Like a lot of twentysomethings, Croatia is still finding its plusses.
It’s entire Adriatic coast is 1000 miles of sublime vineyards, enchanted islands, and rustic villages that could have drifted out of a Tuscan wet dream — but you would never know that since your vacation begins and ends in Dubrovnik.
Which is great for Dubrovnik, and it’s not like the city has pulled a fast one; it really is gorgeous. It’s also really discovered. That opens up a big ol’ can of worms, not least of which is that most deadly of travel terms: touristy.
Šibenik is what Dubrovnik was before the tourists got there, existing in that magical window of being having come onto the travel radar but not yet taken over by made-in-China key chains and busloads of people who don’t know you pronounce it “SHEE-be-nik.” I’m sold.
The last time I saw a town like Šibenik, it was in a fairytale book that was illustrated. An hour from Split — itself coming onto the world map — sugar-white Šibenik shoots out of the Adriatic and up a mountainside; think Minas Tirith as an oceanfront property.
Founded around 1066 at the latest and the oldest port in Croatia to be built by Croatians, Šibenik took its architectural cues from what was then the power of the age: La Serenissima (that is, the Republic of Venice). Consequently, the medieval heart of this very Slavic town looks suspiciously Romano-Italian. Suspicious, but breathtaking.
I was in love. With the tiny plazas called “trgs.” With the grooves carved into the corners of manors indicating how rich the owners had been. With every other building being a palace. With the little basins carved into the streetsides to water your dog. With the fact I could go into any taverna and savor a boutique wine that is only served at that taverna. Leave Šibenik? Me no wanna!
Unlike New York or Paris, places that have specific sights to see, Šibenik is itself the sight. Just walk and you will find something. The path of least resistance is the grand square of town, fronted on one side by the grand Basilica of St. James the Greater, a dark, dignified place to catch a break from the dazzling Adriatic sun. Across the plaza (trg) from it is the Vijećnica Cafe in the loggia that has some of the best food in town. I had the squid-ink risotto. It was the first time I ever took a picture of my food.
But it is in the side streets, so narrow as to be clefts in the cityscape, that I haunted. Walking through a medieval squiggle of streets buffed to a sparkling shine by a millennium of footfalls, I just wandered, or rather, climbed: being on a rather precipitous slope, Šibenik is all about staircases. By the time I made it all the way up to the leafy gardens of the old St. Lawrence Monastery, I came to realize that this town is not only a traveler’s dream, it is a miracle calf workout.
I didn’t really care where I ended up, and along the way found the “little things” that make a place unique, like some of the most pious graffiti I have ever seen (a lot of crosses). Hometown pride is through the roof: the streets were spotless, and lined with flower pots or strung with clotheslines that just added to the rustic allure. Take away the electric lines and I could be back in the Renaissance. Very time-warpy. Best of all: no crowds. Often, I was the only one on the street. And when I wasn’t, the other person smiled as I walked by.
I took a load off, finally, when night fell. At Tinel, specifically, a taverna perched on a ledge overlooking a tiny trg deep in the center of Šibenik. I feasted on fish caught that day, on wine I could get nowhere else, and on figs probably plucked from the ancient tree right above my table. Šibenik was clearly getting its second wind: the bars and restaurants were raucous with life and good times, and an impromptu soccer match took off in the plaza next to me.
It was the end of a very good day.