Pearls of the Dalmatian Coast

SINJ, Croatia—Life is slower on the Dalmatian Coast.

That’s thanks to the idea of “fjaka,” a local guide told me on a sunny afternoon in the town of Sinj, as we strolled past a plaza full of people lounging about. She said that visitors would often ask her, “Is there some national holiday? Why is everyone just sitting and drinking coffee?” “No, no!” she would reply. “This is just our ritual! We like to enjoy coffee for a long, long time.”

Fjaka, this uniquely Dalmatian state of mind—and way of life, really—is one of profound relaxation and contentment, relishing in the joy of letting go and doing and wanting nothing. It’s something better experienced than attempted to be defined; I think of it as Croatia’s lazy summer afternoon counterpart to Scandinavia’s hygge.

It’s part of the appeal that has been drawing growing crowds to this southern stretch of the Croatian coast—together with its gorgeous beaches, sapphire Adriatic waters, charming medieval old towns, and abundance of warm Mediterranean sun. (Recent Game of Thrones hype has helped, too: Several scenes were filmed throughout the region, most recognizably in tourist hotspot Dubrovnik, the real-life King’s Landing.)

And beyond the picturesque waterfront lie treasure troves of history and heritage. Dalmatia boasts an impressive roster of UNESCO-protected sites, from ancient palaces to residential streets, well preserved over centuries of changing rulers.

During an early December amble down the coast, in the depths of the off-season, I shared the streets with mostly locals. In the summer, the crowds will inevitably come—but in numbers far fewer than in Dubrovnik in the south, the “Pearl of the Adriatic” to where most tourists flock.

So take the time to appreciate the rest of Dalmatia; the length of the coast is a veritable string of pearls. Here are a few worth paying a visit.

Zadar: Sun, Sea, and Roman Antiquity

My favorite moments in Zadar, in northern Dalmatia, were spent by the water. The gleaming, stone-paved waterfront promenade, on the edge of the peninsula on which Zadar’s historic old town is set, is the best place to get lost in views of the brilliant blue Adriatic Sea, stretching toward an endless horizon—and catch a sunset that Alfred Hitchcock famously called the most beautiful in the world. In the evening, local fishermen cast their lines into the blue.

The promenade is also the site of two quirky art installations by architect Nikola Bašić: Greeting to the Sun, a circle of 300 glass solar panels, set into the pavement, that light up in dazzling rainbow colors after sunset; and the Sea Organ, a 230-foot-long series of 35 pipes, built under the concrete stairs, that produces a haunting symphony of hollow, ringing, whistling “music” when played by the waves.

A famed Zadar sunset over the Greeting to the Sun installation. (Shutterstock)

But these modern attractions merely scratch the surface of Croatia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Zadar’s origins reach back to the ninth century B.C. when it was first settled by the ancient Liburnians, but the Romans were the ones who really built the town. Their influence is still everywhere: The main streets are Roman; the iconic round, ninth-century Byzantine Church of St. Donatus was built using Roman ruins; and there’s even an 11th-century church, flanked by two Roman columns, hidden inside (yes, inside) a coffee shop in the main square.

The most striking Roman remains are those of the Roman Forum, the largest in Croatia. The ancient square was uncovered by tragedy: After Zadar was bombed by the Allied Forces during World War II, as an important harbor city under Italian rule, archeologists discovered the ruins under the rubble of war-damaged residential houses. The ground is a mosaic of original Roman pavement and new.

Zadar’s Roman Forum and round Church of St Donatus, in the heart of the old town. (Shutterstock)

Another notable piece of history: The remaining stretches of sloping, 16th-century Venetian walls that once surrounded and defended the city recently earned a spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.

Sibenik: A Hidden Gem on the River

Anchoring central Dalmatia is the oft-overlooked gem of Sibenik, the first coastal Croatian city actually founded by Croats. Its sleepy old town is full of winding alleys, bright teal windows, and a whole lot of stairs—2,851 stone steps, to be exact, owing to the fact that houses were first built high above the sea, then gradually extended down toward the water.

The old town of Sibenik was built from high above down toward the sea. (Shutterstock)

A trek up a few flights was worth the views it brought me of the dome of the Cathedral of St. James, one of Sibenik’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites (the other being the Venetian-walled St. Nicholas Fortress), looming over the red-roofed buildings clustered around the old town square.

The cathedral, according to a local guide, was born out of the spirited rivalry between the Dalmatian cities: Each wanted to be more powerful, more important, more beautiful. With the goal of a cathedral that would outshine those already in cities like Zadar, Split, and Trogir, Sibenik architects constructed a magnificent building entirely from stone—including a cupola built from interlocking stone slabs, a remarkable feat of architecture—in a unique blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles. To spot one of its trademark features, look closely at the base of its exterior: It’s lined with 71 different faces, each with distinct, lifelike expressions, thought to have been modeled after the local townspeople.

The Cathedral of St. James in Sibenik. (Shutterstock)

Sibenik is also an easy gateway to one of Croatia’s most stunning natural treasures: Krka National Park. Situated along the 45-mile-long Krka River, a mere 15-minute drive inland from Sibenik, the park is most known for its seven travertine waterfalls, flanked with lush forests full of wildlife.

A looping path through the area, across dirt trails and a wooden boardwalk that zigzags across the river, lets you admire the sheer beauty of the water up close: its different shades of jewel-like green and blue, in some places flowing slowly, like rippling silk, in others thundering over rocks and ridges in foaming rapids. The most famous of the falls, Skradinski Buk, tumbles down a series of cascades into a magical swimming pool.

Stray cats are a fixture in Dalmatia; this one stands guard at Krka National Park. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)

Split: A City Born From a Palace

If you make it down to Split, Croatia’s second-largest city and unofficial capital, you’ll probably be looking for Diocletian’s Palace. You’ll also likely be already standing in it.

The ancient Roman complex, the city’s star attraction, was built at the turn of the fourth century for the Roman emperor Diocletian. A sprawling 320,000 square feet of gleaming marble and limestone, it served as a seaside military fortress and luxurious retirement villa in one. After the Romans abandoned the palace, inhabitants of a nearby city under Barbarian invasion sought refuge within its remains and built their houses within its protective walls, repurposing existing structures and adding new ones—and so the historic old town was born.

Diocletian’s Palace, the historic heart of Split, sits on the water. (Shutterstock)

Today, the ruins form about half of the old town of Split, the living heart of the city. It’s home to around 3,000 residents, with modern shops, restaurants, and cafes tucked among its narrow streets and ancient courtyards. The stunning Roman peristyle court, surrounded by columns and home of one of the palace’s three remaining 3,500-year-old Egyptian sphinxes (the original had 12), is a lively gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

The Roman peristyle court of Diocletian’s Palace. (Shutterstock)

The palace has changed significantly—essentially only the walls, framework, and remarkably intact basement are left from Roman times, and it has since gained examples of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. But it remains the largest and best-preserved Roman palace in the world; the whole complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

And just outside of the southern wall lies the social center of Split, the bustling Riva Promenade, flanked by the glistening harbor on one side and throngs of cafes and shops on the other.

Trogir: History Carved in Stone

Just 17 miles west of Split lies the historic town of Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, set on a tiny island connected to the Croatian mainland by a single bridge. (It’s a great destination for a day trip.)

A waterfront view of the medieval town of Trogir. (Shutterstock)

Founded by Greek settlers in the third century B.C., the 2,300-year-old city is incredibly well preserved. Within the Old Town walls lies a collection of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, constructed over centuries of changing styles and rulers with the same lustrous white stone that stands today.

Indeed, though other Dalmatian cities boast similarly impressive histories, Trogir seems especially frozen in time. Wandering through its labyrinths of stone streets and buildings (which have earned it the nickname of “the Little Venice of Dalmatia”), I was half-convinced I had stepped back into its medieval past—until an automatic door, tucked discreetly under a worn stone doorway, whooshed open and jerked me back to the present.

Trogir’s stone streets and courtyards seem frozen in time. (Shutterstock)

The pride of the city is the St. Lawrence Cathedral, built from the 13th to 17th century and especially famed for its grand, Romanesque portal, depicting scenes from the Bible, by the Trogir-born sculptor Radovan. Another point of interest is a Greek marble relief of Kairos, the Greek god of luck and opportunity and a symbol of Trogir, housed in the Benedictine Convent of St. Nicholas. According to legend, the god must be caught by his hair before he flies away—taking with him the fleeting opportunity he represents.

Sinj: Of Miracles and Medieval Knights

From Split, head 20 miles inland instead, and you’ll hit Sinj, another tiny historic town. Its claim to fame is an equestrian spectacle like no other: horsemen in 18th-century Venetian uniforms, brandishing 10-foot lances, charging at a single iron ring hanging from a string. The objective: pierce the center of a ring about five inches wide, called an “alka,” with their spears—while riding at full gallop.

The Sinjska Alka, a 300-year-old knights’ tournament in Sinj. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Sinjska Alka, this grand display of Croatian chivalry and tradition, has been held every August since 1715, commemorating the town’s victory against the invading Ottoman Empire. According to local lore, the victory was the work of a miracle: as an army of 600 Sinj soldiers awaited a siege of 70,000 Ottoman Turks, “a woman in white was seen, walking on the walls of Sinj”—sending the Turks into fearful retreat. Much of the town is thus dedicated to its venerated Madonna of Sinj, and every August 15, a solemn procession of her painting through the city draws tens of thousands of pilgrims.

A statue of the Madonna of Sinj overlooks the town. (Shutterstock)

The Alka is steeped in tradition and local pride—competitors must be men born in Sinj or the surrounding region, and the role is usually passed down through family generations. It’s the region’s oldest continuous tournament of its kind, and the only remaining example of such medieval knights’ games once regularly held throughout the Croatian coastal towns. In 2010, the Alka was inscribed in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

This year’s competition will be held from Aug. 3–5. If you can’t make it, the Alka Museum makes a worthy alternative. Opened in 2015, it’s beautifully designed, interactive exhibits seamlessly guide visitors through the history of Alka, with extensive digital archives, battle reenactments, and most impressively, a collection of real Alka artifacts, from uniforms to weapons, sourced mostly from local families involved in the games.

Getting There

Turkish Airlines offers comfortable flights to Dubrovnik and Zagreb, Croatia’s northwestern capital, via the brand-new, behemoth Istanbul Airport (a destination in and of itself). From there, the rest of the Dalmatian coast is just a short connecting flight, bus, or car ride away.

If your layover in Istanbul is between 6 and 24 hours, take advantage of it: Turkish Airlines’ free Touristanbul service offers tours of the city ranging from three and a half hours to a full day. American travelers will need a visa, which can be obtained online through Turkey’s e-Visa system at EVisa.gov.tr; be sure to print it out before you arrive in Istanbul.

The writer was a guest of the Croatian National Tourism Board and Turkish Airlines.

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Author: Crystal Shi

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