Dalmatia : the land where East meets West.
Holbach, Maude M.
Page  42


ONE grey March morning when the clouds were low on the Velebit mountains, and the Bora's sting was in the air, we started for Nona, the ancient capital and crowning place of the Kings of Croatia, in the only private carriage Zara possesses, lent us by the courtesy of Signor Perlini. We had sought for a cab and met with pitying smiles, for Zara knows not their use or necessity-a good boat for the sea, a horse or a sure-footed ass for the land, are her means of locomotion; then came the kindly offer of Zara's prominent citizen and our grateful acceptance.

We started full of eager curiosity, for this was our first glimpse of the country around Zara. Our road lay through a barren, stony land; to the left we kept the sea in sight, to the right the wild dark mountains frowned upon us.

Here and there were women tending sheep Page  43and lambs-the latter no bigger than good-sized cats--who greeted us in the Slav tongue; for though Zara is the most thoroughly Italian of any Dalmatian city, and the musical language of Dante prevails within its walls, the people of the surrounding country are pure Slavs.

Human habitations are few, and the landscape to-day is as savage as old chroniclers say the Croatians themselves were of yore. Little wonder they were driven to robbery and pillage, for this stony land could yield but scant sustenance. Rocks alternated with sage bush, sage bush with rocks, and the Bora sweeps mercilessly across the wilderness, laden with the icy breath of the snows of the Velebit through the winter and spring months; while under the fierce heat of the summer sun, the stony land lies parched and arid and shadeless.

Near to the old Croatian town the ground becomes swampy, and the district has always had so ill a repute for malaria, that the bishops of Nona in the Middle Ages were allowed to live in Zara during the worst part of the year. Yet strangely enough a flourishing Roman colony existed here in Trajan's time, when Anona (later corrupted to Nona) was one Page  44of the important seaports of Liburnia. Doubtless under the Romans, as on the Campagna, the fever was kept at bay and the place rendered comparatively healthy by an elaborate system of drainage, which fell into disuse in the semi-barbarism of the Middle Ages. How the Croats withstood the ravages of the malaria is a mystery, but as the royal acts of the Croatian Kings were sometimes dated from Novigrad and Belgrade (Zara Vecchia) as well as Nona, they may have migrated in the summer to these healthier towns.

Yet this lonely fever-stricken region is not without a weird attraction. Its salt marshes are the haunt of numerous wild-fowl-glorious sky effects are often mirrored in the lake-like sea by which slumbers this city of ghosts, itself but a ghost of the past ! Roman galleys may be lying beneath that still water, of the time of the Trajan wars. You have but to dig deep enough to find Roman remains in any garden, though coins and jewellery have been taken away wholesale to the museum in San Donato at Zara. An antique Roman capital is lying in the street, and report says that marble statues have at times been found, which is, of course, most Page  45likely; but they too have found a resting-place in some museum or private collection, and Nona knows them no more.

The site of a Roman arena was pointed out to us: here somewhere in the first century the plaudits of the crowd rang out where now all is silence!

Of the dominion of the Croats far more remains. The tiny church of St. Croce, the Cathedral of Byzantine times, dates from the ninth century, and is said to be the smallest cathedral in the world. Here, tradition says, the kings were crowned, but it is so very small that only a few persons beside the monarch and bishop and priests can have taken part in the ceremony. The building is very simple, and roughly constructed in the form of a Greek cross; the most remarkable thing about it is the door lintel carved with Byzantine designs, on which Professor Eitelberger made out the name of the Zupan (count) in whose time it was built, and so arrived at its date. Santa Croce was too small for the growing importance of the bishopric of Nona in the Middle Ages, and yielded its place to the present Duomo; it has long been disused for service, and is partly in Page  46ruins, but is a most interesting relic of Croatian Nona.

The foundation of the bishopric of Nona dates back to the second century, when the first bishop, St. Anselmo, with his sister, St. Marcella, according to the legend, introduced Christianity into pagan Nona. Their heads are preserved in costly silver gilt reliquaries of elaborate workmanship, on which seemingly somewhat inappropriately hunting scenes are represented. Other precious cases in the treasury are said to contain the feet of St. Anselmo.

The Duomo opens into an older church dedicated to the Madonna, who is held in especial reverence here, and once a year in May a remarkable procession takes place, of which her miracle-working statue is the central figure. This is followed by native dances worth going far to see, which evidently had their origin in some pagan festival, and were adapted by the early Christians of Nona to their new religion. Nona sees few strangers, and has never felt the want of an inn, but the podesta most kindly gave us the use of the best room in his house to dispose of the lunch we had brought from Page  47Zara, and bade us farewell on our departure with true Dalmatian courtesy.

We paused on the bridge which spans the water before the gates, to look back on mournful little Nona, and tried to conjure up a vision of her former glory; but this time imagination failed-the difference between the past and the present was too great to be bridged by fancy. So we turned away a little sadly, musing on the perishableness of the empires men build, and set our faces as the shadows lengthened towards more cheerful Zara.

You look across, as I have already said, from Zara to the castle-crowned island of Ugljan, and towards sunset, when the Venetian castle on the highest peak is silhouetted against a sky of rose and gold, the view is strikingly beautiful. The castle constantly tempts you to try to visit it, but the distance is deceptive. To reach the island by rowing boat takes fully an hour, and from the shore to the top of St. Michel's fully as long again, by rough pebbly paths that fatigue you more to traverse than would double the distanced if the path were good.

But the view repays: you see the whole island most curiously shaped about twelve miles Page  48in length by two or three in width; and, across the water, Zara, with its church-towers and shipping, and beyond--the mountains still snowclad in the spring, while to the west are other islands; just the tops of submerged mountains many of them, rising out of the sea, while others are but specks on the horizon !

The ancient fortress was erected in the time of the famous Doge Dandolo, after that black deed of the Crusaders, the sacking of a Christian city, to overawe ruined Zara and stop the piracies of those of her people who tried to avenge themselves by making raids in the Venetian shipping. In the midst of the ruins there is a little church where a service is still held once a year; this church is said to have formed part of a Benedictine monastery of the Middle Ages, and you cannot help wondering that the monks should have chosen so exposed and inconvenient a situation.

The people of Ugljan to-day are among the most industrious and prosperous of the islanders. Hardly a foot of ground is wasted, and here are grown the greater part of the vegetables sold daily at Zara. The women, especially, seem to have constitutions of iron, for they till the fields, Page  49and their brawny arms often row the boats to market. Even the stones that the soil yields so abundantly are utilized-they, too, go to Zara, where kukljca stone (Kukljca is the unpronouncable name of a certain district on Ugljan) is extensively used for building.

If you are interested in the tragic story of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, there is one more excursion you must make from Zara! It is to the castle of Novigrad, where she met her mysterious death, some say by being thrown over the battlements, and where her daughter Maria, who afterwards married the Duke of Brandenburg, was imprisoned with her, and narrowly escaped sharing the same fate.

It is a somewhat wearisome journey to reach Novigrad, four hours' driving each way over stony roads that shake your spine and try your horses, but if you would learn to know Dalmatia intimately you will think little of such drawbacks.

At first you follow the great post road to Obrovazzo through the barren Karst. At the village of Ploca is the first watch-tower--the outpost of the Venetians when they lived in hourly fear of the Turk! But further on Page  50barrenness gives way to vegetation; you pass houses shaded by olives and fig trees, sheep graze by the wayside and wild flowers blossom in springtime, but the peculiar charm is that you are approaching ever nearer to the mountains whose grey lava walls shimmer like silver in the sun's rays.

At Smiljau, which bore the brunt of much fighting in the Turkish wars, the road divides and the worst one goes to Novigrad. Our first view of the fortress is from above. It lies on a little bay with the town clustering round, and our driver points out the tower in which the two queens languished in their long-ago captivity.

Beyond the town lies the sea of Novigrad, looking like an inland lake, but joined to the Adriatic by a narrow fjord-like channel; this inland lake is famed for its tunny fisheries, which employ a great part of the inhabitants. The fishing lasts from the commencement of the warm weather to the fifth of October, when the nets are cast in the sea for the winter. As in the case of the pilchard fisheries of Cornwall, watchmen on the heights above give signal of the approach of the shoal, and sometimes as Page  51many as six hundred fish are captured at once, each weighing from thirty to forty pounds. Such rich harvest of the sea yields abundant profit, which is divided into twenty-one parts, of which five go to the owners of the net, eleven to the fishers, one to the church, and the rest to the watchmen and helpers.

From Novigrad it is well worth while to take the steamer up the river Zrmanja to Obrovazzo.

The Zrmanja is remarkable for its winding course through a wild caon. On either side the rocks rise to a height of five or six hundred feet, often taking most fantastic forms, here and there crowned.by the ruins of a medieval castle; their reddish colouring is an agreeable change from the universal grey of the Dalmatian mountains, and contrasts charmingly with the green of the trees and shrubs which have found a foothold in the crevices of the rocks.

At one point rocks form a natural arch, at another you can spy an eagle's nest on the summit of an inaccessible cliff! Grand as this scenery is, it is quite a relief to pass from the narrow gorge through which the river runs into the open country again on reaching Obrovazzo.

Page  52This is only a village of five or six hundred inhabitants, but the ruins of the old castle destroyed by the Venetians, in 1647, show that it had a most important past, and it promises to have a future, for here begins the mountain road over the Velebit mountains into Croatia, and all the wine brought by ship from the islands is carried that way, while the wood from the forests inland is brought to Obrovazzo for shipment.

There is something strangely alluring about that road winding up into the wilderness. It was finished in 1832, but few are the travellers who have passed over it. For tourists the Velebit is still a terra incognita, and likely to remain so on account of the lack of hotel accommodation everywhere in Dalmatia, outside the towns ; but the courtesy of the officials makes it comparatively easy to find private lodgings, which indeed the podesta of Obrovazzo offered to secure for us had we wished to sleep there. At Podprag, on the Velebit road, about ten miles distant from Obrovazzo, there is a house with beds for travellers and accommodation for their carriages, and higher still, there are the shepherds' Alpine huts, inhabited only Page  53in summer, when, the cows are driven to the high pastures; for in spite of the southern latitude, the cold in the Velebit is intense during the winter.

At an elevation of about two thousand feet the subtropical vegetation of the shores of the Adriatic is exchanged for that of more Northern climes; wild thyme scents the air, and such old friends as the wild rose of our English hedgerows and the orchis of our meadows grow round about Podprag, which is two thousand five hundred feet above sea-level.

From here the road winds up another seven hundred feet to its highest point, which is at the same time the frontier of Croatia.

The highest peak of the Velebit in Dalmatian territory is a mountain of about five thousand feet.

The people of this mountain region are a hardy primitive folk, inured from childhood to support life on most frugal diet and go scantily clad in all weathers. The boys learn to be herdsmen as soon as they reach their teens, and as they so early earn their own living they also marry at a very early age. No such monetary considerations as debar more civilized people Page  54from marriage count with the Morlacchi; a wife indeed among the Dalmatian peasantry is a useful beast of burden, and they have no concern as to furnishing the home, for their needs are little more than those of their horses and cattle; but for all that they have, in common with all Southern people, an inborn love of dancing and music. The national instrument is the gusla, which gives forth sounds more weird than musical, but the native dances which take place at markets and on certain festivals are very picturesque and interesting, and worth going a long way to see, being a survival of ancient custom probably unique in Europe.