Tales from Zagreb & Three Dalmatian Delights

This is the travel account for my Croatia trip. Scroll down for photos, and click any photo to enlarge it. I start with Dalmatia, which offers one of the most charming Mediterranean experiences; one that combines unique heritage and splendid nature with exquisite cuisine and guaranteed entertainment. Stretching between Zadar and Dubrovnik, the Dalmatian interior is no less exotic than the coastal cities and islands of the Adriatic Sea.

1. Split: The Palace City
The most impressive thing about Split is not the Diocletian Palace per se, but rather the beat of everyday life within the Palace walls. The term ‘Palace’ actually evokes the wrong mental image: The UNESCO World Heritage Palace of Diocletian (c. 300 AD) is in fact an entire city with walls, gates, temples, arcades, streets, to the end of the list. The exceptional state of preservation is what most historians celebrate about the Palace, but for the visitor, what never fails to impress is the way in which the Palace City has been recycled over the centuries, yielding the current urban tissue: Medieval villas, houses, restaurants, bars and stores now occupy pretty much every corner of the Palace, and the Mausoleum of Diocletian was converted into –as you must have guessed- a cathedral in the VII century. This is a fitting metaphor of Christian victory over a bloody emperor that persecuted and tortured Christians in Dalmatia and elsewhere in the world.

The focal point for open air activity in the historic center (which corresponds to the Palace) is the photogenic Peristyle, a rectangular space surrounded by granite columns and vaults that once served as the vestibule to Diocletian’s residence. Most of these columns come from Egypt and Greece, and one can still admire a black sphinx from the Tutmosis era (c. 1500 BC). At night, the Peristyle comes to live when musicians start to sing and play the guitar, as the audience dance and chill at this extraordinary setting. During the day, the gigantic campanile throws its shadow on the nearby columns, as tourists queue to enter the octagonal Mausoleum-Cathedral. Once inside, it would be impossible to miss the highlights: the Romanesque wooden doors (hard walnut) with their carved panels (c.1214), the Romanesque pulpit, and two altars, namely those of St. Domnius (a bishop martyred under Diocletian) and St. Anastasius. The sarcophagus of Diocletian was cast out of the mausoleum and the bones of Christian martyrs were brought from Salona and buried here.

Back to the street, a Romanesque tower here, a Venetian piazza there, a Roman slab, an Ancient Egyptian column, a neat Dalmatian market, there is something for every taste within the city walls and beyond, and there is a pleasant maritime promenade (the Riva) that becomes particularly entertaining during summer evenings. Add to that an excellent culinary offer with delicious seafood, pastas and risottos, and you will have imagined what I mean by ‘Dalmatian Delights’.

2. Šibenik: Legacy of the Master Mason
It would have been just another charming little Dalmatian town, with typical houses of white Istrian stone (much appreciated in Venice), if it was not for one man; a man that left a lasting legacy here and elsewhere in Dalmatia, namely Juraj Dalmatinac (George of Dalmatia).
Whether in the elegantly compact Large Papalić Palace in Split or in the altar of the graceful Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik, George of Dalmatia left an unmistakable imprint as architect and sculptor wherever he went. His masterpiece, however, remains to be the UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik.

From the outside, there is nothing grandiose about the Cathedral. On the inside, a trained eye would never miss the fusion of styles between Gothic and Renaissance. It was George of Dalmatia who introduced the first brushstrokes of Renaissance art into the Dalmatian milieu as he took over the construction of the Cathedral from his precursor, Bonino de Milano, in 1441. In addition to the splendid baptistery and vestry, George of Dalmatia used a genius method of interlocking large stone slabs (known as montage construction) in order to build self-supporting structures without mortar. Actually, this is probably the world’s largest cathedral built of stone without the incorporation of wood or bricks!

Once outside the Cathedral, one can admire the frieze with 71 faces sculpted on one of the walls by George of Dalmatia, as well as the Lion Gate (northern portal) by Bonino de Milano. Leaving the Cathedral behind, we wandered the alleys and climbed the staircases of the city, admiring its air of quietness and its relaxed rhythm, best experienced when the hordes of day trippers finally leave.

3. Krka National Park: Swimming by the Waterfalls
Many national parks around the world offer the visitor the chance to contemplate and appreciate nature. Nevertheless, not all of them allow you to ‘engage’ with nature. At the National Park of Krka, some 18 Km from Šibenik, one can enjoy Mother Nature at her best: waterfalls, lakes, wetlands, and more.

A 2 km trail leads the visitor from one wonder to the next, offering an extraordinary chance to explore the wealth of flora and fauna of the National Park: otters, roe deer, badgers, eagles, salamanders, they are all here, but frogs are easier to spot as they give themselves away. Cultural phenomena are not lacking, as one can visit and learn about the Krka Hydropower Plant and the XIX century watermills.

Then comes a natural phenomenon to which the Park owes its uniqueness: the travertine. Travertines are deposits made of limestone (calcium carbonate) which precipitates out of running water. The calcium carbonate molecules become encrusted in algae and moss, forming travertine in different forms. In the case of Krka, travertine grew too big and all across the river like natural barriers, thus interrupting the flow of water and creating several waterfalls and cascades.

Of all the waterfalls in Krka, Skradinski Buk is the biggest and most impressive. As visitors queuing on the nearby bridge go camera crazy, a visit to Krka is never complete without venturing into the cold, clear water by these high waterfalls. Just to give you an idea: an average of 55 cubic meters a second flow down Skradinski Buk annually. It is the largest travertine cascade system in Europe.

Tales from Zagreb:
On a sunny day, a brave governor exhausted and thirsty from battle, asked a girl caled Manda to ladle (zagrabiti) him out some water from the spring. The spring became Manduševak and the city, Zagreb. Today, the spring can still be visited at the Square of Ban Josip Jelačić at the heart of Zagreb. While this is almost certainly a legend, other tales from Zagreb are not.

As I contemplate the cityscape from the Lotrščak Tower, I remember another tale, this time a real one. It was in the XIII century that Béla IV, the King of Hungary, escaped to Zagreb. The Tatars had ravaged his homeland, and the people of Zagreb offered him refuge. In gratitude, he proclaimed Gradec (one of the two city hills) as a free state. Zagreb still commemorates this by the blasting of the canon at noon from this very same Tower.

One only needs to pay attention to the amount of equestrian statues and larger-than-life statues of national heroes and symbols to understand the extent to which Zagreb relates to the past, a vivid past that can still be contemplated in the city’s Renaissance Walls around the Cathedral, its medieval Stone Gate where locals still venerate the Virgin of Kamenita Vrata, and buildings in the XIX century neo-styles around Zagreb’s main squares and parks.

Most tourists tend to hang around the main squares, go to the restaurants and bars of Tkalčićeva Street to savor a štrukli, or head straight to the St. Mark Square in Gradec to admire the St. Mark’s Church and its colorful tiled roof, among other attractions. A stone’s throw from here is Atelier Meštrović, housing a generous collection of works by the great sculpture, Ivan Meštrović.

Walking up and down the city, one eventually comes to realize something that should come as no surprise: there is nothing extraordinarily unique about Zagreb. Still, its ability to balances so many different influences and styles in almost perfect harmony is unique: some parks are reminiscent of Vienna, a couple of squares could easily fit into Kiev’s urban fabric, tens of buildings betray an Austro-Hungarian legacy…eventually you happily surrender to this mosaic, and you rejoice in the daily beat of Zagreb as you enter the Dolac Market, which they call the Belly of Zagreb: a feast for the senses, and a perfect end to a pleasant stay at a city that is at once both East and West (literally, since it was on the Orient Express route, and is geographically part of the Western Balkans).

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