If Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian islands are Croatia’s debutantes, then the Šibenik Riviera is an elegant elder cousin. With a bit more reserve and a bit less bling, the region still shows its Croatian genes: sunshine and ocean, seafood and an enduring local culture. The shore is lined with quiet towns where vacationing Croatian families swim and cook, escaping the inland heat for a few weeks each summer.
Though vying to join Croatia’s tourist renaissance, many of these towns still retain their workaday character. The island of Primošten has one of the more developed tourist economies in the Šibenik region, with beaches, nightlife, and a summer arts festival. More as a testament to perseverance than taste, taverns serve babic wine, the local vintage whose grapes are grown on the rocks of the island.
We had coffee in Zaton, a tiny bay rimmed by cafes and leafy trees. With mostly fishermen and farmers, Zaton seems as if it has remained unchanged for generations. Fishing boats, hulls dented and scraped, rock in the harbor. The tiny post office sells CDs by Croatian popular singers; the postmaster will happily play a sample track for tourists.
The biggest city in the region, Šibenik, is a maze of stone. From hilltop to the water, the old city slowly descends downhill; curving, shallow staircases connect upper and lower levels. The streets feel as if they’ve been dug out in the narrows between buildings. Like many Croatian towns, Šibenik has embraced development within the architecture of the past. An icon of such history, the Cathedral of St. James stands in the center of town. A chalky gray dome juts above the surrounding tile roofs, asserting its somber, simple lines into the landscape. The UNESCO heritage site is one of Croatia’s only Renaissance cathedrals.
On a hill overlooking the city stands the Fortress of St. Michael. Now largely in ruins, the fortress ascends through multiple levels, up rickety staircases, before a view opens out to reveal the Cathedral’s gray dome, the irregular geometry of red roofs, and the opaque blue of the bay.
Sprinkled with islands – some habited, some wild – the estuary has a unique half-salt, half-fresh water consistency. In Krka National Park, the fresh Krka River cascades into the Adriatic. Just a few years ago, visitors could swim out to the waterfalls; now, hiking and boat trips are the best ways to visit the park.
We were lucky enough to stay with a local family in the tiny village of Raslina not far from Zaton. Two convenience stores, a pizza restaurant, and a small harbor define the commercial activity of Raslina. It’s a sleepy town, buzzing with cicadas at mid-day. Many of the homes bear mortar marks from shelling during the conflict of the 1990s. A narrow strip of rocky beach provides Raslina’s main entertainment. Few permanent residents remain in this village; it’s now a summer getaway for middle-class Croatians. Children leap from the dock into the choppy water. Their parents paddle languidly and return to shore for sunbathing. In one corner of the beach, a few teens with long hair sit in the back of a pickup, blasting heavy metal music.
Old men chuck bocce balls on a single court in the center of town; the adjacent bar has built a beer tap in the court, so that players can quaff without ever leaving the game. The old men sit there for hours, drinking beers, smoking endless cigarettes, tossing balls with a listless intensity. They are the old vanguard, the lifelong residents of this increasingly transient town. They give this place its character; rather than being a playground for international tourists, the Šibenik estuary is a truly Croatian place to vacation.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer and Photos by Matt Bozigar for EuropeUpClose.com