The following day we drove south along the beautiful Adriatic coast, admiring the white granite hills studded with dark pines and tall “cemetery” cypresses. There are picturesque old churches, hotels, and red-roofed settlements bedecked with bougainvillea and vines, each with its own Pekara (bakery).
There are graceful villas with balconies overlooking the sea, and vineyards and olive groves. The gardens were filled with flowering oleander, and trees laden with apples and pomegranates at this time of year. Long inlets harbour fishing and holiday villages. There is extensive development along this coast, with dozens of signs advertising rooms, apartments, and houses to rent, and several massive, multi-storeyed hotels.
Tall palm trees grace avenues and waterfronts, and aquamarine bays are dotted with white yachts. Numerous inlets shelter tiny harbours, some boasting large ostentatious private yachts. There are pebbly beaches, and those with coarse brown sand.
Small farmsteads shelter clusters of bee hives, and groves of figs, citrus and olives. The highway is lined with old olive trees, wild and untended. Perhaps they are descended from pips discarded by the Romans. And then the road opened up to a wide valley of farmland, with fruit orchards reaching as far as the coast.
The sea-side villages along the coast have attractive restaurants and bars with vine-covered verandas and brightly-coloured awnings against the hot Mediterranean sun. One such eatery was in the village of Grebastića, where we stopped for lunch: delicious caprese salads drizzled with olive oil and served with baskets of crunchy white bread, followed by frothy cappuccinos.
I was amused by the frequent “beware of wild boar charging across” signs in the roadside, and hoped for a sighting of one of these fearsome-looking beasts. (We had not yet spotted a single Dalmatian dog.) There are also numerous road-side stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, olive oils, nuts, fruit juices, dried figs, bottled jams, fruits and preserves, and sachets of lavender. We couldn’t resist pulling over and purchasing some of their wares.
Our next stop, en route down the E65 to Split, was the war-damaged old city of Šibenik. Once the chrome- and aluminium-producing capital of Croatia, Šibenik suffered heavy Serb shelling after the break-up of Yugoslavia, and evidence of its economically depressed state was sadly visible. But there is now an attractive waterfront with cafés, kiosks, tiny grocers, souvenir shops and restaurants which enjoy a lovely view over the narrow Channel leading from the city’s protected harbour to the open sea.
Unlike many other coastal cities, Šibenik has no Roman heritage. It was built a thousand years ago by the Croatian kings. Our principal destination was the famous 15th century Cathedral of St. James, situated in Trg Republike Hvratske (Square of the Croatian Republic).
Like most of the old cathedrals, this UNESCO World Heritage site (begun in 1441) took a century to construct, and is thus a medley of architectural styles. The upper sections of the exterior represent the Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance styles, while the interior is a harmonious blend of both Renaissance and the earlier Gothic styles. It is mostly the work of the Zadar-born architect Juraj Dalmatinac, who came across from Venice to undertake this project. He died in 1473 before he could see his masterpiece finished, but his son was among those who completed the work. The interior is dominated by the dome which was inspired by Brunelleschi’s dome on the Duomo in Florence, and is an octagonal drum supported by four huge columns.
An amusing and unusual feature of the exterior is the frieze of 74 life-size sculpted heads. They depict ordinary Croatian citizens: fishermen, peasants, teenagers, elders and soldiers. These realistic portraits may have been a device to name the cathedral’s benefactors, or to shame those who had not paid their dues – depending on whom you believe!
High on the hill above the city is the Šibenik Castle, now mostly in ruins, which was built during Venetian times to ward off the marauding Ottomans.
We reached Split early that afternoon, settled into our quirky rooms at A&M Apartments and Rooms (with a charming young host and dubious electric sockets), and made our way to the much-anticipated ancient core of the city.
This was reached along Svačićeva Street, passed the HNK (Croatian National Theatre), which opened its doors in 1893,
and down the principle walkway Marmontova, a white-marbled avenue lined with fashionable but expensive boutiques.
Halfway along Marmontova, and down a narrow alley to the left, is Ribarnica, the fish market. Here all manner of fish and seafood are sold, fresh from the Adriatic. It is advisable to get there early to witness the cacophony of gesticulating fishmongers and shouting locals, for by noon the business is done, and all that remains are the staff scrubbing down the marble table tops.
Closer to the sea, on the right, is the Trg Republike (Republic Square), an impressive but relatively empty space with pink and white colonnades and a café dating from Austro-Hungarian imperial times.
Most of the popular sights are situated within the remaining shell of Diocletian’s Palace, a massive complex built as a retirement residence on the waterfront by the Roman emperor between 295 and 305 AD. Diocletian initially tolerated the conscientious Christians in the area, using them as clerks in his palace. But this was not to last, and from 303 to 311 he became one of the cruellest persecutors of all. But Christianity flourished here after his suicide by poisoning, and many churches, including two basilicas, dating from that time, have been discovered.
During the 7th century this imperial compound became inhabited by people from the neighbouring Roman city of Salona, whose homes were destroyed by the invading Avars and Slavs. Successive generations of citizens built into and around the palace structure, and today this crowded UNESCO site is a complex maze of shops, restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels, as well as the private homes of over 3,000 people.
One of the entrances into this maze, facing the sea, is the Bronze Gate. It used to be right at the water’s edge and only accessible by boat. The Gate leads through a tunnel, now packed with tiny souvenir and jewellery stalls and a museum of Roman artefacts, and into the Peristyle. This dramatic colonnaded square was once the antechamber to Diocletian’s quarters, and the heart of the Palace complex.
There is a café here now, and on the right stands the Cathedral of St. Domnius, the Bell Tower of which is one of the symbols of the city.
It is ironic that the tomb of this notorious persecutor of Christians became a Christian place of worship, with the nearby Baptistery built upon the remains of the pagan Temple of Jupiter.
Within the palace precincts are other, smaller squares, and here, apart from more restaurants, there are several attractive little Venetian-style villas.
Out through the Golden Gate to the north of the complex stands a massive bronze statue of Grgur Ninski (St. Gregory of Nin), the 9th century bishop who challenged (Catholic) Rome by advocating that the Croatian Church use the Slavic language and Glagolitic script instead of Latin. His right big toe has been worn to a sheen by the touch of thousands of visitors who believe that this will bring them luck.
A short walk along the waterfront brings you to the Marjan Peninsular, past the City Museum, and up many steep steps to Telegrin at the top of the hill. From the Marian Hill there are spectacular views over the city, and the mountains stretching away towards Bosnia.
To one side of the summit is a bar, ideal for a summer sunset evening drink. Peter found a fresh water spigot, and a tiny white church surrounded by cypresses offering welcome respite from the dry heat and ear-piercing cicadas, whose singing presence is ubiquitous along this hot and sunny coast.
There are many interesting museums in Split, including the Archaeological, Ethnographic, Live, and Maritime Museums and the Gallery of Fine Arts. There are also several beaches, with Bacvice the most popular, and ferries daily to the island of Brac. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of these; a stomach bug laid me low for most of the second day.
A stroll along the palm-fringed Riva, or waterfront promenade, is the best place to see and be seen, especially on balmy summer evenings when the sun is setting and the lights begin to twinkle.
I could see why the Greeks favoured this area as early as the 4th century BC, attracted by the harmonious beauty of the sea and sun, and the majestic scenery. The waterfront is crammed with pavement cafés, restaurants, bars and souvenir stalls, and is a popular spot with all the glamour of a Mediterranean Riviera.
The vibrant nightlife in Split is one of the city’s supreme tourist attractions, and apart from the waterfront bars and entertainments, such as small popular concerts performed on a temporary stage, there are chic bars where suitably attired guests can enjoy cocktails by candlelight, or romantic dinners in exclusive little restaurants.
The next day we continued our drive down the Dalmatian coast, stopping briefly at two border crossings only 10 km apart, to show our passports. This narrow strip of land belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and allows the land-locked country a tiny piece of coast and access to the Adriatic Sea – presumably a compromise to keep the peace.
Shortly before reaching Dubrovnik we stopped at the small twin towns of Ston and Mali Ston (“Little” Ston) to have lunch at one of the fish restaurants: crispy deep-fried sardines, salad and chunks of white bread with wine and mineral water.
Most curious are the fortified walls that date from 1333, traversing the hills above and up to the fortress on top. They were built by the city of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik) to protect Mali Ston and the surrounding salt pans which they had recently bought, from attack. They miraculously withstood Serb shelling in 1991 and an earthquake in 1997, both of which wrecked parts of the town below.
Also curious along this coastline were the crops of wooden poles standing in the shallows: masses of oyster beds to supply all the nearby restaurants.
World Heritage Site Dubrovnik – “Pearl of the Adriatic” (Byron) – was the dénouement of our Dalmatian adventure. As soon as we had offloaded our bags in our room at Villa St. Vitus in the Old Town, reached down dozens of steep steps from the Buža Gate high up on the road to the north, we set out to explore.
Dubrovnik is confined within perfectly-preserved fortifications – walls and forts – which never expanded to accommodate a growing population, as was the case elsewhere in Europe. The absence of any vehicles within adds to the unique experience of historic preservation.
The “highlights” of this old city were too numerous to see, but the best way to achieve orientation at the outset is a walk along the City Walls. These were relatively unscathed during the Siege of Dubrovnik, which took place from October 1991 to May 1992, by Bosnian Serbs, rebel Croatian Serbs, Montenegrin volunteers, and the Yugoslav Army. These ancient walls actually proved more effective against modern weaponry than contemporary structures within the city’s periphery.
The walk, accessed and paid for near the Pile Gate, is best taken early in the morning before the heat and crowds set in, or after sundown when the light softens and casts peachy hues across the white stone and terracotta tiles. There are many steep steps to climb and descend, and these began to become uncomfortably impassable with other tourists as we were completing our walk. The elevated position of the walls offers the best views, both into the properties of the locals and tiny squares of the Old Town within, and onto the Adriatic bays and the five forts without: the Minčeta, Bokar, St. John, Revelin and Lovrijenac Forts.
Another highlight, and my recommendation, was one of the guided walks. We chose the Story about the War option, led by young Ivana, who was five years old during the Siege, and had suffered at first hand such deprivations as no electricity and running water, and the death of friends.
The Balkan Peninsular had been perceived as the “restless corner of Europe” since the beginning of the 20th century, and grasping the underlying reasons for this has never been easy. But Ivana’s explanation did shed light on the recent conflicts, and how these events were deeply rooted in the past. Specifically, repressive Habsburg domination. She debunked misconceptions about the people and the causes of the Homeland War, and walking with her through parts of the Old Town that I might otherwise not have seen, and experiencing first-hand accounts of the plight of the people living there, made this a most worthwhile hour indeed. Perhaps I also acquired a better understanding of the motives of Gavrilo Princep’s assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering one of the most cataclysmic world conflicts in history, and ushering in the humanitarian concepts entrenched by the French Revolution two centuries earlier. Much of the Balkan conflict in the 1990’s arose from a violent manifestation of the ardent nationalism of each of the Slavic tribes, especially the territorial acquisitiveness of the Bosnian Serbs, led by Slobodan Milosevic – a sort of Serbian Hitler. Our guide added extra information, such as the proximity of the Slavic languages to each other, from Polish and Russian to the Balkan dialects of Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, and how they can understand one another reasonably well.
Ivana drew our attention to the substantial UNESCO aid that was poured into the old city; reconstruction can be seen in the terracotta roof tiles – the dustier, paler hue of the old originals, and the more vibrant tone of the replacements from Slovenia and France – as faithful a reconstruction as was humanly possible.
Stradun is the central marble boulevard that bisects the Old Town, flanked on either side by elegant Baroque architecture, with all the shutters painted the same colour green, and shops, souvenir and ice-cream stalls, boutiques and cafés, and an excellent Pekara, all of which did a roaring trade and until late each night.
Our designated breakfast café was a good spot from which to watch the people, including guided tour groups fresh from another cruise liner docked further away. Omelettes or croissants and strong cappuccinos set us up for the day, and the excellent Wi-Fi enabled me to keep in touch with family and friends.
At the east end of Stradun stand the Clock Tower, where the two brass figures “Maro” and “Baro” toll the hour 24/7,
the Sponza Palace (formerly the customs house and mint),
the Small Onofrio’s Fountain (dating from 1444),
the City Hall and St. Blaise’s Church. St. Blaise is the patron saint of the city, said to have saved it from sacking by the Venetians. Unfortunately the church was locked each time I tried to gain entry, but it is a beautiful sight at night, when the unusual, modern, stained glass windows are illuminated from within.
The west entrance is through the Pile Gate, and down the steps to the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, which has provided drinking water to travellers for centuries. Closer to Stradun stands the Church of St. Saviour, one of the few buildings to survive the catastrophic earthquake of 1667.
Behind the Church of St. Saviour is the Franciscan Monastery, and its Old Pharmacy, which has been in operation since 1317. The double-pillared cloisters offer welcome respite from the heat and glare of the white-stoned buildings outside, and shelter a verdant little garden in the centre of which is a 15th century well.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is a magnificent Baroque structure in the old city. It was erected soon after the earthquake of 1667 to replace an older Romanesque building.
Legend has it that the earlier church was commissioned by Richard the Lionheart when he was cast onto Lokrum Island nearby, during a shipwreck en route back to England from the Crusades in 1192. The interior is grand and impressive with three naves, each with a Baroque altar. There are also an altarpiece depicting the Ascension of Mary by Titian, and paintings from the Italian school of Raphael including a copy of his Virgin of the Chair. This painting is in the Cathedral Treasury (entry at extra cost), but I managed to peek through the door at this fabulously gold-framed piece, before being hustled away by an attendant.
An almost equally impressive Baroque structure is the nearby Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, approached by a sweeping flight of stairs inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome. It was completed in 1725, and is decorated with magnificent Baroque frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Saint and exquisite examples of tromp l’oeil.
The bell house in the belfry of St. Ignatius is the oldest in Dubrovnik; it was cast in 1355.
The Rector’s Palace dates from 1200, but was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Today we see the Baroque building that dates from 1739. Here the Rector, who was the head of the Republic of Ragusa’s term of office lasted only a month, enabling him to focus on public affairs alone.
The palace is filled with period furniture and paintings, and I noticed the poor quality of this art, compared to that in the great galleries of Europe, and the unattractiveness of the women depicted in the portraits. There are several sedan chairs, hinting at an opulent past, and an unusual collection of clocks, all set to 5.45. This was the hour at which Napoleon’s troops entered the city on the 31st January 1808, marking the end of the Republic.
I particularly enjoyed the Rupe Ethnographic Museum, a vast space originally intended to store grain, in holes bored into the rock, in case of siege. The exhibits show beautifully hand-made ethnic costumes and handcrafts, as well as pastoral work through the ages, by means of models, photographs and objects: grain cultivation, grinding, and bread-making, wine-, honey- and olive-cultivation, weaving, fishing net- and lace-making.
An afternoon at one of the nearby beaches is a pleasant way to relax and enjoy the sunshine – preferably in September when the heat and crowds have abated. We took the bus to Kompas Beach, where the shingle slopes gradually into the sea, and a large restaurant offers meals, drinks, ice-creams and snacks. I didn’t like the ice-creams I tried in Zagreb and Dalmatia, finding the flavours strange and artificial, though plenty of others seemed to enjoy it. But the weather was lovely, and a brief respite from the drama of the history and mental overload from all the facts was welcome.
In the late afternoon, rather than taking the cable car to the top of Srd Hill behind and above the city (from whence the Serb shelling was directed during the Siege), we chose to do a “Panoramic minibus tour” with our friends. The sights promised were scant, and the driver surly, but the view over the city and the islands dotted in the Adriatic is truly spectacular, especially at sundown.
Our last day in Dalmatia was spent taking a most enjoyable “Superior Boat Cruise” to the Elaphite (deer) Islands lying just north of Dubrovnik. A number of individuals were touting these boat trips around the city, all much the same in price, choice of destinations, and overall inclusions. After some disorganised liaising at the Buža Gate, we eventually located our driver who took us and several others to the dock and our rather shabby diesel-fumed, music-blaring vessel.
The first stop was at the island of Lopud, where one can take a pleasant stroll along the waterfront, digressing through a strangely abandoned but atmospheric little park, to an old Franciscan monastery, now inaccessible due to restoration work. Peter headed for the popular sandy beach, Šunj, and I followed a steep winding path up the hill, where I came across a tiny stone chapel, and enjoyed fantastic views over the sea, and the cove in which the beach nestles. A local saying promises that if you bathe here with a loved one, you will never part. The water was too cold for my taste, although the day was hot.
Lunch – fried hake or chicken with “assorted salads” (sliced cabbage and tomatoes) – was served on board en route to the next island, Šipan, the largest of the Elaphite islands. This is where the wealthy Dubrovnik families built their summer villas during the 15th century. Today they are reminders of a long gone golden age. A visit to the twin-towered Skočibuha castle, built to repel the pirates at that time, was promised in the brochure, but it appeared to be locked. Some of our fellow passengers enjoyed tasting the renowned Šipan wines in the harbour village, and a coffee or ice-cream. I enjoyed another glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The clear turquoise-blue water of the little harbour is so clean and clear that the pebbly bottom is visible.
Koločep was the last stop on our trip, an island with a pretty little seaside village set around a sandy beach.
There are seven churches on this island, built by the Croatian kings, and tiny shops selling lavender, Dalmatian prosciutto, goat’s milk cheese and carob brandy. I bought a little bottle of Kantarion (masažno ulje), an oily tincture made from St. John’s Wort said to cure any skin irritation from eczema to insect bites. I still await positive results.
Towards the end of the afternoon an argument ensued as to our time of return. Our weather-beaten host seemed to think that the plan was to linger out in the archipelago until much later that night, but we managed to dissuade him, and happily sailed back into port as the sun was gloriously setting.
We found Dubrovnik beleaguered by jostling tour groups disgorging from the titanic cruise liners that docked a distance from the Old Town daily. By the end of the weekend the smelly ancient drains were competing with the more salubrious aromas of the pavement restaurants. The latter, and the numerous boutiques, vie vigorously for the visitors’ much-needed custom – sometimes to an annoying degree. Life has been tough in the Balkans for centuries, but even worse in recent decades due to the horrific civil war. The people are struggling to make a living, but slowly things are improving, and the income from tourism helps immeasurably.
The narrow (often shingly) beaches were filled almost to capacity with holiday-makers from cooler climes taking advantage of the last balmy throws of summer. The shops and restaurants were universally overpriced. I found that there was very little I wished to buy; most of the attractive cotton garments – skirts, kaftans, sarongs and tops – were made in India (one salesman tried to pass off a blouse as Croatian.) Hats were “Made in China” – as was much other tourist tat: the “same old” souvenirs, fridge magnets, shot glasses, peaks, sling bags, coasters, etc.
But the small outdoor market is attractive, selling similar products to those in Zagreb and the other towns we visited: olive oils, honey, jams and preserves, wines and fruit, lavender, soaps, candles and scented potions and lotions.
The handcrafts are of excellent quality, and ladies could be seen working on their lace, embroidery, and Christmas decoration-making activities in many a craft store or on an outdoor stair.
The chocolate in Croatia was not to my taste, but I did enjoy the liqueur chocolates made by Kraš (“Since 1911”), Griotte: pralines with a sour cherry filling.
Particularly recommended is the exquisite coral jewelry, “from the coral of the Adriatic Sea” – for a more exotic note. I watched a craftsman work on this unique material, carefully working the surface to a smooth crimson sheen with tiny electric buffers varying in degrees of coarseness.
The coral pieces are set in gold or silver, and often with pearls, or turquoise – a beautiful pairing that perfectly captures the turquoise waters of the Dalmatian coast.
In conclusion: there is blaring pop music in every boutique, boat, restaurant, bar and café – even on the airport bus. Clean toilets mercifully prevailed – in restaurants, museums, public facilities, and even gas stations. The people are mostly friendly and helpful, if a little pushy at times – obviously desperate for the tourist trade.
There is Wi-Fi in most establishments – and so there better had be, for the general demand (especially the ever-connected youth), if you don’t want your valuable custom going next door for a purchase, meal or coffee.
Beware in restaurants and bistros of being given expensive bottles of mineral water and baskets of bread; they are not included, and will automatically be added to your bill. And the tip is presumptuously calculated and added, whether the service was prompt or not. Avoid the ubiquitous Jamnica sparkling mineral water. It has an unpleasant salty taste, and a tendency to cause bloating. Unless you prefer a complete break from the kitchen, I recommend a coffee and a freshly baked pastry for breakfast at your nearest pekara, and fresh produce from the local market for a picnic lunch and/or supper in a park or at the waterfront. This way you can also avoid badgering or irritable waitrons, exhausted by the summer hordes.
Go to the museums early, and do outdoor activities such as walking the Dubrovnik city walls or exploring the National Parks before the heat sets in and the multitudes arrive. Guided city walks are worthwhile, to hear of the first-hand experiences and historical knowledge of the locals.
I would also advise those sensitive to noise against staying in the ancient centres of the Croatian towns and cities (or any “Old Town” in Europe, for that matter), despite their websites offering proximity to the main sights; the church bells ring out every quarter hour throughout the day and night. And there are hundreds of feral cats everywhere, just like in the North African countries, sometimes yowling at ungodly hours.
Dubrovnik’s Old Harbour lies on the east side of the Old City, flanked on either side by the St. John’s and Revelin Forts. It presents a lively scene in summer, with the bustle of the little fishing boats and the tourist craft enjoying the harbour’s protection.
The harbour wall is a good spot to perch with a pizza of an evening, dangling one’s legs towards the sea. Savour the sounds and scents of the Adriatic Coast, delicious grilled seafood, gentle breezes, and the twinkling lights reflected on the waves. Follow in the footsteps of entranced visitors over the centuries, drawn by the magical atmosphere, the festive night life, the abundant touristic hype, and the celebrated beauty of the Dalmatian Coast. Enjoy such views as this from your hotel widow:
and bring your cheerful and generous custom; the people need you!