You’d like a stunning seaside town along the Dalmatian coast, you say? There are many of those. But you want calm and quiet, as well? In August, prime holiday season for weary Eurocrats and everyone else? Normally, we’d say ‘ha!’ right here, and deprive you of any such illusion. But then there is Šibenik.
On this August weekend, unlike busy Split and Trogir, this little town doesn’t seem to be overrun by tourists. In fact, locals seem to outnumber us, say 10:1. (And yes, ‘us’ is right, no two ways about it. Travellers, travel writers, bloggers, blablabla… whatever we fancy calling ourselves, we’re tourists, just like everyone else wielding a camera phone.)
Calm, quiet Šibenik is filled with little squares, and narrow streets of steps, twisting and turning. There’s really only one way to get around – by foot. That should present no problem for the reasonably agile, though; the old town is very small.
Tiny or not, true to form, I still get lost. I’m just going to embrace it.
Notice how the houses are all made of stone that looks as if they have been kissed by the sun? Doors and shutters bright emerald green?
As you leave the bus station (or harbour, if you come in by boat), you’ll see Crkva i samostan sv. Frane, St Francis Church and Monastery.
Or – you may have to get a bit of a distance between you to see it properly, like from near Poljana Square here. Up close, you might miss it altogether, because your eyes will be drawn to this enormous statue of Petar Krešimir IV, king of the Croats in the late 11th century. Lovely gardens, green and peaceful.
Remember our friend, Nikola Tesla? He was born in Smiljan, about 2 hours further north. Šibenik was the world’s first city with street lights powered by alternating current. Whether those two facts are related, I haven’t been able to verify: my Croatian is limited to bok and hvala. Not that hello and thank you aren’t useful phrases. Just that they’re not doing the job with this. Neither is Google Translate. But interesting all the same.
If you’d like to explore the Dalmatian coastline, Šibenik makes a good base. If you prefer the more hectic vibes and nightlife of Split, Šibenik is an easy daytrip. The local bus takes about 1 hr 45 min, via a detour to Trogir, and moves along stunning coastline for much of the way. You’ll probably wind up with lots of blurry photos taken through the bus window. Just can’t help it.
The seaside promenade is nice and clean, and there are plenty of options for boating on the tempting Adriatic. A bit further out, you’ll find Banj Beach, also nice and clean.
St James Cathedral
For a World Heritage geek, however, the main reason to be here is the Venetian Renaissance St James’ Cathedral (Sv. Jakov in the local language), inscribed as such:
The Cathedral of St James in Šibenik (1431-1535), on the Dalmatian coast, bears witness to the considerable exchanges in the field of monumental arts between Northern Italy, Dalmatia and Tuscany in the 15th and 16th centuries. The three architects who succeeded one another in the construction of the Cathedral – Francesco di Giacomo, Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus and Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino – developed a structure built entirely from stone and using unique construction techniques for the vaulting and the dome of the Cathedral.
Šibenik was under Venetian rule for nearly 300 years, until the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, then the Habsburgs took over. But the Venetian influence is visible still, especially in this church.
As the inscription says, the cathedral is constructed in stone only. No timber, nails, mortar, or anything else. A vaulted church, no less: made entirely of stone: I can’t even imagine the technical challenges this would pose.
St James Cathedral was damaged during World War II, and again during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. It has been faithfully reconstructed using original techniques. More than 70 faces of people decorate the facade and gates. Not gargoyles or saints, as seems to be common, but farmers, fishermen, kids, elderly, all residents of 15th century Šibenik.
If you recognise the entrance here, you might be thinking of the Iron Bank of Braavos, the richest bank in the Known World. (Game of Thrones is filmed in fairly large part in Dalmatia.)
One stone crumbles and another takes its place and the temple holds its form for a thousand years or more. And that’s what the Iron Bank is, a temple.
The Cathedral of St James in Šibenik is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.