One of Peter Sommer Travels’ specialities, arguably the key one, is helping our guests understand the places we visit. In most cases, whatever country a tour or cruise takes place in, those places are archaeological or historic sites of various types: fortifications, shrines and burial places, monuments, and so on. More often than not, however, they are centres of settlement: villages, towns and cities, some long-abandoned, others still lived in.
Of course, a settlement, ancient or modern, is not a single structure, but a system, a network of different features. It includes infrastructure like streets, lanes and harbours; residential areas and individual homes; public buildings serving a community’s needs, e.g. administration, trade or assembly; common defences such as city walls; and places of worship. And while each of these individual structures can be interesting in itself, what makes many of the places we visit truly fascinating is their combination and juxtaposition, a physical and tangible record of how a society functioned, what habits, values and needs it had, how people lived and interacted, and how a place changed over time.
Our tour experts are specialised in presenting and explaining such places, telling their stories and bringing their past back to life in the eyes and minds of our guests. That’s not always easy, because not all aspects of a past community may survive or remain visible, or because a well-preserved site might be so large and complex that it is hard to gain an overview. Thus, we often use aids to help us in our task. In many cases, we simply bring a plan or map of a place with us, enabling our guests to get their bearings, or even a reconstruction drawing of a whole site or of individual parts of it, as a visual clue to lost elements.
We are especially thrilled, and so are our guests, when there is a scale model available, since it offers a very direct and three-dimensional visualisation of a place and all its features. Alas, this is rarely the case – but we use such models to great effect when we can, for example for the Acropolis at Athens, for Ancient Olympia in the Peloponnese, for prehistoric Malia on Crete, for Ancient Syracuse on Sicily, and in a few other places. We tend to find that such models really help us and our guests in understanding the relationships between different parts of a site and in putting ourselves – in our mind’s eye – in the position of those who inhabited and used it.
No model is needed for Trogir! This historic city, not far from Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is, in essence, its very own one-to-one scale model. Its many features are so perfectly preserved that a simple stroll through its streets, lanes and squares is all it takes to place ourselves in the footsteps of Trogir’s medieval inhabitants. In recognition of its unique qualities, the place is part of Croatia's World Heritage list! Courtesy of Google, here's a satellite image (if you see it on a mobile, turn your device sideways for a landscape view).
Our cruise from Šibenik to Zadar includes a fully guided walk of Trogir as its final visit. And since all our other Croatian cruise itineraries either start or end at a marina that’s just 20 minutes’ walk from the Old Town of Trogir, it is easy to arrange your trave; so as to have a little extra time for exploring the place – always a rewarding experience.
Like many of Dalmatia’s coastal towns, Trogir was originally a Greek settlement of the third century BC, Tragourion. Its founders came from Issa (the island of Vis), in turn a foundation by settlers from Syracuse on Sicily. The spot they chose was a small islet just off the mainland’s coast, apparently a favoured type of setting for ancient settlements in the region – the historic centres of Zadar, Korčula and Dubrovnik were all on islets, but unlike them, Trogir remains one. Its subsequent history ran generally in parallel with that of its region, meaning Roman rule (as Tragurium), then Byzantine, a period under Croatian control, followed by a long era of Venetian domination from the 15th to the early 19th century.
Aspects of this long history are embedded in the fabric of Trogir. Although nothing remains standing from its oldest phases, the rectilinear street plan may well go back to the original foundation. Today’s Trogir primarily consists of buildings from the twelfth century onwards, possible due to a major rebuilding after a devastating Arab (Saracen) raid in 1123.
Old Trogir is wonderfully compact. It measures barely 350 by 200m (or 380 by 220 yards), but combines all the features mentioned above within such pocket-sized dimensions.
If you go there, the first thing that will strike you is the location itself, indeed a tiny island wedged between the mountainous coast of Dalmatia and the larger, island of Čiovo (now popular for holiday homes). No matter what direction you enter Trogir from, you do so by a bridge (nowadays, there’s three of them: two from the mainland, one from Čiovo, but until quite recently, there was just the one, from the mainland).
In the past, the aspect of Trogir that a visitor saw first was the city walls enclosing it. They have mostly disappeared: similar to many European cities, they were taken down in the 19th century to provide more air to the streets and lanes. It’s easy to envisage where they were, all around the town, and a preserved stretch with a gate survives on the southern side, and the 15th century Kamerlengo fortress further west provides another visual reminder of such defensive architecture.
If you walk around the circumference of Trogir first, before entering, you will reach what used to be the southern city gate, looking out across the harbour. Next to it, you will see a very practical structure, beautiful in its simplicity, essentially a shelter constructed as a lean-to against the wall, with a roof supported by pillars and with benches to sit on.
This is where visitors (many of them merchants) to Trogir could wait, having arrived by ship (moored just a few footsteps away), before the city gates would open. It is a simple convenience, a hands-on manifestation of hospitality and an expression of civic ideals: a desire for order and a sense of being a trading town, awaiting visitors.
Inside the city, you find everything you can expect of a medieval city. Lanes, streets and squares make up the accessible spaces, lined by residential mansions, embedded in an atmosphere of timeless serenity.
The simple fact of Trogir’s historicity makes it so attractive to us, as walking through it is seeing beauty piled upon beauty. Within the Old Town, you are walking the same lanes and seeing the same vistas that the inhabitants of Trogir built seven or eight centuries ago and that their descendants have lived in ever after.
The quiet dignity of their homes is still setting the scene. The people of Trogir were traders (for example in oil and wine) and many of their residences, fine three-storey mansions, have shops at the ground floor, sometimes indicated by the characteristic door-counter arrangement that we also see in other merchant cities of Dalmatia (namely, the main door is flanked by a large horizontal window which would have served as a counter for the presentation and sale of whatever was being traded). It’s an architecture expressing that the town was open for business. Other typical features include gated courtyards, outside staircases and stone-carved details marking the frames of doors and windows, not overly ostentatious but finely made, embodying their builders’ civic pride. Here and there, larger mansions, belonging to the city’s key families, bear more elaborate decorations in the Romanesque, Gothic or Renaissance styles…
The most striking view of the city’s public face is provided by the main square, now named for Pope John Paul II. It is surrounded by four key structures, together presenting an image of the city's civic and religious identity.
On the eastern side stands the grand Renaissance City Hall, or Communal Palace. This was the residence of Trogir’s ‘Prince’ (a leader elected from among its noblemen), and under Venetian rule of the ‘Duke’, a Venetian official supervising the city.
Next to it is the Loža (or loggia), a true architectural gem. It is an enclosed platform, with a pillar-supported roof, overlooking the square. Its purposes were multiple, including the conduct of law-courts, but also the gathering of the city’s aristocracy. It is flanked by a charming clock tower, all that remains of a fifteenth-century church...
Its opposite number, truly dominating the square, however, is Trogir’s most important building and one of its oldest: the Cathedral of Sveti Lovre (Saint Lawrence), Trogir’s patron saint. Built from about 1200 to 1400, and thus straddling Romanesque and Gothic, it is the city’s largest and most elaborate edifice, crowned by an elegant tall belltower. There are many splendours inside, but for me, the cathedral’s highlight is the portal, carved around 1220 by a local sculptor, Radovan. This is a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture, comparable with some of the finest such work in Italy and France. Especially the figures of (a rather bashful) Adam and Eve flanking the main gate, are appealing, and they are accompanied by countless other narrative scenes. Together, they narrate the cosmology of medieval Christianity, and thus they exemplify the deep piety of this proud medieval city.
Of course, there’s more to see in Trogir: about a dozen churches, a monastery, a town museum, great views from the promenades around town – and in the lanes, countless cosy konobas, the traditional wine-and-food joints that are such an important part of Dalmatian life...
To see Trogir, and many places of similar charm and interest, join us on one of our gulet cruises in Croatia!