Compact and easily explored, Northern Dalmatia presents a greater concentration of the highlights of Adriatic travel than almost any other part of Croatia. Along the coast are beautifully preserved medieval towns poised above some of the clearest waters in Europe, while offshore are myriad islands adorned with ancient stone villages and enticing coves. The region increasingly serves both as a focus for the party crowd and as a get-away-from-it-all destination, with a burgeoning roster of festivals dovetailing neatly with stirring scenery and soothing beaches.
The main urban centre of northern Dalmatia is Zadar, an animated jumble of Roman, Venetian and modern styles that presents as good an introduction as any to Dalmatia’s mixed-up history. It’s within day-trip distance of the medieval Croatian centre of Nin, and is also the main ferry port for the unassuming islands of Silba, Olib and Dugi otok, where you’ll find peaceful villages, laidback beaches, and a level of tourism that has not yet become an industry.
South of Zadar is Šibenik, site of a spectacular fifteenth-century cathedral, and a convenient base for visiting the tumbling waterfalls of the Krka National Park. The other great natural attraction in this part of Dalmatia is the Kornati archipelago, a collection of captivatingly bare islands accessed from the easy-going island of Murter. Joining Murter to the mainland is the swing-bridge at Tisno, a small town that’s become the main venue for the summer-long cycle of festivals run by the Garden organization.
Dalmatia’s long history of Roman, then Venetian cultural penetration (for a history of the region) has left its mark on a region where children still call adult males barba (“beard” – Italian slang for “uncle”) and respected gents go under the name of šjor (the local version of signore), but modern Dalmatia’s identity is difficult to pin down. People from northern Croatia will tell you that life is lived at a much slower pace in Dalmatia, whose inhabitants are joshingly referred to as tovari (“donkeys”) by their compatriots, though the briefest of visits to bustling regional centres like Zadar will be enough to persuade you that these clichés are somewhat wide of the mark. The Dalmatians themselves will tell you that life is to be enjoyed and should not be hurried – which is why food, wine, music and café life are accorded so much quality time.
As elsewhere in the Adriatic fresh seafood dominates the northern Dalmatian menu, although the broad maquis-covered plateaus just inland provide plenty in the way of lamb and game. The practice of roasting meats ispod peke (slow-cooked under an ember-covered metal lid) is widespread – you should definitely try a peka-style meal at least once, though note that they require several hours of preparation and restaurants usually require advance notice. Lamb and suckling pig roasted on a spit is another regional favourite, and roadside restaurants will frequently have a carcass revolving slowly over an open fire in the front yard.
Nowhere is the blend of maritime and inland cuisine better developed than in Skradin, the small town that stands at the entrance to the Krka National Park. Here, the plenteous shellfish and oysters of the Krka estuary are consumed alongside the freshwater fish and eels of the river’s upper reaches. Dishes found in Skradin and nowhere else include Skradinski rižot, a meat-based risotto that was (traditionally at least) slow-cooked for days prior to important feasts; and Skradinska torta, a cake composed of finely crushed nuts and syrup.
Vineyards run along the coast and new ones are being planted all the time. Best known of the local wines is Babić, a fruitily drinkable red; it is closely associated with Primošten (where arguably the best Babić is grown), although it’s found all along the Šibenik coast.
About 15km north of Zadar, the delightful small town of Nin is one of the few places in Croatia where it’s really worth bringing a bucket and spade: whereas elsewhere in Dalmatia long sandy beaches only exist in the fertile imaginations of tourism propagandists, here they are very real – and are rarely swamped by skin-cooking sunbathers.
Nin is also an important historical centre boasting medieval churches and surviving town walls. Much of its medieval wealth came from the salt trade, and glittering saltpans can still be seen stretching east of town. The residence of the early Croatian kings and seat of an archbishop from 879, Nin fell under Venetian rule in the fifteenth century. Threatened by Ottoman advances, the town was evacuated and then shelled by the Venetians in 1646, after which it slipped quietly into obscurity.
The town is built on a small island connected to the mainland by two bridges: Gornji most and Donji most (“upper bridge” and “lower bridge”). Donji most is your most likely starting point, across which lies Branimirova, the main thoroughfare, and a delightful mesh of pedestrianized streets.
One of northern Dalmatia’s most pleasantly laid-back islands is Murter, just off the main coastal highway and joined to the mainland by a small bridge at the channel-hugging settlement of Tisno. Main settlement Murter Town is the main base for boat trips to the Kornati National Park and is an enjoyable place in its own right, a quaint settlement of stone houses that soon fills up with tourists in July and August. There is only a handful of hotels on the island, and Murter is an excellent destination for independent travellers looking for private accommodation and campsites.
Murter is connected to the mainland by the bridge at Tisno, a pleasant chain of shoreside buildings running along either side of the channel dividing the island from terra firma; the bridge at Tisno’s centre swings open twice a day (at 9am and 5pm) to allow yachts to pass through. An excellent place for shoreline strolls, and with good bay-hugging beaches within walking distance of the centre, Tisno is also famous as the site of the summer-long programme of festivals put on by the Garden organization, which took up residence in a bay on the mainland side east of Tisno in 2012.
Tisno owes its exalted position on the Adriatic party map to the DJ-driven, dance-oriented festivals that come under the umbrella of the Zadar-based Garden organization, which spent six years organizing hugely successful events at Petrčane until moving here in 2012. Although the flagship Garden Festival itself was held for the last time in July 2015, many of its offshoots and sister events (such as Electric Elephant, Soundwave, SuncéBeat and Stop Making Sense) look set to stay at Tisno for the foreseeable future. Based at a campsite and bungalow settlement overlooking Rastovac Bay, the Garden site has its own beach and is sufficiently far away from central Tisno to allow the partying to continue into the early hours. With accommodation for about seven hundred campers and a festival-going capacity of around three thousand, Tisno offers an especially intimate festival experience – tickets for all events should be booked online well in advance.
Scattered like pebbles to the west of Murter lie the ninety or so islands of the Kornati archipelago, grouped around the 35km-long island of Kornat. A national park since 1980, the Kornati archipelago comprises a distinctively harsh and bare environment, almost devoid of life. The islands range in colour from stony white to pale ochre, mottled with patches of sage. They were once covered in forest until it was burned down to make pasture for sheep, who proceeded to eat everything in sight. The dry-stone walls used to pen them in are still visible, although the sheep themselves – save for a few wild descendants – are no more.
The islands were originally owned by the nobles of Zadar, who allowed the peasants of Murter to raise flocks and grow olives on them in return for a share in the cheese and oil thus produced. When the Zadar nobility fell on hard times in the nineteenth century, the islands were sold to the Murterians – who remain owners of most of the Kornati to this day. Despite the number of stone cottages scattered over the islands (Vruje, on Kornat, is the biggest single settlement with fifty houses), most of the owners actually live in Murter nowadays – returning to the islands for a few months in the summer. The popularity of the Kornati with the international yachting fraternity is having a profound impact on the archipelago’s development, with shoreline restaurants serving top-quality seafood springing up in every available cove. There’s a fully equipped yachting marina on the island of Piškera, on the western side of the archipelago, and an even bigger one on the island of Žut, which lies just outside the park boundaries to the east. With clear waters and relatively untouched ecology, the Kornati can also be a spectacular place for scuba diving.
Lying three hundred metres across the water from the mainland south of Šibenik, Krapanj has the distinction of being the smallest inhabited island in the Adriatic. It is reached by ferry shuttle from Broadarica, an undistinguished village which stretches along the shore for some 3km. Ferries arrive at a sleepy harbour backed by a warren of grey-brown houses. Diving for sponges used to be the main occupation on Krapanj, although there’s not much evidence of this now, save for a couple of shops on the harbour selling spongy souvenirs. Krapanj fills up with Croatian weekenders in July and August, when there’s a fair number of sunbathers sprawled out on either side of the quay – the rest of the time women clad in traditional black widows’ weeds outnumber other residents four to one.
Your best bet for bathing opportunities in the Šibenik area is to head for the nearby islands of Zlarin and Prvić, where you stand a good chance of finding a secluded bit of rocky shoreline and crystal-clear water. There’s no mass tourism on the islands, and no cars – merely a succession of orderly and neat little villages kept alive by a trickle of independent tourists and weekending Croatians.
Thirty minutes out by boat from Šibenik, the village of Zlarin is an attractive huddle of houses at the apex of a broad bay. Coral fishing and processing used to be the island’s main employer, until overharvesting led to a shutdown of all but one of the coral workshops in the 1950s. Nowadays the island has a winter population of around 25 souls, although the figure increases hundredfold in July and August.
Largely lacking in modern buildings, the village is an almost perfect example of what a typical Dalmatian settlement looked like in the early twentieth century. There’s a brace of coral souvenir shops in the alleyways behind the harbour, and a seasonally open coral museum that allows a glimpse of how the coral is polished and processed. Zlarin’s rarely open parish church is famous for housing the body of fourth-century Roman martyr St Fortunatus, a relic obtained for the island by a resourceful local priest in 1781. Every fifty years the remains are paraded through the village on April 23 – the next celebration is due in 2050, so there’s no need to pack your bags just yet.
Paths on the western side of the bay will take you to an abundance of rocky bathing areas backed by pines.
A fifteen-minute ferry journey from Zlarin, the main settlement of Prvić, Prvić Luka, is another unassuming, bay-hugging village with a charmingly soporific atmosphere. The parish church, just up from the harbour, boasts an extrovert collection of Baroque altarpieces as well as the tomb of Šibenik-born humanist and all-round brainbox Faust Vrančić.
Renaissance Šibenik produced many learned minds, most famously Faust Vrančić (Faustus Verantius), the author of Machinae Novae (1615) – a book of machines and contraptions whose inventiveness rivalled the mechanical fantasies of Leonardo da Vinci. The album of 49 copper engravings included suspension bridges, wind-powered mills with rotating roofs and, most famously, Homo volans – a picture of a man jumping from a tower with a primitive parachute. Equipped with a square of sail-canvas, Vrančić opined in the accompanying text, “a man can easily descend securely and without any kind of danger from a tower or any other high place”. According to seventeenth-century British scientist Bishop John Wilkins, Vrančić successfully tested his parachute by jumping out of a window in Venice, although Wilkins’ account was written thirty years after the event and remains tantalizingly unconfirmed by other sources.
Vrančić compiled Machinae Novae towards the end of a busy intellectual life. As the nephew of imperial diplomat and Archbishop of Hungary, Antun Vrančić, the young Faust served as secretary to the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague – a renowned meeting place for humanists from all over Europe. He subsequently retired to become a monk in Rome, where he probably became acquainted with Leonardo’s drawings, and was moved to compile his Machinae. Vrančić’s other major work was his Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europae linguarum (“Dictionary of the Five Most Noble Languages of Europe”; 1595), a lexicon including Latin, Italian, German, Hungarian and “Dalmatian” (Croatian). It was the first real dictionary in either Croatian or Hungarian, and had a profound influence on the subsequent development of both languages.
Set dramatically amid the stark, arid scenery typical of inland Dalmatia, the fortress town of Knin occupies an indelible place in the Croatian national psyche, both as an important centre of the medieval kingdom and as a bone of bitter contention in the Homeland War of 1991–95. It was during the latter conflict that Knin became notorious as the capital of the so-called Republic of the Serbian Krajina (RSK).
Despite being surrounded by a patchwork of both Serbian and Croatian villages, Knin itself had a Serbian majority in 1990 and became the epicentre of the Serbian armed rebellion. Many of the key players in the Serb–Croat conflict started out in Knin, only to end up in the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague a decade or two later: Milan Babić, the RSK’s first leader; Milan Martić, the Knin police chief who built up the Krajina’s armed forces; and Colonel Ratko Mladić, commander of the Knin military garrison, who practised ethnic cleansing here, forcibly ejecting Croats from nearby villages, before becoming head of the Bosnian Serb army in 1992. In the end, Serbian forces melted away when the Croatian army launched the Oluja (Storm) offensive in August 1995, and Knin’s recapture on the morning of August 5 brought the war in Croatia to a rapid conclusion. Fearing Croatian reprisals, most Serb civilians fled in the wake of their defeated army, and only a handful have since returned. Otherwise Knin has largely reverted to what it was in the pre-1990 period: a provincial railway-junction town that accommodates a trickle of day-trippers drawn to its spectacular hilltop castle.
Heaped up on an island that’s joined to the mainland by a short causeway, Primošten, 20km south of Šibenik, is enchanting when seen from a distance, although the place comes over as blandly packagey once you get up close. Its main attribute is the ultra-clear water that laps the pebble and rock beaches of the wooded promontory north of town, where there are also a number of hotels. The Primošten area is famous for its dry-stone walls, vineyard plots and olive groves – a landscape that has changed little for centuries. Much of the Šibenik region’s best Babić wine is produced around here, and you should definitely make the effort to down a glass or few of the stuff if you are sticking around.