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TRAVELLING THROUGH DALMATIA

Many have written about and to Dalmatia. From ancient writers who recorded the newly coined toponym at the turn of the first century, through various travel writers who travelled through these parts as early as in Renaissance times, all the way to modern-day authors and bloggers who admire this God-given land and everything it has produced.

Alberto Fortis – one of traveller- writers who passed through Dalmatia – 18th century, copercarving of Luigi Rados

In the company of all of these masters with either smaller or bigger level of authority, I do not feel the least bit nervous about writing about Dalmatia. In fact, I feel carefree, grateful that I was born and get to live here, transferring the wealth of its heritage to travellers and passers-by, revealing its most hidden curiosities along the way.

Dalmatia in the Bible

In this post, we will cross Dalmatia from its north to south, pausing in certain places and providing some basic information. In later posts, these areas will be addressed in much more detail.

To begin with, I must mention that to people who travel to Croatia, Dalmatia is a relatively unknown term. Unfortunately, the vast majority are only familiar with the dog breed, and that’s it. I have no problem with that, I do not mind. Some think Dalmatia is an administrative part of Croatia, but that’s not true. There is indeed a mention of its name in the title of “Split-Dalmatia County,” although the reasons for that seem quite inexplicable and illogical. The area around Split does not claim the right to that name any more than the area around Zadar or Dubrovnik. There is, however, Dalmatia in Pennsylvania, USA, which got its name God knows how. If you are inquisitive, more on that topic you can read on this interesting blog. There are five hundred inhabitants living there, whereas in my original Dalmatia, nearly a million.

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Illyrians pushed it as far as Pennsylvania, apparently because the name Georgetown became overused.

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Yes. Dalmatia was named after sheep…and one of the most stubborn tribes of Illyrians.

In that sense, Dalmatia is seen as a historic region of Croatia, along with Istria, Slavonia and Croatia Proper. It extends from the area of the city of Zadar in the north to Dubrovnik area in the south.

In addition, Dalmatia is the place in which the first Croatian Principality, Kingdom, or State, if you will, was founded. This is why it should have precedence over Croatia. I was always taught to respect the elders.

Church of the Holy cross in Nin, built in the 9th century by Early Croatian rulers.

On the other hand, I see Dalmatia as an experience, a way of life, an intense smell of abundance in every sense. To me, she is the sound of a seagull, the fishhook thrown into the sea, the call of swallows with church bells pounding in the distance, grannies grumbling and friends singing acapella out of the blue. To me, she is the sweat and the shattering of rocks, windswept islands in the southern weather, the smell of the tavern and the stern look in my father’s eye. Blinding fullness of green and blue, sharp and freezing bura* wind whipping my ears. The sound of a million crickets. That`s Dalmatia.

*Bura – fierce wind common for the area of Coastal Croatia. Blowing usually with more than a 100 mph, it closes its season with „three Bura`s of march“; on the 7th, 17th and the 27th.

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Traditional dalmatian stone house window with ornaments, Dalmatia, Croatia

Its northern end is located under the mighty Velebit mountain, stretching lazily along the coast and losing herself in hundreds of white boulders in the blue sea. Although it is not technically in today`s Dalmatia, we shall start with the island of Pag because is easilly accessible from the mainland. In fact, this is where Dalmatia begins symbolically, with the birthplace of the bura wind and an ancient olive grove on the tip of the island with more than a thousand of milennia-old trees.

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Dalmatia bows down in the sea before the mighty Velebit

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Islands – Pag, Vir, Maun, Olib, Silba, Premuda, Ist, Molat aerial view from Velebit mountain.

Descending southeast, we come across the towns of Pag and Nin, and the beginning of a long necklace of fascinating Dalmatian islands, stretching all the way to Dubrovnik. Certainly, Nin can be singled out as a unique place because of its position and historical importance in which the salt production played a significant role, due to which the town of Pag became familiar in somewhat later times as well. When travelling this way, it would be a shame to miss the culinary specialties of this region. Therefore, when on Pag, try cheese and lamb with baby onion and half a glass of red. Mmm, it already smells like one of the future posts. For more manly men, the Benedictine nunnery features an exhibition of the famous Pag lace, enlisted as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. 😉

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Scene from Pag

Going further, we will reach Zadar, a quiet Dalmatian city, the second largest in all of Dalmatia, today mostly known for its Sea Organ and incredible sunsets. It was the capital city of Dalmatia from the time of the Byzantine themata** until the period when Austria annexed Dalmatia as its province.

**Byzantine themata – were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great. – source: Wikipedia

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Zadar, Cathedral of st. Donatus, main landmark of the town

Otherwise, this place is ideal for longer stays, especially for people who prefer to travel off the beaten track, hidden bays and desert mountain trails. The town of Zadar offers outstanding archaeological heritage to study, from remnants of the Roman Forum, to great collections and museums such as the Museum of Ancient Glass with their glass blowing and jewellry making workshops. The surrounding area does not lag behind either. As many as four national parks are located in the vicinity of Zadar. There are also the Zrmanja River Canyon, Vrana Lake, Bukovica Region with numerous archaeological sites, fertile fields with numerous vineyards and olive groves, islands and islets arranged perfectly off the coast. Everything here seems somehow on a human scale.

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In Dalmatia, Sun rises from the mountains and falls into the Adriatic Sea.

Before entering the central Dalmatia we come across the town of Sibenik and the Krka River. This is one of the few cities that hasn`t got ancient, but medieval roots. It is certainly worth to stop here to explore the Krka River and visit the city with the Cathedral of St. Jacob, a truly artistic achievement, also featured on the World Heritage List.

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Island of Visovac monastery in Krka National Park.

In the central part, Dalmatia changes its appearance, drawing mountains closer to the shore and thus connecting the hinterland with the coastline and the islands in a fairly narrow strip. The best way to see that is to climb up a back road from Sibenik to Trogir and Split on a fine day. Before descending to Trogir, at the southern slopes of the Vilaja mountain, the view opens onto a large part of Central Dalmatia.

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Trogir & Kaštela bay, the city of Split in the distance with Biokovo Mountain behind.

There are three World Heritage sites located here within mere 38 square kilometers; the town of Trogir, the city of Split, and the ancient Greek Plain in Stari Grad on the island of Hvar. The view spans the coast all the way to the slopes of Biokovo mountain, including all the Central Dalmatian islands. Precisely that area, from Trogir via Split up to Omis, is the most densely populated region of Dalmatia with nearly 400.000 inhabitants. The city of Split, the second largest in Croatia, is the center of Dalmatia and the hub of maritime routes for all Central and Southern Dalmatian islands and Italy.

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Amazing Split waterfront view from Marjan hill.

This is truly a unique city; the most beautiful city in the world, according to its residents, myself included. This city has a certain magic. No one knows what it is, but everyone feels it. If I were forced to walk a hundred cities blindfolded, among them I would still easily recognize Split.

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Well…

Split has emerged from Diocletian’s Palace and the ancient town of Salona. For tourists it was once no more than a transit hub toward the islands. Today, the situation has changed and everyone is keen on Split, on seeing it, walking through the Peristyle and admiring its past and present.

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Old Split, view on Cathedral of st. Domnius, originally constructed as Diocletian`s Mausoleum.

However, there is no need to focus only on the urban centers, as they are already overcrowded with tourists in high season. A serious traveller needs to know the right time to visit the cities. In any case, the area around Split is so full of diversity that one can spend a lovely vacation there alone. The hinterland and the islands offer a rare contrast within a short distance of each other. Here, it is only a 30 km drive from pristine beaches to a thousand-meter high mountain tops.

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Biokovo Mountain close-up.

It would be a shame not to see the ruins of Salona, the fortress of Klis, the towns of Sinj, Vrlika, Kaštela, Trilj, Omiš … And the list goes on forever.
Certainly, the surroundings of Split hold some very interesting, still secret places of fascinating beauty.

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Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Salona

From here, there are several different directions in which one can continue the journey to the south of Dalmatia and Dubrovnik, either by sea or land, depending on which part one would want to explore further. The inland, for example, offers karst terrain and beautiful spots along the two river flows, the Cetina and the Neretva. A journey to Dubrovnik via the Dalmatian hinterland is something I usually recommend to people who do not have sea legs or to those who have already seen enough of it during their trip. The Dalmatian hinterland, as I have already mentioned, offers a vast cultural diversity. The border with the neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina is very close, so here the Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic cultural influences can all be experienced within a few kilometers.

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The city of Mostar, a truly unique place. To fully understand this land and its poeople, one must experience it.

On the other hand, the sea offers irresistible islands, each a story of its own. The islands of Brac, Hvar, Korcula, Mljet, the Elaphiti Islands and the open-sea islands of Vis and Lastovo certainly can extend the journey to Dubrovnik for a week. There are a number of excellent themed cruises covering the islands and their natural and cultural attractions. Whichever way you go, you cannot skip the Peljesac peninsula, the largest peninsula in Dalmatia and the second largest in Croatia. In the Bay of Mali Ston you can taste unique oysters, visit the famous walls and saltpans, or even try a typical Ston cake.

One of the oldest saltworks in the world, Solana Ston, – picture curtesy of D. Šabić

For wine lovers, the real adventure awaits on the road leading from Ston all the way to Orebić. Peljesac peninsula is home to the best known and renowned wine regions (terroirs) in Croatia, Dingač and Postup. Touring the vineyards, visiting tasting rooms and mingling with the locals is something one should definitely do.

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Tasting in an authentic cellar on Pelješac.

Returning from Pelješac and descending further south from Ston, it is only a short panoramic ride to Dubrovnik, at the very end of our little trip. The Pearl of the Adriatic, as it is affectionately known, is a magnificent and unparalleled architectural and artistic achievement. The people of Dubrovnik and the Dubrovnik Republic have left a significant mark on world history, which is evident in every corner of this city. Flight connections from Dubrovnik to the rest of the world are constantly increasing, making it one of the ideal points to end your journey on a high note.

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The city of Dubrovnik

Thus we reach the end of this blog post, modestly rounding off the story of this world travel destination, ideal for visiting in pre- and post-seasonal times. Whichever one you choose, you cannot go wrong. Travelling in Croatia, whether in spring or autumn, leaves enough room for a truly intimate feel of the destination. Unless of course you yearn for higher temperatures and a refreshing swim in the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea. And those millions of crickets…