The Dalmatian Coast

The unparalleled number of civilizations that rose in the Mediterranean resulted in a melding of cultures greater than anywhere else on earth. Today the region draws travelers interested in art, culture, and history. Yet, while many travelers revel in the better-known glories of the Mediterranean -- Venice, Crete, Athens -- few avail themselves of an exploration of the Dalmatian Coast, an area that, along with possessing treasures to match any others found in the Mediterranean, perfectly displays how settlement, conquest, and trade inform a society.

Comprising the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea from Rijeka in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, the Dalmatian Coast is one of the most visually striking areas in Europe. Rugged limestone cliffs rise abruptly from the sea; medieval towns, built from the rock of their surroundings, blend into the landscape in a way not seen elsewhere on the continent.

Approaching from the Adriatic, a traveler can easily comprehend why so many peoples coveted and fought over these protected sites. Around the sixth century B.C., Illyrian tribal groups, famed as warriors and closely related to Alexander and his Macedonians, lived throughout Dalmatia. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the region became the source of many of the famed Praetorian Guards and leaders of the army. As a result, Roman ruins dot the coast, and in the city of Split one finds the remnants of the palace erected by the tyrannical emperor Diocletian -- one of the best examples of Roman palaces in Europe.

One can also understand the role geography played in shaping Dalmatian society. The coast lay directly between the Byzantine Empire, with its distinct art, architecture, and culture, and the Western Roman Empire. The divide between the empires, and also the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches, is roughly today's border of Dalmatia and Montenegro. In medieval times Dalmatian cities thrived through trade with North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, Byzantium and its Ottoman successor state, as well as various Italian states. Most important of these was the wealthy and powerful city-state of Venice, which left an indelible mark on many towns and villages, making the coast one of the gems of Venetian culture. Indeed, today if you wish to see the finest examples of a medieval Venetian town, you need to go to Dalmatia.

None of the various powers that held sway over Dalmatia ever truly eradicated those that came before it. Rather, a fusion form of art, architecture, and costume evolved as each culture added to previous cultures' contributions. Travelers can see a unique form of art that mixed icons style, with its gold-tile backgrounds, with Renaissance styles of painting. In Split we see how later rulers created a major Christian cultural center amid structures erected by the Romans.

The Ottomans introduced intricate forms of silver jewelry and weaving patterns, spurred by the Dalmatians' fascination with the splendor of Istanbul. Sephardic Jews, invited by the Ottomans to settle in the Balkans, contributed the famous scroll embroidery seen in clothing worn in the region. Traditional garments may be the single best visible example of Dalmatia's cultural mix. You can see Croatian, Venetian, North African, Ottoman Turkish, and Sephardic Jewish influences in a single costume.

Finally, in Dalmatia, history isn't something we see only in museums and preserved sites; it's a vital force, one whose influence is manifest in everyday lives. Walks through old town centers are delights in themselves. These old towns are still the homes of ordinary local people. The streets and alleys are more suited for donkeys than for cars, and in many, cars are banned. As one walks these streets, one encounters old inns, shops, wells, fountains, churches, and, of course, local people. The past and the present continue to meld; in the squares and narrow streets one frequently encounters elderly citizens, dressed in black, watching their grandchildren, in modern colorful dress, play.

The Dalmatian Coast is part of our September Mediterranean Under Sail: Crete to Venice expedition, which you can combine with our Istanbul to Crete departure. Call or e-mail our office for more information.

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