It is spring in 1992 and Dubrovnik is burning. Artillery fire is raining down on the city, smoke from the flames is is rising up towards the sky. Below the ground in wine cellars and storage caves underneath the walls of the Old Town the people of Dubrovnik are hiding, hoping to survive the horror.
Christopher Long, a British journalist, is with them. For months he has been reporting about the Balkan conflict. He has been to Dubrovnik last year already, but this time it is worse. “The caves were completely dark, there was no electricity and no torches”, he says. “I don’t know how many people there were in the wine cellar where I was. Maybe dozens. It was too dark to seethe end of the cave.” One thing is especially clear in his memory. “The smell in the cellar, especially the smell of urine.” It was mainly women and children in the cellar because most men were off to fight. The mothers and grandmothers were scared, they feared for the lives of their children and their own. “The children, however, asked me about football and Hard Rock Cafés in England”, he says. Trying to act as if nothing was wrong might have been their way of coping with the fear, he assumes.
In October of 2015 Stephan from Düsseldorf, former Business student at the University of Cologne, is looking at the caves. They are built into the stone beneath the walls of Fort Lovrijenac. The fort is standing on a hill in front of the gates to Old Town, high up over the bay of Dubrovnik. But Stephan doesn’t see the caves where almost 25 years ago people were trying to escape death. He sees the caves from season two, episode one, from which under orders from King Joffrey the city guard of King’s Landing is throwing the bastards of Joffrey’s dead father Robert into the bay and drowning them. Stephan eyes the caves thoughtfully and then asks the Tourguide Philipp who is wearing a knight’s armour and a white cape: “Were the caves put in there especially for the series?”
Game of Thrones is a hugely successful TV-show from the United States based on the books by George R. R. Martin. Worldwide millions of viewers are following the adventures set in the fictional land of Westerns, the five seasons that have been released so far have won a total of 26 Emmy Awards. In 2015 the show broke the record for Emmys won in a single year. The last episode of season five was watched by more than eight million people in the US alone. And since the second season the scenes set in King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros and home of countless political conspiracies and scandals, have been filmed in Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik’s history is one filled with conflict. The latest one is only 25 years in the past. Back then the city was under siege from the Yugoslav Poeple’s Army (JNA) a year after the Croatian people voted for independence from Yugoslavia in a referendum. On the first day of October 1991 the JNA began its attack with troops moving on the city from north and south. Inside the city there were mainly civilians, the few soldiers in the region were badly trained and equipped.
The JNA cut of Dubrovnik’s water and electricity supply. “The people all smelled because the couldn’t wash because there was no water”, Christopher Long says. “It was strange to see the people of such a sophisticated city live such primitive lives.” Supplies like fresh water came with convoy ships that were let through the blockade of the harbour and were allowed to enter the bay of Dubrovnik.
Into that very same bay 200 warships of the self-proclaimed King Stannis Baratheon are sailing. However, he knows the bay as Blackwater Bay and he is certainly not bringing any supplies to help the city. He is not content with laying siege to King’s Landing like the JNA was. He wants to take the castle by storm and end King Joffrey’s rule. And he fails. Firebombs rain down on his fleet and almost all of his ships succumb to the flames. From Blackwater Bay smoke is rising up the sky. Only a few of the attackers reach the land and are stuck in font of the closed gates of the castle.
“The gates of Old Town were closed for the first time in centuries for the filming”, explains Tourguide Philipp as he is striding through the high doorways. “That was in the middle of tourist season and caused a lot of chaos.” But that’s ok, because it’s Game of Thrones. The city is is profiting from the tourists that want to see Westeros in real life. “There are many Game of Thrones fans who come just to see the filming
locations”, says Sandra Milosevic from the Dubrovnik Tourist Board. So a little contract breach here and there is forgiven. The Old Town of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO cultural world heritage site. “The agreement was that after the filming everything has to be left just as it was before”, says Philipp. He points at a cross made of black tape on the ground marking a camera location. “They forgot to take that off. We could sue their arse of for that”, he says. “But it’s good that it is still here because this way I have something to tell you.”
During the tour he only briefly mentions the siege of Dubrovnik a couple of times. At the end of the seven month long conflict, after Croatian troops from Zagreb came to break the siege, there were more than 80 dead civilians and over 350 dead soldiers. 16000 people were turned into refugees. The battle of Blackwater Bay also ended when allied troops of King Joffrey arrived and defeated the attackers. But King’s Landing was attacked in a fantasy world, where dragons and the undead are roaming the lands. The horror of Dubrovnik was all too real.