One of the best-preserved medieval places in Europe, Trogir is known for its fortified walls and impressive Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. A small islet just off the coast of mainland Croatia, this attractive port town is a 30 minute car ride north of Split, the country’s second largest city. In 1997, Trogir won the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, “…for being a remarkable example of urban continuity.” More recently, its old town appeared in Game of Thrones part 2 as the trading harbor of Qarth, where Khaleesi’s dragons were imprisoned by the warlocks of ‘the greatest city that ever was or will be.’
Reaching Trogir is easy: by air, landing at nearby Split Airport; by bus, from Split or Zagreb (the capital), or on the small boats of the Bura Line that depart from Split harbor four times a day in the summertime. For those driving, there is a car ferry between Drvenik Veli and Trogir, five miles away. The ferry ride takes one hour.
In the summer of 2021, I chose to travel on the Bura line. At the end of the day it felt like a commuter boat, as many people who live in Trogir work in Split. After a smooth 30 minute ride, a nice surprise awaited for me when I arrived: my hotel, Vila Sikaa, was located right on the waterfront. From my third floor room I had ample views of the sea and the harbor and – across the water – the ancient walls of Trogir’s old town, built in the 13th and 14th centuries and still standing.
I later learned that the small family-owned hotel offered another perk: Hrvoje, the manager, a Trogir native who was the soul of the place and always ready to help, from carrying my suitcase to making reservations in town. During my stay at Vila Sikaa I often enjoyed talking to him, and when I asked why a young man like him had never left his hometown for a larger city, his reply was very direct: “I would rather live here than anywhere else.” After a few days getting to know Trogir, I realized that its 10,000 residents form a tightly-knit community that has pride in the town’s heritage. To them, the sense of belonging to it trumps everything else.
Wedged between the mainland – from which it is separated on one side by just a narrow canal of the Adriatic sea – and the larger island of Ciovo on the other, tiny Trogir had its beginnings in the 3rd century BC as a Greek settlement called Tragurion. They were the same Greeks who settled in Split, Vis and other islands in Dalmatia, and Trogir still uses their original orthogonal street plan. Today, some 2,300 years later, the small port town is one of the finest examples of urban continuity in Europe.
The Greeks were only the first to come. After them came the Romans, Byzantines and Venetians. When Venice fell, in 1727, the region was taken over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which governed until 1918. After World War I, Trogir became part of the state of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which – when World War II (1939-1945) ended – was incorporated into communist Yugoslavia. Since 1991, when Croatia fought hard for – and won – its independence from Yugoslavia, Trogir has been proudly Croatian.
Most of the wonderful architecture that impresses us so much today was built under the Republic of Venice, starting in 1420. That was a period of great prosperity, when Trogir had one of the richest economies in the Balkans. That was due in part to profits brought by the nearby limestone quarries producing high quality construction stones.
Trogir became then a true humanistic republic with strong cultural bonds to Venice. Croatian noble families and intellectuals built fine Venetian-style palaces in town, all surviving to this day. A true cultural center – despite Venice’s ongoing wars with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire – Trogir was called ‘Little Venice.’ A manuscript compilation of Peter Lucic called Vartal – the most important anthology of Croatian literature of the 15th and 16th centuries – has been preserved there ever since that golden era.
The town’s most celebrated monument, the outstanding Cathedral of St Lawrence, stands on the foundations of a basilica that was destroyed by the Saracens (Arab Muslims) when they attacked Trogir in 1123. Locals call it the Cathedral of St John, after one of the first bishops of Trogir and patron of the town, who died in 1111. Construction of the cathedral started in around 1193 but it took four centuries and many artists for it to be completed, in the 1500’s.
The cathedral’s entrance is considered the finest expression of Romanesque art in Dalmatia. It is a two-piece portal depicting passages from the Gospel, with scenes of everyday life and images of saints and exotic animals. Its most striking features are the freestanding naked sculptures of Adam and Eve – a first in Dalmatian sculpture – by famed medieval sculptor Master Radovan. There is an outstanding sense of fluidity in the human figures, as well as in the lions supporting them: the animals look so real that I had to stop myself from touching them. St Lawrence Cathedral and its adjacent bell tower are the most distinctive buildings in Trogir.
Facing the Cathedral is Trogir’s bustling historical center, the Loggia and Clock Tower, which functions as the town’s square and is always crowded with tourists in the summer. In medieval times, the Loggia served as the local court, where trials were held and sentences given. Situated next to Trogir’s shops and the elaborate Cipiko Palace – built in 1457 for a prominent local family – the Loggia sets the scene for the cafes and restaurants that make up the center of Trogir today. Right by its side is the Clock Tower, decorated with a light blue clock dial and crowned by a large 15th century dome.
From the Loggia, a maze of narrow alleyways full of character lead to the rest of the condensed historical center, a pocket-sized area that is easily covered on foot. In its southwestern corner stands the Kamerlengo Castle, once the residence of the Venetian governor (the kamerling). Built in 1430, it is a four-sided building with a hexagonal base that faces the harbor on one side and the sea on the other. To get to the third floor I had to climb many high steps (comfortable shoes are a must), but once at the top the view was so incredible that it justified the effort. The vast open space inside the castle is used for outdoor performances and concerts that now occur frequently in the summertime.
Trogir is an open-air museum. I spent three full days visiting art-filled churches, mysterious monasteries, dark medieval towers and ornate castles. I visited an open air market everyday, to the point that stand owners seemed to recognize me. Available at the market were fashionable clothes from Italy and the quality culinary ingredients that the town is known for – for very reasonable prices.
The island if Ciovo is where most of Trogir’s residents actually live, something I learned from the hotel’s owner, who offered me a ride there when he was leaving. Other than modern residential neighborhoods, Ciovo is also a big squid fishing center where part of the landscape is made up of fishermen out at sea – there’s even a squid fishing festival every year.
Ciovo has many popular beaches, from the bustling and more commercialized Okrug Gornji (sometimes referred to as Copacabana) to the quieter and more scenic beaches of Okrug Donji – called Riviera Okrug – on the western part of the island. The Riviera has hidden bays and coves that attract tourists in the summertime, most coming from Trogir on daily boat trips. The tours are reasonably priced; the most popular of them explores a very unique ‘Via Crucis’, an underwater museum in Jelinka Bay that features the stations of the cross. With 53 impressive life-size figures laid underwater on a seabed about 16 feet deep, they are the delight of scuba divers.
A main attraction in Ciovo is Konoba Duga, a seafood restaurant tucked away with breathtaking views of the sea, possibly the best of its kind on the island. Right in front of Konoba Duga there is a swimming area with deep blue waters that was full of bathers, some there for the day. Konoba Duga serves large portions at prices lower than in Trogir. my langoustines were deliciously crispy, and when I mentioned that to the waiter he replied: “We got them this morning,” pointing to the bay. Seafood does not get fresher than that.
Back in Trogir, at the end of the day I enjoyed watching the busy scene on the harbor across the water from my hotel. Large yachts and sailboats of all sizes coming back to moor created a lively atmosphere, spilling people into the bars and restaurants of the Riva – the seafront promenade. Next to the Sea Gate – the main original 15th century water access to the walled city – pizzerias and konobas competed for customers, while the large statue of Saint Mark on top of the gate was a quiet reminder of Trogir’s Venetian past. On the weekend the party at the harbor went on until late at night.
On my last night in Trogir I finally got a table for dinner at Konoba Trs, after trying three times. A highly recommended small restaurant that does not take reservations and does not advertise, it is a respected name with foodies and was hard to find among the meandering alleyways of the historical center. They only had one table for early dinner, at 6:00 pm, when the kitchen opens, but it was that or nothing and I was quite happy to get it. I can’t pronounce the name of the dish I had, but it was out-of-this-world. Good food is good for the soul, I remember thinking while savoring it, trying to justify paying a little more for dinner that night. OK, to be honest, a lot more…
After an immersion in Trogir’s art, history and good food – not to mention lessons in Croatian history – I left the town early in the morning of the fourth day. Always solicitous, Hrvoje insisted on walking with me to the pier nearby, where I would get the Bura Line boat back to Split. Along with the stunning architecture, the superb art and the amazing food, whenever I think of Trogir I remember Hrvoje, and how proud the people there are of their small piece of paradise.