Travelling the Adriatic Highway

Sunset

Cities and Landscapes of the Croatian Coast

The Adriatic highway snakes its way down the Croatian coast, linking historic towns and fine landscapes.

The Adriatic highway is a marvellous road to drive or bike, though risky – its serpentine twists and turns sometimes ornamented by skidmarks leading to a hole in the crash barrier, the sea hundreds of feet below. It’s a route of dramatic karst scenery, with clear blue water to one side, and the view of islands in the distance.

Croatia’s Mixed Heritage – Venetian and Turkish

It’s equally memorable for its cultural monuments. Croatia is a land that was ruled by the Republic of Venice for centuries; it was also, later on, part of the Ottoman Empire. So you’ll see the Lion of St Mark everywhere – as well as Venetian style buildings; but the coffee, dark and strong, is definitely Turkish.

The Highway starts in Rijeka, a port city that probably won’t detain you long. You might, though, want to spend an afternoon climbing the steps up to the hilltop church of Mary Star of the Sea, for the views over the bay.

Next stop on the Dalmatian coastline is Senj, the home of the Uskok pirates who fought against the Ottoman Turks – when they weren’t just being robbers. The town is dominated by the grim, grey and foursquare bulk of Nehaj (‘Fear Not’) Castle, built by Uskok leader Ivan Lenkovic. From here, again, there are fine views of the Adriatic.

Drive on to Zadar, originally a Roman city, built on a promontory stuck out into the sea. Many buildings reuse stones from Roman ruins.

The most prominent monument, though, is later – the huge round church of Saint Donatus, built in the ninth century as the southern Slavs of Dalmatia gained independence. The Venetian heritage here is also strong, with an arsenal, and a land gate built by the Republic’s great military architect, Sanmicheli.

Tiny Island City on the Coast

Near Zadar is the tiny city of Nin – it has the smallest cathedral in the world. Built on an island in a lagoon, it’s surrounded by salt pans, and feels rather left behind by history; a rich bishopric in tmedieval Croatia, it’s now just a sleepy little town.

Head on to Sibenik to visit a very different cathedral, a fine Renaissance building which is strangely reminiscent of some of Venice’s churches.

The main architect who worked on it, Juraj Dalmatinac, was born in Zadar, but he had studied and worked in Venice. The frieze of human heads on the outside is full of realistic portraits; perhaps we’re looking at real fifteenth century citizens.

Trogir, a little town on a small island, is also famed for its cathedral, with an ornate Romanesque carved portal by Master Radovan. It shows Adam and Eve, the labours of the months, and hunting scenes, as well as the life of Christ. But the rest of the town is equally well worth visiting for its Renaissance and baroque palaces.

Split’s Roman Monuments

A little further on is Split, an entire city built within the walls of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace. The mausoleum of the emperor is now the cathedral, and the peristyle (colonnaded open courtyard) of the palace can still be seen.

The Roman work is complemented by medieval buildings like the fifteenth century town hall, and the whole place is buzzing – it’s Croatia’s second largest town and famed for its pretty girls and summer music festival.

But the jewel of the Adriatic Highway is Dubrovnik. Another city built on an island, it was a free state until 1808, and at one time the rival of Venice.

There are still only two entrances to the old town, which retains its charm despite damage in the 1990s war, now repaired. There are Baroque churches and Renaissance palaces; you can visit one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe, or walk the entire circuit of the city walls.

From Dubrovnik, the Highway carries on into Montenegro. But many tourists choose a different way to return to Rijeka – island hopping in the Adriatic, using the many ferries that ply the Croatian coast.