Travel

French Road in Brela: How Napoleon put Croatia on a Path to Independence

By 10 August 2021
The French Road in Brela: How Napoleon put Croatia on the Path to Independence
The French Road in Brela: How Napoleon put Croatia on the Path to Independence Vice Rudan / Public Domain, adapted by TCN

August 10, 2021 – The fascinating French Road in Brela, Dalmatia, actually leads nowhere. But, although unfinished, it is an incredible reminder of the modern era that Napoleon's short reign ushered in. It put Croatia on a path to independence.

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Some of the best heritage in Croatia today is the remnants of empires that once ruled here. Roman arches and an amphitheatre help define the city of Pula. In Split, emperor Diocletian's Palace does the same.

Atop hills in the centre of Šibenik, four Venetian fortresses remind of their undefeated stand against Turkish invaders. In nearby Drniš, the westernmost minaret of the Ottoman Empire attests to that city's differing fate. Meanwhile, in Zagreb, the grandiose architecture and carefully curated parkland tell of the capital's prestigious past within Austro-Hungary.

Napoleon, the First French Empire and the Dinaric Alps in Dalmatia

Few signs of the First French Empire's time in this territory remain. However, there's strong evidence to suggest Napoleonic rule had a much more profound effect on Croatia than mere aesthetics. Indeed, it was at the hands of the French that Croatia was placed on a road that would ultimately lead to independence. But, that's not the only road they left behind.

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In fact, the French began the most advanced infrastructure project attempted in Croatia since Roman times. Plans left behind give an incredible insight into how Napoleon's empire hoped to modernise – and hold onto – the region. They wanted to build a huge, contemporary road network across the Dinaric Alps.

Not only would this stretch down the entire length of Dalmatia - from Zadar in the north, to Metković and Dubrovnik in the south - but also it would criss-cross over the mountains. In doing so, hinterland cities like Knin, Drniš, Sinj and Imotski would be connected to the coast by modern roads for the very first time.

Unfortunately, the First French Empire was here for an insufficient time that the road be finished. However, a great piece of the French Road in Brela stands as a testament to the boldness of the project. It is the largest and best-preserved section of the road in existence.

Governor Auguste de Marmont and the need to construct the French Road in Brela

After the fall of the Roman Empire, transportation through Dalmatia did not improve for over 1000 years. As a matter of fact, it only got worse! In ancient times, the average distance of daily travel was just 12 kilometres a day for an ox cart. 20 km a day for a heavily laden mule and 30 km a day for those on foot, including an army at regular march.

This slow progress was a serious hindrance to Napoleon’s forces, who first began moving into eastern Adriatic territories from 1797. Indeed, it wasn't until a decisive victory against the Austrians in 1809 that the First French Empire finally managed to take full control of the region.

Marmont_as_Marshal_of_the_Empire_by_Jean-Baptiste_Paulin_Guérin_1837.jpgMarmont as Marshal of the Empire, by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin (1837) © Public domain

Installed as the first governor of the Illyrian Provinces was Auguste de Marmont. His tenure would prove to be the greatest and most influential of all who took the position. He immediately set about transforming the region's infrastructure, including commencing work on the French Road in Brela. However, it was the changes in society brought by the French that would be truly irreversible.

Napoleon and French rule in Croatia

Coat_of_arms_of_Illyrian_ProvincesSodacanSamhanin_1.pngVersion of the coat of arms of the Illyrian Provinces © Sodacan/Samhanin

A major priority was to establish French bureaucracy, culture, and language. The French also introduced compulsory national service. Locals were conscripted into regional regiments of Napoleon's army and/or put to work on the infrastructure project. While these sound like impositions similar to those set by any empire controlling the region, in fact, French rule was incomparable. Because within the French system lay many new benefits for the locals.

Although they did not altogether succeed in removing the medieval feudal system from the Illyrian Provinces, the French brought about the first real taste of emancipation for the populace. The importing of the French legal system meant - in principle - every citizen was equal under the rule of law, irrespective of social standing or wealth. French was made the official language of the provinces. However, all the respective states were allowed to speak and work in their native languages.

Tabla_carinarnice_Ilirskih_provinc_iz_Radeč_pri_Zidanem_mostu_1809_1.jpgAlternate version of the coat of arms of the Illyrian Provinces © Public domain

Separation of church and state was introduced and the judiciary nationalised. The tax system was made uniform, abolishing some tax privileges in an attempt to create a fairer society. Inhabitants of the Illyrian Provinces had Illyrian nationality. The French embarked upon an overhaul of the education system within the provinces. One example was the founding of a French-language military school in Karlovac, the headquarters of the Croatian army. However, it was not only the French language that was taught but also French culture and history.

The Illyrian Provinces inspire the Illyrian Movement

People who lived in the Illyrian Provinces learned exactly how life had changed, how universal rights were established, following the French Revolution. While the awareness of national identity was becoming more widespread across Europe within this broad time period, French rule within this particular region must be viewed as a catalyst for the awakening of such sentiments in Slovenia and Croatia.

Ljudevit_Gaj_1898_Theodor_Mayerhofer_1.pngLjudevit Gaj by Theodor Mayerhofer, taken from Đuro Šurmin 'Povjest književnosti hrvatske i srpske' Zagreb 1898 © Public domain

In 1814, a further period of Austrian rule replaced that of the French within the territory. As a result, work on Illyrian Province projects like the French Road in Brela ceased. But, within less than a decade and a half, linguist and writer Ljudevit Gaj and other members of Zagreb's intelligentsia, began a process of national revival and a standardisation of language and alphabet. It is no coincidence that their Illyrian Movement referenced the same regional history as had Napoleon's Illyrian Provinces. Within the foundations of this Zagreb-based movement lay both a future of amalgamated states of southern Slavic peoples, free of Austro-Hungary and also the future independent Croatia.

Legacy

Re-evaluated through the eyes of an independent nation, French rule assumed greater appreciation than it did at the time of its occurrence. Certainly, French rule is not nearly so ill-remembered in Croatia like it is in other countries. Subsequently, you can find squares, fountains and streets here all named in respect of the brief French period, not least the famous Marmont ulica in Split.

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But, the most beguiling and intriguing remnant of the Illyrian Provinces in Croatia is the French Road in Brela. It zig-zags almost 100 meters up Biokovo mountain. Although, never at a gradient greater than 6° (in order to accommodate carts, horse riders and easy walking).

Looking at it today, you are tempted to imagine the radically modernised Dalmatia that would have emerged had it been completed. But, when you remember your view is taken from within a wholly independent Croatia, it's easier to appreciate the consequences of French rule, rather than regret anything unfulfilled.

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Both the author and Total Croatia News would like to thank the following for their invaluable help in the construction of this article: Vice Rudan Photography, Tourist Board of Brela, doc. dr. sc. Marko Rimac, department of History, Split University, dr. sc. Tvrtko Jakovina, University of Zagreb. All photography and video by Vice Rudan unless otherwise accredited.

If you want to learn more about the fantastic holiday destination that is Brela, then please see our detailed guide

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