Croatia’s other walled towns
Dubrovnik always steals the spotlight, and for good reason. Considered “the pearl of the Adriatic,” the city’s famous historic walls, energizing summer weather, and pristine coastline continually captivate the hearts and imaginations of thousands and thousands of tourists that visit each year.
But what about Croatia’s other walled towns? This time, their magnificence will not be overshadowed by their more popular cousin. Here, we give you Croatia’s other fortified towns in all their glory. Catch the next plane or bus to them and you won’t be sorry, guaranteed.
Opratlj, known for truffles, hunting, and agro-tourism, is a hilltop town in Central Istria that sits directly across from the Mirna River. In its prehistoric life, Opratlj served as a Roman military post. Then it transitioned into a medieval fort starting in 1115. While you can still view a section of the town’s historic fortifications, most of the walls have been removed or incorporated into area homes.
Yet this is not a reason to lament. Opratlj’s narrow history-filled streets, medieval layout, and annual festivals draw a multitude of visitors to its little hilltop each year. As you drive in, a huge Venetian loggia with a small collection of stone monuments welcomes you. Then when you enter the town, be sure to stop by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Rocco churches, both of which are painted inside with beautiful frescos.
If the hustle-and-bustle of day-to-day life is gnawing at you, then Oprtalj’s secluded location and quiet natural surroundings are sure to restore your energy. But if you’d prefer a livelier scene, then head into the town during one of its many annual festivals. These include July’s Alpe Adria Folk Fest, at which folk orchestras from Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy perform, Opratlj’s Antique’s Fair, the only one of its kind in Istria running from April to November every second Sunday of each month, and TuberFest, a celebration of truffles and Istrian culinary products held every October.
Not far from Opratlj is Groznjan, considered a hidden gem by many Istrian natives. Groznjan’s fortifications have protected various groups, including Illyrians, Celts, Greeks, Romans, Franks, Germans, Slavs, and Italians, since the town’s first historical reference in 1102.
While only some of Groznjan’s thick walls remain today, the town has become a safe haven of another kind. Declared a “Town of Artists” in 1965, Groznjan currently houses around 64 art galleries. The town was transformed into a well-known artist colony when painters, sculptors, and others came together to renovate old, abandoned houses into artist residencies. A favorite local gallery is the Fonticus City Gallery, which promotes recent work by both Croatian and foreign artists and houses a permanent Istrian Heraldic collection.
Along with the galleries, be sure to visit Groznjan’s loggia and churches. The town’s Venetian loggia dates back to 1557 and was once used as a court’s meeting place. Today you can discover four Roman tombstones housed inside. Then, try your luck out at The Church of St. Vitus, which contains an alter donated by Pope Pius VII that is believed to have special powers. Before you go, stop by the Groznjan Chapel, built in 1554, which was decorated with murals by painter John Lovrencic in the late 1980s.
More well-known than Groznjan is the medieval town of Motovun, also located in the northern part of Istria on a 277 meter-high hill. To get to the top of the hill and the town’s Venetian square, you’ll have to trek up Istria’s longest staircase made up of 1052 steps.
Since the 11th century, Motovun has been an important military fort for various rulers. Today, its well-preserved walls are a treat to walk along. From them, you can take in much of Istria’s spectacular landscape including the Motovun Forest, a prime locale for truffle-hunting. In fact, the world’s largest white truffle was found there. The forest is also the setting of a famous legend about Veli Joze, an Istrian giant who was so strong that he was able to shake the Motovun church’s bell tower with his bare hands.
Aside from truffles, nowadays Motovun is most famous for its annual film festival that attracts thousands of fans every August. The festival features a variety of independent-made movies from documentaries to feature films through an unbroken five-day screening marathon.
Moving to the east side of the Istrian peninsula and out into the Adriatic Sea, we find Krk, Croatia’s most populated island with over 19,000 inhabitants. The island has had an uninterrupted stream of residents since the Neolithic Age. In order to protect local citizens, defensive walls were constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries around the main town which helped Krk become one of the most secure towns fortified by the Romans.
Krk is home to a variety of other well-preserved historical and cultural monuments. Of particular note is the sacral complex smack dab in the center of Krk’s town center. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption can be found there, dating back to the 5th century along with the Church of St. Quirinus from the 11th and 12th centuries and Krk’s famous bell tower from the 16th century.
You must visit Krk for its history, but also for its natural splendor. The island as a whole is nicknamed the “golden island” because of its stunning topography and must-see ecological sites. Situated on the southeastern part of the island is Baska, where you can find one of Croatia’s top beaches. In Krk, you can soak up the sun and also soak in some mud. Keep your skin looking fresh and healthy by lathering up at Melina Beach. After a lazy day on the beach, visit any of Krk’s walking or biking paths, which altogether stretch 300 kilometers over the island.
First inhabited by the Illyrians, then the Greeks, and finally later by the Croats in the early 9th century, Korcula, a small southern Dalmatian town and island, is often referred to as “little Dubrovnik.” This nickname is apt as this charming town has been surrounded by thick stone walls and towers since the 14th century.
Twelve towers once marked Korcula’s Old Town. At this time, Korcula’s east and west piers were not constructed yet and so the town’s towers and walls appeared to be rising from the sea, creating a dramatic and ominous effect for any enemy ship passing by. Today, only seven of the original towers remain including Zakerjan Tower, Kanavelic Tower, Revelin Tower, Mali Revelin Tower, All Saints Tower, the Small Governor’s Tower, and the Large Governor’s Tower.
Along with its physical constructs of history, Korcula is also well-known for its cultural past. One of the oldest written documents in Croatia was discovered here. This stone plaque, written in ancient Greek, is called “the psephism from Lumbarda” and dates back to the 4th century BC. It can still be seen in Korcula’s Town Museum. Korcula is also the birthplace of Marco Polo, and the town just opened a museum dedicated to his life and travels last year located inside his house of birth. And, of course, Korcula’s Moreska Sword Dance, dating back to the 16th century, is not to be missed. The dance, which tells the story of a sword battle between two kings and an abducted princess, was once widely performed throughout southern Europe but now is only practiced in Korcula.
Perhaps lesser known than Korcula but equally well-preserved is the town of Ston, near Dalmatia’s southernmost tip. Ston was once a major fort for the Ragusan Republic, whose base was located in present-day Dubrovnik.
The town is surrounded by thick defensive walls that include a 900-meter long town wall and a five-kilometer Great Wall outside of town. The Walls of Ston, also nicknamed the “European Wall of China,” are the second largest military fortress system in the world, falling in just behind China’s. The walls took a total of 200 years to build and many of the towers and forts can still be visited during your walk along the walls.
While Ston is marked by such an architectural marvel, it has yet to become a popular tourist destination. Perhaps this is due in part to its partially secluded location on the Peljesac Peninsula. Regardless, Ston is definitely the place to be if you want get away from large touristy crowds. It’s also a good place to try out seafood, oysters being the most famous and popular choice of this town. Ston holds an Oyster Festival every March, and if you’d like to see where they are harvested catch an excursion from Mali Ston to the local oyster beds. Also join in Ston’s annual Salt Harvest, where you can learn how to harvest salt straight from the sea.
Not only do these Croatian towns provide you with a present-day walk through history and a perfect backdrop for your vacation snapshots, but they offer you a selection of events and other historical and cultural monuments that’ll surely make your trip one to remember for years to come.