You might have thought Croatia – Dalmatia especially – was starting to become old news. Game of Thrones has finally tipped Dubrovnik over into being a theme park and a tourist trap, with some unpalatable western-feeling prices for tourist attractions and restaurant dining. While the place may have registered a glimmer a decade ago among the more discerning, virtually every man and his dog knows about it. Meanwhile, several other of the major towns have joined the cheap flight network, with Split especially being a hub for American, Australian and British backpackers.
The surge in popularity for Croatia as a destination is perfectly understandable. With an ever-evolving dramatic unspoilt coastline of rocky clifftops and island archipelagos, a cuisine that offers fresh seafood, very affordable good quality Italian food and Yugoslavian grilled meats, a rugged landscape dotted with ruined fortresses, remote churches and fascinating remnants from the still recent war, there’s a lot to dig into and in the main it is accessible and affordable.
Why Šibenik then, in particular?
Šibenik may come as a surprise, even if you partake in a little research before your visit. While there are certain advantages to being situated in Split or Dubrovnik, Šibenik puts you within shooting distance of a number of otherwise difficult to access activities, while being a charming and atmospheric town in its own right.
What may not be apparent straight away is the lay of the land. Šibenik is a hill town, meaning objects may be further away than they appear on your map, as I discovered booking an apartment I thought was merely 20 minutes walk from town. Choose your location carefully.
However, often the great thing about such towns is their aesthetic, with sloped snaky streets leading into the hills out of town, and a fascinating rabbit warren of an old town leading directly into people’s back yards in a similar way to Robin Hood’s Bay and the like. Wandering through these little yards and urban gardens, climbing up the hill from the main square rewards you with a terrific view. Of any of the major towns on the coast, it is Šibenik that has the prettiest coastline, with an array of beautiful forested islands in which seem to make up a smaller scale world map in themselves. The waters are clear and blue, and you’ll feel like jumping on a hang glider or charging up a jet pack to get a full view. For those of us without such equipment, carry on climbing and you will meet the first of three fortresses in Šibenik itself. For a fair price you can gain entry to a recently modernised and restored fortress, and a ticket that allows you access to Barone Fortress, the highest up and hardest to reach, but as you’d expect, one with a jaw-dropping view. In addition to the three mainland fortresses there is Saint Nikole’s dramatic island fortress based on an island accessible via stepping stones (and a few splashes in the sea) a cycle ride south of the town.
Looks good, so where are the tourists?
Šibenik felt to me like a city starting to gear itself up to being a major destination. Many of the alleys through the old town area still have an ungentrified look that treads a line between rustic and dilapidated, but this is slowly – at Croatia’s usual pedestrian speed – starting to change. The town’s normal tourism is derived from backpackers and those on boating holidays who anchor at the sea front, but they are starting to pick up more middle class, middle aged, monied tourists as well as word spreads. The town is starting to put on a ‘face’, in the same way as its more illustrious neighbours.
However, this is a long way off. For the time being you can enjoy relative peace and quiet exploring a wonderful historic centre without the choked feeling of crowds, dozens of souvenir stands and people bothering you.
What are the main sights?
Other than the three fortresses mentioned above and the mazy old town, there is a 15th century cathedral with a UNESCO inscription, an atmospheric central square, a typical ‘Riva’ (the promenade on the seafront), as well a small but pleasant beach. A walk from the beach into town gives you a fantastic view of the place as well as being a truly relaxing and pleasant stroll.
In addition to Šibenik itself, you may take boat trips to the nearby islands, which out of season you may find unerringly quiet, although for peace and natural beauty you could hardly go wrong. Šibenik is also a jumping off point for a day trip to Krka National Park an essential trip on your stay here.
The national park is accessible via one public bus at 11am and returning at 5pm, which gives you the chance to walk from the town of Skradin to the park, and enjoy a good 3 hours there before walking back and getting the bus to Šibenik. The park is famous for a series of cascades and waterfalls, an old hydroelectric power plant, monastery and huge plant and animal diversity. Entry is relatively expensive but no-one who visits will ever say it isn’t worthwhile. To top it off, the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk, Krka’s most famous waterfall is shallow and in the spring and summer warm enough to swim in. Bring some swimming clothes and take a dip for one of the most amazing experiences of your life. If I’m honest you could spent all week just around Krka itself and never get bored, it’s a paradise.
Okay well…yes, I’ll be going then. What about nightlife though?
Those of you who have visited Croatia before will be aware of the curse of the Caffe Bar, one cultural tradition that certainly won’t be missed if it ever dies down. Caffe Bars are generic mediocrity writ large and almost a watchword for predictability and lack of atmosphere or character. During the day or early evening it’s fine sitting out in one of these places, but when the day turns colder and thoughts turn to having a drink in an interesting place, you’ll struggle to find many places that don’t have interiors like the UK’s dreadful period of the late nineties through to the mid-noughties, where old pubs were gutted and replaced by tacky modern furnishings that lasted barely a few years before ageing incredibly badly. However, there is one diamond in the rough, and that’s Azimut, an alternative bar/club set in the basement under the steps to the main square, a pleasingly offbeat venue with character, good decor, better beer than usual and a sprinkling of young life. Just the antidote to the whiff of desperation and resigned mediocrity about most of the rest of them.
Walking back at night was also a little interesting as there are little to no street lights in the neighbourhoods west of town, and plenty of youngsters bombing around on mopeds and cars at a loose end, which might make you feel a little more like you’re in backstreet Naples or Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, outside of that it does feel like a relaxed and safe place, and exercising caution and downloading a map will see you right.
It would be a shame to only stop off in Šibenik for lunch or as a temporary transit point to Krka National Park. There is enough there and in the surroundings to last at least 72 hours with a full itinerary, yet enough peace and beauty to want to stretch it out even longer, as you will discover for yourself if you give this excellent town a try. You can access the town via a bus from Zadar, or by travelling north from Split