The Dalmatian Coast
This article is a brief guide to the military history sights on and off the Dalmatian Coast as visited by the editor in June 2000.
The starting point is probably the most famous city on the coast, Dubrovnik. Founded by the Greeks it was Roman Epidaurum before moving north to become Ragusa. Occupied by Arabs, Venetians and Normans it became a free state in the 12th Century. The high point was the 15th and 16th centuries when the republic's fleet of 200 ships sailed the world. It was protected by several powers as a counterweight to its great rival Venice, until the republic was finally dissolved by the French under Marmont in 1808.
The main sights are the city walls covering land and sea approaches with the forts Minceta, St John, Lovrijenac and the Revelin. You can walk around the walls and the forts which give a stunning view of the old city which has been repaired following the shelling by Serbian troops. There is a maritime museum which is strong on the trading history of the city particularly in the 19th century, but a bit weak on earlier periods and military history.
Next stop up the coast is the fortified town (strictly speaking two towns) of Ston which guards the Peljesac Peninsula. The vast walls run both sides of a hill over five kilometers in length with 20 towers and the Koruna Fortress. It was built by the city state of Dubrovnik to protect the salt works which provided a third of the state's revenue. The walls are well preserved and the smaller town, Mali Ston has a beautiful harbour famous for its nearby oyster beds. A good alternative place to eat and/or stay to Dubrovnik.
The coast road goes through the Bosnian enclave at Neum (don't forget your passport) and on to the Neretva Delta, an oasis of green after the rocky coast. This was the base of the Neretljani who engaged in piracy (a long tradition on this coast) as far away as Italy in the 9th century. Venice defeated them in 839 although they continued to attack Italy after the treaty with Venice. Not much physical evidence of the Neretljani left unfortunately. An optional excursion away from the coast at this point is the attractive Bosnian city of Mostar (59km) on the Sarajevo road. Relations between the Croat and Muslim populations are still a bit tense although the scenery in the Neretva Valley is stunning.
Several worthwhile stops in this tourist area which is a handy base with good hotels particularly in Makarska itself. Many of the villages were bases for the Neretljani and later the Ottomans. Protected from the mainland by steep mountains these rugged bays provided reasonably secure bases as late as the Second World War when Podgora provided a base for the First Naval Platoon of the fledgling Yugoslav Navy. The best site is at Omis which has a well preserved tower fort on a cliff above the harbour and a fortress on a hill over 1000 feet above the village. Omis was another pirate base until the Venetians occupied it in 1444.
The main port and airport on the Dalmatian Coast. Not much to see other than Diocletian's Palace which is integrated into the harbour front. A few remnants of the later Vauban style defences of the city in the Strosmajerov Park
The 'must see' sight is the castle of Klis, 9km north-east of the city on the Sinj road. The castle is currently being restored and is perched on a steep hill commanding the Klis pass. Come off the new road to Sinj at Klis and take a side road on the right before you reach the tunnel under the castle. This takes you to the village square and the castle entrance. The article Siege of Klis 1536-7 gives an overview of the significance of this castle.
A further 22km inland is Sinj. The town has an 18th century Venetian fortress on a hill above the town, famous for a siege in 1715 when 600 troops held off a Turkish assault. The fort is not well preserved and is overgrown although if you persevere the walls can be seen and the view from the top is excellent.
Last stop on this part of the coast is the walled town of Trogir. Originally a Greek settlement it has had several 'owners' who are reflected in the medieval old town situated on a islet. A well preserved castle at the north end of the town is worth seeing.
Between Trogir and Split is the "Road of Castles" which runs parallel to the main coast road. There are six small castles built by local nobles when the Ottomans reached the mountains above Split. Not easy to find any of them and you just have to keep turning off the road and head for the sea.
The Dalmatian coast has a number of islands which have played an important role in the history of the region. The largest and best known are Brac, Hvar, Korcula and Vis.
Brac is the biggest island of the group famous for its limestone building blocks. Despite being fought over from the Illyrians to the Second World War there are few sights of interest other than Venetian fortifications at Sutivan, Skrip and Pucisca.
The island of Hvar has an equally impressive list of occupiers over the centuries including a brief occupation by the British during the Napoleonic period. The main interest is in the town of Hvar which has a fine restored fortress and town walls, an arsenal for the repair of war galleys and evidence of French occupation with a fort and battery positions. The old town with its square and cathedral is a popular and relaxed holiday resort. An excellent antidote to the mainland touring.
Finally the island of Vis (ancient Issa) is the furthest out in the Adriatic. The Battle of Lissa 1866 took place of this island and it was an important British commando, naval and partisan base during WW2. There is a British Napoleonic naval cemetery in Vis town and a well preserved 16th century Venetian fortress in the town of Komiza.
There are several current tourist guides to this area of which the best is the Nelles Guide Croatia Adriatic Coast. Long out of print but excellent if you can get a copy is the Yugoslav Lexicographical Institute's The Yugoslav Coast (1966). There are several out of date but still excellent travel books which cover the history of the region and can be found in second hand book stores. Probably the best is Yugoslav Coast by Lovett Edwards as well as Rebecca West's famous travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon which is now available again in paperback.
Several travel firms offer good value packages to the area - flying to Split or Dubrovnik. We used Transun whom I would happily recommend. Car hire is reasonable and petrol is the cheapest in Europe. The same goes for food and drink, entrance charges etc.
The downside is that the main coast road is very slow with virtually no dual carriageway. Despite a better tourist infrastructure than most of the Balkans, Croatia has virtually no tourist signs (a common failing in all Balkan states). Which makes finding what you are looking for interesting but time consuming. There are very few guidebooks (in any language) at the sites described, with the honourable exception of Dubrovnik and Hvar - so come prepared.
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