marvel’s sequel-spawning Chris Evans blockbuster—rather the all-but-forgotten, zero-budget 1990 flick that saw Cap battle the Red Skull back when Dubrovnik was still part of Yugoslavia.) Local production companies have sprung up to anticipate the needs of visiting moviemakers.
The city has survived every war that the Balkan Peninsula has delivered to its doorsteps, but a different force now threatens: tourism. On the heels of “Game of Thrones” filming, the Pearl of the Adriatic has been besieged by “Game of Thrones” fans. Since 2011, when the show first premiered on HBO, tourism in Dubrovnik has seen an increase of 9 to 12 percent annually, according to the Dubrovnik Tourist Board. Many of those visitors—up to 10,000 or more a day—arrive by sea: Dubrovnik is now the world’s number-two cruise destination after Venice.
While the show’s notoriety is good news for Dubrovnik’s economy, 80 percent of which relies on tourism, UNESCO has warned that Old Town Dubrovnik, a World Heritage Site, cannot accommodate this crush of newcomers. Some residents have had enough, too.
“I find it idiotic, the ‘Game of Thrones’ and the tourism related to it,” says Krunoslav Ivanišin, an architect and professor of design and urbanism at the University of Zagreb in Croatia. “But you must understand that citizens of Dubrovnik must make their living, and ‘Game of Thrones,’ Robin Hood, Star Wars, and James Bond do help them.”
“Game of Thrones” is indeed big business for the city. If the tourism boom isn’t entirely attributable to the show (which began filming in Dubrovnik with season two), it’s at least closely linked, as evidenced by a dozen or so different tourist-trap “Thrones” shops selling HBO-licensed merch in the historic part of the city. Guides lead daily tours through the narrow alleys of Old Town, tracing the footsteps of Cersei Lannister’s famous walk of atonement through King’s Landing. Visitors will not find her castle, the Red Keep, or the the Great Sept of Baelor, the most sacred cathedral in this show’s version of the Catholic Church (or it was, until the season-six finale, when wicked Cersei blew it to smithereens). Those buildings are sets in the show’s main Northern Ireland studios and added to Dubrovnik in post-production. But most of the rest of the outdoor scenes set in King’s Landing fall within the city’s ancient walls and giant gates, parts of Dubrovnik that until recently were very much lived in.
There are at least 15 official “Game of Thrones” tours to show people where these scenes were shot. Most go by foot, although fans can opt for tours outside town that travel by horse-drawn buggy and even by yacht. One kayak tour allows boaters to paddle through the site of the Battle of Blackwater Bay. In reality, it’s little more than an inlet below Fort Lovrijenac—the tower where Sandor Clegane whomps some poor bastard to death for the amusement of King Joffrey.
Never mind that Fort Lovrijenac was the site of many actual battles, from the 7th-century naval campaigns in Croatia’s endless wars with Venice to the the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were displaced during the medieval-style Siege of Dubrovnik that closed out the 20th century. Several men responsible for the 1992 battle against the city—Pavle Strugar, Vladimir Kovačević, Miodrag Jokić—were charged with or convicted for war crimes. Former Croatian general Slobodan Praljak, who killed himself in November by drinking poison during a live war-crimes trial in the Hague, has said his command only ever crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina to defend Dubrovnik.
“We were like a little country of Lord Varyses and Littlefingers,” says Iva Nikolić, who gives tours of both the city’s fictional and nonfictional histories. She says that “Game of Thrones” dominates the tourist season today, noting that there were two Thrones–themed destination weddings in Dubrovnik this year alone. Nikolić works in production when the GoT circus is in town, and she has credits for doing stand-in photography for stars such as Lena Headey (Queen Cersei). She described the experience of walking through the streets of her hometown as she blocked shots for Cersei’s walk of shame—with 500 of her friends and neighbors shouting “whore!” at her.
Dubrovnik is also bracing for Star Wars fans, although the city doesn’t even know what planet it’s on in Episode VIII—The Last Jedi. Bozidar Jukic, who runs the fan site Star Wars Dubrovnik, says that he has a good guess, based on the fact that the production closed down the entire historic main street, known as Stradun (“Street”), where explosions could be heard throughout filming. He also notes that the stunt double for Daisy Ridley (Rey) was in town, a tell for antsy fans.
“It all points to Dubrovnik playing the role of Canto Bight, a casino city within the Star Wars universe,” Jukic says.
He isn’t waiting to find out whether he’s right: Jukic has already mapped out a Star Wars tour of Dubrovnik. He sees what’s coming. The Last Jedi will only add to the ranks of nerds like Alvarado and Gomez who are willing to go out of their way, to travel halfway around the world, to scratch that inner fan itch.
Even without the pop-culture tie-ins, there are plenty of reasons to visit Dubrovnik. The Stradun is paved with limestone that dates back to the Habsburg Empire, a broad stone boulevard polished smooth by two centuries of footfalls. Most of the city’s architecture is Baroque, not medieval; an earthquake in 1667 leveled just about everything but the fortified city walls. Churches and palaces were built with the fine white limestone mined from the island of Vrnik in the Korčula archipelago. The city’s distinctive burnt-orange terra cotta roofs make for picture-postcard views, and the region’s Mediterranean food and wines are similar to those on the other side of the Adriatic in Italy (try the cuttlefish risotto and rakija šljivovica, a plum brandy).
Whether it’s the delights of Dalmatian cuisine or the ruthlessness of the Lannisters, the draw of Dubrovnik has emerged as a problem for the city’s cultural heritage. A 2015 report prepared by UNESCO warns of “tourist blight,” specifically fingering cruise ships as the culprit. The numbers are staggering: More than 1 million passengers arrive in Dubrovnik each year, ferried by nearly 600 cruise ships that berth in the city’s two ports. Recent upgrades to the Port of Gruž allow it to accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships—Gregor Clegane–sized vessels rising up to 18 stories tall with up to 5,600 beds. The city has only about 43,000 residents.
On the busiest days, more than 10,000 tourists disembark here, which worries UNESCO. An earthquake on such a day in this seismically active region would be catastrophic, although the report focuses more on the congestion that cruise ships introduce to sites like the Pile Gate. In 2016, the agency recommended a cap of just 8,000 cruise-ship tourists inside the medieval walls per day. Dubrovnik Mayor Mato Franković, who has said that he wants to preserve the city’s status as the best destination on the Adriatic, is more than happy to comply. In fact, this summer, Franković called for a figure well below the official UNESCO lid: He wants to limit cruise-ship visitors to just 4,000 tourists per day.
Many of Dubrovnik’s shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and hoteliers might be glad to see them go. Cruise ship tourists typically sleep and eat aboard their boats, limiting their economic benefits to host cities. Franković’s bet may be that the city will get by just fine without them.
Dubrovnik faces other challenges that are hard for even the United Nations to tackle. Like historic central Venice, it’s undergoing severe museumification: According to Dubrovački Dvevnik, this year’s census puts the population of Old Town at a mere 1,557 residents, down almost 30 percent from 2011. Many households list their properties all year long on Airbnb.
Ivanišin, whose firm has built several new buildings around the city, blames the city’s central planning guidelines—known as the General Urban Plan—for the calcification. Both Ivanišin and Dubrovnik’s Society of Architects have criticized the development plan as being far too accommodating to hotels but too strict for buildings with public uses, from schools to libraries to housing. “I do not see many strengths in it, only lot of drawbacks,” Ivanišin says. “It is purely bureaucratic, with too many restrictions and too many exceptions. Very bad, in short, and hard to understand.”
The harm for places like Dubrovnik may come in how the city builds to meet a tourism boom driven by Hollywood and cruise lines. There’s reason for concern: One newspaper speculates that in Sibenik, a coastal city to the north, a visit from Brad Pitt was enough to spur a change to the city’s General Urban Plan to clear out greenfield pine forest and olive groves to make way for an $898 million Swiss resort. An example of a more sustainable development might be Nikola Bašić’s “Sea Organ,” a coastal landscape project that doubles as an experimental sound pavilion. It might not attract millions of tourists, but it also doesn’t depend on a never-ending throng of the global elite to qualify as a success.
Building attractions and accommodations for tourists that also contribute to a better Croatia is a challenge in sustainability. After all, ”Game of Thrones” is filming its final season now (which may not begin airing until spring 2019); residents may grumble today about GoT dorks Instagramming their swords-and-sandals fantasies around town, but eventually they will go away. In the near term, if Dubrovnik can make up in geek visits what it foreswears in cruise crashers, then it might make the best of its turn in the spotlight.
Even if that means trucking in dirt to turn Dubrovnik’s clean streets into a suitably filthy backdrop for a fantasy epic. For the time being, Dubrovnik’s biggest problem is keeping people out.
“You can’t get better marketing than TV or movies today,” Nikolić says.