Get the lowdown on some of Dalmatia’s magical folklore traditions, where and when to experience them, so you can plan your next trip to Southern Croatia.
Walking through Diocletian’s Palace in Split at around 9 or 10 in the morning is simply enchanting. The streets aren’t buzzing yet and you can completely take in the 1700-year-old setting with a morning kava (coffee) on the ancient Peristil steps. Suddenly, you will hear the hair-rising tunes of live klapa songs in the near distance. Klapa is traditional Dalmatian a cappella singing performed in a group consisting of first and second tenor, a baritone and a bass. And in true Mediterranean fashion, they sing of love, wine, and the sea. Curiosity gets you off your comfortable stone seat and leads you to Vestibul, Emperor Diocletian’s circular foyer. This Roman architectural beauty is a favorite place for klapa groups to perform and practice as the room has excellent acoustics. Although Dalmatia’s musical trademark has a long tradition, it is very much alive today and it isn’t uncommon to experience a group of friends at a restaurant kicking into klapa mode as they wait for their meal.
A great way to experience klapa in all its glory is at the Dalmatian Klapa Festival held in Omiš since 1967, the highlight of the town’s summer. Here, klapa concerts are performed in ancient piazzas and churches throughout this charming town, which sits at the mouth of the emerald Cetina River.
Not all folklore traditions need to be centuries old in order to be special. Tovareća muzika, meaning ‘donkey music’, stems from 1959 from Sali on the island of Dugi Otok in the Zadar archipelago in Northern Dalmatia.
Tovareća muzika is performed by young men dressed as fishermen wearing blowing cattle horns to a loud drumbeat. Cattle horns were once a vital signaling tool for local fishermen but when a group of young fishermen used it as an instrument when they played a prank at a local wedding 54 years ago, the tradition was born. To experience a donkey song march, visit the Sali Fiesta (Saljske užance) that is held in early August every year.
One of Croatia’s most well kept secrets is the magic of its hinterland, often overlooked by tourists who come to take in the beauty of the Adriatic coastline. What hides beyond the mountains are a wealth of discoveries, from breathtaking landscapes suited for an adventurer to regal traditions with a rich history. One such place is Sinj, in the Dalmatian hinterland, famed for its Alka, an equestrian competition where horsemen have to poke a lance into a metal ring at full gallop.
The Alka competition celebrates the town’s victory over the Ottoman invasion in 1715 and takes place on the first Sunday in the month of August. The event attracts presidents, dignitaries and tourists who come to see the alkars in their original 18th century warrior uniforms. This is a great spectacle to experience and definitely worth a trip inshore for but don’t expect to try it yourself; you have to be born and bred in Sinj in order to participate in this noble sport.
As you do your Adriatic island hopping, make sure to include Korčula Town on the island with the same name on your route. This historic fortified town is known to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, has a smart fishbone-patterned street grid to allow free circulation of air, and is the home of Moreška, a traditional sword dance.
The century old dance has roots from Spain an is in essence a mock battle between two groups who are, with a sword in each hand, fighting to get the beautiful veiled maiden. You have to a local to dance the Moreška, which is performed regularly during the summer season and more elaborately on the Feast Day of St Theodore (patron saint of Korčula) in July. Other towns on the island have their own version of a sword dance known as Kumpanija performed during the celebrations of the villages’ patron saint.
Wherever your trip takes you in Dalmatia, you’ll be sure to experience a special tradition firsthand. Have you had the chance to see a sword dance in Korčula, meet a charming alkar in Sinj, blow in a cattle horn or listen to klapa in Vestibul? Tell us about it!