Šibenik, one of the oldest Croatian towns on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, is home to two UNESCO Heritage Sites — Sv. Nikola Fort and St. Jacob’s Cathedral. In fact, it is one of the only five cities in the world to host two such UNESCO sites.
UNESCO Heritage Sites are those that are deemed, by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, to have “outstanding universal value”. These are sites that have been deemed to hold cultural and historical significance worthy of preservation for posterity.
The fact that Šibenik is home to two such cultural heritage sites says a lot about its historic and cultural significance on the world stage.
In this article, we’ll give you a detailed overview of both Šibenik UNESCO Heritage Sites, Sv. Nikola Fort and St. Jacob’s Cathedral. As such, when you visit these cultural behemoths, you’ll be able to better appreciate their significance and grandeur.
Sv. Nikola Fort (aka St. Nicholas’ Fortress)
Sv. Nikola Fort, popularly known as St. Nicholas’ Fortress, is one of six fortresses recently included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for being a part of the Venetian Works of Defence.
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The Venetian Works of Defence is the collective name given to six fortresses that were built by the Republic of Venice between the 16th and 17th centuries. Beside St. Nicholas’ Fortress, these include the Fortified City of Bergamo in Lombardy, the Fortified City of Peschiera del Garda in Veneto, the City Fortress of Palmanova in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the Defensive System of Zadar in Zadar County, and the Fortified City of Kotor in Kotor Municipality.
St. Nicholas’ Fortress — like other fortresses in the Venetian Works of Defence collective — were built in the 16th and 17th centuries as a defense against the Ottoman Turks. The fortress was constructed on the left side of the St. Anthony Channel on the island called Ljuljevac.
Designed by a Venetian architect named Hyeronimus di San Michaela, its primary purpose was to ward off Turkish ships before they even reached the port. The buttressed and fortified visage, along with the presence of 32 cannons, was supposed to be a deterrent to all maritime attacks from the Ottoman Turks.
History has shown that they served their purpose well because there has been no reported incident of an attempted attack on the fortress. The fortress preserved itself merely on the strength of its formidable appearance and reputation.
Even though the fortress was never really tested, it became a stronghold for the military, who continued using it till 1979, after which it was turned purely into a tourist attraction.
Built in the shape of a buttressed triangle off the coast of Croatia, St. Nicholas’ Fortress is only connected to the mainland by a narrow strait. It also happens to be the strongest fort on the Croatian coast.
The fortress stretches out across .85 hectares and comprises three distinct layers. The foundation of the fortress was made of stone but the rest of the fortress was made of brick as it was a lot more resistant to cannonballs. The northern end of the fortress is semi-circular in shape and the southern end has both eastern and western bastions connecting it to the Ljuljevac island.
While most of the fortress has been designed in a sobering and minimalist aesthetic, the entrance is ornate and decorative. The gateway has been designed in the typical Venetian style and bears a figure of St Nikola at the center. The opposite interior wall bears the insignia of four coats-of-arms.
The labyrinth of stairs in the fortress lead down to sea level where the interiors are wide open and vaulted. A ramp also leads to the upper reaches of the fortress with a sweeping view of the Šibenik town. This upper level of the fortress used to be enclosed in the 17th and 18th centuries because they served garrison troops. However, they were opened up and restored in the 19th century.
Now that St. Nicholas’ Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, enough funds are available for its renovation in order to render it hospitable for tourists.
The trip begins at the Šibenik waterfront according to the predetermined boat schedule and timetable, from a berth called Krka to St Nicholas’ Fortress and it will take about twenty minutes. While sailing through the St Anthony’s Channel, visitors will have the opportunity to see some historical and natural sights of part of the significant landscape Channel-Port in Šibenik. Visits to St Nicholas’ Fortress will normally take about 45 minutes. Ticket price is 130kn.
St. Jacob’s Cathedral (aka The Cathedral of St. James)
St. Jacob’s Cathedral is one of the grandest and most revered buildings belonging to the Gothic-Renaissance period in Croatia. As the official church of the Catholic Church of Croatia, it is also one of the most important architectural landmarks from the Renaissance period in the country.
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The church was dedicated to Saint James the Greater, which is why it’s called The Cathedral of St. James. However, it is locally known as St. Jacob’s Cathedral because the name ‘Jacob’ is used interchangeably with ‘James’ in the Croatian language.
St. Jacob’s Cathedral was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
The building of the cathedral first began in 1431 and it concluded in 1536. Over the course of those 100+ years, the construction was entrusted to three architects — Francesco di Giacomo, followed by Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus, and finally completed by Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino.
Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus was arguably the most important of the three architects as he worked in the Gothic Flamboyant style but his work already bore traces of the Renaissance elements, thus proving that he was ahead of his times.
After his death, the cathedral was completed by Nikola Firentinac who gave the monument all of its elements of Tuscan Renaissance.
The architecture of the cathedral reflects influences from both Northern Italy and Tuscany Dalmatia. It is a source of wonder because it’s the world’s largest building constructed entirely of stone, without the use of any bricks or timber, thus having surmounted incredible structural and technical challenges.
Another source of wonder is that the cathedral was designed with a technique of interconnected stone plates that would not be popularized for another four centuries! This is yet another architectural feature that proved that St. Jacob’s Cathedral was well ahead of its time.
The cathedral’s most unusual and celebrated feature — the frieze of 71 heads inscribed on the exteriors of the wall at the rear end of the building — was designed by Dalmaticus. These faces may come across as comical now with their exaggerated expressions of grief, rage, fear, pride, and a range of other human emotions, but they were actually an accurate representation of the 15th-century townsfolk.
Another celebrated artistic feature of the cathedral is the Lion’s Portal on the northern end — also credited to Dalmaticus. The Lion’s Portal features the visage of two lions supporting columns that bore the figures of Adam and Eve. However, the comical aspect of the figures is that both Adam and Eve appear to be exceedingly embarrassed by their nakedness, thus representing them post their fall from grace rather than at the moment of paradise.
The interior of the church is divided into three aisles. The side altars, as they stand now, have been designed in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Baroque architectural style. The right altar bears a wooden crucifix belonging to the 15th century.
Another popular feature of the church is the baptistery under the south apse which can be reached via the stairway. The domed vault is resplendent in Gothic-Renaissance stone ornaments that were created by the various architects involved in the making of the cathedral.
St. Jacob’s Cathedral is now one of the most popular architectural landmarks in Croatia, especially after having been inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
However, it owes its recent infamy to the HBO show Game of Thrones, scenes from which were shot in the cathedral. St. Jacob’s Cathedral was used as the destination to represent the Iron Bank. In Season 5 Episode 9, titled “The Dance of Dragons”, Arya Stark is seen in St. Jacob’s Cathedral, eavesdropping upon Lord Tyrell and Tycho Nestoris.
Since the airing of that episode, interest in the Šibenik and St. Jacob’s Cathedral has skyrocketed as tourists explore the hallways and labyrinths that were represented in the show.