ŠIBENIK is one of the few towns on the Adriatic not to have a Greco-Roman heritage. Originally founded around an eleventh-century Croat fell fortress, it fefirmlydy  under the control of the Venetians in the fifteenth century, becoming an important strongpoint in their struggles against the Ottomans.

As the main town of middle Dalmatia, Sibenik was a thriving industrial port until the 1990s, when war and recession conspired to close down the aluminium and chrome factories, and the city entered the new century as one of Dalmatia's most economically depressed areas. It's not a resort, and there's little point in stopping if you're looking for somewhere quiet with a beach, though the mazelike medieval centre is good for idle wandering and the cathedral is one of the finest architectural monuments on the coast. As a transport hub, Sibenik isn't as important as Zadar or Split, but there are ferries to a handful of offshore islands, and buses inland to the waterfalls of the Krka National Park and the medieval castle at Knin.

 

The City
Clinging to the side of a hill, Sibenik's ancient centre is a steep tangle of alleys, steps and arches bisected by two main arteries, Zagrebačka and Kralja Tomislava (the latter popularly known as Kalelarga), which run between Trg Republike Hrvatske, the core of the city, and the modern square known as Poljana (which until recently rejoiced in the name of Poljana maršala Tita, until reference to the former communist autocrat was quietly dropped). Entering the old town along Zagrebača from Poljana, it's not long before you emerge into the first of Sibenik's tiny medieval squares, Božidara Petranovića, overlooked by the Church of the Ascension (Crkva Uspenja Bogomatere). The main feature of this Baroque building is the belfry built onto the facade, a curious but elegant structure which resembles a pair of bay windows. The church is now the seat of a Serbian Orthodox bishop, whose see extends inland to cover the traditionally Serb-inhabited area around Knin. A few steps further on lies St John's Church (Crkva svetog Ivana), with a balustraded outside staircase said to be the work of sculptor Nikola Firentinac (who also worked on the cathedral) linking the ground floor to a gallery. The church's four-storey bell tower holds Sibenik's first mechanical clock, a contraption dating from 1648. Beyond here, Zagreba6ka becomes Don Krste Stogiča, a stepped street which leads up to the small, plain St Chrysogonus' Church (Crkva svetog Krževana), now home to seasonal art exhibitions.
Heading down one of the alleys leading off to the left brings you out onto Kralja Tomislava, where a sharp right delivers you to St Barbara's Church (Crkva svete Barbare), site of a modest Collection of Church Art (Zbirka crkvene umjetnosti). Its star exhibit is a small fifteenth-century polyptych of the Madonna and Child flanked by saints, painted by Blaz JutJev of Trogir, the leading Dalmatian artist of his day, who is credited with introducing Italian Renaissance styles to the eastern Adriatic. Down an alley beside the church, the fifteenth-century Rector's Palace (Kneževa palača) is nowadays home to the City Museum (Gradski muzej), which has an unspectacular display of local archeological finds from Neolithic to early medieval times, though little English information to help with interpretation. 

The cathedral and around
Immediately to the north of the County Museum lies Trg Republike Hrvatske and the Gothic Renaissance St James's Cathedral (Katedrala svetog Jakova), the product of a long-running saga that stirred the imaginations and emptied the pockets of the townspeople here during the fifteenth century. Plans for a new cathedral were originally drawn up in 1402, but war, lack of funds and disputes over the site delayed the start of work until 1431, when a group of Italian architects oversaw the erection of the Gothic lower storey of the present building. In 1441, dissatisfaction with the old-fashioned Gothic design led to the appointment of a new architect, Juraj Dalmatinac, who presided over three decades of intermittent progress, interrupted by perennial cash shortages, two plagues and one catastrophic fire. The cathedral was just below roof height when he died in 1473 and his Italian apprentice Nikola Firentinac ("Nicholas of Florence" - he is thought to have been a pupil of Donatello) took over, completing the roof and the octagonal cupola, although both may have been designed by Dalmatinac. The resulting edifice is an intriguing mixture, with Venetian Gothic portals and windows at ground level and a Florentine Renaissance dome at the top.
Entry to the cathedral is by the north door, framed by arches braided with the leaves, fruit and swirling arabesques which led to Dalmatinac's style being dubbed "floral Gothic". Two lions roar companionably at each other, supporting remorseful and rather crudely carved figures of Adam and Eve. Inside, the church is a harmonious blend of Gothic and Renaissance forms; the sheer space and light of the east end draw the eye towards the soft grey Dalmatian stone of the raised sanctuary. Follow the stairs down from the southern apse to the Baptistry, Dalmatinac's masterpiece. It's an astonishing piece of work, a cubbyhole of Gothic carving, with four scallop-shell niches rising from each side to form a vaulted roof, beneath which cherubim scamper playfully.
Back outside the cathedral, around the exterior of the three apses, Dalmatinac carved a unique frieze of 71 stone heads, apparently portraits of those who refused to contribute to the cost of the cathedral and a vivid cross section of sixteenth-century society. On the north apse, beneath two angels with a scroll, he inscribed his claim to the work with the words hoc opus cuvaninifecit magister Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus – "these apses have been made by Juraj Dalmatinac, son of " Mate' Given the narrowness of Sibenik's central streets, it's difficult to get a reasonable view of the cathedral's barrel roof, made from a line of enormous stone slabs and considered a marvel of construction at the time, though you should be able to catch sight of the statue high up on the southeast corner – a boyish, curly-haired Archangel Michael jauntily spearing a demon.
Trg Republike Hrvatske itself is lined with historic buildings including, directly opposite the cathedral, the town hall with its sixteenth-century loggia, much restored after World War II bombing, part of which now houses a cafe. Climb the alleyways leading up to the northeast, you'll eventually emerge at St Anne's Fortress (Tvrđava svete Ane), the nearest and most accessible of the system of fortifications constructed by the Venetians to keep Sibenik safe from the Turks. Built on the ruins of the earlier Croatian citadel, there's not much inside except for rubble, although the ramparts afford a panorama of the old town (including a clear view of the cathedral's roof), Sibenik bay beyond, and the endless green ripple of offshore islands in the background. From the fortress, what remains of Sibenik's city walls plunge downhill to meet the sea, forming the old town's northern boundary.


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