The imposing Klis Fortress – Tvrdava Klis in Croatian – caught my eye on the way from Zadar to Split. It thrones on top of one of the jagged rocks to the right of the highway.
Of course, I knew nothing about the fortresses more recent history as Game of Thrones shooting location. My AirBNB host enlightens me when I mention in passing seeing a huge castle outside the city. He also claims that the view of Split is fantastic. So I decide to venture up there.
Getting to Klis seems straightforward and yet complicated. I could walk the 10km from my abode. But the Croatian September heat and lack of hiking trails and shade make the feat little alluring. The website of Split’s public transport provider Promet lists two bus lines to and from Klis. Alas, line 22 seems only to be going during the week and not leaving from Klis after 7:30 in the morning; line 34, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found when I go to the supposed starting point outside the HNK theatre.
Fortunately, my host knows another website to check: ak-split.hr is the site for Split’s central bus station – the Autobusni Kolodovar – by the ferry port. It knows the times and platforms for all buses coming to and going from Split on any given day.
I buy my ticket at the main counter: Kn13 (~€1.80) for a 20-minute ride on the Sinj-bound 11 am bus from platform 4.
After 25 minutes, the bus drops me at the bottom of Klis village. It takes me another 15 minutes to climb the slopes following red markers, stopping a handful times to read the blurbs on sights pointed out – an unassuming concrete staircase, an unfinished well, a small chapel with locked doors. There are many new houses along the way, typical purpose-built concrete rectangles. But occasionally, underneath the concrete, I get a glimpse of unregular centuries-old rock walls.
Outside the fortress, there is a bit more going on than in the lower village: a small supermarket, two bars, another bus stop (did the driver screw me when he dropped me at the bottom?).
At the gate, I give a lady who has withdrawn into the shade of her gatehouse kn40 for the ticket. In sharp contrast to anybody else I have paid in Croatia, she doesn’t wince when I hand her my kn200 bill, which has come fresh from the ATM.
Now I am almost entirely on my own. No signs or markers are telling me where to go. There is no staff, just a few other visitors.
As usual, when exploring an unknown, unmarked place, I get methodical by turning right where possible until there is only turning back.
Accordingly, I’m heading for the southern part, which is facing the highway, first.
After a few steps, a ramshackle building begs me to enter. Inside, a photo exhibition shows how the fortress served as the City of Meereen. There is even a styrofoam dragon.
A few minutes later, a second building houses a more organized exhibition, which sheds light on the fortress’s history and the Uskoks who’s fighting spirit was for a century connected to its fate.
Klis has been a human settlement for at least 2,500 years, the first Croat kings in the 7th century were instrumental in using the settlement’s prime position with steep cliffs on one side to install a fortress defending Dalmatia from Eastern invasions – namely by the Tatars (Mongols) and the Turks. Thus, Klis became one of the most important locations in Croatian politics.
In the 16th century, several Croat dynasties had come and gone, the Turks finally won and took over Klis for a few decades. Eventually, however, the Venetian Republic, holding most Adriatic cities between Trieste in the North and Greece, gained control of the mountain. The Venetian Republic fell apart in 1797 and Klis, along with the other Croatian cities along the coast, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse in 1918. Since 1990, the Croatian flag is proudly flying from the top of the walls.
Every one of the occupants left their mark, expanding the fortifications, tearing down parts that were no longer state of the art in defense. But eventually, Klis Fortress was given up and left to ruin, towering as a mere reminder of Croat history above the road to Split.
Now, the Uskoks, the exhibition explains to me, were almost mythical fighters cut from the same cloth as the Greek Spartans to whom honor and fighting were more important than life itself. In the 16th and early 17th century, their guerilla tactics were instrumental in keeping the Turks at bay. Mythical, because they were never defeated in battle – they just vanished into the annals of history when they were no longer needed to protect their lands from the “eastern savages.”
I zigzag most of the vast expanses of the fortress with the impression of having it all to myself.
There are barely any barricades denying access to its nooks and platforms, either.
Excavation/renovation efforts are visible in a few corners – piles of building material and collected rocks, a winch to haul stuff up and down the cliff, a concrete mixer. But works must have been abandoned when Daenerys Targaryen left Meereen for Westeros.
The lack of barriers is also a feast for my fear of heights. Nevertheless, I climb and down the roughly hewn stairs.
Towards the North, overlooking the ocean, Split lays under a haze in the near distance. With all the concrete high-rises I can barely make out the spire of the cathedral in the old town. How stunning the sunset must be from up here.
When after just over an hour a busload of advanced-age English tourists arrives, it’s time for me to leave.
I get out just in time to hear my bus speed off. It’s a number 22 and over at the stop, the sign says the next one is 90 minutes away. So I sit down in the Belfast bar, in my best Croatian order a large coffee with milk, and put my blog post about Klis Fortress in order.
The number 22 bus returns as promised for it’s 2:30 pm departure. I give the driver kn13, and 30 minutes later am back outside the Diocletian Palace.