Šibenik: A Renaissance King’s Town on the Dalmatian Coast

Today I was invited to Šibenik (pronounced ‘Shebeneek’), a town I had not stepped foot in since August of 1995, three days after what Croatians call the ‘Homeland War ended. Back then it did not impress me much, it felt rather run down, in bad need of a paint job and evidence of the Croatian war was everywhere. When the bus I was riding in which was packed with UN personnel pulled into the main bus station, I got a glimpse of just how devastating the war had been. Pocket-shell marks were evident on some of the grimy old communist-style cereal box hotels, and the mood at the bus station cafes was pensive and somber. The war had just ended in this part of Dalmatia as part of Operation Storm (‘Oluja’) but was still winding down in other parts of the country. It would end in just a few days’ time but nobody knew it then.

When I got off the bus, young Croatian soldiers would walk by hugging one another and breaking into tears. Every now and then old men and women would pat them on the shoulder or give them words of encouragement.  I saw an old man wrap his arms around a very thin, tall young soldier and sob as he hugged him. Was it his father or grandfather? An old babushka passed some flowers into my hand and asked me to give them to some of the young soldiers standing by the café and so I did. They looked shy and uneasy. One could sense I was from abroad as my Croatian had the accent of someone who had immigrated a few years back and he asked where. “Canada,” I replied. “Ahhh. I have a cousin in Hamilton. Do you know it?” he asked. Of course I did, and so we struck up a conversation. His name was Josip (‘Joseph’) and he was an architecture student when the war began and he received the conscription call. One of his brothers was fighting in Slavonia, a northern Croatian province along the border with Hungary and Serbia where fighting had been particularly intense and he was worried about him. Josip was very kind to me and had a quiet, courteous and gentle aura. He had an animated and excited way of talking about things which was typical of young people and I liked him instantly. He asked me if I would like a coffee, which was odd as I was the one who should have treated him. My bus was on its way to Zagreb and was only stopping in Šibenik for an hour or so to collect more passengers. Josip was originally from Šibenik and asked me if I had ever seen the city before. I had not and told him as much. I shall never forget the suave look he shot my way as his eyes widened in disbelief. “What? You’re from Split and you’ve never been here before (it was odd yet true)? It’s too bad you have to see the city looking like this. It’s the most beautiful city in all of Dalmatia, even more beautiful than your Split! Seriously though, what a shame that for your first time you have to see it like this,” said Josip. That last sentence stuck in my head. I picked up the bill which was the least I could do and we shook hands and parted. He told me he wanted to help his parents rebuild their family home on the island of Brodarica and complete his architecture degree now that the war was over. I wished him luck and gave him my Toronto address. Croatians always do that sort of thing for other Croatians. He in turn gave me his home address in Šibenik and made me promise to visit again in three years time. “Why three years I asked?” as I boarded the bus. “Because in three years we’ll fix it up and it will again be the most beautiful town in all of Dalmatia! Even more beautiful than Split!” he yelled off as I waved away and laughed giving him an acknowledging thumbs up.

I am ashamed to say I waited 20 years to fulfill my promise to Josip. Oh I had returned to Croatia on many occasions after the war, almost every summer in fact. From 2000 to 2005 while working as a NATO representative, I even lived part of the time in the capital city Zagreb, and would commute on the shuttle flight to Brussels every few weeks. During that period I would drive down to Split to stay with my relatives but for some reason which I still cannot figure out, I always by-passed Šibenik. Even when relatives and I would visit nearby Trogir, Zadar and Biograd-na-Moru. Maybe it was the fear of seeing the pocket scarred town, maybe it was the fact that I generally do not like to be reminded of sad memories, and the memories of that first visit also happened to coincide with the end of a summer romance a few nights before. I cannot recall what it was that kept me away but it was a foolish decision not to return because the Šibenik I discovered on the day of my first return, September 20th, 2016, felt like nothing that can be described in either English, Croatian or any other language which I speak so well. Šibenik was resplendent, thriving, completely restored, and drop dead gorgeous. Dare I say it, I was falling in love with it by the micro-second and discovering it with the slow precision of a toddler unwrapping that first Christmas gift.

Founded in 1066, Šibenik is considered the oldest authentic Croatian town and a city of King’s. Unlike other cities on the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia, it wasn’t founded by Greeks and Romans, rather by the White Croats, a 6th century Slavic tribe that migrated to today’s Croatia from their prehistoric homeland which was nestled west of the Carpathians and south of the Tatras, probably in the triangular area that today makes up parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. How they got here is anyone’s guess but legend and historical fact tells us that they crossed the Carpathians on foot in the early 7th century and arrived on the shores of the Adriatic sometime thereafter. It’s believed that these original Croatian tribes settled somewhere in the vicinity of Šibenik and established the first vestiges of a medieval Croatian kingdom in the part of the country which even today acts as its biggest province and coastal region, Dalmatia.

Šibenik is sometimes referred to by its vernacular name in Croatian, ‘Krešimirovgrad’ (‘Krešimir’s City’) because it is here that the first Croatian King, Krešimir the Great, was crowned in 1066. After he died without producing an heir, Šibenik, like the rest of Dalmatia and northern Croatia, was pulled back and forth in an ownership tug of war between Byzantium, Venice, Vienna, and the Kingdom of Hungary for the better half of the next 700 years. It passed from Austria-Hungary to the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 (later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), then to Italy during the period of the Second World War, and in 1945 found itself in the newly formed federated country of Yugoslavia (‘Land of the Southern Slavs’) where it would remain for the next 45 years. It wasn’t until 1992, when the war that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart cemented its position again in a newly formed Croat state, something it had not been a part of in 926 years. Here it has remained for the last 24 years and counting.

I visited the city on the third day of the week that marked its 950th birthday celebration and it was truly unbelievable to see how far it had come. Gone are the rugged old relics of communism and the pocket marks of the war of the 1990's. Today’s Šibenik is as glittering as a newly minted gold coin and thriving with what must have been millions of dollars in investment and infrastructure projects. The Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture on display on just about every street corner was so splendid that one is at a loss for words to try and describe the harmonious blend of all these impressive styles that somehow balance out and work quite nicely in Šibenik.

I began by doing what I do in every new city, touring the open air market.  Here too I found change on an unprecedented scale. Everything was clean, better organized, and offered more abundance than I had known before.  Fruits and vegetables I had never even seen were on display by hawkers who addressed me in fluent English, Italian, German and Croatian. This has always been one of the things that has most impressed me about Croatia, the ability of ordinary people both young and old to switch between two to three languages with a finesse and flair that is enviable. Try travelling to Italy and Hungary, our much larger neighbours and you will experience none of this.

At the marketplace it is customary to haggle over prices but not for too long. Most vendors will allow you to try some of their fruit and produce before making up your mind and you don’t have to purchase anything if you don’t want to. No offense is taken. I spoke with a man named Martin who had one of the fancier stands and was selling savoy cabbage (my father and my uncle Anton’s weakness!), endives, arugula, lavender, figs, pomegranates, honey and best of all, ‘Žižulja,’ as they are known in Croatian (Chinese Dates/or Jujubes as they are known in English). Everything was organic and had never been laced with pesticides. Martin, his brother Andro, their two wives and children, worked the farm together and brought in the produce every morning from a nearby village. I explained to him that in North America I had developed an airborne allergy to strawberries and would wind up in an emergency room if a strawberry was even in the vicinity, never mind biting into one. Before I had left Yugoslavia as a fifteen-year old immigrant, I used to forage the forests of Dalmatia for wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and bilberries with my family every summer and would eat them fresh off the vine. Three decades spent eating every chemically sprayed fruit available in North America had exposed me to a pesticide reaction that left me with horrible rashes, terrified of the sight of a strawberry, and with no way of knowing what was toxin-free and what was not. “You can eat buckets of my strawberries and nothing will happen to you,” Martin reassured me. “We Dalmatian farmers fought really hard to not have the EU dictate to us on the spraying of pesticides, and most farmers here would rather make no profit than spray our fruit. Go ahead, try them” he said while pushing a palm full of white and red strawberries into my hand. The fact that I had not broken out into welts was already an encouraging sign. I nibbled on the ends of a plump crimson strawberry and held my breath for ten seconds while looking at him skeptically. “You see Katarina, you are alive!” exclaimed Martin with a beaming smile. I nibbled on some more while his wife offered me a shot of honey brandy (a local specialty) “to disinfect the throat…just in case,” replied Martin. Realizing funeral plans could be held off, I told him I was completely stunned by how fantastic the entire town looked considering I had not visited in over two decades.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Last summer I blogged from the film set of Castello Barone and St. John's fortress which were located on the hills overlooking Šibenik, but because of our tight schedule I hadn’t had a chance to make it into town at all. He explained to me that the entire marketplace area had received a huge investment boost from EU funds when Croatia joined the union three years ago. Ever since, the organization and consumer offerings had improved tremendously. Stalls were marked and the vendors all knew each other. I had seen this same level of detail and organization in the oldest open-air produce market in the country in my home town of Split. If one of the vendors did not have a particularly sought after food item or staple, no problem. They simply pointed you in the direction of the person who did. I was looking for a specific type of ewe’s cheese that is endemic to this part of the western Balkans, called ‘Kajmak’. He didn’t sell it but he pointed out teta Kata (‘Auntie Katie’) who had the cheese in a stand further down the row. “Tell her Martin sent you,” he mumbled. “She’ll give you a discount and she sells the best Kajmak in town.” I thanked him and made my way down towards the vicinity of Kata’s stall (who truly did sell kajmak so delicious it was to die for! Best of all she gave me a generous portion to try on a freshly baked slice of homemade bread).

The second thing to do was explore the Piazza, the central square of every Dalmatian town where life’s comings and goings were discussed, people watching was the order of the day, and coffee was drunk like an art form, one after another after another. Everything in Croatia happens over a coffee – romances are formed, break-ups occur, engagements are announced, and deaths and illnesses are discussed (usually in detail). Seriously. People are hired, fired, admired, ridiculed, and gossiped about over a coffee. Weddings are planned over a coffee and so are funerals, and I once even witnessed the most amicable divorce discussion of my adult life between a gorgeous Croatian couple sipping macchiato's in Dubrovnik. It all seemed so laissez-faire and chic that I made a mental note to do the same if I ever found myself in such a predicament (Croatians tend to do everything with grace and finesse). My home town of Split, Dalmatia’s largest city and capital is known for its quay side ‘Riva,' a promenade lined with hundreds of cafes facing the Adriatic sea, where the locals engage in two things - the art of coffee sipping and the 'giro' or 'passiaggata,' the brisk evening walk typical of many Mediterranean towns where one is dressed to the nine to see and be seen. When I was younger, there was nothing better than sitting with my aunts and uncles while they ordered cappuccino after cappuccino, while we children were treated with 'kava sa šlagom' (coffee with whipped cream) as long as we behaved.

Coffee was served as an art form and usually provided on a silver tray with a small glass of rose petal water, with waiters displaying their skills and talents and developing a core and loyal clientele. This was over 30 years ago in communist Yugoslavia and even then the cafes were thriving, so you can imagine my horror upon arriving in North America where the art of coffee has disappeared only to be replaced by the industrialized sized portions served at Starbucks, something Croatians scoff at. I used to daydream that the Romans sat around when they built the town of Split over 2,000 years ago sipping the Roman equivalent of coffee and people watching just as we do today. Being from Split, I was from what you could call the capital of coffee Mecca in Croatia. I should also mention that Dalmatian towns engage in ‘coffee rivalries’ in much the same way as they do with soccer rivalries, so I was curious to see if Šibenik could hold its own and compare.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Winding my way down into the heart of the city’s central piazza where I had actually planned to sip that first coffee, I found myself sidetracked on Zagrebačka Ulica by an alluring sign which read ‘Caffeteria Giro Espresso.’ Need I say more? It was 11:30 am and I hadn’t yet had my morning dose of java. At this point coffee - any coffee, was as arousing as a siren and I was Odysseus. The piazza would have to wait. I plunked myself down and a strikingly tall Dalmatian fellow (the average height on this coast is 6’0 feet for both males and females) asked me what I would like to order. “Double espresso,” I retorted. He grimaced and sighed upon hearing my Split accent. “Coming right up” he said. I wish I could tell you that the coffee sucked and that I walked away with a haughty smirk knowing that Split still stood firm and held carte-blanche on Dalmatian coffee culture. Sadly I couldn’t. What I sipped on was arguably the best double espresso to have ever been brewed and savoured in the three weeks since arriving in Croatia. It was so good that the waiter couldn’t help but lean against the white stone entrance door to Giro Espresso and remark “bet you don’t have anything that good in Split.” Now if I was a betting man like James Bond, I would have clearly lost. Defeat was imminent and so with the class and demeanor befitting a Dalmatian lady raised abroad, I cleared my throat and muttered “you’re right, it’s amazingly good. May I please have another?” I must have sat there for over an hour wiggling my toes in delight while kava poured through me and warmed up my body like a bubbling volcano. The waiter, whose name I cannot recall asked me what I did for a living. “Writer,” I responded. He looked intrigued. “A lot going on here since last week. Are you here following the Brad Pitt story?” he asked. I was not I informed him. Brad Pitt had arrived in Croatia a few days earlier to invest in a billion dollar hotel complex located about 10km south of Šibenik in a beach town called Zablaće. That was two weeks ago. Now all anyone and their mother were discussing was the break-up of Brangelina and a developing story making its way in the local press about a mystery Croatian woman he had reportedly been spotted with days before the bust up with Angie was splashed across world headlines (and no, it wasn’t me). “No I’m not here to cover that. I came to write about tourism and the town’s 950th birthday. I was here last year blogging from the Game of Thrones set up on the hill at Castello Barone and St. John's, but I didn’t have time to make it into town then because of my schedule. Today I'm going to see the cathedral and am hoping to take some artistic photos of the palazzo's and town square.” I pointed to the brand new Nikon DX5 professional camera a photographer friend had suggested I purchase. “Wow! That’s a great one” said the waiter, "but if you want my advice, you'd better hurry. The sun is going to hit the northern side of the Cathedral in about 15 minutes and there are already hundreds of tourists down there. If you want the best shot, you’ve got about an hour left before the piazza is covered in afternoon light and you won’t be able to shoot anything close-up after that because it's going to be too bright. Even with a great camera like that one.” With that I scrambled to pay the bill, thanked him and rushed off.

It was a short walk down from the market into the heart of old Šibenik’s piazza, which is built into a large open-air space flanked on the southern side by the great Cathedral of St. James, a renaissance masterpiece that also extends out onto the northern side by the City Hall (or ‘Gradska Vijecnica/Palazzo Vecchio),’ resplendent in Venetian style and adorned with Juliet-like balconies, braided porticos, and the windows which made the Republic of Venice so famous. The piazza square was located at ulica Kralja Tomislava (King Tomislav street – yet another King!) and was completely adorned with little purple and yellow flags hanging from string wires that zigzagged across creating a beautiful wilting effect. It reminded me of the same feeling I first had when stepping into the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the square adorning Sienna’s Duomo. Magnificent, and best seen in the magical afternoon light of a glorious Dalmatian sun.

As I entered the square, I marveled at the fine view it provided of St. James’ Cathedral, arguably Croatia’s finest and grandest votive church building. The cathedral was begun in 1298 and completed in 1431, taking more than two centuries to replace the original Romanesque structure into a triple-nave basilica containing three apses and a dome (32 metres high). It was built by a a master craftsman of the time known as ‘Nikola Firentinac’ (‘Nicolo di Fiorentino’ or Nicholas of Florence) and remains the single most important architectural monument of the early Renaissance in the entire country. Since 2000, the Cathedral has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it’s not difficult to see why. Despite being born on these shores, I like all the hundreds of other tourists who had flocked to the piazza to get a glimpse of St. James was awestruck. My travelling companion for the day, Martina, later told me that while I was busy snapping away photo after photo, she was busy taking secret photos of my facial expressions which gravitated from stunned disbelief that something so beautiful could have been built hundreds of years ago in a style that today’s architects cannot even replicate, to sheer humility at being able to view it so closely and intimately.

Dedicated to St. James the Apostle, Nicolo spent more than half his life working on the cathedral which today draws in millions of tourists a year to admire his craftsmanship and genius. When the patrician families of Šibenik (then a city state of Venice) commissioned Nicolo with this great task, he promised them a cathedral that would combine the best elements of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Nicolo delivered on this promise but retained an element of his artistic flair and character which is the stuff of legend and which every tour guide is quick to point out much to the amusement and smiles of the crowds, be they Italians, Germans, Brits or Japanese. Tired of religion and clearly a figure who was way ahead of his time, Nicolo was instructed to adorn the façade of the cathedral with the heads of religious figures, primarily saints and disciples. He would have none of it. Instead he created a total of 74 immortalized cherubic heads, masterpieces representing the ordinary people who had crossed his path, from patrician bosses to fellow artists or anyone he happened to be impressed by. I have traveled far and wide both as a writer and a former art history student and I had truly never seen anything like this in the world before. Spell-binding. On the northern side of the cathedral facing the piazza were two golden carved stone winged lions I had seen in picture books in my parents library. Throngs of tourists were pressed around them and I listened in on an Italian tour group comprised of northerners (probably Venetians and Veronese) who seemed stunned when the tour guide informed them that they would actually see more winged lions along the Dalmatian coast than they would ever see in Venice. The Italians circled the tour guide and began asking where else in Croatia they could find the lions, the symbol of Venice or ‘La Serenissima’ and I used the brief moment of distraction to admire the lions and take my own shots. Above the lions there was a large, perfectly symmetrical stained glass Rosetta window built out of fine white marble from the island of Brač (the Croatian Carrara). I snapped away while my travel companion, Martina, and her two children Ella and Lukas played happily with some pigeons. The sheer number of people aiming towards the sky armed with selfie sticks and cameras hoisted, proved that St. James Cathedral was still as captivating to today’s crowds as it was to Venetian citizens hundreds of years ago.

Of course while all this was going on there was yet another group of tourists elbowing their way into the piazza to catch a glimpse of the great cathedral and its doors, which were digitally altered and enhanced using CGI technology when the building was used as a setting for its greatest achievement in the millennial era - the Game of Thrones series stand in location for the kingdom of Braavos and more precisely, ‘The Temple of the Many Faced Gods.’ The Italians and Japanese were suddenly outnumbered 1,000 to 1 by the sheer volume and throngs of screaming American and Australian teenagers shouting in excitement at the discovery of the home abode of Jaquen H’ghar. Half expecting to find the Waif and Arya Stark emerging from the cathedral doors ready for a sword fight, two teenage sisters from Scotland looked as if they would break down into tears when I informed them that post-production of the show had ended in Šibenik and had moved on further down the coast to the city of Dubrovnik (King’s Landing to GOT fans). The catastrophic look on their faces was more than I could bear and I wondered if Nicolo had any idea back in the 14th century that his renaissance masterpiece would be synonymous with a fictional kingdom to crazed television fans around the globe seven centuries later. I didn’t have time to dwell on this thought for too long because someone in the millennial group discovered that although they couldn’t locate Arya, the cathedral square was teeming with Pokemon Go characters. In just a few shouts thousands of teenagers descended into a corner of the piazza like a school of moving fish, much to the chagrin of the Croatian locals who rolled their eyes in annoyance.

Of the other churches which are located close to the old city center there were a handful that were equally as enticing as St. James and of these my favorites included the 16th century Church of St. Nicholas dedicated to sailors and seafarers (the interior of which contains some great models of old sailing ships); the 15th century Church of All Saints located on a stunning cliff side precipice near Castello Barone overlooking the city; the 12th century Benedictine Monastery; the 16th century Church of St. John with it’s fine Campanile and Turkish clock; the 12th century Church of the Holy Spirit with it’s ornate organ and Gothic details; the 13th century Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God (sometimes also referred to as ‘Sveti Spas’ or ‘Church of the Holy Saviour’) and the 15th century Church of St. Julian (also referred to as ‘the Crusader Church’), which like many of Šibenik’s churches once belonged to the Knights Templars, it’s original builders and founders. I was informed that the altars in the two latter churches were used by the Catholic and Orthodox congregations, occasionally at the same time, but most often during periods of cooperation and need – a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries.

It was hard to leave the city square but Martina insisted that I move on and follow her for an afternoon walking tour of some of the city’s notable patrician palazzo's, the most outstanding being the Palazzo Rossini, Palazzo Foscala and the Palazzo Pelegrini, the latter of which has been transformed into Croatia’s only JRE-star restaurant (a Michelin accreditation) and where I had a dinner reservation booked two days later. It is considered one of the finest culinary locales in Croatia and getting a reservation was all but impossible, so please plan well in advance (read more about my tasting menu at Palazzo Pelegrini in a separate blog).

Of the three palazzo’s, it was the Palazzo Rossini that stood out among the series of exceptional palaces of medieval Šibenik as the oldest, and the most valuable monument to Romanesque residential architecture in central Dalmatia. Built in the 13th century and named after its last owner, it looked as if it had been plucked out of the heart of Verona and deposited into a charming side street of old Šibenik. Although it was originally constructed in the Romanesque style, later modifications added elements of Gothic and Renaissance detailing. The western wing of the palazzo was built in the Gothic style in the 15th century as a separate structure, only to be connected to the older, eastern section into a single structural unit in the 16th century, at which time it also acquired its present Renaissance features. The Palazzo Rossini best testifies to the fact that Šibenik’s residents kept pace with the new artistic and architectural techniques that came from Europe’s cultural centres at the time, notably Venice of which they were an integral component.

Over the course of history, the palazzo passed hands and belonged to various noble and patrician families. The Tobolović family had a coat-of-arms installed on it in the Gothic style and it was deemed one of the most beautiful in Šibenik at the time. The original coat-of-arms ended up in Vienna, where it was sold by a member of the Rossini family. In the 16th century, the palace belonged to the Ivetić family who were exceptionally wealthy and associated with trade and ship building, and their coat-of-arms can be seen on the apse of the well in the central courtyard. During the Venetian-Ottoman wars of the 16th century the Ivetić family, who were descendants of the Rossini’s, financed a large segment of the Dalmatian fleet that accompanied the Doge’s naval units during the Battle of Lepanto. Many of Dalmatia’s finest sea captains, sailors and merchant marines hailed from this coast, and can trace their lineage to the city of Šibenik and its neighbouring islands.

Next on the agenda was the Palazzo Pelegrini, also known as ‘Tambača’ in Croatian. It was located only about 100 metres away from Palazzo Rossini on Ulica Juraj Dalmatinac ('George the Dalmatian street') next to the Square of the Four Wells, and it was the second consecutive palazzo with a fine view of the piazza by the western façade of St. James Cathedral. The Renaissance and Baroque components of the Palazzo Pelegrini encompassed a square medieval tower of the same name which were once adjacent to the southern city walls and linked it to the nearby Teodošević Tower. The whole effect was mind-boggling - think Renaissance level Minecraft designed by a 15th century architect. The walls of Palazzo Pelegrini included a separate fortified tower that acted as a bulwark and extended into a double opening, one of which continues into Juraj Dalmatinac street, while the other exits out towards the entrance to the Square of the Four Wells. The Pelegrini family of nobles lived in Šibenik from the 16th to 19th centuries, when the family’s last descendant died.

Castello Barone, the last site of interest to visit for the day, also provided one of the best views of Šibenik from a good height. I had been here before in 2015 while blogging from the set of Game of Thrones (Season 5 and Season 6). At the time it was buzzing with activity as the American and British film crews were finalizing post-production shooting with the Croatian team and stand in cast (parts of it stood in as the scene of the castle-like theatre where Arya watched her assigned hit-list victim, Lady Crane, give a performance dressed as Cersei during the episodes titled ‘The Door’ and ‘Blood of my Blood’). The castle is one of the four remaining castle fortifications open for public viewing in Šibenik and provides a majestic panorama out to sea. The other three are the castle fortresses of St. John - another Game of Thrones film site and located even higher than Barone on a mountain precipice; St. Michael; and St. Nicholas, the latter of which is a sea castle built onto a rock-like promontory deep in the middle of the Bay of Šibenik. Designed in 1548 by the Venetian architect Giangirolamo Sanmicheli who designed the three patrician palazzos Pompeii, Canossa and Bevilacqua in Verona, the Palazzo San Luca and Palazzo San Polo in Venice, and the Porta Terraferma in Zadar (subject of another blog), the fortress of St. Nicholas was tasked with defending the city harbour from encroaching Ottoman ships. It’s considered the finest example of a Renaissance sea fortification along the entire Dalmatian coast and is today used as a venue for concerts and art exhibits. Viewed from the hill upon which Castello Barone sits, it resembled a sleeping dragon in the middle of the Adriatic waiting for its prey (no wonder Game of Thrones execs decided to film here!).

Barone, which is sometimes referred to as ‘Fort Šubićevac’ in Croatian, is located some distance north of the old city core and several hundred metres south-east of the Fortress of St. John (Šibenik’s highest castle). It stands at an elevation of 80 metres above sea level on a hill called Vidakuša (‘The Lookout Point’) and was originally named after the small Church of St. Vitus, built by the Byzantines and cemented by the Knight Templars long before the current castle was built.

Construction started in 1646, at the same time as the Fortress of St. John, with which it played a vital role in the defence of the city against the Ottomans. The fortress long bore the name of Baron Degenfeld, a German serving the Venetian Republic, who led the defence of Šibenik from 1646 to 1647. In 1659, it was expanded and restored by Anton Bernardo, who did the same for the Fortress of St. John. In the early 20th century, the Šibenik City Council purchased Castello Barone and its surroundings and called this part of the city 'Šubićevac' after the Šubić family of old Croatian nobility. Today it is used as an open-air theatre where stage performances, concerts, and art exhibits are held during the spring and summer months, although most of the current throngs present when I arrived were only interested in Game of Thrones.

My day in Šibenik was coming to a close. Martina and the kids were somewhere below in the city enjoying the last evening gelato before we were to head on home and call it a night. From the vantage point of Castello Barone, the bay of Šibenik was enveloped in a gorgeous early autumn sun set, as orange and vibrant as a tangerine. Glittering boats and yachts were bobbing in the harbour and hundreds of tiny little islands were shimmering in the distance. Farther out at sea I could spot a few of the adorable light houses I had seen when cruising a few days earlier by boat, and somewhere out there lay the islands of the Kornati Archipelago, a yachters paradise and a national sea park which I was set to explore three days later. It was the last day before the start of autumn and I could spot swimmers still emerging from the warm sea. They were probably wondering where to consume dinner, a thought that was beginning to cross my own mind as well. Time stood still and the remote sounds of life emerging from the streets below were occasionally drowned out by the horn of a cruise ship pulling into harbour. I spotted citizens lazily awakening from their afternoon slumber, shutters and doors (‘portune’ as they are known in Dalmatian) slowly opening in the Renaissance side streets, and pigeons scurrying away to avoid an emerging game of outdoor soccer played in the piazza by precious Croatian six-year old's. Restaurant awns and pergolas were being wound up and opened, and a Croatian teenager had set up an impromptu viola concert in front of the cathedral and was playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major Op. 9, No. 20 (my personal favorite) to a curious crowd that began congregating around her.

I could get use to this I thought. A few minutes later my iPhone began beeping. It was Martina and she was waiting for me down by the harbour. A new bar had opened and we should try one last cappuccino and perhaps a campari before heading home for the evening. As I made my way down the marble steps and enjoyed the fine evening view of hundreds of tiny restaurants preparing their tables, nestled between Renaissance and Romanesque courtyards and atriums, I couldn’t help but think of Josip and how proud he must be of his city today. I wished our paths had crossed again but they hadn’t and I had no way of finding him as I had lost the address he had given me over twenty years ago. Nonetheless, my great wish is that he somehow stumbles across this write-up for I can now tell him with the most genuine honesty that the Šibenik he had promised I visit one day had surpassed my every expectation and critique. It’s a must-see on anyone’s Croatian sojourn and if you’re brave enough to deal with the Hollywood throngs and the tourist hordes who are flocking to it to unravel its charms, you won’t be disappointed.

Š  ibenik like most Dalmatian towns was a city state of Venice, and there is no more bona fide stamp of a former Venetian city than the Lion of St. Mark. Stone lions are literally to be found on just about every civic and Christian building in the coastal regions of Dalmatia, Istria and Montenegro.

Šibenik like most Dalmatian towns was a city state of Venice, and there is no more bona fide stamp of a former Venetian city than the Lion of St. Mark. Stone lions are literally to be found on just about every civic and Christian building in the coastal regions of Dalmatia, Istria and Montenegro.

Nicolo di Fiorentino (literally Nicholas of Florence), built Šibenik's Cathedral of St. James, a Renaissance masterpiece infusing Romanesque and Renaissance details on an older structure that stood on the same grounds. On the archways and atriums that ador  n the outside of the cathedral, Nicolo cunningly sculpted 74 unique heads. Each symbolizes his contemporaries and as the legend goes, he spared no one. The faces represent craftsman, ordinary people, wealthy patrician scions, and some claim even his lovers and enemies. Despite being engaged by a wealthy patrician family to sculpt heads that represented the various Christian saints, Nicolo turned his back on this idea and built them to represent the vices of humanity as he saw them. A true rebel and agnostic who outwitted his peers, he remains one of my most favorite Renaissance characters of all time. The detail in each face is astounding. I could stare at them all day.

Nicolo di Fiorentino (literally Nicholas of Florence), built Šibenik's Cathedral of St. James, a Renaissance masterpiece infusing Romanesque and Renaissance details on an older structure that stood on the same grounds. On the archways and atriums that adorn the outside of the cathedral, Nicolo cunningly sculpted 74 unique heads. Each symbolizes his contemporaries and as the legend goes, he spared no one. The faces represent craftsman, ordinary people, wealthy patrician scions, and some claim even his lovers and enemies. Despite being engaged by a wealthy patrician family to sculpt heads that represented the various Christian saints, Nicolo turned his back on this idea and built them to represent the vices of humanity as he saw them. A true rebel and agnostic who outwitted his peers, he remains one of my most favorite Renaissance characters of all time. The detail in each face is astounding. I could stare at them all day.

A detail on a patrician house in Šibenik. Notice the latticed window carving and cornichon. The white marble stone of Dalmatia was used in the construction of all Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque building.

A detail on a patrician house in Šibenik. Notice the latticed window carving and cornichon. The white marble stone of Dalmatia was used in the construction of all Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque building.

St. George slaying the dragon. He is pictured here on the exterior of the Chapel of St. George (Sveti Juraj), one of the smaller chapels one passes on the walk towards St. James Cathedral. The chapel was used as a location shot for the Game of Thrones fictional kingdom of Braavos outside of which Arya sat while waiting for the Faceless Man to accept her coin in Season 4.

St. George slaying the dragon. He is pictured here on the exterior of the Chapel of St. George (Sveti Juraj), one of the smaller chapels one passes on the walk towards St. James Cathedral. The chapel was used as a location shot for the Game of Thrones fictional kingdom of Braavos outside of which Arya sat while waiting for the Faceless Man to accept her coin in Season 4.

A fine view of the main city square with the Town Hall (Gradska Vijecnica or Palazzo Vecchio) in the background.

A fine view of the main city square with the Town Hall (Gradska Vijecnica or Palazzo Vecchio) in the background.

The fine details of a Renaissance era courtyard. 

The fine details of a Renaissance era courtyard. 

Stained glass window on a patrician home depicting St. Michael the Arch Angel (Sveti Mihajlo).

Stained glass window on a patrician home depicting St. Michael the Arch Angel (Sveti Mihajlo).

St. James carrying his chisel and the Holy Book. He is elegant, classy, determined, and sort of suave. Kind of like a 14th century Marlboro Man if ever there was one.

St. James carrying his chisel and the Holy Book. He is elegant, classy, determined, and sort of suave. Kind of like a 14th century Marlboro Man if ever there was one.

One of the most beautiful rustic doors imaginable. The simplicity and harmony of the rose colored tempera hues are breathtakingly simple.

One of the most beautiful rustic doors imaginable. The simplicity and harmony of the rose colored tempera hues are breathtakingly simple.

The Cathedral of St. James viewed from the northern side in the strong Dalmatian sun.

The Cathedral of St. James viewed from the northern side in the strong Dalmatian sun.

Quiet walk in a sunlit side street of old Šibenik. I actually took this photo and am quite proud of it. Evidence of the old and the new in Dalmatia blend in harmoniously.

Quiet walk in a sunlit side street of old Šibenik. I actually took this photo and am quite proud of it. Evidence of the old and the new in Dalmatia blend in harmoniously.

Palazzo Vecchio. I took this shot after waiting for crowds of millennials to exit the square in search of the next Pokemon Go.

Palazzo Vecchio. I took this shot after waiting for crowds of millennials to exit the square in search of the next Pokemon Go.

Stairway and atrium leading to the Palazzo Rossini located within walking distance of the city piazza and central square.

Stairway and atrium leading to the Palazzo Rossini located within walking distance of the city piazza and central square.

The Cathedral of St. James taken against the tempera like hue of an approaching Dalmatian sunset.

The Cathedral of St. James taken against the tempera like hue of an approaching Dalmatian sunset.

The Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall building) decked out with banners in honour of the city of Sibenik's 950th birthday.

The Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall building) decked out with banners in honour of the city of Sibenik's 950th birthday.

The Venetian windows adorning the southern facade of the Palazzo Pelegrini.

The Venetian windows adorning the southern facade of the Palazzo Pelegrini.

One of the many cafes adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio set out for the evening strollers.

One of the many cafes adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio set out for the evening strollers.

A full view of Palazzo Pelegrini from the piazza square. The statue in the foreground is of Nicolo di Fiorentino (Nicholas of Florence), the architect and genius behind St. James Cathedral.

A full view of Palazzo Pelegrini from the piazza square. The statue in the foreground is of Nicolo di Fiorentino (Nicholas of Florence), the architect and genius behind St. James Cathedral.

A view of St. James Cathedral taken from one of the balconies of the Palazzo Rossini.

A view of St. James Cathedral taken from one of the balconies of the Palazzo Rossini.

St. James Cathedral and it's magnificent portico doors and majestic Rosetta stone window. In the foreground, Croatian children engage in an evening game of soccer by using the piazza square as a pitch, while I sip on a local Malvazija wine at Pelegrini restaurant, Croatia's only JRE and Michelin star establishment.

St. James Cathedral and it's magnificent portico doors and majestic Rosetta stone window. In the foreground, Croatian children engage in an evening game of soccer by using the piazza square as a pitch, while I sip on a local Malvazija wine at Pelegrini restaurant, Croatia's only JRE and Michelin star establishment.

An old street leading to the central piazza adorned with banners celebrating the town's 950th birthday. The golden hued tempera of the Dalmatian marble was evident everywhere and gives the city a very royal look and feel.b

An old street leading to the central piazza adorned with banners celebrating the town's 950th birthday. The golden hued tempera of the Dalmatian marble was evident everywhere and gives the city a very royal look and feel.b

A beautiful head adorning the facade of the Cathedral of St. James.

A beautiful head adorning the facade of the Cathedral of St. James.

More heads. There are 74 in total and they tell a marvelous story carved in Dalmatian marble for anyone who cares to listen.

More heads. There are 74 in total and they tell a marvelous story carved in Dalmatian marble for anyone who cares to listen.

Portrait of the artist. Many believe this head represents the architect himself, Nicolo di Fiorentino.  He glances eastward and away from the direction of Venice and the west which was implied as a sign that he turned his back on Christianity and declared himself a humanist and agnostic (before such terms even existed). My kind of guy.

Portrait of the artist. Many believe this head represents the architect himself, Nicolo di Fiorentino. He glances eastward and away from the direction of Venice and the west which was implied as a sign that he turned his back on Christianity and declared himself a humanist and agnostic (before such terms even existed). My kind of guy.

The Chapel of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and seafarers but better known in the west as Father Christmas or Santa Klaus. On his feast day, December 6th, the town hands out chocolate to good children and a 'switch' to the bad ones (as the tradition goes) who are then gobbled up and taken away by Krampus (a bad guy, sort of like the Devil). Good old Saint Nick was sculpted in miniature style and can be seen in the atrium above the main door, hand raised to bless all those who enter. I have 8 Nicholas' in my family so Saint Nicholas is our family saint and my favorite saint of all.

The Chapel of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and seafarers but better known in the west as Father Christmas or Santa Klaus. On his feast day, December 6th, the town hands out chocolate to good children and a 'switch' to the bad ones (as the tradition goes) who are then gobbled up and taken away by Krampus (a bad guy, sort of like the Devil). Good old Saint Nick was sculpted in miniature style and can be seen in the atrium above the main door, hand raised to bless all those who enter. I have 8 Nicholas' in my family so Saint Nicholas is our family saint and my favorite saint of all.

A stunning fusion of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art reminiscent of the late Ravenesse Byzantine style so often seen on the Dalmatian coast, the 14th century Church of the Holy Savior (or Sveti Spas and 'Uznešenje Bogorodice' as it is known in Croat  ian) is reknown for its interior. The altar was shifted and alternated to serve the needs of the cities' Catholic and Orthodox faithful, a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries. Constructed and financed by the Knight Templars (and referred to by locals as "the Crusader church"), it served for a time as the Convent of St. Claire before its present day designation as the seat of the Orthodox bishophric in Šibenik.

A stunning fusion of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art reminiscent of the late Ravenesse Byzantine style so often seen on the Dalmatian coast, the 14th century Church of the Holy Savior (or Sveti Spas and 'Uznešenje Bogorodice' as it is known in Croatian) is reknown for its interior. The altar was shifted and alternated to serve the needs of the cities' Catholic and Orthodox faithful, a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries. Constructed and financed by the Knight Templars (and referred to by locals as "the Crusader church"), it served for a time as the Convent of St. Claire before its present day designation as the seat of the Orthodox bishophric in Šibenik.

The pastel coloured hues evident on many of Sibenik's buildings and squares make it the perfect place to relax and partake in the art of coffee-sipping, a Dalmatian national pastime.

The pastel coloured hues evident on many of Sibenik's buildings and squares make it the perfect place to relax and partake in the art of coffee-sipping, a Dalmatian national pastime.

A plaque detailing the 1066 Charter of King Kresimir which declared Sibenik a royal and free city.

A plaque detailing the 1066 Charter of King Kresimir which declared Sibenik a royal and free city.

The door of the Palazzo Rossini. Simply stunning and ornate. The coat of arms shows a dragon with a crown on it's head (not an eagle as was customary at the time).

The door of the Palazzo Rossini. Simply stunning and ornate. The coat of arms shows a dragon with a crown on it's head (not an eagle as was customary at the time).

The famous doors of St. James Cathedral which took Nicolo almost 25 years to complete. People come from all over the world to see them and marvel at the carved vignettes which represent stories and episodes from the old and new testament. Further up adorning the door frame are heads, dragons, demagorgons, you name it, our man Nicolo was a genius. The exterior of the building stood in as the location shot for the House of the Many Faced Gods and the Iron Bank of Braavos in Season 2, 5, and 6 of the Game of Thrones series.

The famous doors of St. James Cathedral which took Nicolo almost 25 years to complete. People come from all over the world to see them and marvel at the carved vignettes which represent stories and episodes from the old and new testament. Further up adorning the door frame are heads, dragons, demagorgons, you name it, our man Nicolo was a genius. The exterior of the building stood in as the location shot for the House of the Many Faced Gods and the Iron Bank of Braavos in Season 2, 5, and 6 of the Game of Thrones series.

Vibrant fruit on display at Sibenik's open-air market, one of the best in Dalmatia.

Vibrant fruit on display at Sibenik's open-air market, one of the best in Dalmatia.

'Žižulje' also known as Chinese dates or Jujube in English.

'Žižulje' also known as Chinese dates or Jujube in English.

Dried figs imbued on a 'grotula' chain. Fig production in Dalmatia was once a huge industry. Today it is only over-clipped by the mass production of dried fig cultivation in Greece and Turkey (Croatia is the EU's third largest producer and exporter of sticky figs). Dalmatian figs are smoked, cured, dried and spliced to create jams, jellies a  nd eau-de-vies. They go well with prosciutto, goat cheese and various types of meat. A true Dalmatian household will have quite a few fig trees adorning their home and courtyard. Back in the day, figs were so plentiful along this coast that pirates raided the bays and the Venetians created a huge profit in export to the far east. The tradition of figs continues to this day in the production of everything from fig based food products to fig soap, fig candles, fig candies and fig newtons for our American friends.

Dried figs imbued on a 'grotula' chain. Fig production in Dalmatia was once a huge industry. Today it is only over-clipped by the mass production of dried fig cultivation in Greece and Turkey (Croatia is the EU's third largest producer and exporter of sticky figs). Dalmatian figs are smoked, cured, dried and spliced to create jams, jellies and eau-de-vies. They go well with prosciutto, goat cheese and various types of meat. A true Dalmatian household will have quite a few fig trees adorning their home and courtyard. Back in the day, figs were so plentiful along this coast that pirates raided the bays and the Venetians created a huge profit in export to the far east. The tradition of figs continues to this day in the production of everything from fig based food products to fig soap, fig candles, fig candies and fig newtons for our American friends.

Sibenik's wonderful open-air market. I took this photo for my father and his brothers, my uncle Ivan and Anton, who combined, represent the three biggest connoisseurs of Savoy Cabbage in the entire world!

Sibenik's wonderful open-air market. I took this photo for my father and his brothers, my uncle Ivan and Anton, who combined, represent the three biggest connoisseurs of Savoy Cabbage in the entire world!