Discovering Dalmatia

Fiona Maclean goes to the Italianate Coastline of Croatia and finds a land rich in history and tradition

the Old Church - Pag

The Old Church - Pag

Cathedral - Pag with missing lion

Cathedral - Pag with missing lion

The lace covered alter Pag

The lace covered alter Pag

Procession - Pag

Procession - Pag

A winged Venetian Lion in Trogir

A winged Venetian Lion in Trogir

The Portal - Trogir Cathedral

The Portal - Trogir Cathedral

Trogir Cathedral and Bell Tower

Trogir Cathedral and Bell Tower

Basement - Palace of Diocletian Split

Basement - Palace of Diocletian Split

Inside the Basement of The Palace of Diocletian

Inside the Basement of The Palace of Diocletian

Split, the Peristyle

Split, the Peristyle

The Bell Tower Split

The Bell Tower Split

Split - the Cathedral Bell Tower

Split - the Cathedral Bell Tower

Pag

I’m ostensibly here in Pag for cheese. Sitting in the fading sunlight under the vine covered trellis sampling the hard, salty Paški Sir with a glass of local graševina was to be the highlight of my visit to this barren island just off the Dalmatian Coast. But I know better now.

We start on the wrong side of the harbour, round the back of a supermarket in a decrepit warehouse. Light streams through gaps in the roof, bouncing off the ancient rafters, haphazardly spotlighting the exhibition. Improvised salt pans, a scaled version of the real thing, demonstrate perfectly the traditional harvesting of sea salt by staged evaporation before crystals are raked-up and piled into barrows. Our guide is twinkling, excited and passionate explaining how this simple product shaped the development of Pag. To understand its significance here in Pag, you must appreciate the importance of salt, both as flavour enhancer and preservative, throughout history. Romans are believed to have paid their soldiers in salt (the word Salary is a derivation of salt). A fundamental driver of ancient economies, a ‘white gold’.

It’s not until the tour finishes and we head off to a small hill overlooking the town of Pag that its significance becomes clear. The strong Mediterranean sun burns down, scrubby undergrowth dry and crisp underfoot. Paul of Sulmona’s perfect church façade and a ruined Franciscan monastery are all that remains of old Pag, built overlooking the salt pans. So important was the island during the Middle Ages that the town was under constant siege – from Venice, Hungary and mainland Croatia. Eventually the local inhabitants, tired of the destruction, commissioned a new town (with fortification) almost simultaneously with the King of Croatia abandoning Pag and selling what he owned of the Dalmatian coast, to the Venetians. In 1443, once the new town was built, the townsfolk processed ceremonially to their new home leaving the old buildings to decay in the wind of the salty Jugo.

We return to a deserted town. Just a few small boys kicking a ball around the piazza. On the front of the fine church, a bare plaque marks where before Mussolini and the Second World War there would have been a Winged Venetian Lion. The ornate rose window above seems to pay tribute to the skilled lace makers of Pag. The moment of peace vanishes in an instant – half the town appears following the chanting priest into the church, responding back to his cries to God. A Saint’s Day celebration, everyone who shares the name of that Saint is invited to join the procession – though surely all these people can’t be called George (the Patron Saint of Pag). For me, it seems a shadowy evocation of the walk from the hilltop to the new town.

In Pag it’s all about salt. The architecture, the economy and the salty cheese, flavoured by milk from sheep grazed on salty scrubland. Even the lace, created free-style by the lace maker, bears a striking resemblance to the filigree salt crystals of Fleur de Sel. And somehow it all seems closer to Italy than Croatia. Despite the missing Lion of Venice.

Trogir

That Venetian influence is evident in Trogir too, a little further along the Dalmatian coast. It’s another small island connected to the mainland by bridges. This charming town has managed to double both for Venice and Provence in recent film shoots and is definitely worth a visit. A labyrinth of medieval streets it is surrounded by fifteenth century wall. During Venetian rule the gates into the city were locked at 9pm. Miss the lock-in and you spent the night in a small lodge just outside the town, along with all the other stop-outs and ne’er-do-wells. There’s more evidence of missing Venetian winged lions here too although we did actually find one, sitting rather forlornly alone in a courtyard. The main attraction in Trogir has to be the cathedral with its fabulous stone carved portal. I rather like the bell tower too, reaching up into the sky, each layer a different architectural style, like some collective bake-off wedding cake creation.

There are legends and myths surrounding the cathedral of which my favourite is the story of the curse of Bishop John. During wars with the Venetians, the Bishop’s sarcophagus was dragged from the cathedral to the shore. Unable to risk overloading the ships with the weight of the corpse, the Venetians cut off his hand bearing the episcopal ring. During the voyage a great storm arose, sinking most of the fleet. While the remaining boats limped back to Venice, they were already carrying plague, which decimated the City. Meanwhile, legend claims that the Bishop’s arm ‘escaped’ and flew back to Trogir, where it is still incarcerated in the Cathedral.

If Pag and Trogir are most notable for the Venetian influence, Split is a living Roman monument. Much of the original retirement palace built by the Emperor Diocletian remain, the infrastructure of what was originally constructed between 295 and 305 AD is the foundation for a working community.

Split

Approaching the Palace and City Centre from the Brass Gate on the sea front, you walk through a series of basement rooms mirroring the layout of the original palace. Now full of stalls selling souvenirs and performance areas for folk musicians and dancer, to begin with it is hard to imagine what the Palace itself must have been like. But, further into the nine and a half acre site of the Palace, the commercial and tourist element ends and the rooms are simply as they must have been in Roman times. This remarkably well preserved section of the building was apparently saved from any modifications because throughout the centuries it was used as a rubbish dump. Look up to the ceiling and you can still see the round hatches used as rubbish chutes from the living quarters above.

Walking out from the basement into the monumental courtyard, the Peristyle, gives a far more dramatic sense of history. A stunning space, the Palace itself is built of white limestone and marble from the nearby island of Brac but the Peristyle is lined with granite columns from Egypt, intended at the time to exhibit and celebrate Diocletian’s conquests. Surrounded on three side by tiered steps it is easy to imagine the Emperor making an address to the two thousand or so people who lived in the Palace at the time. And, on one side the cathedral (originally the Emperor’s mausoleum), on the other side the Temple of Jupiter, now a Baptistery for the Cathedral

Of course the fortification of the City is part of the reason why the Roman buildings remain intact. But, from Diocletian’s death through to the eighteenth century, the city was relatively unknown in Western Europe. Its discovery by Scottish Architect Robert Adams and the publication of ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian’ in 1764 brought it firmly into the public eye. And Adam’s subsequent development of Neoclassicism is thought to have been heavily inspired by the architecture of Roman Split.

There’s more to see and do along the Dalmatian Coast; on my trip I hardly touched the surface. From sailing round the islands to nature parks and Roman archaeology, and of course a wealth of food and wine. When I return top of my list will be to revisit these three very special places and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the islands, visiting Zadar and learning more about this quirky region in Croatia.

Useful Links
For more information on what to see and do in Croatia, please visit www.croatia.hrOne-way flights from Split to London Gatwick cost from £47 with easyJet.
For more information or to book, please visit www.easyjet.com

This article first appeared on www.theculturalvoyager.com

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