It may have the most spectacular coastline in Europe but more in Croatia than beaches. Historic Roman ruins, stunning church architecture and unique contemporary art await discovery from Istria to the tip of Dalmatia. Here are ten not to miss:
St. James’s Cathedral
The Šibenik Cathedral is a fine example of Gothic Renaissance architecture. Made from fine white limestone and marble from Brač, this UNESCO World Heritage site, a basilica of three naves, a signature dome but no tower, is primarily the work of two architects who took 100 years to build it. Juraj Dalmatinac, whose statue stands on a high column outside the main entrance, was originally commissioned to make the Renaissance jewel from a Gothic model. Before he died in 1473, he left the main portal, the Lion Gate and the magnificent baptistery. Leaving his signature at the north apse, Dalmatinac also made a frieze showing stone resemblances of prominent citizens who withheld funds and caused decades of delays in the project. Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino completed the master architect’s work, the signature dome echoing the Florentine roots of this sculptor. The cathedral still needed another 30 years to finish after Fiorentino’s death, and was dedicated in 1555. St James’s Cathedral was significantly restored in the 1990s.
Dubrovnik City Walls
The easiest and most popular itinerary for visitors to Dubrovnik is to walk around its fortifications. When you arrive in Old Town via the Pile Gate, you will find the main entrance and ticket office at City Walls. You can set your own pace, take an hour or an afternoon. English audio-guides are sold at the main entrance but most visitors are completely satisfied with the random views of the red tiled roofs and the panoramic blue of the Adriatic, which includes clean white rocks protruding into the bottom from different angles. A high promenade and a history lesson in one, they were mainly built after the 1667 earthquake that devastated the town. With bastions and fortifications, Lovrijenac is an atmospheric, alfresco location for Shakespeare’s performances during the Dubrovnik Festival. Engraved on it is the inscription, in Latin, that ‘Freedom will not be sold for all the wealth in the world’.
Built on the site of several previous churches built in the 600s, the original Dubrovnik Cathedral, partially funded by Richard the Lionheart in recognition of local hospitality when the ship broke down at Lokrum in the 1190s, was lost in the 1667 earthquake. In its place was built this Baroque landmark in the heart of the Old Town of Dubrovnik. The main attraction is the treasury at one end, an eclectic collection of sacred relics. The arm, skull and lower leg of the city’s patron St Blaise are kept in jewel-wrapped wrappers, while various medieval ecclesiastical vessels were rescued from the earthquake in 1667 to remain on display here today.
Greetings to the Sun.
Created by the same artist responsible for the same eccentric Organ of the Sea on the Zadar seafront nearby, Greetings to the Sun. consists of 300 multi-layered glass plates in a circle, synchronized with the same wave energy. Under the glass there are solar modules that animate the sunset to mimic our solar system. Around the glass is a metal ring with written local details from a medieval calendar that originated in Zadar but is now kept in Oxford. Whatever the technology, kids love it, as their ears on the ground listen to the sounds of Organ of the Sea or chasing the light that goes out around the solar system.
About 1,700 years after its construction, the Roman Emperor Diocletian will still recognize his spacious retirement home overlooking the sea – or its shell, at least. Wandering aimlessly around the beautiful palace is one of the essential experiences of Split. There is no ticket office or protocol – just take a walk. Four gates guard its main entrances: Golden, Silver, Iron and Bronze. It provides entrance to the basement of Diocletian’s old Central Hall, which is now full of souvenir and craft stalls. After shopping in the basement, you can exit straight to Split’s cafe-dotted promenade or explore further, exiting the ceremonial square called Peristil. Here you can admire not only the Romans but the Ancient Egyptian artifacts in the form of an original Sphinx that is twice as old as the façades surrounding it.
Meštrović with Split
Ivan Meštrović, one of Croatia’s greatest sculptors, spent many years in Split in the 20th century. His local villa and studio have been converted into two main attractions: the Meštrović Gallery and Kaštelet. The first shows a range of his works, the latter is his impressive 28-piece work of wooden reliefs depicting the life of Christ. Both can be seen on a leafy boulevard overlooking the seafront, right at the bottom of the Marjan hill. You will also see the works of the sculptor adorning the city itself. Find his towering statue of Grgur Ninski next to the Golden Gate (and rub his finger for luck!) And another of Marko Marulić, the father of the Croatian Renaissance, in Fruit square.
Few man-made sights in Croatia are as beautiful as the Euphrasian Basilica on the northern coast of the Poreč peninsula. Here the first Christians in the area worshiped – several places of worship, and a Roman villa, before Bishop Euphrasius worked in the mid -500s AD. The complex is quite extensive and you will need at least some time to explore it, getting to the baptistry, the bell tower and what is left of the Bishop’s Palace from where Euphrasius taught the operations. And no doubt this was his work, the bishop left his resemblances and inscriptions throughout the strikingly bright mosaic. The glittering gold coloring and glittering semi-precious gems feature amid the luxurious mosaic, a pristine example of Ancient Byzantine architecture.
It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the gladiatorial battles that took place at the Red Amphitheater 2,000 years ago. In fact, you can even stand in tunnels and corridors where warriors and lions are kept before entertaining crowds of up to 25,000. Built over a century, the Amphitheater was given its final touches in AD81 by Emperor Titus, who was also responsible for the Colosseum in Rome. Now the Red’s are fuller, boasting an almost complete ring of walls. It is also used regularly, performing at Film Festivals, DJ festivals and big name concerts.
Museum of Contemporary Art
The MCA – MSU in Croatian – is the most significant museum to open in Zagreb in more than a century. Its collection includes pieces from the 1920s and gathered since 1954 when the original MCA of Zagreb (in the Upper Town) was founded. The remaining 1950s generation of Croatia’s abstract-geometric artists plays a major role in the collection, along with photographs and films documenting the more bizarre antics of legendary performance artists such as Tomislav Gotovac and Vlasta Delimar. The new-media and computer-art works produced by the Zagreb-based New Tendencies movement in the late ’60s and early 70s show just how advanced most Croatian art really is. Of particular attention are Carsten Höller’s slides, similar to the Test Site installation she did for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall but custom-made and site-specific for Zagreb-pieces of art that can be mounted on patrons towards the car park.
Guarding the entrance to the historic center of Zagreb, the Gradec, Lotrščak Tower is almost the first thing you’ll see when you exit at the upper end of the funicular from Ilica. Built in the 13th century, it is accessible by climbing a winding wooden staircase. Every day since 1877, a couple of powerful cannon bursts from here signal a sharp noon. Take the leafy boulevard of Strossmayerovo šetalište, which provides a beautiful view of the rooftops.
This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board: ‘Croatia Full of Life’.