The Dalmatia Coast rises along the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea, from Montenegro in the south to Istria in northern Croatia, encompassing spectacular shores, where azure waters meet white, sandy beaches and emerald green forests sit atop the mountains. It is seriously beautiful. Across the water lies Italy; Venice and Trieste are just hours away by boat or car. It is also famous for giving its name to a breed of dogs, the Dalmatian, but I did not see a single one during my 7 days there.
I arrived in my most northernmost destination, Zadar, on a comfortable 2 1/2 hour bus ride from Zagreb, driving in the never-ending Sveti Rok tunnel (actually 5.7 kilometres) through the Velebit mountains, part of the southern Alps and the physical, meteorological and historical divide between Eastern Croatia and the Mediterranean. I had hoped for hot days and sunny skies on the coast, but the rain and cool temperatures that had plagued me for the better part of the last 5 weeks persisted in following me to Dalmatia.
Dalmatia has been inhabited for thousands of years. Neolithic settlements dating back 20,000 years have been located, but more recently in the Bronze and Stone Ages, Illyrians settled in the area. They were famous as a matriarchal society ruled by women whose only uses for men were manual labour and impregnation. Marriage was unknown, children stayed with their mothers until they were 8 or 9, then boys were raised by the man they most resembled.
Between 1500 BC and 200 BC, Greeks roamed the area, set up colonies or integrated with the locals. Rome eventually took over and Dalmatia became part of the Roman Empire. With the fall of Rome in the 6th century, different tribes attacked, settled or captured various towns, but the Slavs eventually dominated the coast. They willing converted to Christianity (thanks to travelling Irish monks) and most of the northern coast embraced Roman Catholicism.
Between 639 AD and the 12th century, different Dalmatian cities were captured, invaded, and ruled by Byzantines, Venetians and Hungarians. The Croatian city-state of Zadar was sold by its king, Ladislaus, in 1409 to Venice and remained a Venetian stronghold until 1797. Split ping- ponged between the Ottomans, Venetians and independence. Dubrovnik alone managed to retain its independence as a republic (The Republic of Regusa) throughout the Middle Ages until Napoleon invaded in 1806, whereupon most of Dalmatia became French for 10 years. The Hapsburgs took it over after his defeat, and the Austria/Hungarian empire ruled it until the end of WW1.
The division of nations after WW1 saw the very north of Dalmatia, including the city of Zadar, go to Italy, while Split and Dubrovnik remained part of Croatia and joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian State). During WW2, the cities were nominally governed by a puppet Croatian government but in fact, occupied by Italy until 1944, then Germany. Zadar and Split sustained significant damage from Allied bombs, Dubrovnik and Hvar less so. The cities were reunited after WW2 in the state of Yugoslavia. Croatia gained independence in 1991 and, except for Dubrovnik, emerged relatively unscathed during the Croatian Homeland War between 1991 and 1995.
It’s a long and complicated history, but necessary to understand the sights and people of Dalmatia.
With a population of just 170,000, most of whom live in the new part of the city, the old town caters to the tourist, where restaurants, pensions (guest houses), galleries and museums predominate. Built adjacent to the harbour in a typical Roman grid, its pedestrian only streets are easily manageable; 5 streets running north/south and a few more east/west. Thanks to a screw-up on TripAdvisor’s Viator tour agency, I ended up on two walking tours of Zadar, but interestingly, each offered different perspectives. Simon loved history and started our tour in an 11th century Romanesque church off the main square, reached only by walking through the thoroughly modern coffee shop of Sveti Lovre. After taking us quickly through 3,000 years of history, we walked into the square and the Venetian inspired City Guard building, the clock tower, the 13th century City Loggia and an ugly fascist building. Next stop was the Church of St. Simeon containing the sarcophagus of the Saint, where his bones are kept. We walked past a Roman column to the land gate, constructed by the Venetians and around the Queen Jelena Madije Park, the first public park in Croatia, established by an Austrian commander in 1829.
We continued walking through the city, past a Byzantine church converted into an art gallery, St. Donatus’ church, St. Mary’s church until finally arriving at the remains of the Roman forum. Zadar was a significant Roman town, earning its wealth by salt mining. An excellent archeological museum is opposite the forum, where Zadar’s past from Neolithic times to the medieval period are explained in Croatian and English and illustrated with a rich trove of ancient artifacts, everything from stone flints to statues of Augustus Caesar.
Much of Zadar’s charm lies in its well preserved historical monuments, but it doesn’t rest on its laurels. My second walking tour was with Luciana, with an emphasis on the modern. Just a few steps from the ancient forum was one of the kookiest and most enchanting pieces of, sorry about the misnomer, artwork, I have ever heard: a sea organ. Constructed in 2005 to hide an unsightly concrete wall, it consists of 34 tubes under marble steps which play random but strangely symphonic organ sounds whenever the waves roll in. The bigger the waves, the louder and more often the music. On a cool, windy morning, I sat on the steps, closed my eyes and enjoyed the soothing harmonies.
Right beside the sea organ is another innovative art piece. Called Greeting to the Sun, by day it is a large glass circle in the concrete by the sea, but is, in fact, a giant solar panel. After dark, it comes alive, all of the collected rays lighting up in shades of turquoise, green and blue.
For tourists like me, there is one reason only to visit Split, Croatia’s second largest city, and that is Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a Roman Emperor (284-305) who had a number of unique features. His parents had started life as slaves, earned their freedom and put their son into the army, where he climbed through the ranks and managed to become emperor. After 20 years on the throne, he decided he had had enough and retired or abdicated, whatever one prefers. He built the palace in Split, a Roman colony, where he spent the last 10 years of his life.
After his death, the palace gradually fell into disuse. Many of the main structures in the palace were simply too grand to be utilized by anyone but an emperor with 1,000 servants and demolished. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Slavs settled in the area and the palace was reconstituted for their needs. It has been continuously occupied since the 7th century, with medieval buildings replacing Roman baths and a Christian church using Diocletian’s mausoleum.
Remnants of the walls and the Temple of Jupiter stand and accurate miniature reconstructions of the palace are possible thanks to, literally, sh*&#. Here’s the story recounted by Jacob, my walking tour guide. During Roman times, a working sewage system existed including pipes leading to the cellar to remove waste. Subsequently and during the Medieval period, indoor plumbing was not in vogue, but the pipes were still used to get rid of waste. However, no one cleaned the cellar, so centuries of SH** gathered, decomposed and turned into dirt. Fortunately for archeologists, storekeepers and tourists, the compost allowed the cellars to keep their shape, supported the structures above ground, survived earthquakes and teach us about Roman dietary habits. Today, the cellars have been partially excavated, thoroughly cleaned and are used as stalls by shopkeepers selling all manner of trinkets to the tourists.
In fact, there are reasons other than Diocletian’s palace to visit Split and one of them is to catch a ferry to nearby islands. Croatia has 1200 islands, 64 of them inhabited and most of them are, I suspect, gorgeous. I bought a round trip ticket for Hvar, an hour away by the fast Catamaran, and settled in with a lot of Asian tourists for the smooth ride.
I read about Hvar on the ride over: famous for its mega yachts (not interested), celebrities (who cares?) and all night partying (I’m way too old). I had serious doubts about exactly why I was going there. Things did not improve when I arrived in the port, walked to the nearby tourist office and was handed a map showing the location of 13 churches and a medieval arsenal now used as a theatre. No offence to anyone, but 13 churches in an area the size of a postage stamp seems excessive and, besides, I’d had my share of churches in the last dozen places I’d visited.
I was about to give up on the place, find a bar where I could eat and drink until my return catamaran in 3 hours, when I noticed some steps leading up the hill. “Might as well burn some calories before lunch,” I thought and started up. Midway up, I came across 1 of Hvar’s 3 Unesco World Heritage sites, the Benedictine Convent where the unique Hvar lace is made by nuns in the convent from agave leaves. Tequila also comes from the agave leaves, but no mention was made of that.
A lot of steps and a meandering path later, my uphill climb was rewarded with some stunning views of Hvar, its harbour and the sea.
I was hesitant to go to Dubrovnik. I’d already seen a couple of Dalmatian towns, the horror stories of over-tourism there made me nervous and it seemed grotesquely overpriced. But the gnawing voice in the back of my head kept saying “how can you be sooooo close and not visit the Pearl of the Adriatic?” I was sure I would have regrets if I didn’t, so I found an affordable guesthouse in the old city, picked a couple of days where no cruise ships were in port, and decided to go with a positive attitude. Maybe I would adore it!
Well, after nearly 3 days there, let’s just say I didn’t hate it but I doubt I will ever return. My walking tour guide, Davor, tried to make us love the city. Small, just 4,000 inhabitants, it managed to retain its independence by being a go-between state between the Ottomans in the East and the Venetians and everyone else in the West – the Ottomans being prohibited from trading with the West conveniently allowed the traders of Dubrovnik to do their trading and remain a republic. But the Ottomans extracted a tax on the city, based on the ornateness of buildings. The result was that Dubrovnik passed a law prohibiting decorations on private houses. This resulted in a uniquely Dubrovnik architectural style, houses built of plain limestone blocks which still today dominate the main street. But people, being egotistical, wanted to show off their wealth, so they embarked on elaborately decorated churches, which were not private buildings; consequently there are 47 churches in Dubrovnik, about 1 for every 100 citizens. Many were never used as churches; today some are galleries, shops, etc. Just about all pay homage to their benefactor.
Davor was proud of Dubrovnik’s history of human rights and tolerance. The predominantly Christian city lived peacefully with its Ottoman overlords, but passed a decree that only Christians could buy property in the city, thus ensuring that it wasn’t overrun by Muslims. The decree was overlooked for Jews, who first came to the city after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and were welcomed for their trading and medical skills. The synagogue stands today, although Dubrovnik Jews were not immune to the Nazi death camps. Davor was particularly proud of the Dubrovnik hospital. Begun in 1301, it initiated the concept of quarantine during the plague and offered free medical care to all for centuries.
Davor, and everyone else, recommended walking the city walls. They looked beautiful, but a $40 entry fee was just too rich for me to stomach. Everything in the city was overpriced. A mediocre meal of the catch of the day, sea bream, cost $38, with no sides no water, no bread and service was extra. Attempts to find a decent meal for under $20 (before wine, bread and tip) meant a lot of Caprese salads. The final straw was when I went to the bus station to enquire about a bus to Sarajevo. I already had paid $25 for a Dubrovnik-Sarajevo bus in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but wanted an earlier one. The price was $40. I asked how much for the bus I already had a ticket on. Same price, $40. Other than pure greed, I can think of no rational for why the same ticket, on the same bus, leaving at the same time, costs $15 more if I buy it in Croatia rather than Bosnia-Herzegovina.
As I said, I didn’t hate Dubrovnik, but I didn’t like it either. The history is engrossing; the architecture beautiful. People were nice enough. Yes it was busy, but no worse than Amsterdam or Paris. Then it hit me. Dubrovnik is not a living city. No schools or hardware stores or nail salons. It has only tourists and people who cater to tourists. It completely lacks soul.
Thus ended my sojourn on the Dalmatia coast. I am heading inland, to Bosnia-Herzegovina, in search of reasonable prices and fewer tourists.