Old Town Ulcinj – place that inspired legendary Miguel de Cervantes

Throughout centuries Ulcinj has been a melting pot of cultures, a place where the East and the West collided and mixed, with its architecture proving that it is a unique mixture of nations and religions in one place

neshom (CC0), Pixabay

Most people who have heard about Ulcinj, probably know about its Velika plaza, longest sand beach in the region surrounding Adriatic sea and one of the longest ones in the Europe. Velika plaza is also known as one of the best locations for kite-surfing in the Mediterranean coast. People often neglect the other trademark of Ulcinj which represents the rich history of this place. Its Old Town Fortress.

Let us start from the basics, Ulcinj is the southernmost city in Montenegro and it is also one of the most ancient settlements in this small Slavic country. The town was founded V century BC and its first inhabitants were Illyrians who were known as  fierce warriors, very protective of their land. During this time, the first Cyclopean walls of the Citadel were built.  Somewhere around I century BC the Romans conquered the city, and eventually they gave it municipal status.

New constructions and modifications to the existing city walls made by the Romans are distinguishable even today. The city population was eventually converted to Christianity and after the division of the Roman Empire, Ulcinj, then called Olcinium, became a part of Byzantine Empire. During the Medieval ages, city was ruled by the dynasties of Vojislavljevic, Nemanjic, Balsic. During the reign of Balsic dynasty (XIV century) city was given an important role of coin minting and the Balsic Tower was built, one of the main traits of the Old Town.

The city was also ruled by Venice for over a century. The Ottoman Empire conquered the city in the late XVI century and ruled for over three centuries. During this time, the city gained its reputation as a pirates haven. It became part of Montenegro once again after the Berlin Congress in 1878. Even though the Turks did not want to give it up, since it was their northernmost port in the Adriatic, the British Empire insisted on them giving up the city and returning it to Montenegro.

Old Town Ulcinj is an astonishing fortress, with its walls rising directly from the sea.  Old Town consists from – Upper town, with citadel and settlements pointing south and Lower town.  The main gate is located on the northeast part of the town. It leads to the Slave Market Square located in the highest part of the fortress. On the left, today there is a Museum of Ethnology with its rich collection of artifacts.

This part of the town served as a prison in the past, and there is a legend that the famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes spent five years imprisoned here. He even gave name Dolcinea to one of the main characters of his novel Don Quixote, which roughly translated means a girl from Ulcinj, and many landscapes described in this masterpiece match the landscapes surrounding the city.

At the town entrance there is a tall wall Bollani, dating back from the Venetian reign. In front of the museum entrance there is a Turkish public drinking fountain dating back to the 1749. There is also aforementioned Balsic Tower, which is today used as a gallery. Next to the lighthouse, overlooking sea there are two palaces, Venetian and Balsic palace. There are also several muslim, orthodox, catholic sacral objects in the Old town.

When it comes to its famous inhabitants, besides Cervantes  it is also important to mention that Ulcinj was home of one of the most famous Jewish rabbis who was also a rebel. He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and since he had many followers throughout Ottoman Empire, he was banished to spend his last years in Ulcinj. Interesting fact is, that even though it is known that he was buried in Ulcinj, the exact location is kept as a secret.

And structure proving the claim that Ulcinj indeed  was a melting pot of the cultures and religions, is the famous Ulcinj Church-Mosque. It was built as a church during the reign of Venice in 1510, but later in XVI century when Turks conquered the city from them, the church was turned into a mosque and they even built a minaret afterwards.

After the Montenegrins regained the city, back in 1878, they decided to turn it into a museum, and this monument serves as best proof of mixture of the East and the West in the Old Town unique architecture.

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