Heading southeast from Rijeka takes you along one of the most exhilarating stretches of the Adriatic coast, with rocky highlands hovering above deeply indented bays, and bewitchingly stark grey-brown islands looming across the water. Long-standing beach resorts such as Crikvenica and Novi Vinodolski are pleasant enough to merit a brief stopoff, but insufficiently compelling to justify an overnight stay. Senj, a somewhat gritty little town of twisting alleyways, boasts an imposing fortress and is also a good base from which to explore the Sjeverni Velebit National Park. The main focus of the town is Pavlinski trg, the harbourfront square, dotted with café tables, behind which lies a warren of alleyways and smaller piazzas.
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“May God preserve us from the hands of Senj.” So ran a popular Venetian saying, inspired by the warrior community known as the Uskoks, who in 1537 made Senj their home and used it as a base from which to attack Adriatic shipping.
The Uskoks started out as refugees from the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia, who gravitated towards the Adriatic and organized themselves into military groups in order to repel further Ottoman encroachment. Klis fortress was a major centre of Uskok activity until it fell to the Ottomans in 1537 – they subsequently withdrew to Austrian-controlled Senj, from where they mounted further resistance. Although regarded as a useful component in the Habsburg Empire’s defences, the Uskoks were consistently underpaid, forcing them to turn to piracy in order to survive. Harassing Adriatic shipping from their 15m-long rowing boats, they considered anything Ottoman a legitimate target, which in practice meant attacking the (usually Venetian) ships on which Ottoman goods were transported. The Austrians turned a blind eye, regarding Uskok piracy as a convenient way of challenging Venetian dominance of the Adriatic.
All this ultimately proved too much for the Venetians, who began a propaganda campaign accusing the Uskoks of eating the raw hearts of their enemies. In 1615 the Venetians provoked the so-called Uskok War with Austria in an attempt to bring an end to the problem. The Uskoks gave a good account of themselves until their Austrian protectors withdrew their support, and eager to make peace with Venice undertook to resettle the Uskoks inland. Senj was occupied by the Austrian navy, and the Uskoks left for new homes in Otočac, just to the southeast, or in the Žumberak hills north of Karlovac.