It happens quite often that places from which we do not have a lot of expectations tend to surprise us. Šibenik was one such city in Croatia which we visited without any expectations but ended up being thoroughly charmed by it. As the 12th largest city in Croatia, Šibenik cannot be called a hidden gem, but it often gets overlooked by the tourists visiting the Dalmatian Coast in favour of other famous places like Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar and the islands.
With Zadar, our journey of the Dalmatian Coast wasn’t off to the best of starts as that city had left us slightly disappointed. One of our major grouches with Zadar was that despite a lot of old architecture, it did not give the vibe of an old city. The hilly Šibenik, with its maze of narrow alleys, winding staircases and stone buildings, more than addressed this complaint. This was a city which looked and felt like it belonged to a different era. No wonder then that it provided the setting for the city of Braavos in the series Game of Thrones.
ALONG THE COASTAL ROAD
After leaving our apartment in Zadar at 9:20 in the morning, we took the coastal road to Šibenik which was not the shortest route but was supposed to provide fantastic views of the sea. Unfortunately, the thick covering of trees between the road and the coast allowed only a few glimpses of the sea but even those glimpses were worth the extra time it took us to reach our destination. We drove around for a few minutes to find a parking spot but eventually we were able to start our tour of Šibenik by 11:00.
FIRST HOUR IN ŠIBENIK
Our first destination was the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. Though the exterior of this medieval church was quite bare, its location, in a small square surrounded with stone buildings, made for an extremely photogenic setting. In fact, the entire town of Šibenik was full of such photogenic spots. Inside the church, there were some nice frescoes and paintings but it was too dark to take good quality photos. In the square, close to the church’s main entrance, a door led to the monastery courtyard. As soon as we stepped through that door it felt like we had travelled a few centuries back in time.
After experiencing the unadulterated medieval atmosphere of the Church and Monastery of St. Francis, we roamed around the narrow alleys of Šibenik for some time passing landmarks such as the City Library, the St. Nicholas Church and the small city park which is the site of a statue of Petar Krešimir IV – an 11th century king who is regarded as the founding father of Šibenik.
We finally made our way to the beautiful but windy Šibenik waterfront. Along with architecture and natural beauty, Croatia was also offering us diversity in terms of weather. A cold and rainy day in Plitvice was followed by a hot day in Zadar and then a cold and very windy day in Šibenik. We did not stay at the waterfront for long and headed inside to explore more of the town. Next up was the early 15th century Church of St. Barbara which is now deconsecrated and serves as a museum of religious art. The church had a couple of distinctive features – a 24-hour clock on its front facade and two small bell towers on the top, one with a single bell and other with three bells. Just a few metres away from the Church of St. Barbara was the Square of the Republic of Croatia where lay the icon of Šibenik.
THE BEST CHURCH OF CROATIA
We never imagined that we would find the best church in Croatia, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in an unheard-of city like Šibenik. The Cathedral of St. James, constructed over 105 years from 1431 to 1536, is unique in the respect that it is the only cathedral in Europe made entirely of stone. As it was built over such a long period, it carries the imprints of multiple architects who used different architectural styles and introduced innovative features in the cathedral. The architect most prominently associated with the cathedral was a local architect Juraj Dalmatinac whose statue stands outside the cathedral in the square. Talking about the square, it was one of the most picturesque of all the squares we had seen in Croatia. It was encircled by the cathedral, green-shuttered stone buildings, and a 16th century town loggia framed by huddled structures rising along the hillside.
By the time we reached the square, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it had started drizzling. We did not mind it as it allowed us to take some stunning photos of the square and the cathedral unhindered by the crowd. We also used the time to explore the cathedral from outside marvelling at the two exquisite portals, the elegant dome and the numerous intricate sculptures and carvings. We had not seen this level of fine artistic work in any Croatian church. Out of all the decorative elements of the cathedral, the most striking was a row of 71 sculpted heads, a work of Juraj Dalmatinac, which depicted the common men, women and children of Šibenik.
As the rain got heavier we headed inside the cathedral. Though it was slightly dark inside because of the heavy cloud cover, and some portions were covered up for renovation, the beauty of the cathedral was quite obvious. The masterpiece was undoubtedly the baptistery, another work of Juraj Dalmatinac, which featured a magnificent carved ceiling.
THE GUARDIANS OF ŠIBENIK
Protected by four fortresses, three from land and one from the sea, Šibenik is also known as the city of fortresses. The fortresses of St Michael’s, Barone and St. John’s are perched on the high hills that loom over the town while the St. Nicholas Fortress is located strategically at the entrance of St. Anthony Channel, a narrow body of water connecting Šibenik Bay to the Adriatic Sea. In 2018, when we visited Šibenik, only the former two fortresses were open for tourism while the latter two were under renovation with plans to open them officially by 2020 or 2021.
After the rain subsided, we exited the Cathedral of St. James and made our way uphill to the St. Michael’s Fortress. Situated on a 60 m high hill, St Michael’s is Šibenik’s oldest fortress and the core around which the town developed. As soon as we reached the top of the hill, we were met with such a stiff wind that it threatened to knock us off our feet. Taking even a single step in those conditions was proving to be a struggle. All the thoughts of exploring the fortress and enjoying the views vanished from our minds as we hurried inside the fortress to the safety of the lounge where the information desk and the washroom facilities were located. Wet and dishevelled, we took some time to rest in the lounge while the storm raged above our heads. In the inner space of the fortress, there was not much to see apart from a couple of 15th century water tanks which could supply soldiers garrisoned at the fortress with water for a year and a 15th century bread oven used to prepare food for the soldiers.
Once we heard the wind lessening in intensity, we climbed to the top of the fortress and walked along its walls and towers. The views of the town, the sea, the bay and other fortresses were truly spectacular and worth all our efforts. In the centre, there was an open-air stage which was constructed during the 2014 renovation and is used to hold cultural and musical events. We could only imagine how surreal the experience of watching a musical concert on top of a historic monument must be, especially one offering such beautiful views.
Before long the drizzle and the wind forced us back inside following which we walked back to the town and replenished our famished selves with some lunch at a pizzeria by the waterfront.
Medieval Šibenik, despite being surrounded by walls and protected by St. Michael’s Fortress, was not considered safe by its citizens because these structures were vulnerable to artillery fire. The citizens continuously petitioned the Venetian government for funds to construct a new fortress on the hills that overlooked the town but their pleas went unheard. Finally, in August 1646, facing the threat of an imminent Ottoman attack, the citizens of Šibenik, quite literally, took matters into their hands. They started the construction of two fortresses with their own hands and funds and finished it in just 58 days. All their hard labour bore fruit when, under the command of a German mercenary Baron von Degenfeld, they successfully defended the fortresses and the city from consecutive Ottoman attacks in 1646 and 1647. One fortress was called St. John’s while the other was named Barone in honour of the commander who saved the city.
Our tickets to St. Michael’s Fortress included entry to Barone Fortress too but we were unsure about visiting it in such adverse weather, especially when it was situated even higher than St. Michael’s Fortress. The factor that swung the decision in favour of visiting Barone Fortress was that we could drive there. So we went to the parking lot, picked up our car and reached the fortress in a few minutes. In the end, we were glad of our decision because even though the fortress was quite small with almost nothing to see inside, it did offer something unique and interesting – Augmented Reality.
After arriving at the fortress we went to Barone shop where we were given a tablet device. There were multiple Augmented Reality (AR) stations spread around the fortress at which, when we pointed the tablet, various scenes such as battles against the Ottomans, functioning of cannons, history of the four fortresses, life in medieval Šibenik etc. were generated and described through audio and video. It is a little hard to explain it but the concept was quite marvellous.
This AR show again made us painfully aware of the vast untapped potential of Indian forts and monuments. A small fortress like Barone probably wouldn’t even find a place in any Indian tourism guidebook but here, due to some innovative thinking and marketing, it was fetching a significant amount to the Croatian tourism industry.
The views from Barone Fortress were quite similar to those from St. Michael’s fortress but better due to the higher vantage point.
According to our itinerary, we were supposed to leave Šibenik by 2 p.m. to visit Trogir but we got so absorbed in the city that we were able to leave only after 5 p.m. Thus, we could not visit Trogir but we have no regrets about it because we thoroughly enjoyed the surprises offered by Šibenik.