The southern half of the Croatian coast—Dalmatia—has become a magnet for Hollywood A-listers and chart-topping singers. And since the Game of Thrones series, masses of tourists wander the spectacular Dubrovnik Old Town in search of King’s Landing. It’s hard to say which came first: Hollywood to Croatia or Hollywood-ization of Croatia.
Google also confirms Croatia’s blockbuster status by pronouncing it the most searched for travel destination in 2016. But there’s a price for this stardom, and it’s being overlooked in the current fame frenzy.
For an average tourist, Croatia’s 1,000 miles of jaw-dropping coastline has shrunk into three sun, sea, and foodie destinations: Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split. At the same time, the country’s opulent cultural heritage seems to elude both those who promote Croatia and those who visit it. Yet the great artists and scientists born here from the Renaissance onwards thrived on the same blessings that travelers are now attracted to: the sun, the sea and the good food.
Take a tour with us, below, as we visit the some of the famous Croats born in Dalmatia’s most popular spots.
The regal flare of Dubrovnik’s striking fortifications set against the shimmer of the deep Adriatic blue evoke the once powerful Republic of Ragusa, as the city-state was once called.
At the peek of its prosperity, the Republic was home to the Renaissance playwright Marin Drzic (1508-1567) who would later be known as Dubrovnik’s favorite son. Dubbed the Croatian Shakespeare, this free-spirited genius created a gallery of lively characters—misers, senile tyrants and cuckolds—who mocked the rule of aristocracy. Drzic even conspired against the Ragusa regime, which may be why his legacy in Dubrovnik is still patchy, and why he remains unknown to all but Croatian speakers, even though his plays inspired Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe.
Drzic’s presence is best felt in the House of Marin Drzic (Siroka 7): a stone house restored to reflect the Renaissance period. Introduction to his life and a 16th-century stage featuring his famous characters will appeal more to literary buffs than to the GoT thrill seekers.
Few people can resist the unique charm of the UNESCO-protected Old Town of Split. The heart of this 1,700 years city—Diocletian Palace—is an impressive Roman monument buzzing with bars, museums and lodgings. Who wouldn’t want to crash a Roman-era party in the emperor’s pad?
Split’s cultural buoyancy continued into the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the writer Marko Marulic (1450-1524). Widely read across the Renaissance Europe, the author work influenced Thomas More and king Henry VIII, whose annotated copy of Marulic’s Evangelistarium is kept in the British Library.
The Marulic Palace (Papali?eva 4, Old Town) is now home to the spirited Marcvs Marvlvs Spalatensis bar and library where you can mix the magic of live poetry and Dalmatian wine, against the backdrop of stone and wood.
If like the writer himself you prefer “Arcadian peacefulness in the olive tree shade,” catch the ferry to the bucolic island of Solta. There, in a beachfront stone house in Necujam village, Marulic wrote his epic poem Judith that earned him the title of Croatian Dante.
Hvar is Croatia’s most celebrated island and an addictive draw for the glitterati. In Hvar Town, sunshine is so dazzling (2,718 hours of sunshine per year) and night life so chichi that its deep cultural heritage is often ignored.
Squint a little and you’ll find Hvar Theatre on the first floor of the central Arsenal building, itself a ponderous naval construction. Built in 1612, it is Europe’s third oldest public theater and a milestone of the Hvar Renaissance.
Hvar literary accomplishments also linger in the Summer Residence of Hanibal Lucic (1485-1553), a stone villa with a Renaissance-style garden, which hosts a program of cultural events in the summer. Though mostly forgotten outside Croatia, Lucic’s play The Slave ushered in the genre of the popular Renaissance romance 50 years before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. To catch a glimpse of Lucic’s artistic and aristocratic life, peak into the salon of his summer residence.
Sibenik, a city wedged between the islands and the waterfalls of Krka National Park, is best known for its UNESCO-protected Cathedral of St James. But its medieval history also oozes from four stunning fortresses. Two of these—St. Michael’s and Barone been restored with state-of-the-art technology.
In Fortress Barone, the already breathtaking view is amplified by the augmented reality that enacts historic scenes through special glasses. Being the hometown of Faust Vrancic—a prolific inventor nicknamed the Croatian Leonardo da Vinci—it doesn’t surprise that Sibenik leads the way in cutting-edge tourist experiences.
Vrancic (1551-1617) sketched 56 devices such as mills, elevators and bridges, but his most ingenious idea was homo volans (the flying man), known today as a parachute. The Faust Vrancic Memorial Center on the nearby island of Prvic is just as pioneering with life-size models of his inventions, multimedia displays and educational games for youngsters. This gem of a museum was short-listed for the 2015 European Museum of the Year Award.
Croatia’s sun-and-sea approach to tourism may need diversification, but not when it comes to Zadar. The city takes these God-given boons to unrivaled levels.
Alfred Hitchcock found Zadar sunsets the most beautiful in the world. More than five decades later, local architect Nikola Basic made used the natural phenomenon and turned it into an artistic installation. The Sun Salutation is a circle in the pavement filled with 300 multilayered glass plates that use solar energy to sparkle at night. Just as magical is the nearby Sea Organ, made of stone steps descending into the sea and pipes through which the waves sing their wistful melody.
After enjoying the light show and the ethereal tune, walk along the waterfront to admire the statue of Croatia’s first marine biologist and Darwin’s pen pal Spiridon Brusina (1845-1908). You’ll see him perched by the sea, meditating over a large shell, which, according to the local lore, has special powers. Hold it to your ear and you’ll hear the sea murmuring.
There’s no need to feel bad if you miss out on spotting the popular idols of the today: Pitt, Clooney or Beyoncé. When on the Croatian coast, dig deeper into the history and enjoy the hidden treats that have kept people coming here for centuries.
Image, Eric Hossinger, CC-BY
Andrea Pisac is a fiction writer and a cultural anthropologist. She writes about ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective. Follow her adventures on her blog Zagreb Honestly.