Photo by Boris Kačan

A Country so Gorgeous Even Its Stone Walls Are Works of Art

Have you ever flown low over the islands and coast of Croatia and marvelled at the patchwork of stone walls which look like quilts, immaculately constructed without any mortar and preserved for thousands of years in some cases? Some joke that the walls existed as a form of entertainment in the slow winter months when builders competed to construct the Best Stone Wall, whereas the real reasons are fascinating, as is the highly specialised skill of dry stone walling in Croatia.

The art of dry stone walling, know-how and techniques in Croatia were globally recognised in November 2018, when this form of art was added to the Representative List of Intangible UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

 

What may look like a simple task of putting stones together is anything but, and the art of creating dry stone walls dates back thousands of years – just take a look at the Stari Grad Plain on Hvar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where such walls were built to divide territory, and many of them exist to this day.

 

Reasons for building dry stone walls (suhozidi in Croatian) and their styles vary considerably. For some it was a case of agricultural necessity. In an effort to eke out an existence from the land, stones were removed from the earth and stacked to facilitate growing crops, as well as provide territorial markers. Other uses included protection from the fierce bora wind on islands such as Pag, for humans and cattle alike.

Some islands have spectacular walls dating back to the Liburnian times. The first colonisers, the Liburnians, built walls to demarcate territory, and their survival is a testament to the skills of the workmen. Dry stone walling is quite a skill, slotting the stones one next to the other without any adhesives, using bare hands as the only tool.

 

Perhaps the most impressive example of dry stone walling, certainly when viewed from the air, is the tiny island of Baljenac. Just 0.14 km2 in size, Baljenac has an incredible 23 km of dry stone walls. Not only that, but the shape of the island and its intricate network of walls resemble a giant fingerprint. The fingerprint is, of course, a symbol of Croatia since the godfather of dactyloscopy, Ivan Vučetić, was from Hvar.

Another striking example on the mainland are the ancient vineyards of Primošten, whose vines make the best of the poor soil and are protected by superbly constructed dry walls. It was back-breaking labour back in the day, but the results are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike who savour the excellent Primošten wines.

It should be noted that the dry stone wall technique was not limited to just walls, and several distinctive styles of stone shelters can be found from Istria to Dalmatia, places of rest for workers in the fields, as well as refuge from the fiercest of weather. These stone houses were normally tall enough for a person to stand in them and they varied a lot – from the conical roof kažun in Istria to the round bunja of Dalmatia.

Interest in traditional working practices has risen in recent years in Croatia, and it is now possible to learn about dry stone walling and take part in workshops at various locations, such as Velo Grablje on Hvar, which starts its lavender festival with a dry stone wall workshop every year. But there is only one place to go if you want the best…

Dragodid.

Named after the seasonally inhabited traditional inland stone village of the same name on Vis, the Dragodid project has had such a major impact in the preservation and promotion of dry stone and other authentic building techniques that it was awarded the European Union Cultural Heritage Europa Nostra Award in 2011. A workshop for international architecture students was held here this year, during which parts of the village were painstakingly rebuilt in the old traditional way. It is an initiative which has spread far beyond the borders of the village since its start in 2010, including published brochures on building techniques.

So, the next time you pause to admire the beauty of Croatia’s dry stone wall heritage, take a moment to appreciate both the work that went into them and the hardships endured to make such a spectacular sight we can enjoy today.