Travel

From waterfalls to wilderness: exploring Croatia’s Dalmatian hinterlands

Croatia’s coastline sparkles in summer, but the Dalmatian hinterland, Zagora, offers something subtler. Here you can lose yourself amid a landscape of waterfalls and wilderness.Monday, July 1, 2019

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Photographs By Slawek Kozdras
Wooden bridge, Krka National Park.

Sunset turns the dimmer switch on the village of Radonić. It’s that soft, glowing hour of the day, when the light loses its glare and the heat its harshness. A honey-like hue is settling on the stone buildings of the Kalpić farm where, inside, three generations are settling down to an evening feast of peka — meat, slow-cooked in the traditional, Dalmatian way, under the ‘bell’ of a lid covered in embers. 

It’s mid-March, and the tourist season has yet to begin in earnest. Wine is flowing. Ruby-red shards of pršut (dry-cured, prosciutto-style ham) are being plucked from a platter and eaten with cheese and bread. Conversation pinballs around, and briefly turns to which of life’s decades is the most enjoyable. 

“They say the 60s are the best,” announces Ivana Kalpić, nodding to her parents. Her dad is spooning out slow-cooked chicken and veal from the peka; her mum bouncing a granddaughter on her knee as she offers a glass of wine to clink against my own. “We say the 20s,” Ivana adds, looking at her sister, Anita. “But now we’re in our 30s,” she smiles. “Everything moves so fast.”

Mr Kalpić was born here, I learn, and began steering the farm towards tourism after the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s. Over the years, it’s passed to his daughters, Ivana and Anita, and today the rustic estate hosts a B&B, apartments and a gastronomic offering based around their own cheese, ham, olive oils, bread, vegetables and wine.

It took me less than 45 minutes to drive to Agrotourism Kalpić, as it’s now called, from the Dalmatian coast — meandering through a tiny village where my wing mirrors narrowly avoided dry stone walls. But it feels like a different country. 

“It was old-school. We had wooden signs on the road,” Ivana laughs, remembering the early days when their small business took root in a post-war landscape. 

I’ve come to Šibenik-Knin County, a stretch of Central Dalmatia north of Split and south of Zadar, with a simple mission in mind: to try and get a feel for the Dalmatian hinterland or Zagora (literally, ‘behind the hills’) — southern Croatia’s relatively unexplored inland region. I’m basing myself in Šibenik, whose gorgeous old town overlooks the point where the River Krka kisses the Adriatic. It’s far enough north of Dubrovnik to avoid the early season crowds and, using the city as a launch point, my plan is to make daily excursions inland, winding past road signs that warn of wild boars, through karstic limestone landscapes whose gnarly stone walls and sprouts of greenery remind me at times of the west of Ireland, at others of Spain’s Sierra Nevada. This way I can inject myself into off-radar places like Radonić or Knin — the place where I first hear the word ‘pomalo’. 

Rooftops and sea, Šibenik.

“It means, ‘take it easy, go slowly, relax’,” says Romana Marković, explaining the Dalmatian term. Working with the Knin tourist office, she shows me the local sights, from the town’s hulking fortress to its pummelling Krčić waterfall, just three miles from the centre. At first, I take the word as a stereotypical waving away of urgency — like ‘mañana’ in Spain, or ‘halara’ in Greece. But it soon becomes obvious it’s both more than that, and harder to define. In these parts, Romana tells me, pomalo can be a greeting, a philosophy, even a state of mind. “Of course, sometimes it’s a bit irritating,” she says. “But in most cases you end up feeling better.”

Knin is around a half-hour drive from the Bosnian border, and Croatia’s highest peak — the 6,276ft Dinara — is clearly visible in the distance. It feels remote, but Knin Fortress, with layers of history dating back more than 1,000 years, reminds me of the busy comings and goings in Croatia over the centuries. Positioned between the Balkans and Central Europe, you’ll find everything from Slavic churches to Ottoman and Napoleonic forts dotted about the place.

In fact, the first thing I see over the entrance to the fortress is a carving of a winged Venetian lion. There have been modern conflicts too, of course. On 5 August 1995, after Croatia was liberated following ‘Operation Storm’, the national flag was erected on this hilltop. 

Raw nature

From Knin, Romana and I drive south towards Cetina, seeking out its deep, clear-water spring and Church of Holy Salvation — its graveyard dotted with chunky medieval tombstones, known as stećci. Since it’s low season, most of the buildings we pass seem desolate and abandoned. Blossoms wave in the breeze next to crumbling walls, empty outbuildings, farmhouses without windows. The silence, framed by Dinara and a widescreen blue sky, make the post-war landscape feel doubly surreal. 

“Raw nature,” says Romana, several times, evoking the mountains, lakes, and rivers around us. “This part is really forgotten.”

I wonder what it’s like to live here. Romana moved from Zagreb several months ago, she tells me. Understandably, it took her some time to adapt to the change of pace. But now she sees the potential for pomalo tourism. People here are good hosts she says, “because they don’t try to be something they’re not”.

As the crow flies, Cetina is less than 45 miles from the coast. But it feels further than that. Coastal Dalmatia has its own palette: jewel-blue seas, marmalade-orange rooftops and swishing green pines. The hinterland, however, adds broody browns, mountain greys and rusty travertines. Beyond the seaside holiday resorts, the roads grow quieter. Coast and hinterland feel at once connected and removed.

I say goodbye to Romana in Knin, continuing to nearby Krka National Park, where I set off on foot. A series of 517 steps leads from the top of a canyon down to extraordinary views over the River Krka and Roški slap, a cascading string of waterfalls flicking out silver flashes of colour. 

Roški slap.

“We call them necklaces,” my guide, Stjepan Gundić, tells me. Limestone walls rise either side of us in a national park that follows the water from the early Croatian fortresses of Trošenj and Nečven towards the coast at Šibenik. I hear about a new wave of activities springing up among the scenic beauty spots and twisting canyon drives — zip-lines, cycling and winding hiking trails are just the beginning. 

Navigating the hairpin bends, I stop several times to take photos; of the yellow railings lining the bridge across the river near Roški slap, say, or the beautiful Visovac Monastery on its tiny island, so often seen in travel brochures. There are the husks of old mills, and another waterfall, Skradinski Buk, reached from Skradin by boat or bike. 

My favourite view, however, is too small and dark for pictures. Oziđana pećina is a cave in the stone, high above Roški slap, that once sheltered Neolithic people. Venturing about 150ft in, my guide and I come within a hair’s breadth of a little brown bat, hanging from the rock. It doesn’t budge.

“Everything here is the story of water and karst,” I’m told later by Josipa Čupić. She’s the director of the local tourist office in Drniš, a small town famous for its pršut and as the birthplace of sculptor Ivan Meštrović. “You have landscapes that can feel raw and unfriendly, but then you have these fantastic oases and rivers, surprises like Meštrović, and the whole way of life. Some come [to Croatia] for the seaside. Those who come to the hinterland are more curious.”

Over in Skradin, a riverside town serving as the gateway to Krka National Park, yacht masts chatter in a spring wind. I sit down to a mix of freshly fried shrimp and tiny fish from the brackish waters where the river and sea meet. Also on the menu is a local speciality, Skradinska torta, a cake made with ground almonds and walnuts instead of flour. I’ve heard Dalmatia’s lifestyle is ‘slower’ than that in Croatia generally, but the owner of Zlatne školjke (‘Golden Shells’) restaurant clearly doesn’t think I’ve got the message yet. She runs her eye over my hectic schedule. “Too much tempo,” she says, chiding me.

Wooden steps in Krka National Park.

Blown on the wind

I couldn’t come to this part of the world without at least skimming the coast, but after having Zagora largely to myself, I’m not willing to immerse myself in the crowds of Dubrovnik. Instead I stop for a tour of the pretty town of Primošten — dangled like a little teardrop into the sea — and the medieval centre of Šibenik, a Dalmatian beauty not yet touched by tourism to the same extent as Zadar or Split. 

It’s not until I reach the old town of Šibenik that I discover its charms. Trickling down towards the startlingly blue Adriatic, Šibenik and its islands throw up some gorgeous views. Cool, cobbled alleyways fend off the sun, threading through the town and every now and then revealing a surprise — the monastery garden of St Lawrence, or little stores selling Dalmatian olive oils and red Babić wines, squares with colourful window shutters and shaded seats, or the panoramas from St Michael’s Fortress. 

Its showpiece, however, is the Cathedral of St James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s attracted awe through the ages — most recently as a location for Braavos in Game of Thrones. Yet there’s an equally weird and wonderful cast of characters in the 71 sculpted heads peering down on passers-by from its exterior walls. They look like Renaissance caricatures, but in fact, guide Mia Deković tells me, were based on 15th-century citizens. “Like Facebook profiles from back in the day,” she smiles.

Mia lives in Šibenik, and I ask her what distinguishes it from the relentless draw of Dubrovnik. “It was the first city founded by Croats,” she tells me. “The Romans and Greeks never came here.” She describes it as a place that drifts gently between the seasons; spring is spent in flower-filled gardens, while summer is a time of open-air concerts.

“I stop for a tour of the pretty town of Primošten — dangled like a little teardrop into the sea — and the medieval centre of Šibenik”

Winter brings the region’s bura — an infamous wind that blows across the hinterland from mountains to sea (mention it to any Dalmatian and watch the expression on their face change). The strong, clean and often bone-chilling wind — which stretches into spring — has its upsides, however, not least, the air-drying of the sweet pršut. You’ll find the ham hanging throughout Šibenik-Knin County (Elizabeth II ate Drniški pršut at her coronation ceremony in 1953, several people tell me). If the bura blows three times in March, it’s said that summer will be hot and stable, and it’s during one of these three breezy periods that I meet Joško Lokas, the larger-than-life owner of Etnoland Dalmati, a small, open-air living history museum at Pakovo Selo, a village near Krka National Park.

“You probably remember the time before Instagram,” Joško laughs, greeting me in a traditional costume and cap, before offering a tour of his site. “There were also times before tourism in the Dalmatian coast.” 

The bura seems to reach inside my coat, laying its cold hands on my skin, so we expedite the introductions and head into an outbuilding where Joško begins a journey through Dalmatian heritage via reconstructed kitchens, hearths, bedrooms and cellars. I learn how peka was cooked in the embers, how pršut was smoked over open fireplaces, how locals danced in milling circles, and how konobas, the casual restaurants now common throughout Dalmatia, began life as literal ‘cellars’ on home and farmsteads, where families stored various goods. “People who came to Croatia in the 1960s still remember these scenes,” Joško tells me, evoking a time when intrepid tourists found prices chalked onto konoba doors in the countryside. 

Šibenik was the first city founded by Croats.

These sorts of visitor attractions aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I’m won over by Joško’s boundless enthusiasm and fascinating personal story. His grandfather grew up on this very homestead, he explains; and now he and his wife have rebooted it as a place to share the under-told story of Croatia’s rural heritage. 

Afterwards, we sit in his large dining hall eating ham, cheese and peka, talking about his wish to tempt tourists away — however briefly — from the loungers of the coast. “We’re talking about the hidden things that you don’t know,” he says.

The family feel here reminds me of my time at Agrotourism Kalpić. “It’s still netaknut — untouched,” Ivana had said of the hinterland. There, as the kids swiped strips of pršut from a big plate, she’d shown me the peka stewing away in her shed. Her husband had brushed the embers off the lid, lifting it to let a magical little puff of smoke out, revealing the cuts of veal, chicken and pork cooking ever so slowly within. “You need to get the taste of the wood, smoke and time coming through,” she mused. “If you don’t have that, it tastes fake.”

I may not have known what pomalo meant then, but after a few days travelling from sparkling coast to intriguing interior, dipping in and out of Zagora, I’ve got a little dose of it to take home.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways flies to Split from Heathrow and London City, Croatian Airlines from Heathrow and Gatwick, and EasyJet, Jet2.com and Norwegian from various UK airports. Ryanair, EasyJet and Norwegian all fly to Zadar. Both cities are around an hour by car from Šibenik.

Average flight time: 2h45m.

Driving is straightforward in this part of Croatia — though certainly easier outside of peak summer season, with less traffic on the roads. Watch out for relatively low speed limits (90km/h or 55mph outside settled areas) and have a parking plan before you enter busy towns, particularly at the coast. 

When to go
Shoulder season is the time to visit southern Croatia and the Dalmatian Hinterland. May, June, September and October see fewer crowds near coastal areas, and the sting goes from the peak summer temperatures (mid-30Cs). September sees the Adriatic at its warmest, too. 

Where to stay
Heritage Hotel Life Palace, Šibenik. 

Places mentioned 
Agrotourism Kapic
Knin Fortress & waterfall.
Krka National Park
Skradin
Etnoland Dalmati. 

More info
croatia.hr
dalmatiasibenik.hr
sibenik-tourism.hr 

How to do it
Unforgettable Croatia has a week at the Heritage Hotel Life Palace in Šibenik, including flights to Split as well as car hire, from £995pp.

See more images in our photo gallery:
 

view gallery

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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