Central Dalmatia is rich in historical treasures, and a cursory glance at the region’s turbulent history gives an indication of the rich and diverse heritage waiting to be discovered by the adventurous tourist.
The perception of the region’s past is perhaps dominated by the Roman era, best preserved in the mindset by the magnificent palace of Emperor Diocletian, whose Adriatic retirement home remains the very heart of Split to the present day.
Take a drive a little south to the stunning town of Omiš, however, and a very different history is waiting for you to explore, a history of fortresses, legends, Turkish invasion and pirates. For long after the Romans had departed, Dalmatia’s inhabitants had to prepare themselves against raids and invasion from the Ottoman Turks, pirates and other enemies over the centuries. The result for the modern-day tourist is a collection of impressive and imposing fortresses and legends at strategic points along the Cetina river – eleven in all. We begin 110 km north of Omiš, far up the Cetina river.
High above Vrlika, a fortress was erected and its earliest documentation dates back to 1406 as a gift to Hrvoke Vukicić Hrvatinić, Duke of Split from King Ladislav of Naples. Ownership quickly passed to Duke Ivan III Nelipic.
Prozor fell into the hands of the Turks in 1523, and remained in their possession for more than 200 years. Of the many characters to grace the fortress, folklore remembers best the brutal Suli-Ma Muli-Hodzić, kidnapped a virgin bride at her wedding, put her on his horse and rode to his villa.
The distraught groom, shamed and dishonoured, wanted revenge and climbed up the outside wall using the thick vines to hoist him up, where Suli-Ma was consumed with lust for the naked virgin. The groom plunged a knife into the bey’s chest, kissed his bride and dived into the abyss. The rock where the groom died is covered with heather each spring.
To reach the fortress from Vrlika church, drive for 1.5km towards Maovica, followed by a 25 minute hike along a dirt path.
Known also as Dinarić in older maps, Glavaš is an impressive fortress from the 14th century, constructed on the way to Unista. It was frequently attacked by Ottoman forces due to its easy access to Bosnia.
Inhabitants of Vrlika had other dangers to contend with apart from the threat of invasion by the Turks – thieves after their very clothing!
The traditional Vrlika costume was embroidered with gold coins, which may have looked very pretty, but they also attracted plenty of interest from thieves and rogues, as one old lady explained:
“It was during the Great War. Having separated from the convoy, a small grey car ascended to just below the fortress. Two soldiers with large bags got out of the car and went inside. Not long after, there was a lick of flame and a shot. One of the soldiers jumped into the car and drove off. I peeked inside the fortress. There was a dead soldier, covered in blood, lying on a pile of half-burnt women’s waistcoats and corsets. I fled and never returned to the fort until the following summer. There was not a trace of the soldier anymore, just the remnants of Vrlika costumes, lacking any golden ornaments.
“Ten years later, a car came all the way from Ruzarica to Glavaš. A hunter got out of the jeep and went straight into the tower. One could clearly hear stones tumbling in the silence of the noon. The hunter was looking for something. Was it one of the soldiers who now came back for the hidden gold? Suddenly a scream. We ran to help him. The hunter was lying on a pile of stones, crushing a huge horned viper with his hands, which kept biting the hunter’s neck relentlessly. We managed to beat the snake to death with a stick, but the hunter was already dead.”
To reach Glavaš, take the side road from the Vrlika – Knin regional road in the village of Kijevo. When driving to Uniste, drive to the 8th kilometre, and the impressive fortress is above.
Situated at the foot of the Svilaja mountain on Gradina hill close to the village of Potravlje, the fortress of Kotromanica (or Vidusica) is first chronicled in 1372 as part of the property of Duke Ivan II Nelipić.
The Turks found Travnik a difficult fortress to conquer, a town made of stone, perched up high and surrounded by water. They were only able to do so by cutting off the supply from the wells below, which they did by clogging the wells with sand, clay and ox skins for seven days, and the fortress finally fell in 1522.
To reach it from the centre of Potravlje, follow the shepherd’s path, keeping the top of the tower in sight.
High above the town of the same name on a hill called Grad is the fortress of Sinj, which has had a fascinating history since it was first mentioned in 1349 as part of the dukedom of Cetina granted to Ivan II Nelitić.
The Turks conquered Sinj in the 16th century, and it was only liberated in 1686. Its finest hour, however, came in 1715 when a much smaller local force successfully defended the fortress from a vastly superior Ottoman army.
The events of 1715 started with a courier from Mustafa Celić banging on the town gate with an ultimatum: “Surrender the town or I will destroy it and cut everyone to pieces!”
Commander Balbo refused to surrender and prepared his defences, while Friar Pavao Vucković gathered the town in prayer around the painting of Madonna. An enemy spear pierced the chest of Don Ivan Grgić, and the wells of Miletin and Odrina became crimson with blood.
The Turks were tortured by thirst, dysentery and fear, and on the dawn of the Day of Madonna, the Turks fled, the siege was over and church bells rang out to celebrate, as pure water was returned and the citizens of Sinj crowned the painting of Madonna.
From the square of King Tomislav, continue through Kacica street, to the church of Madonna of Sinj.
Čačvina is another prominent fortress along the Cetina which spent a long time – more than 200 years – under Ottoman control. Located east of Trilj, it was strategically important due to the crossroads of natural paths of the Cetina district to Livno and Imotski.
Its first documentation dates back to 1371 and that man Ivan II Nelitić once more, and it was in Turkish possession from 1513 to 1718.
Legend has it that the origins of Čačvina are in a dispute between father and son, with the fallout resulting in the son building Sinj and the father Čačvina. Although the fortress dates back to the 14th century, the site has been an observation post since pre-historic times. To reach it, drive 6km along the Trilj-Kamensko road, turning for the road to Čačvina and parking at the cemetery.
Nutjak is a fortress on the right banks of the Cetina, downstream from Trilj and on the border with Poljica. It was badly damaged during the 1490 incursion of Cetina by the Turks.
Nutjak guarded the Republic of Poljica and one of its most enigmatic commanders was Duke Zarko Drazojević, who lived from 1438 to 1508, a man with a passion for ravens.
He used to feed – and managed to tame – the ravens, who flew round in circles, sounding the alarm at any approaching intruders. It became a ritual for the duke on returning from battles to share a meal of raw meat with his ravens.
In January 1508, then in the town of Klis, Drazojević received a plea for help from the citizens of Sinj, and he rode immediately along Dugopolje and ascended Mali Mosor. He whistled for his ravens and waited, but he had been tricked, and a flock of Ottoman janissaries awaited him instead. He realised he had been tricked by someone at Nutjak and cursed the guards there with his dying breath.
Twenty years later, those very same janissaries attacked and destroyed Nutjak, killing all the guards.
Although centuries have passed since his death, two ravens come from Mosor every year on the anniversary of his death (January 15), circle around Nutjak and greet their master with their croaking.
To reach Nutjak, there is a pathway off the Trilj-Bisko road at the 4th kilometre which takes 15 minutes.
Known also as Duare in the historical records, Zadvarje belonged to the district of Rodbilja, which was under the control of Count Stjepan Vukcić Kosaca.
The Turks conquered Zadvarje and held it until 1684, but is was an uncomfortable tenancy due to the frequent attacks by Dalmatian insurgents and Venetians.
The legend of Zadvarje is also steeped in violence, and dates back to the 16th century, when the citizens of Omiš, fearing for their safety, bribed Murat (the bey of Zadvarje) with gold coins. On leaving Omiš, Murat had an orgy and kidnapped a child called Katica from the village of Kucici.
She begged for mercy, but egged on by the enthusiastic howling of his janissaries, Murat raped the girl, but it was not without resistance, and Katica repeatedly scratched his face during the ordeal so that he was covered in blood. Murat went crazy and strangled the girl. Although the crime happened almost 500 years ago, the ghost of Murat – covered in blood – reappears on a full moon, stumbling and howling along the walls of the castle.
Leaving Zadvarje centre, go to the water station, obtain your permit to visit, then go round the administration building and it is a ten-minute walk to ‘Murat Tower’.
As the Cetina turns into a wide arch, the fortress of Kunjak close to the village of Kucuci guards the mighty river. It is first mentioned in the 1482 Poljica Statutes, but featured rarely in historical records after that.
On the left bank of the Cetina and close to the village of Podaspilja, Visuć is first mentioned in 1384 in the battles between Duke Nelitić and Bosnian viceroy Stjepan Kotromanić
Life for ordinary people in Dalmatia has never been easy, and the chronicler Gojak has recorded the legend of Visuć and how it came to be destroyed. A widower called Andjelija came in search of food, as she has four hungry children who would starve if she did not return with food that day.
She was turned away by the millers of Visuć, cruelly told to go to the river and search for food therein. “May it be as you say, and may the same fate that befell my children befall yours and your masters!”
Time passed, and sure enough, the following year lightning struck the Visuć and destroyed the castle. The Cetina burst its dams and carried the miller away to become a tasty meal for the creatures of the sea.
Once a proud fortress, Visuć now looks like an old woman’s tooth, quietly warning the arrogant and sated alike. Visuć is 270m above Radmanove Mlinice – drive along the road to Sviniste for 2km and then hike for 15 minutes.
A fortress with a view!
Imposingly positioned on the mountain Omiška Dinara high above Omiš, Starigrad is first mentioned in the first half of the 15th century as part of the defences of Omiš.
A story of unrequited love of a lower class ‘vlah’ and the daughter of a noble family.
There was a fierce bura and the guards could relax: “Not even Satan would attack in a storm like this,” said one, but Frano insisted on doing the rounds anyway. His mission was top secret – to meet with the lovely Mihaela from the prominent Didić family, a family far too noble to entertain him as an equal, so they had to keep their love secret.
Frano saw the agreed candle in the window, jumped into a boat to row across, but his rowing was useless in the strong bura, and his boat was overturned and he drowned. He was the talk of the town the following day, with everyone saying he had deserted to the Turks. Only one young lady knew the truth, but she could not share it, and she walked along the banks of the river full of remorse for the rest of her life.
To reach Starigrad, drive to Baucic and then walk along the marked path for 20 minutes.
Last but by no means least is the fortress of Peovica, close to the town of Omiš itself, a fortified castle built on several layered terraces, with the highest tower originating in the 14th century.
Peovica was a favourite hideout for the legendary Pirates of Omiš, who regularly sought refuge in the Cetina gorge. One of the advantages of the fortress is the ability to confuse the enemy with the remarkable echoes that exist there.
Combined with the river, it is impossible to locate the source of the noise and attackers are left with the impression that the place is more stoutly defended than it is in reality. This happened famously in 1537 when the Turks turned and fled, rather than face what they assumed was a far superior force.
Climb the stairs at Subić Street and pass by the small church of the Holy Spirit, a journey of fifteen minutes.
There are many more treasures and legends to be discovered on the Cetina, so why not take a look at this fascinating and largely undiscovered region? For more information visit the tourist board websites of Omis and Trilj.