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Ancient Sibenik’s latest rebirth marks it a Croatian leisure capital

The coastal city of Sibenik sits roughly at the center of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. One of its claims to fame: it doubled as the city of Braavos in Season 5 of "Game of Thrones."

WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

By ANJA MUTIC | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2019

It’s just past noon as I gaze at the Adriatic Sea from St. Michael’s Fortress, a medieval bastion atop the old town of Sibenik, a coastal city that sits poised roughly at the center of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Late September bura winds have cleared the skies, making the horizon crisp and the sea cerulean. I can smell cypress trees and hear the rustle of the soft sea-scented breeze. Only a handful of other visitors stroll around the fortress, looking out over the Sibenik Channel, the islands of the archipelago and the rooftops of the old town below.

Just a few years ago, this fort was a forlorn place, and Sibenik (pronounced SHE-benik) an industrial city that people skipped for more illustrious holiday destinations to the south. In the 1980s, industry boomed here, and leisure was just a sidebar. Most of the factories shut down in the early 1990s, then the war swept Croatia. seemed but an afterthought; it was only in 2012 that Sibenik got its first city beach proper, Banj. The tides have since changed in Sibenik, bringing with them another renaissance.

But let’s backtrack to Sibenik’s birth -- and its first renaissance. In 2016, the city celebrated its 950th birthday. Sibenik was founded in 1066 by King Petar Kresimir IV at St. Michael’s Fortress. During the Venetian era, Sibenik soared and prospered. The many Renaissance palaces and loggias, as well as 24 churches, six convents and 2,851 stone steps, are all remnants of its heyday.

If you stand on Trg Republike Hrvatske -- or Republic of Croatia Square -- looking at the sharp rise of the old city, Sibenik appears tall and proud, echoing this golden age. But what speaks volumes about its grandeur is St. James Cathedral, a domed triple-nave basilica built between 1431 and 1535; UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 2000. Marking the transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance period, it was constructed entirely of stone by the builder and sculptor Juraj Dalmatinac. The remarkable frieze on its outer walls, adorned with 71 carved faces of men, women, and children, is said to be modeled after his contemporaries.

In 2017, another masterpiece from that era got its UNESCO designation: St. Nicholas Fortress, on an islet across from the old town. Part of what UNESCO calls the "Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th centuries" -- World Heritage Sites spanning Italy, Croatia and Montenegro -- the fortress once hosted rave-style parties and concerts.

No more. Having made Sibenik one of a handful of cities with two World Heritage sites, St. Nicholas Fortress is now under renovation; plans are in place to open it for visits this year.

History buffs have reason enough to head to this overlooked Croatian city. But the hidden beauty has more in store, concealing some of the most vibrant cultural tapestry you’ll find along Croatia’s coast. While they once defended Sibenik from uninvited visitors, its fortresses now stand as its forte, with a fresh power of attraction.

The three forts that stand on the mainland (St. Nicholas is the only one at sea) are all managed by Fortress of Culture Sibenik, an institution that has spearheaded the city’s revival, breathing life into these neglected monuments. The first fort that reopened after a major two-year restoration was St. Michael’s, in 2014. Next up was Barone, originally built in 1646 on Vidakusa, the 263-foot-high hill above the city, a 15-minute walk through a residential neighborhood.

I met a friend at Barone one evening at sunset. We had a walk around, ogling the augmented reality interpretations of Sibenik’s 17th-century past and its defense against the Ottoman attacks. At a small shop, we looked through the thoughtfully curated local products: sea sponges from the islet of Krapanj, red coral jewelry made on Zlarin island, and fragrant olive oil and sea salt soaps handcrafted locally by Sapunoteka. We had coffee at Barone’s swank gastro-cultural center that serves cold plates showcasing traditional products, such as Dalmatian pancetta and sheep milk cheese, paired with local wines such as marastina and babic.

But the best pairing was the panorama, as the sun dipped over the islands below, giving everything a dreamlike glow. At that moment I could tell why Sibenik doubled as Braavos in Season 5 of "Game of Thrones." (Braavos is the richest and most powerful of the Free Cities that lie to the east of Westeros.) Scenes were shot outside St. James Cathedral and the third of the fortresses, St. John’s, which is under renovation and expected to open in 2020.

In 2018, St. Michael’s and Barone hosted 44 events, including contemporary dance performances, film festivals, and concerts by Bryan Ferry and Roisin Murphy in the 1,077-person open-air arena that faces the sea inside St. Michael’s. While the fortresses are drawing visitors, the local community is being invited into the story. Fortress of Culture Sibenik has a Friends’ Club that counts 4,000 local members (10 percent of Sibenik’s population), who get free admission to many events.

Unlike the Dalmatian cities to the south, Sibenik has pioneered a culturally sensitive way of developing tourism. That’s partly because of the narrow canal that naturally protects the city from cruise ships, saving it from umbrella-waving tour groups that whiz in and out. The city’s growth has been organic and steady; visitor numbers have gone up by 10 percent in the last two years and people are now extending their stays by two days.

To cater to the piquing interest, heritage hotels are opening in the old town. The first was Life Palace, unveiled in 2015 inside an overhauled 15th-century palace, with 17 classically styled rooms and a small spa on the top floor. King Kresimir Hotel opened right across the same town square in March 2018, in another stunning palace with seven rooms (the eighth will open once its original frescoes are restored); the king suite has its own tiny rooftop terrace with a hot tub.

Food-focused visitors travel from afar just to dine at Pelegrini, Sibenik’s lauded restaurant that got a Michelin star in March 2018 (one of only three in Croatia). With 28 indoor seats, it opened in 2007 in a 700-year-old palazzo; the alfresco tables along the stairs overlooking the cathedral and on the terrace with four medieval wells add another 28 seats in fair-weather months. Like the forts that focus on reviving Sibenik’s heritage, Pelegrini delivers fresh ingredients sourced from the region and crafted into culinary art.

"We have to respect nature and use what’s around us," says Rudi Stefan, Pelegrini’s chef and owner. "The best amuse-bouche in Dalmatia during summertime is a tomato picked at 6 p.m., delivered to our kitchen at 6.30 p.m., sliced in four, sprinkled with a little salt and olive oil - and that’s it. That tells the story of our terroir."

Meals at Pelegrini come with a touch of performance. The staff delivers gorgeously presented dishes to each table with choreographed moves. The minuscule kitchen churns out highlights such as mussels harvested by the restaurant’s dedicated shellfish diver and a modern take on traditional veal under peka (a baking bell) -- cooked sous-vide, finished on the grill and served with rosemary cream-filled potatoes.

Unlike most of the restaurants in Sibenik, Pelegrini is open year-round, though it draws few diners in winter months. (It’s best to call ahead.) Set on bringing people to Sibenik during the city’s lull, Stefan last March organized the inaugural Chefs’ Stage, a gastronomy and hospitality congress that gathered 35 international chefs, including Slovenia’s Ana Ros, with panels, master classes, dinners in remarkable locations, and presentations of small producers.

The impetus of change has swept Sibenik on many fronts. On your stroll through town, you may stumble into SHE, a vegan bistro in a light-flooded ground floor of a 19th-century townhouse on a tiny piazza just up from the seafront. You may order the homemade gnocchi with rucola pesto or spinach falafel to savor with the handcrafted bread, and then come evening take the winding stairs up to the small rooftop bar to enjoy the signature cocktail as the sun dips.

You may drop by a yoga class or a sound bath at the SHE Atelier upstairs. But the behind-the-scenes is what really makes the story of SHE. Its mastermind, Irena Ateljevic, is a former academic renowned for her research in the field of tourism and cultural geography. When she quit her tenured position at a Dutch university, she traveled the world and then returned to her native land to plant the seeds of change on her home turf.

"I came back to Croatia to create a new paradigm of care economy that doesn’t have profit as its main driver, but rather the health of its people, society and our planet," she explains. That’s how SHE was born, as a social enterprise and a hub for ecology that doubles as a creative center blending organic food, art, culture and well-being.

Taking small measured steps, respectful of the ground it walks on, immersed in heritage and tradition, Sibenik is on the slow rise to Croatia’s hall of fame.

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