Nestled in the extreme south of Dalmatia at the end of the Isthmus of Dubrovnik, the city of Dubrovnik is one of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic. Encircled by massive defensive walls and showing its Venetian heritage in its red-tiled buildings, Dubrovnik does not allow vehicles within the Old Town area, somewhat similar to Venice itself.
A major seaport for centuries, one theory is that Dubrovnik was established by Greek sailors. In ancient times ships traveled only 45-50 nautical miles per day, and beached during the night where fresh water could be found. Dubrovnik is situated almost halfway between the two known Greek settlements of Budva and Korčula, and there have been recent findings of numerous Greek artifacts during excavations in the Port of Dubrovnik. Another theory based on new archaeological excavations of parts of the city walls and a large basilica from the 8th Century indicates that there was quite a large Byzantine settlement during this period. The city walls, which were built in the 10th Century and substantially fortified in 1453, are ten ft. thick along the sea wall and 20 ft. thick inland. The Old Town has fortresses at its four corners: the Minceta Tower, Revelin Fortress, St. John’s Fortress, and Bokar Bastion.
Regardless of its origins, plentiful Renaissance churches, monasteries and palaces testify to the importance and wealth of this historic, independent trading port. Entering the Old Town through the Pile Gate beside a statue of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, you’ll be on the Stradun, also called Placa, which runs from Pile Gate to the rear Ploce Gate. Near Pile Gate is the large Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438, and on the right is the Franciscan Monastery, with one of the oldest functioning pharmacies in Europe, in operation since 1391. At the other end of the Stradun is the Orlando Column, with the nearby Sponza Place, the baroque church of St. Blaise, and the Rector’s Palace, now a city museum. Opposite the palace through a narrow street is the Gunduliceva Poljana square, which is the site of the busy morning market, as well as a Jesuit Monastery from the early 18th Century. If you’re planning to visit a number of museums, be sure to purchase a Dubrovnik Card, which gives you entry into many of the city’s museums as well as allowing you to use the public bus system.
Moving further up the coast, the next significant city is Split. While the sea views are lovely, much of the shore is rocky rather than sandy, so it’s not the place to go for a picnic on the beach. There isn’t a lot to see in Split outside of the main attraction, Diocletian’s Palace. There are a number of museums, most of them inside the palace, and a few art galleries, but one day should do it for Split. The only hotel with good parking and within walking distance of the center is the Hotel Jadran, which is two stars at best. The nicer hotels in the central area do not offer much parking, and although the Radisson Blu Resort is being touted as fantastic, it’s way behind in construction and not easy walking distance from the center.
Some history on the palace: the Roman Emperor Diocletian wanted a retirement palace in a temperate climate, so he selected a spot four miles from Salona, the capitol of the Roman province of Dalmatia, which he ruled. Diocletian personally oversaw construction from 295 to 305 AD, then abdicated his throne to the life of leisure. He got white limestone from Brac and marble from Italy, which still look in great shape today, as well as decorations like sphinxes and columns from Egypt. The palace is nearly a million square feet inside, with towers projecting from the western, northern, and eastern facades. The Bronze Gate (the Porta Aenea) at the south originally extended slightly into the sea, and is believed to have served as the emperor’s private access to the sea and possibly a service entrance for supplies. As landfill extended the docks farther away, the gate is now off the Riva, with rows of restaurants facing the harbor.
After the Romans abandoned the site, the Palace remained empty for several centuries. In the 7th Century, nearby citizens fled to the Palace to escape invading barbarians, and essentially stayed in residence. The city within a city is now a commercial and residential center, with recent dwellings being built using the walls and stones of the old palace. The area was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1979.
The most important area within the palace is the Peristyle, a huge courtyard. It is the main access to the imperial apartments, and as well as Diocletian’s mausoleum on the east (which is now the Cathedral of St. Dominus) and the temple of Jupiter.
The Silver Gate to the east borders the market area, the Gold Gate to the north leads to Mestrovic’s huge statue of Grgur Ninski, a couple of small temples and the park, and the Iron Gate to the west leads to the fish market and the newer shopping district of the town.
As you continue up the Croatian coast, drop in to the beautiful peninsula of Primosten. There are no particular museums or “sights” in Primosten, but the old medieval town has preserved a great deal of its ambience. The most striking feature of the old town is the church of St. Juraj, which was erected in 1485 on a hill affording sweeping coastal views.
Another interesting stop is Šibenik, which is the oldest native Croatian town on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. The Croatian King Petar Krešimir IV made it his capitol in 1066, and it served that purpose for a short period thereafter. The Cathedral of St. James is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Just off the coast from the city of Zadar are the Kornati islands, over which George Bernard Shaw also waxed poetic. As their value is more scenic than activity-oriented, the islands are designated as a national park. The last major city on the coast is Opatija, which is at the northern tip of the Adriatic and is the major tourist center in Croatia. There are endless bathing areas, both indoor and out, gardens, a casino, discotheques, carnivals, festivals, and other diversions for the traditional vacationer. Be aware, Opatija is also easily the most expensive area in Croatia.
One of the main draws of these Croatian cities, and of the country in general, is that their rich history and natural beauty is still relatively untouched by rampant tourism. Take advantage of the small crowds and low prices while you still can and enjoy Croatia as its best.