Tuesday, 8 February 2022

‘Superstitious and Debauched’: Impressions of Croatia in Travel Journals of Yore (III)

February 8th, 2022 - In the third and final part of our series, our travellers explore the Kvarner area, discovering bura wind, scampi, and wellness


In our last feature on travel journals documenting trips to the Adriatic, we left off in southern Dalmatia. And now, where our travellers would depart for Montenegro, we’ll circle back to the Northern Adriatic instead. This time, we’re tagging along with A. Fortis (1770s) and G. Marcotti (1890s) - see Part I and Part II for more info and some impressions of Istria and Dalmatia.

Why go back? A good few places were left out of both previous pieces for the sake of brevity, so we’re making this a trilogy to see what our protagonists thought about the Kvarner gulf. It’s a detour alright, but in the words of Fortis who expressed a similar sentiment in one of his letters:

It is a massive geographical leap to move from the island of Brač straight to the island of Rab which is one hundred and twenty miles away. But what can I tell you?

Exactly. But before we get to Rab and other Kvarner islands, let's make a stop in Senj. It’s a coastal town best known for the magnificent Nehaj fortress, a historic stronghold of Uskoks who kept invaders at bay. Fortis says:

A very famous city in the history of the Venetian Republic which had to formally wage a war against it and, being unable to conquer it for a long time, suffered heavy losses in its possessions in Istria and Dalmatia; it was a subject of interest for a Venetian traveller. I wanted to meet the descendants of those fierce Uskoks who were admired for their courage and hated for their cruelty.

I wish I could learn their history as penned by one of them, but Uskoks fought heroically and dealt in ransom and loot collection, and did not write historical accounts.

You don’t say.

5008330431_006e413f07_h.jpgNehaj fortress / János Korom / Flickr

With Senj ruled by Austria at the time, the Uskoks truly were a source of headache for Venice; they defended the city, but also plundered Venetian galleys along with most other commercial ships in the area. Their conquests had a blessing of the local clergy, monasteries received a tithe from the bounty, and so the 16th-century Senj essentially thrived on piracy and looting. It's not a surprise then that its population might've seemed a bit, uh, laid-back to an outsider:

The people of Senj are superstitious and debauched at the same time. The women of this city are said to be prone to love affairs; they are easy-going and in this regard do not bear a resemblance to Croatian women.

Uh-oh. Shall we proceed with caution? Luckily, instead of lamenting loose morals, Fortis turns this into social commentary:

And so romantic adventures are frequent, and sometimes followed by unpleasant consequences. The bishop and the monastery heads who make up the court that deals with these matters issued a decree a few years ago, stipulating that if an unmarried woman were to give birth to a child, she could not sue her lover in court for marriage or possessions. This cruel ordinance led to an even greater decline of morals, and every year, many unfortunate girls are sacrificed to disgrace for which there is no cure; it is heartless and outrageous barbarism.

A progressive stance for the 1770s.

To finish, a few of his thoughts on the infamous Senj bura:

The wind coming from the barren mountains blows so fiercely in that narrow gap, there are times in winter when one cannot leave the house without peril, and it is even worse outside the city. Even when they do not walk across the square where no sensible person would appear at such times, but through the narrow winding alleys, it often happens that children and frail folk are lifted from the ground and slammed against the wall by the wind. When an urgent need compels someone to go to the docks where ships are anchored, despite crawling on their hands and knees they sometimes roll away like a straw because of the force of the wind.

Senj bura hasn’t lost any of its force to this day, and Fortis was wise not to take it lightly.


Now, to Rab. Those who read the first part of this series might recall his unabashed trashing of the poor populace of Pag island, and it would appear that Fortis really held a grudge against island folk in general:

The island of Rab would have everything needed to support its small population, if only its agriculture was in the hands of less stupid and lazy people.

He continues:

Nevertheless, [the island] produces firewood, shipped off to Venice on the backs of numerous donkeys each year, as well as grain, oil, excellent wine, brandy, and since the ancient times - silk, the silkworms feeding on black mulberry leaves. Exported are also leather, wool, sheep, pigs and horses of good breed.

I don’t know, they don’t sound that lazy to me. There’s more:

The sea is beginning to be of use, with salt pans maintained on the island that give an abundance of good fine salt. In addition, in spite of fishing being carried out here in a very poor and sloppy manner, the catch of tuna, mackerel and sardines is an important item in the trade of the people of Rab who (as the rest of Dalmatia) prefer to sell their goods to foreigners rather than Venetians. Despite all these natural products, the island is far from being rich or achieving adequate progress, as uncultivated land and idle peasants are too commonly seen.

_ELV9812.jpgRab town by Romulic and Stojcic

And an anecdote:

In the past, there was a bishop of Rab named Ottavio Spaderi; it occurred to him not to allow on the feast of St. Christopher for his relics to be displayed for public veneration, seeing as he doubted their authenticity. The folk rebelled, wanting to throw him into the sea from the top of the hill on which the cathedral stands, and the riots did not subside even after the moment had passed. The government had to send a warship to save the prelate from peril, and the pope considered it his duty to grant him a more submissive congregation in Italy.

Feisty. Fortis is lucky he wasn’t thrown from a cliff as well.


Later on, Marcotti writes about what you can find on Lošinj island:

A hunters’ association, a branch of the tourist club, a company for afforestation and landscaping. (...) There is no shortage of foreigners: Mali Lošinj has the Vindobona hotel, three special trattorias, five boarding houses. There are two other guesthouses and a resort for convalescent children in Veli Lošinj.

IMG_7491-min.jpgOsor town on Cres island by Romulic and Stojcic

Visiting Cres island, he notes:

Generally speaking, sheep herding is difficult on islands of Kvarner due to bura; large juniper trees, grown and naturally shaped into canopies by the frequent pressure of the wind, provide shelter to roaming flocks.


On to Rijeka, the biggest town in the Kvarner gulf, visited by both our travellers. Fortis first:

Croatian is the native language. Refined folk of both sexes speak good Italian, imitating the Tuscan manner of speaking; surely they should be praised much more than us who butcher our beautiful language but mock everyone else who endeavours to speak it unless they are born in Tuscany.

The people of Rijeka are mild-mannered, and their company jovial, though marked by moderation.

Marcotti also spends some time in Rijeka and doesn’t let us down. Two of the most important things in any destination: where to eat and how to get around!

Numerous trattorias as well as those operating as part of hotels; breweries of the leading Austrian factories. Scampi are delicious, especially served in risotto. [There are] car services, omnibuses, public valets.

…that last one being a somewhat loose translation, referring to a particular profession: a person stationed in a public place ready to help you with any given need or errand. Think a concierge, a tourist guide, a messenger, a personal shopper, a delivery service, all rolled into one. Looking for directions to a certain place or perhaps need a hand with those shopping bags? The public valet’s got your back.

_DS40203.jpgRijeka by Romulic and Stojcic

He goes on:

The look of the city is really nice, its architecture Italian in character, though it offers little of note when it comes to art.

Ah well, you win some, you lose some. At least there are good scampi.

And for a final thought, a line used time and time again, a variation of which is probably currently displayed somewhere on the pages of the local tourist board:

The panoramic view of Rijeka and the Kvarner gulf as seen from Trsat is truly magnificent.


Opatija has grown into a fully fledged tourist destination by this point (late 1890s), and a health resort at that. Marcotti reports:

There’s a good number of nonagenarians in perfect health living on this riviera.

Its most sheltered and most pleasant place, Opatija, is advertised by the Südbahn company (Southern Austrian railways) as a health resort for the winter and sea-bathing in the summer. It has developed formidably and can barely accommodate the large clientele that flocks to it, particularly those from Austria-Hungary and Germany.

The entire facility cost the Südbahn no less than 3 million florins. There are milk, honey and egg treatments, massage, gymnastics, and walks for health.

14387972365_9a56c0643e_k-min.jpgOpatija by Ronnie Macdonald / Flickr

Some interesting insight into the early days of wellness, followed by a short recap showing just how quickly Opatija gained a reputation as a place to be:

Starting from 1885 (when Archduke Rudolf and his wife Stéfanie stayed here for the first time) visiting and staying in Opatija has become a pastime of high regard, very fashionable in court circles and among aristocrats and diplomats. This is from the 15th of October to the 15th of May: in the other five months, the bourgeois society visits for sea bathing. Empress of Austria, many archdukes and archduchesses, the royals of Serbia and Romania were some of Opatija’s guests.


With tourism becoming an industry, this seems like a good place to end this feature. Admittedly, when it comes to travel journals that paint a picture of the Croatian coast in earlier times, we’ve barely scratched the surface in our three-part series. Countless travellers have chronicled their Adriatic adventures, and providing you have time and the resolve to peruse old texts, it’s a fascinating body of work to study. We kept the scope small not to turn this into a dissertation, but hope you’ve enjoyed our travellers’ reviews anyway. Just keep in mind these are opinions of individuals from centuries past, and not neccessarily an actual representation of what Croatia is like - lazy folk, loose morals and local superstitions included.


Sources for Part III:

Giuseppe Marcotti, L’Adriatico Orientale, da Venezia a Corfu (1899)

Alberto Fortis, Viaggio a Dalmazia, 1774 (Croatian edition: Put po Dalmaciji, Globus, Zagreb, 1984)


Saturday, 5 February 2022

‘Besides, the Food Is Very Good’: Impressions of Croatia in Travel Journals of Yore (II)

February 5, 2022 - In the second part of the feature exploring impressions of Croatia found in old travel journals, we're retracing the steps of several foreign visitors in Dalmatia. 

If you haven't read the first part, please head here to meet our protagonists, fearless adventurers and diligent reviewers, and see what they thought of Istria. We’re picking up where we left off, with all of our esteemed travellers heading further south.

First up, Zadar, the main Venetian base on the Croatian coast back in the day and thus an obligatory stop on every tour of the Adriatic. Very well defined in this succinct statement by archaeologist Jacob Spon who travelled in Dalmatia in 1675:

It’s the capital and one of the best places that the Republic owns in Dalmatia.

He also liked the cathedral and excellent paintings of Titian and Palma displayed in the churches of Zadar, but I’ll spare you the rest of the paragraph as it’s not more than a list of artworks.

Dalmatia_Zadar_Katedrala_sv_Stosije_6.jpgZadar cathedral by Romulic

A few thoughts on Zadar by Noé Bianchi who visited in the 1770s, in his trademark enumeration style:

The city has six gates, a great Arsenal, and many ships and boats. It is a beautiful port, and a place to live in abundance; its territory spans over thirty miles on the mainland, with many castles, islands, and more than four hundred reefs. There are large pastures with plenty of livestock, and an abundance of all sorts of fish; they dress pompously, are very devoted to arms, but above all to humanist studies; they have many schoolmasters, and a lot of merchants.

Let’s hope it was the people of Zadar who dressed pompously and not the fish. Thankfully, we have a new character in our story: countess de La Morinière de La Rochecantin who offers her view of the locals, having visited Zadar in 1907:

The men are not handsome at all; their eyes are hard, their facial features sharp. The women, on the other hand, have a beautiful smile and something seductive under those colourful scarves with which they cover their heads.

Sorry, men of Zadar.

Dalmatia_Zadar0003-min.jpgZadar by Romulic


On we go to Trogir, where the countess notes the following:

The inhabitants are largely similar to those of the Illyrian islands, but this lot is more gentle. They live here in a small Provence. Tamarisk trees and pines, through which a soft wind whistles as if in song, line the narrow paths that run along the shore.

This morning, the water glistens with opal reflections, the air is gentle and warm, but it’s enough for the sky to get veiled in clouds for a feeling of melancholy to take hold of us. In these countries where the sun is king, it alone gives life to beings and things: aromatic plants, trees with pale foliage; the flora of such ardent regions only comes alive and reveals all its splendour and perfumes in the light and under the scorch of the sparkling star.

DRAZ5098.jpgTrogir by Mario Romulic

Spon on the other hand has a less poetic approach and seems to be excited about Trogir mostly due to it being the birthplace of Ivan Lučić Lucius, a Croatian historian of international renown.

Lucius is known as the father of Croatian historiography owing to his work 'On the Kingdom of Dalmatia and Croatia', in which he gives a comprehensive account of Dalmatia’s history from the Roman times to the end of the 15th century. Seemingly enough to merit admiration from monsieur Spon who, as we’ve learned, wasn’t easily impressed:

This monsieur Lucius is a nobleman from this country whom I had the honour to meet in Rome, where he is now residing. His homeland is indebted to him for having pulled it from the shadows of antiquity with the historic account he made.

_L6O5038.jpgTrogir by Mario Romulic 

Immediately upon arrival, Spon and his party are struck by one of the worst troubles that can happen on a trip: no place to stay!

We had arrived in Trogir at dinner time and were looking for lodging, when we were told that we had to make our own arrangements for dinner, and that it wasn’t customary in that land to deal in hospitality [accommodation].

Naturally, as they were starving at that point, they weren’t exactly happy to hear this, but they got lucky shortly thereafter and found a place in town that sold wine. They were soon ushered into a nearby building that turned out to be none other than Lucius’s palace. This one:


We were surprised to see this house, which is quite beautiful and has a view of the sea, empty and as if deserted, and we were even more surprised when we were told it was the house of this monsieur Lucius whom I just talked about. It has been more than twenty five years since he left it, all because of the incivility of a General of Dalmatia who, having arrived in Trogir, let [Lucius] know he wanted to lodge in his house. The nobleman was getting ready to receive him, and left for himself only a mediocre apartment. But the general immediately sent his people to take all the furniture outside. This impudence annoyed [Lucius] so much, he left the country immediately and never wanted to return.

Loving the gossip. Any thoughts on the sights, though?

The cathedral isn’t ugly. There are some statues in the church, made by a fairly good hand.

Today, the historic centre of Trogir, including the cathedral of St Lawrence, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dalmatia_Trogir0032-min.jpgTrogir by Mario Romulic

We have another appearance by Alberto Fortis who shares a warning: don’t get scammed on your travels! After two pages of musings on marble and its various properties, he says:

As I searched in vain around Trogir to find the famed marble, someone showed up who wanted to abuse my lack of guile by presenting me with a piece of Carrara marble as if it were taken from the nearby hill of St Elijah, where you can find old quarries whose marble isn’t rough at all, but is still far from the refined marble of Carrara.

No one's taking Fortis for a fool!

A traveller must always keep their guard up, as I have, before they draw conclusions based on other people’s claims. I.e., they should go directly to the site in question or at least threaten to do so in spite of all difficulties; that is how you uncover lies.

A marble-related crisis isn’t a situation a lot of us are likely to find ourselves in these days, but fine advice nonetheless.

DRAZ5185-min.jpgThe portal of Trogir cathedral by Mario Romulic

He adds a few favourable impressions of Čiovo island:

The island’s climate is truly very pleasant, the air perfect, oil, grapes and fruit excellent, the sea rich in fish, the port spacious and shielded. And its surface isn’t so small that a nobleman couldn’t comfortably walk or ride around it.

Good to know.


Before we go on to Split, a note on the hinterland by Marcotti, an Italian writer visiting in the late 1890s:

Those who want to be more in control of their time while travelling in the Dalmatian hinterland will prefer to travel by horse, but will have to get accustomed to a common lack of comfort in regards to accommodation and food: pecorino cheese, stale bread; plum brandy to drink. Corn polenta, ham, roasted lamb, smoked mutton and wine are items of luxury.


I believe we’re all familiar enough with the splendour of the Diocletian’s palace in Split to skip the lengthy elegies about its magnificence. Instead, let’s see a few impressions of the town in general, starting with Marcotti:

The market is especially crowded on Monday and Thursday mornings. It is interesting to see how peasants and people from the outskirts of town are dressed: bright colours (blue, red and black), large pieces of jewellery, filigree, gold and silver buttons, chains, medals. Compared with the Morlach women, the women of Kaštela stand out with their elegance.

The countess gets philosophical:

A rosy and curly child, with a serious expression of a grown man, leads us through narrow streets in the ruins of the palace. There is something moving about this loyalty that leads men to live where their ancestors lived, be it within the crumbling walls of an ancient palace or next to a dormant crater that will sooner or later sow devastation and death around it.

And Spon was surprisingly won over by Split, having spent ten days not doing much other than sampling the local cuisine:

The time we spent in Split did not last us long, because we discovered something new every day and besides, the food was very good. The only downside was accommodation which was not very convenient, as we found but four bare walls.

Partridge only costs five sols there, and hare doesn’t cost much more. There is meat at the butcher’s for one sol a pound, and turtles the size of two fists for four or five sols. But more often than not we preferred to abstain from meat and eat those little trouts from Salona, of which Emperor Diocletian was so fond, that for fear of running out of them he had an express conduit made which brought them to his palace.

3S8C4077-min.jpgSplit by Mario Romulic

All of our brave travellers then went to see Klis. Marcotti offers some practical information:

From Split via Klis (2 hours) to Sinj (5 hours), superb road, but the postal service only operates twice a week. A permit from the commander’s office in Split is needed to visit the Klis fortress; it is not granted to ladies.


It would take long to recall the whole of its glorious military history, he says about the fortress, then recalls it anyway. A history lesson later, he goes on to say:

The road, the gates, the barracks, they’re all modern; but the walls, the towers, the ramparts, all retain the picturesque charm of ancient military gear: the mosque was transformed into a warehouse. And there’s a beautiful view to boot. In the village, nestled on terraces below the fort, are several taverns.

Klis_Fortress_at_sunset.jpgKliss fortress

Countess Rochecantin:

The citadel of Klis, truly an eagle's nest which proudly dominates the valley. The rock it’s built on is surrounded by peaks which would seem inaccessible, if it wasn’t for little pockets of greenery bearing witness to the patient conquest of man over this rugged nature.

And then there’s Spon, bless his heart:

There’s a lack of water and it gets terribly cold in winter. I imagine it’s a harsh penance for a Venetian nobleman to serve here as an officer for two years. 2/10

1080px-HR-Festung-Klis-07.jpgKliss fortress

Marcotti offers a few pointers for towns and islands in the area:

At the mouth of the river Cetina, between Mount Biokovo and the sea is Omiš, a formidable ancient pirate nest. Ruins of the Mirabela and one other castle: excellent wines, pink muscat, even some dessert sparkling wines.

The man truly tells us what we want to know the most. 

Šolta isn’t big: its chief town Grohote only has 1200 inhabitants. It’s been renowned for its honey since ancient times; the bees only suckle on rosemary.

Brač is the most important Dalmatian island, in terms of size, population and wealth. They produce vugava, an excellent prošek wine. (...) In the village Pučišće are quarries where stone was sourced for Diocletian’s grand construction in Split.

_D3A5295-min.jpgHvar town by Mario Romulic 

Hvar: shielded from bura wind by the island’s hills, and from sirocco wind by Pakleni islands, it enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a very favourable climate. Cypress, agave, carob and palm trees thrive there magnificently.

A particular thought stands out in this paragraph. At the time of his visit in the late 19th century, organised tourism was already in development in Croatia, notably in two destinations both mentioned here.  Marcotti says:

If direct lines by sea between Italy and Dalmatia were properly established, Hvar town would be a highly recommendable winter destination for the Adriatic regions of the Kingdom, incomparably preferable to Opatija.

According to Spon, Hvar town was an inviting place even two hundred years earlier:

The people of the island, who are three or four thousand in number, have all withdrawn to the town of the same name so they can watch foreigners occasionally dock in their port. So they could receive them with more dignity, they have made there a beautiful pier of marble and stone blocks which lines the semi-circular port.

There is very good bread and very good wine, and plenty of sardines to whet the appetite, with which they also supply Italy and Greece.

Croatia_Islands_Vis_Komiza_0001-min_1.jpgKomiža on Vis island by Mario Romulic

Vis: The island’s vegetation has a distinct southern character, with almond trees, figs, and palm trees. Some excellent wines are the opollo, the Margherita, the prosecco, the gripola, as well as vinegar and brandy. Sardines are abundant in Komiža; anchovies, mackerel, sea bream and snapper are found in all the waters around the island. The suckling lambs are delicious owing to the aromatic pastures of rosemary.

Spon also visited Vis island, but wasn't impressed with the sights:

I won't talk about the fortress, it's just a crow's nest that could be knocked down with ease from the nearby rocks. In the whole garrison there is but one simple soldier who performs the roles of Captain, Sargent and Porter, much like that of Plautus.

He goes to Korčula next, where he learns about jackals:

As this island is covered in woods, it is a haven for several wild beasts. Among them is a certain animal which I am told is built like a dog, but has the cry of a cat or a peacock. If one lights a fire at night near these woods, one can hear a great number of them shrieking and chanting their rabid song, such that those who have never heard them before mistake them for people yelling. It is also said that they dig up the dead to feed on them, and they are good for naught else, but to make some horrid furs out of them.


Next up: Dubrovnik, plus a few places we missed on our way south!


Sources for part II:

Jacob Spon, Voyage de l'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grece, et du Levant, Fait és années 1675. & 1676., Tome I (Antoine Cellier le fils, Lyon, 1678)         

Noé Bianchi, Viaggio da Venezia al S. sepolcro, et al monte Sinai (Remondini, Bassano, 1770) 

Giuseppe Marcotti, L’Adriatico Orientale, da Venezia a Corfu (1899)

Alberto Fortis, Viaggio a Dalmazia, 1774 (Croatian edition: Put po Dalmaciji, Globus, Zagreb, 1984)                                  

Comtesse de La Morinière de La Rochecantin, Croisière en Adriatique et en Méditerranée (1907)


Quotes translated from Croatian, Italian and French by the author of the article.

Friday, 4 February 2022

‘The Cathedral Isn’t Ugly’: Impressions of Croatia in Travel Journals of Yore (I)

February 4, 2022 - Long before the dawn of tourism, pilgrims, artists, scholars and adventurers of all kinds made their way down the Croatian coast. Many foreign travellers recorded their impressions along the way, leaving behind a treasure trove of travel journals for us modern folk to peruse and enjoy just how much some of the writings resemble online reviews of the present day. Exploring the predecessors of Trip Advisor, starting with a few thoughts on Istria 

Most of us can’t help but love travel content. In the present age, especially since a certain issue made it quite difficult to travel, we explore the world through Facebook posts, Instagram stories and travel blogs.

It’s only a modern take on a very old phenomenon: travel journals, a fairly popular form of literature in which travellers recorded their impressions of all the places they visited.

The Croatian coast played a major role in travel literature from the 15th century onwards. The powerful status of Venice and its location on the Adriatic made it a focal point of every itinerary; travellers either embarked from Venice or passed through it on their way southeast. As Venice ruled the Croatian coast until the end of the 18th century, its major cities such as Zadar or Trogir were essentially must-visit destinations for every person that travelled by sea.

Some were pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, some were artists capturing breathtaking landscapes and grand classical monuments. Most travel journals include detailed descriptions of the places visited, their geographic position and historical background, architectural landmarks of special importance…

…and food, and wine, and women. It’s Croatia, after all, and while it doesn’t come as a surprise, it’s delightful to read about someone fawning over olive oil or the beauty of Dalmatian women centuries ago.

Back in college, I studied quite a few such journals for a paper on architecture, and I recall having a laugh every time a 17th century 'tourist' opted to ignore the landmarks and mused where to buy wine instead. Detrimental to my paper, but quite fun to read - and having a different outlet now, perhaps it’s time to bring those moments to light as well. After all, travellers in history weren't that different to us today: they took in the sights, sampled the local cuisine and took interest in locals and their customs. And of course, followed it all with colourful commentary. 


We’re starting our trip in Istria, retracing the steps of French archaeologist Jacob Spon, who stopped in Rovinj on his way from Italy to Greece in 1675:

Rovinj is a small town (...) where the land is rich in vines and olive trees. The wine is good, and I believe that to be the reason why you see so many lame people around, because strong wine is the father and the fosterer of gout and sciatica. The women wear hoop skirts in Spanish fashion which make them look appalling. 

Says this man:


Looks thorougly unimpressed - alright.

On to Pula, where Spon maintains the same level of snark:

At present it has seven or eight hundred inhabitants at most, and if it weren’t for the remnants of its ancient grandeur, no one would believe this used to be a Republic, as I learned from an inscription carved into the base of a statue of emperor Severus, where it’s referred to as Respublica Polensis.

To be fair, I can see where Spon is coming from, as Pula wasn’t exactly a lively town in the 17th century. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city gradually sank into ruin, ravaged by one attacking force after another, as well as several deadly diseases that decimated the population. It was only in the 19th century when Austria took hold of Pula that the city finally began to thrive after centuries of neglect.

Istra_Pula015_1.jpgPula by Romulic and Stojcic

But I’m getting ahead of myself; first, another visitor in the 1770s, a friar named Noé Bianchi who made a stop in Pula on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Much friendlier than Spon, he records a short yet favourable impression of the Istrian city:

It was a very noble and royal city in the past; in it resided an Emperor of Rome who had a beautiful castle built, which is now ruined but a piece of it is still visible, and some beautiful tombs still remain, sculpted in very good marble. Here we stayed for four days waiting for calm seas and good wind, then we left for our voyage and arrived in Zadar.

Slightly reminiscent of a third grader recounting his summer adventures for a back-to-school assignment. I’m a bit unclear on whether Bianchi simply referred to the amphitheatre in Pula as a castle/fort, or if he failed to notice the gigantic edifice at all in the four days he spent in town. Perhaps the latter, as we don’t see the arena in this little tableau he made:



Giuseppe Marcotti didn't make the same faux pas upon his visit to Pula in the late 19th century. A prolific Italian writer and journalist, Marcotti gives an account of the Croatian coast in his work ‘The Eastern Adriatic: From Venice to Corfu’ that is so incredibly detailed, it reads more as a modern travel guide. It’s complete with train schedules and prices, lists of hotels and, most importantly, restaurant recommendations.

At the time of his visit, Pula was thriving under Austro-Hungarian rule as their main naval base. Marcotti notes the city is teeming with armed forces, but points to something else as Pula’s most captivating feature:

…despite the imposing ensemble of armoured towers, forts, batteries, embankments, barracks, gunpowder magazines, warehouses, factories, artillery and ammunition depots, and bays full of warships; in spite of the arsenal, all the armament and military equipment, the monuments to Roman grandeur in Pula are so remarkable, it’s them that attract the traveller’s attention above all else.

Poetic - love it.

Marcotti provides a comprehensive account of every nook and cranny from Umag to Dubrovnik, including some towns and villages not often visited in his time.

Novigrad, for example, apparently wasn’t as pretty of a sight as it is today:

Poverty and decadence are the essence of this place: carved stone and Roman tombstones were used to build small rustic houses; medieval fortifications were adapted into petty dwellings. (...) These days, the quiet port only serves as refuge from bad weather, and people only work at the stone quarries.

5D3B3289-min.jpgNovigrad by Romulic and Stojcic 

Let’s see what he thinks about a couple of other places in Istria - see if you can spot a common denominator in some of his impressions:

Rovinj - The labyrinth of alleys leading to the cathedral, snaking between humble houses bristled with colossal, bizarre chimneys like those in Venice, is abuzz with an energetic, fiery population which always gave the best among excellent Istrian sailors. The women appear to be a refined group of brunettes in the Venetian type; they speak, look, dress and walk as they do in Venice, typically wrapped in black scarves: their dialect is not without some Neapolitan inflection.

Vodnjan - The women inspire admiration, their distinctive beauty being that of the Latin type, with elegant limbs, well-shod and well-dressed and well-coiffed in their special attire, in many ways similar to the famous Arlesiennes of Provence - and also deserving of attention are the wedding customs, religious processions, dances and other popular festivities.

What about the men, Marcotti? We'll never know. 

vodnjan-min.PNGVodnjan by N. Demark 

Marcotti also warns you’ll have some trouble with logistics if you have your heart set on island hopping:

If you wish to visit the islands as well as the most interesting places on the mainland, you should keep it in mind that, despite the numerous steam liners of the Lloyd and the Hungarian-Croatian Society, the services are not so scheduled that you could avoid wasting a week. For this reason, and to make your stay more comfortable, it is more practical to go to Rijeka with a direct steamer from Pula (or by rail from Trieste), and then take various trips from Rijeka to visit places on the coast of Istria, Kvarner, Croatia and the islands that are discussed in this guide.


And finally, Pag, an island known for many things: its cheese, lamb, salt, lace, and the otherworldly landscape that is said to resemble the surface of the Moon. Although Pag isn’t part of Istria and Kvarner, we'll cheat a bit as it's a good point between the Northern Adriatic and Dalmatia to end this piece with.

A lengthy description of Pag comes from Alberto Fortis, an 18th-century Venetian monk, writer and cartographer who travelled in Dalmatia and recorded his impressions in a series of letters to his esteemed acquaintances, published in the 1770s as a work titled 'A Journey to Dalmatia' (Viaggio in Dalmazia).

5D3A2463.jpgPag by Romulic and Stojcic

Fortis was a meticulous observer and his writing detailed and extensive; as such, his letters are a phenomenal source for anyone interested in the history of Dalmatia. He gives a comprehensive account of Pag’s history, demographics, climate, economy, culture and so forth; the bulk of it is level-headed and mostly neutral, but towards the end, Fortis brings down the hammer, leaving only scorched Earth in his wake:

People’s conduct on Pag is quite uncivilised, and superstition reigns among them. (...) I haven’t found a single medallion, inscription, manuscript, nor a single sensible man in this entire town; they’re all interested in salt harvesting and whoever doesn’t talk about salt is given little regard.

They say the island’s been abandoned on several occasions, and truly, one should sooner be amazed it’s inhabited in the first place, as the lucrative salt factories are the sole thing that could inspire people to live in such a joyless place.


He goes on, this time in more detail:

Owing to difficulties that arise on the journey to Pag town and inadequate accommodation that foreigners come across, this place is very poorly visited. Thus its inhabitants are brutish and rude, as if they lived at the farthest possible distance from the sea and didn’t trade with decent folk. Noblemen who are under the impression they carry themselves differently than the common folk are truly laughable characters, with their attire and habits and insulting boasting. The clergy’s ignorance is unbelievable; a priest of the highest rank, believed to be a learned man, didn’t know the Latin name for Pag.

Fortis continues to fire on all cylinders, next turning his attention to folk beliefs in a criticism heavily underlined with contempt for the local clergy. Keeping in mind he was a clergyman himself, this was very 18th-century-enlightenment of him:

The majority of Pag’s population makes a living from sea salt harvesting and is paid well by the Government, which is why dry summers are of great importance to the town’s inhabitants, so much so that the uneducated folk believe the rain to be a pestilence brought upon their land by some sorcery. In line with this belief, they choose a friar to drive away the evil spirits and turn the rain away from the island. If, in spite of the poor friar’s efforts, the summer turns out to be rainy, he loses his reputation and his living; but if two or three summers in succession just so happen to be dry, the friar earns considerable respect and benefit.

Croatia_Islands_Pag_0018-min.jpgPag by Romulic and Stojcic 

In Novalja, where they deal in something different to salt harvesting, they employ equally ridiculous means to summon rain as their neighbours do in trying to keep the weather dry. There’s no end to superstitious beliefs among those poor uncivilised island folk, beliefs that are mostly encouraged and supported by friars for their own gain, and sometimes for a more nefarious purpose, but since not much good can be accomplished by bringing up folk nonsense or the wickedness of the clergy, I will leave them in peace such as they are.

1/10, would not recommend? This would be a tough act to follow, so we’ll leave it at that, much like Fortis left the Pag folk in peace… after shredding them to bits.

Next up: Dalmatia! We’re heading to Zadar, Trogir, Split and a few southern islands to see what the travellers of yore thought about some of the most popular tourist destinations in Croatia in the present day.


Sources for Part I: 

Jacob Spon, Voyage de l'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grece, et du Levant, Fait és années 1675. & 1676., Tome I (Antoine Cellier le fils, Lyon, 1678)
Noé Bianchi, Viaggio da Venezia al S. sepolcro, et al monte Sinai (Remondini, Bassano, 1770)
Giuseppe Marcotti, L’Adriatico Orientale, da Venezia a Corfu (1899)
Alberto Fortis, Put po Dalmaciji (Globus, Zagreb, 1984) 

Quotes translated from Croatian, Italian and French by the author of the article.