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Exploring Croatia: Dalmatian History Comes To Life

Wondering what to do in Croatia?
Exploring Croatia can be addicting, even for those who may not have been much into history before. 

Dalmatia is one of the most popular regions of Croatia for visitors.  To say that it has a rich history is an understatement. 

Dalmatia today consists of most of the coastal area and some of the inland areas, in the Dinaric alps. This mountainous inland area is known as the hinterlands.

I have to admit that the more I investigated the history of this area, the more intrigued I became.  

A brief Google search revealed a history so complex and awe inspiring, I can’t even begin to do it justice here.

I would not be surprised if it didn’t inspire some of the best epic novels and films of our time.

The history of this region from the Ancient Greeks to the fall of the Venetian empire seems to make anything that happened in the 20th century seem like a blip on the radar screen.  

A Living History of the Dalmatian Coast 

Croatia, from Istria to southern Dalmatia, is like a living history museum. Its territory has been inhabited by Ilyrians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Croats, Venetians, Hungarians, and Ottomans/Turks, for a start.

The history of Croatia also includes the Kingdom of the Croats, led by the first Croatian King Tomislav in 925. This kingdom included the much of coastal Dalmatia, with the exception of the cities ruled by Venice during most of the middle ages. (including Split and Trogir) 

Dalmatia is, and always has been, a desirable territory. The cities we love to visit were the center of competition between Venice and Hungary, as well as other kingdoms. In order to fully understand it, it is important to understand the complex politics involved, the key players, and the role of the Catholic Church. 

A visit to Croatia will inspire you to want to know more, and make the process even more exciting. 

You can see much evidence of Croatian history out in the open and in public places, not just in museums. Solin is a perfect example. 

I want to invite you with me in exploring Croatia, starting with Dalmatia from the Roman Empire to the fall of the Venetian Empire. Let’s work our way up the coast. 

Dubrovnik (Ragusa) 

The city of Ragusa remained under the rule of the Byzantine empire for the longest period of time as far at the coastal cities of Dalmatia.

The city, much like Split, became a refuge for Roman citizens during the Slav and Avar invasions of the 7th century.

It is a fascinating city not only because of the heavily fortified walled city, but because it was a crossroads of different cultures, where east meets west: Byzantine, Islamic, and Orthodox as well as Catholic.

A thriving port city, it traded with major ports in both the Venetian and Ottoman Empires. During the year 1667 it suffered a major earthquake and much of its original renaissance buildings were destroyed. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style you can see today. 

st. ignatius dubrovnik


Functioning as its own republic that valued freedom and liberty, it began its steady decline after the earthquake. 

It also sold a strip of land, as a calculated  economic and military move to protect itself from Venetian attack. The idea was to open up this area to the Ottomans, making the border crossing difficult for the Venetians. This strip of land, now part of Bosnia i Hercegovina, (Neum) is STILL a pain to cross.. and there are still geopolitical problems concerning borders and access to this area to this day.  

In my opinion, this is the perfect reason to consider traveling by boat, which is actually quite fun. You can take a Catamaran from Dubrovnik to Split.   

The Republic of Dubrovnik was also involved the the American Revolution and is said to be one of the first nations or republics to recognize the United States. It also managed to remain independent from the Hapsburg empire until 1808. The rest of Dalmatia was ceded to the Hapsburg crown by Napoleon in exchange for other lands.

Split (Spalatum)

Split  is the home of the famous palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian.

It was so well built that even in times when it was abandoned, people returned to it for protection, shelter, and trade/business. The best example was during the invasion of the Slavs around the 7th century AD.

Many take photos of this place without fully realizing that this place pretty much IS the city of Split.

Designed and built as a retirement home and military garrison for the emperor on a grand scale, Diocletian’s palace is one of the typical “fortress cities” on the Dalmatian coast.

The Palace is one of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural features on the Croatian Adriatic coast.

Today you can find shops, including my favorite coffee shop where I experienced this place in its full grandeur during a thunderstorm on a winter night. I tried to capture the dramatic lightning display, and had no luck, but still enjoyed my coffee here with a dear friend.

In the spring, I was able to wander the famous basement where episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed.

Solin (Salona)

The capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia was Salona, now known Solin, a suburb of Split. For a long time, it enjoyed economic prosperity. However, it was one of the many Roman cities conquered by outside invaders (The Avars and the Slavs, in the 7th century)

The residents of Solin fled to nearby Diocletian’s palace, which had actually been abandoned for a few centuries. They also fled to other cities including Trogir, and the nearby islands, never to return.

Solin is a perfect example of how much Croatia’s history remains easily accessible to the public, in its original location, instead of placed in a museum.

Trogir (Tragurium, Trau)

Trogir has a rich history, and I’ll spend more time talking about it, since I have the good fortune of being able to live here for the time being.

Trogir was settled by the Greeks in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The region which ran along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and extended inland on the Dinaric Alps was called Illyria by the Greeks.

The name Trogir comes from the Greek “tragos” (male goat).

In the 6th century Croats began to settle, and you can see their influence in works of art around the city.

Trogir was also strongly connected to the Byzantine empire from the 8th to 10th centuries, and from the late 10th to the 11th century, the Hungarians and Croats.

Later, its architecture, language, and culture was closely tied to the Italian peninsula and the Venetian Empire, and conflicts again with Hungary.

The cathedral is a perfect example.

trogir cathedral

It took centuries to build, and you can see the evidence in its construction as one influence faded and another culture gained prominence. Construction of the cathedral began on the foundation of an older Romanesque church in 1213, and the exterior was completed around 1251. The main portal features artwork by the Croatian artist Radovan, and his students and followers.

The main portal of Trogir cathedral, done by artisan Radovan, is the greatest and the most important monument of medieval sculpture in Croatia. Don’t miss it!

The interior was completed in the 15th century in the gothic (mannerist) style, well into the period of Venetian rule. 

You MUST see the inside of this cathedral. The exterior is impressive, but the interior is.. hard to capture in a few sentences. Let’s just say that the doorway leads to a place worth spending some time in. I think I lingered for a few hours!

The city of Trogir, for the most part, enjoyed long periods of economic prosperity, but there were some less than peaceful transitional periods, particularly between Venetian and Hungarian rule. In 1420, the city was devastated by the Venetians, including the bell tower of the cathedral, which was rebuilt.

Trogir is also a great home base for your exploration, as it is located between Split to the south and Šibenik to the north. Villa Pape is close to all the photos you see here. If you need accommodation in Trogir, this is the place! (We also love a good glass of wine while talking about art and history!) 

Venetian Rule in Trogir

The city of Trogir itself was mainly under Venetian rule from 1420 to 1797. You can see evidence of its rule in not only the cathedral, but secular buildings such as the city hall, and the nearby Kamerlengo castle.

The primary influence of the fortress of Kamerlango consititutes an impressive example of Venetian military architecture.

Šibenik (Sebenico)

Unlike other cities along the Adriatic coast, which were established by Greeks, Illyrians and Romans, Šibenik was founded by Croats.

Some of the areas just to the north of us here in Trogir,  were originally settled by Croats. (I’m looking a the hills in that area as I type this, and I invite you to come and visit to sit in the same spot)

Like other cities in Dalmatia, it was under the rule of Venice, Hungary, and the Byzantine Empires. It went through the same struggles in the middle ages as other Dalmatian cities, but overlords changed hands more frequently.

The most famous building in Sibenik, the Cathedral of St. James, was built during the same general time period as St. Lawrence cathedral in Trogir. It is also under the protection of UNESCO as a world heritage site. Made entirely out of stone, it is known primarily for its stunning architecture, but also for being a location for an episode in season 5 of Game of Thrones.

The fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797 brought Sebenico under the authority of the Habsburg Monarchy., along with most of the rest of Dalmatia.

I’ll be exploring more of Croatian history and art, the hinterlands of Dalmatia, and later periods in the history of Croatia.

Need accommodation in Trogir?  Trogir is centrally located, and Villa Pape is located  on the pristine Adriatic coast.  It’s more than just a place to stay. It’s a home base, complete with breakfast, conversation, a great view, and a place to sit and relax and enjoy a glass of Croatian wine or a beer.  

Julie Odler is an American writer, digital marketing consultant for T&W marketing, and a former acupuncturist living in the Split/Trogir area, Sarajevo, and Belgrade. She loves Croatia and writes about her experiences in her own blog, The Balkan Nomad.


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