Very much the surprise package of middle Dalmatia, Šibenik offers the blend of Mediterranean architecture, island beaches and festival culture that better publicized cities like Split and Dubrovnik have long regarded their exclusive preserve. The city’s maze-like medieval centre is as evocative as any on the Adriatic, and the cathedral is one of the finest architectural monuments in southeastern Europe. Islands Zlarin and Prvić (both easy day-trips by ferry) are among Dalmatia’s most enchanting offshore destinations, and the fabulous waterfalls of the Krka National Park lie just inland. The transformation of St Michael's Fortress into a concert venue, used by, among others, alternative rock festival SuperUho, has bestowed the city with a newfound aura of urban cool – enhanced by the fact that the Garden organization’s festival site at Tisno is only a short bus ride away.
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Šibenik began life as an eleventh-century Croatian fortress, falling under Venetians in the fifteenth century, when it became an important strongpoint in their struggles against the Ottomans. Relics of this era, notably the huge fortresses that hover above the town centre, are well worth exploring.
Clinging to the side of a hill, Šibenik’s ancient centre is a steep tangle of alleys, steps and arches bisected by two main arteries, Zagrebačka and Kralja Tomislava (the latter popularly known as Kalelarga), which run northwest from the main square, Poljana.
St James’s Cathedral in Šibenik
Šibenik’s dominating feature is the tumescent, stone-tulip dome of St James’s Cathedral (Katedrala svetog Jakova), a Gothic Renaissance masterpiece that still has art historians clutching their heads in a “how-on-earth-did-they-build-that?” state of admiration. Occupying the site of an earlier church, the current edifice was begun in 1431 when a group of Italian architects oversaw the erection of the Gothic lower storey of the present building. In 1441, dissatisfaction with the old-fashioned Gothic design led to the appointment of a new architect, Juraj Dalmatinac, who presided over three decades of intermittent progress, interrupted by cash shortages, two plagues and one catastrophic fire. The cathedral was just below roof height when he died in 1473 and his Italian apprentice Nikola Firentinac (“Nicholas of Florence”), thought to have been a pupil of Donatello, took over. Firentinac fashioned the cathedral’s barrel roof and octagonal cupola from a series of huge interlocking stone slabs, a feat that is still considered an engineering marvel. He was also responsible for the statues on the cathedral’s roof – high up on the southeast corner is a boyish, curly-haired Archangel Michael jauntily spearing a demon.
Entry to the cathedral is by the north door, framed by arches braided with the swirling arabesques that led to Dalmatinac’s style being dubbed “floral Gothic”. Inside, the cathedral is a harmonious blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles; the sheer space and light of the east end draw the eye towards the soft grey Dalmatian stone of the raised sanctuary. Follow the stairs down from the southern apse to the baptistry (krstionica), Dalmatinac’s masterpiece. It’s an astonishing piece of work, a cubbyhole of Gothic carving, with four scallop-shell niches rising from each side to form a vaulted roof, beneath which cherubs playfully scamper.
The frieze of stone heads
Outside the cathedral, around the exterior of the three apses, Dalmatinac carved a unique frieze of 71 stone heads, apparently portraits of those who refused to contribute to the cost of the cathedral and a vivid cross-section of sixteenth-century society. On the north apse, beneath two angels with a scroll, he inscribed his claim to the work with the words hoc opus cuvarum fecit magister Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus – “These apses have been made by Juraj Dalmatinac, son of Mate.”
Juraj Dalmatinac (George the Dalmatian; c.1400–73) was the most prolific stonemason of the Dalmatian Renaissance, but little is known of the man save for the works he left behind. Born in Zadar around 1400, he learnt his trade in Venice and it was there he made his reputation as a stonemason. The Šibenik authorities engaged him to work on the cathedral in 1441.
When work on the cathedral stalled, Dalmatinac picked up commissions elsewhere, notably the sarcophagus of St Anastasius in Split cathedral, and the Minčeta Fortress in Dubrovnik. Following working visits to Urbino, he returned to Šibenik, where he died in 1473, the cathedral still unfinished.
Dalmatinac’s great skill was to blend the intricate stoneworking techniques of the Gothic period with the realism and humanism of Renaissance sculpture. His stylistic innovations were carried over to the next generation by his pupils Andrija Aleši and Nikola Firentinac, who were involved in the completion of Šibenik cathedral before going on to produce their own masterpieces in Trogir.
Festivals in Šibenik
Indie-rock festival Terraneo made a big splash in Šibenik when first held in 2011, and despite a pause in 2014 and 2015 (when Terraneo became a concert season rather than an out-and-out festival), there are signs that it will make a full-blooded return in future. For the time being SuperUho, held in early August, is the biggest show in town, with alt-rock and experimental bands (previous headliners have included The National and Einstürzende Neubauten) appearing in the grandiose surrounds of St Michael’s Fortress.
Late July’s Supertoon animation festival is a hugely enjoyable event involving both indoor and outdoor projections throughout the town – animated short films, kids’ cartoons and animated music videos are the three main strands.
Straddling a fortnight in late June/early July, the International Children’s Festival (Međunarodni dječji festival) frequently turns out to be great fun for all ages, incorporating street entertainers, musical theatre and high-quality puppet performances.
St Michael's Fortress
Nothing reflects Šibenik’s urban makeover quite so much as St Michael’s Fortress (Kaštel svetog Mihovila), the previously neglected hilltop fortress transformed into top visitor attraction and concert venue. Reopened in 2014 after an EU-funded facelift, the fortress is both an atmospheric piece of history and a great place to catch a gig. Situated at the Old Town’s highest point, it’s an easy uphill stroll along stepped streets.
Constructed by the Venetians on top of an earlier Croatian citadel, the fortress affords a superb panorama of the Old Town (including a clear view of the cathedral’s roof), Šibenik Bay beyond, and the endless green ripple of offshore islands in the background. A modest scattering of exhibits reveal the history of the fort, although it’s really the setting, and the terraced auditorium seating in the central keep, that takes your breath away. A pair of defensive walls connect the fortress with the seafront just below – the passage that ran between them was intended to help the defenders retreat to their boats in the event of an Ottoman siege.
Top image: Sibenik old town, Croatia © Bumble Dee/Shutterstock