Šibenik and Zadar – Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries

As the UNESCO comments:

This property consists of 6 components of defence works in Italy, Croatia and Montenegro, spanning more than 1,000 km between the Lombard region of Italy and the eastern Adriatic Coast. The fortifications throughout the Stato da Terra protected the Republic of Venice from other European powers to the northwest and those of the Stato da Mar protected the sea routes and ports in the Adriatic Sea to the Levant. They were necessary to support the expansion and authority of the Serenissima. The introduction of gunpowder led to significant shifts in military techniques and architecture that are reflected in the design of so-called alla moderna / bastioned, fortifications, which were to spread throughout Europe.

As mentioned above, there are 6 components of the defense works, 2 of which are located in Croatia, namely Fort of St. Nikola in Šibenik-Knin County and the defensive System of Zadar. I did visit the defense walls in Zadar, but due to lack of time and the long distance between the Fort of St. Nikola in Šibenik-Knin County and Šibenik city center, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit it. However, I did visit another fortress, the creator of Šibenik – St. Michael’s Fortress, which provides a wonderful view over the city and as far as the blue horizon. It is said that without St. Michael’s Fortress, there wouldn’t be the city of Šibenik, or at least, the Šibenik nowadays.

In this post, I’ll focus on what I experienced in these two cities, that is to say, the defensive system, the Sea Organ together with the sunset of Zadar and  St. Michael’s Fortress in Šibenik. If you are interested in UNESCO World Heritage sites or simply religion, art (Baroque or Renaissance), culture or history, the Cathedral of St. James in the center of Šibenik is a must-see attraction. I’ve already written one whole post particularly devoted to introducing this cathedral including the history, cultural value and many other aspects. For more information about this cathedral, please click here to visit my the other post “St. James Cathedral in Šibenik – Witness to the exchanges in monumental arts”.

Though I didn’t go to the Fort of St. Nikola in Šibenik-Knin County, I’ll try to provide some information based on either the tourist board or the other visitors. I didn’t have time to visit all the main attractions in these two cities, but if I saw something which might be of interest or some attractions recommended by the tourist board or other visitors, I’ll try to collect some information and inform you as well.

1. Zadar

1.1 The defensive system of Zadar

This is the Land Gate of Zadar (as the picture shown above) and do you know that Zadar was once the largest city-fortress in the entire Republic of Venice? This city-fortress Zadar was not only a vital place for the defence of the sea routes between Venezia and Corfù, but also the main administrative centre of the “Stato da Mar”. However, on 14th December, 1868, by the order of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, Zadar finished its role as a fortress and for the first time ever, the Land gate stayed open overnight. Four years later, a contract was signed to tear down the south-western city fortifications.

As the “UNESCO Venetian Fortresses” website says:

From a typological point of view, the system is made up of the most important fortified elements for urban defence, built to designs by some of the leading exponents of “alla moderna” Venetian military architecture. For example their ability is evidenced by the main city gate which was built by the famous Michele Sanmicheli. Equally significant was the contribution of Sforza Pallavicino for the Forte. The geo-morphological context formed of the Zadar Peninsula, running parallel to the Adriatic coast, is unique in the series.

The boundary consists of two main structures identified within extensive defence system of the city for their strong representativity, their typological connotation and their state of conservation. The area identifies the segment of bastioned walls facing the port with orientation NW-SE and the segment of walls facing the mainland with orientation SW-NE. In the first sector, the perimeter is set on the profile of the ramparts and the curtains of connection; in the second is including artificial inlet called ‘Fossa’.

If you wanna know more about the defensive system in Zadar I suggest you visit the website of “UNESCO Venetian Fortresses” because it provides a more detailed explanation of the system assisted by pictures and maps.

For more information about the defensive system in Zadar please click here.

For more information about the city walls and gates in Zadar please click here.

1.2 The Sea Organ

To be honest, although I intended on focusing on the UNESCO World Heritage (the defensive system) of Zadar, I was totally carried away when I saw the beautiful sunset by the sea accompanied by the elegant music of the Sea Organ. What a peaceful, romantic, harmonious dawn…

After seeing the pictures above, I believe it is not difficult to understand why the locals say sunset in Zadar is the most beautiful in Dalmatia. Imagine yourself sitting on one of the steps, watching the sun going down, listening to the Orchestra of Nature. What a relaxing moment! I have to say that if you come to Zadar without listening to the music of the Sea Organ or watching the sunset, your visit in this city is not complete.

Constructed according to the project made by architect Nikola Bašić with the assistance of several experts, the Sea Organ looks on the outside like a set of marble steps leading down to the sea but is actually an experimental musical instrument, which plays music by way of sea waves and tubes located under the steps.

If you are interested in engineering you are probably wondering now how does this Sea Organ work. I had the same question when I was listening to the symphony and fortunately the Tourist Board Zadar gives the following explanation:

The lower steps allow water and air to flow in. That water and air is then funneled into resonant chambers under the steps, and pushed out through the channels on the upper stairs. These cause the undulating, chime-like notes to be produced. The stairs extend for about 70 meters along the coast, under them, at the lowest sea-tide level, 35 pipes of different lenght, diameter and tilts were built in vertically to the coast and they raise aslant until the paved part of the shore and end in a canal (a service corridor). On the pipes there are LABIUMS (whistles), which play 7 chords of 5 tones. Above the canal there are perforated stone stairs through which the sound comes out.

If you wanna know more about the principle of how the Sea Organ work, please click here to visit the official website of Tourist Board Zadar.

For me, maybe influenced by the tranquility of the sunset and the symphony by the Sea Organ, it seemed rather relaxing here in Zadar and I became lazy. Unlike in other cities, where I run from one attraction to the other, I somehow slowed down here. Shuttling back and forth on the narrow streets made me feel I was back in time. I had a walk along the sea, had a nice dinner and had another stroll after dinner when it’s dark. Whenever I walked past the Sea Organ, the orchestra of nature kept playing the symphony regardless with audience or not.

I was also surprised by the nightlife of Zadar. Such liveliness in a city at night is not common to see. People gathered around the monument (Greeting to the Sun, not far away from the Sea Organ), hanging out with friends, singing, dancing and chatting. I couldn’t help but asking, how big is this city?

The other attraction that I’ve been to and I’d like to recommend to you is The Forum, a Roman municipal square built from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. Here is indeed the city square with locals and tourists hanging out, relaxing, chatting and kids playing around. A totally different feeling from the Forum in Rome. Built around the Forum are St. Donatus Church, St. Anastasia’s Cathedral, the bell tower and St. Mary’s Church and Convent.

St. Donatus Church is the symbol of city Zadar and is the most famous monumental building from the Middle Ages. St. Anastasia’s Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in Dalmatia and the permanent exhibition of St. Mary’s Church and Convent is among the most important in Croatia. Of course, the bell tower gives you a wonderful view over the city as well as the sea, allowing you to have a clear idea of how did Zadar become the largest city-fortress in the entire Republic of Venice. If you plan to spend a whole day here or you still have some spare time, a visit to Five Wells Square might be of interest to you. This is where the oldest park in Croatia is located.

If you wanna know more about the history of Zadar please click here.

I really like the website of the Tourist Board Zadar because at the beginning I thought Zadar was just a small city, but after reading about the history, the attractions etc. I realized that there is so much to do so much to see. From this website, you can read about Zadar’s history, stories and legends, historical monuments, museums, galleries and current events such as plays and concerts. Basically all the information you need to know about this city is here.

2. Šibenik

2.1 Fort of St. Nikola

Like the defensive system of Zadar, the fort of St. Nikola was built during the 16th century according to the plans of Venetian military architect Michelle Sammichelli. Situated at the entrance to St. Anthony’s channel, this fort played a vital role in protecting the town from the turkish attacks from the sea, thus making it one of the strongest fortification architecture on Adriatic sea.

Unfortunately, this fort is quite far from the city center of Šibenik and is not yet much developed as a tourist attraction so I didn’t have the opportunity to visit it yet. However, I gathered some information from some adventurers who visited this fortress and I’d like to share it with you.

First of all, there is a long walk between the city center of Šibenik and the fort of St. Nikola (around 2 hours walking). You can also drive here or cycle here, which would be much faster but it seems the only way to actually get to the foot of the fort is by boat. I also saw some comments saying that you can walk through an island and reach the foot of the fort but it seems rather impossible judging from the location of it. The second challenge confronted by most of the adventurers is that you have to climb up the planks to reach a window-like “door” to actually enter the fort. Some visitors commented that it’s no issue for young people but impossible for the “more mature”.

After succeeding in these two challenges, you will receive your reward, which is the view of Adriatic sea and St. Anthony’s channel! Imagine, part of the “Game of Thrones” was filmed here!

I do hope that the government could renovate this fort as soon as possible and the tourist board could provide easy access to it. I believe in the potentiality of it to become one of the top tourist attractions in Šibenik, or even in Dalmatia.

2.2 St. Michael’s Fortress

It seems like my tradition that whichever city I go to, I always like to go somewhere higher, where I can see the whole city from high above. Here in Šibenik, St. Michael’s Fortress and Barone Fortress are the best options. These two fortress are closely connected by their history. In order to protect their city from the attacks of the Ottoman army, the citizens invested their own resources and efforts, and in 58 days, constructed the two fortresses and defended Šibenik. “There was not a single man or woman who hesitated in carrying stones, soil or anything else needed to preserve their freedom.”

Unlike Fort of St. Nikola, St. Michael’s Fortress is located right in the heart of the city. Built around 6 meters above the ground, St. Michael’s Fortress stands out of the old town of Šibenik and overlooks St. Anthony’s Channel. Together with its defensive walls, as a protector of this area, this fortress ensured Šibenik to grow in security.

According to the brochure “Fortress of Culture Šibenik”:

During the 15th century, St. Michael’s Fortress became the most important and most powerful object of the city’s fortification system with a constant formation of 40 soldiers. The army in St. Michael’s Fortress had 32 cannons, rifles, crossbows, arches and arrows, spears, armours and shields.

The great victory over the Ottoman army proves that St. Michael’s Fortress was so strong that even the strongest force at that time couldn’t conquer it.

You can only buy combined ticket to visit both fortresses (at least I wasn’t offered with the option of visiting just one of the them), but due to lack of time, I only visited St. Michael’s Fortress. One thing you should note is that when you’re purchasing tickets, ask for tickets in English or your own language. The tickets contain some information or introduction about the fortresses but somehow I got the tickets in Polish and I couldn’t understand a single word…

2.2.1 Opening hours
  • April – May: Monday – Sunday, 9:00-20:00.
  • June – September: Monday – Sunday, 9:00-22:00.
  • October: Monday – Sunday, 9:00-20:00.
  • November – March: Monday – Sunday, 9:00-17:00.
  • *Opening hours might change at different date.
2.2.2 Prices:
  • Adults: 50 kn
  • Children (5-18 years), students: 30 kn
  • Family ticket (parents with children up to 18 years old): 110 kn

In 1412, Šibenik fell under the rule of the Venetian Republic. The majority of the preserved structures in this fortress dates back to the first decades of the Venetian rule. In 1663, a lightning stroke the fortress and caused an explosion of the gunpowder, which severely damaged the fortress. After a long time of renovation, from 2014 on, the fortress is open to the public again with a newly added open air stage, offering various kinds of night events such as concerts and theatre performances. Since then, St. Michael’s fortress has been a must-visit attraction in Šibenik, together with St. James Cathedral.

The most exciting experience of visiting the guardians of Šibenik is to climb up the historical towers and touch the medieval walls while enjoying the the vistas of Šibenik and its surrounding cities, towns, sea and mountains.

If you are here in hot sunny summer, the cafe-bar located between the historical walls and under the open-air audience seats if a perfect place for some refreshment. If you keep going downstairs you will see the info point and from there you can obtain some brochures or leaflets in various languages, which provide a more detailed description of the history and explanation of the two fortresses.

Located under the fortress and next to the info point are the exhibition halls, where you can see not only two water tanks built in the 15th century, but also the baking oven, canon, canon balls made of stone.

If you have some spare time, don’t waste half of the ticket like I did. Barone Fortress is only 15 min away by foot. The view might be similar but you’ll be able to use some modern technology such as AR glasses, smart desk with interactive apps to discover how the city’s fortification system was built. For food lovers, Barone Fortress is also advertised as the “meeting point of true gourmets“.

2.3 The city of Šibenik

Except the cathedral and fortresses, the ancient streets in Šibenik are also worth a stroll on. Šibenik is the oldest big Croatian city on the Adriatic without any antique origins. Since the first mentioning of the city’s name, it’s been 951 years already.

Do you know that Šibenik is the first Croatian city, also among the first in the world to introduce lighting powered by alternating current supplied by Krka Waterfall Hydropower Plant in 1895. What’s more, if you are a fan of the sky, the inventor of the Flying Man and the first parachute was born in Šibenik.

If you are interested in military defensive systems, Fort of St. Nikola in Šibenik-Knin County, the defensive System of Zadar, St. Michael’s Fortress and Barone Fortress are your destinations. If you are fascinated by religion, art (Baroque or Renaissance), culture or history, the Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik is your destination. If you wanna have a peaceful moment by yourself or a romantic moment with your lover, the Sea Organ in Zadar is your destination. If you simply want to have a stroll and taste the local food, both the old town of Zadar and Šibenik will satisfy your stomach. It is necessary for me to plan a second visit to these two cities, probably I’ll see you there.

Šibenik and Zadar – Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries was last modified: September 4th, 2017 by Dong

1 Comment

  1. […] Zadar. They are also inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list and if you are interested you can click here to read about them. The key to Venice’s success on the seas was its fleet and its power […]

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