Trogir, Croatia, our current home away from home, has a fascinating history that goes back more than 2,300 years. During our first weeks on this tiny island getaway, we preferred to soak up the town’s details bit by bit, leaving much to imagination, but when the opportunity presented itself to go on a walking tour with Natalija, a new friend and certified tour guide, we decided it was time we properly unravel the mysteries of the ancient town.
Meeting Our Guide, Natalija
We commenced our walking tour at the spot where we’d originally met Natalija – Trogir’s Petar Berislavić School, a handsome, century-old building with a commanding location on the Adriatic. When we’d gone there to make arrangements to visit an English class earlier in the month, Natalija (who works as the school’s legal advisor; she is a lawyer schooled in Split), helped translate. Our visit to the 6th grade class would turn out to be a fun diversion: we chatted about the students’ current lessons (their teacher kept reminding us that we could only speak to the kids in the present tense, as it’s the only one they’d yet learned), and their extracurricular passions. One boy was an up and coming water polo player, another was an avid basketball fan, and the female students professed a love for studying, not sports. As we left the classroom, impressed by the young students’ fine grasp of English and feeling their contagious energy, we concluded that these Croatian youth weren’t very different from their peers we’d met in classes in Southeast Asia and India just a year earlier.
An Overview of Trogir’s History
Standing in front of the school on the day of our walking tour, we saw familiar student faces peeking out of the open windows; several students waved at us in a hearty fashion, sending us off on our way with Natalija. Natalija started out by explaining Trogir’s etymology. Trogir was founded by Greek colonists in the 3rd century BC; they called the port Tragurion, similar to the Greek word Tragos meaning ‘male goat.’ After the Greeks, the Romans and Venetians would put their stamp on Trogir’s history, followed by Habsburg Empire rule and French troops. Trogir and Croatia as a whole would eventually become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The town was also occupied by the Italians during WWII, incurring some bombing damage. Croatia finally gained its independence in 1991 and Trogir was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Nearby, the elementary school is the mid-15th century Kamerlengo Fortress. Natalija drew our attention to the fortress’ tower, and what remains of a decorative frieze of the Winged Lion of Saint Mark. If you’ve been to Venice, or any spots once under the Venetian Republic’s rule, it’d be a familiar sight, except this one was largely destroyed after the fall of Venice in 1797. Natalija told us that we’d see the town’s only surviving winged lion in a few moments.
Next, we strolled to a suburb of Trogir called Pašike, which Natalija explained was once the district of the city’s poorer people. Trogir’s adjacent historic quarter, on the other hand, is where the noble people called home, behind entryways adorned with elaborate coats of arms. Natalija explained that noble ladies would often come to the wall bordering Pašike, so that they could escape the stuffy air, and dark, high walls of Trogir, where it was difficult to soak up the sunshine.
Back in the palace’s courtyard was a haphazard collection of limestone olive oil millstones, and the city’s only Winged Lion of Saint Mark frieze that was not damaged after the 370+ years of Venetian rule came to an end. Natalija drew our attention to the open book at the lion’s feet, explaining that it’s widely believed that an open book indicates a period of relative peace, whereas a closed one symbolizes times of war.
Nearing Trogir’s main square, Trg Ivana Pavla II, named after Pope John Paul II, we stopped at the Cipiko Palace, which was home to the Cipiko family’s well-known writers, artists and historians. The large rooster replica in the entryway, Natalija explained, was seized from a Turkish ship by a Cipiko family member during a pivotal battle of the 15th century. High up on the building’s front façade are beautiful windows that would be equally at home overlooking Venice’s canals.
If you’re thinking that some of these names sound a bit Italian, you’re correct. During medieval times, Latin was spoken here. Even today, Natalija explained, many Dalmatian families still have Italian surnames. She compared the Dalmatian temperament to that of the Italian people (playful and less rigid than northern Croatians, who are said to have been influenced by the Austro-Hungarians).
“This statue is of Jesus,” she explained, “and many tour guides will walk past it without saying anything because it is a bit scandalous and only a year or so old.”
Natalija elaborated, explaining that the city leaders and the church did not agree about whether or not to recognize St. John’s Day as a local holiday. Church leaders were upset when the patron saint’s day wasn’t recognized, so they erected the sculpture. I found this funny since I’d photographed the sculpture just days before – certain it was as old as the church. Natalija joked that someday it may be removed since putting it there could be seen as questionable given Trogir’s UNESCO World Heritage status.
Next, we wound through a charming courtyard, where multiple potted plants lined the stairways, and laundry lines criss-crossed overhead, before exiting through the town’s south portal, which amazingly still wears 15th century wooden doors (complete with intimidating iron adornments).
Having looped back to the elementary school, our tour had come full circle. We were thrilled to finally have acquired a greater appreciation of Trogir, thanks to Natalija sharing her afternoon with us. When we mentioned to Natalija that we’d likely be exploring nearby Split in the coming days, she tempted us with more intriguing historical tidbits about Diocletian’s Palace and beyond. She’s a true fountain of knowledge.