It has been a while since I was last on Zirje Island. Maybe 15 years have passed since we delivered machinery to some folks building a house. And almost every summer since, my plans included visiting Zirje Island and its well known Gradina fortress.
But, nothing happened till this September when I was part of a small group visiting the Zirje island in search of all the major sights of the island and we also had two archaeologists with us to give us a better insight into the sites
Getting to Zirje
Getting to Zirje Island is not that difficult although the ferry does not run often: only few times a day. In the season one has to make a reservation for the car as the car ferry has limited space. There is also a fast ferry that stops at Kaprije Island as well. Ride on a fast ferry takes about 1:20 min and car ferry is about 20 minutes slower. Fairly slow for the island that is only 14 NM away. The first, steam boat connection with the mainland was established in 1889. which made them even more connected to Šibenik.
That is partly a reason why there are only 50 permanent residents on the island. In the summer time, with all the tourists, there are about 400 – 500 people on the island in total so it is perfect for a very quiet island getaway.
But, our goal was not tourism. We got to the island around 10:30 and had our ride waiting for us. There are several cars on the island but most of them are just old vehicles who got to the island to serve their last years instead of the donkeys. And do not expect them to have licence plates.
First location we were visiting were the remains of the Yugoslav military base of Zvizdulja hill.
Austro-Hungarian military established the complex was established in the late 19th and early 20th century. Italian occupation forces continued construction and expansion during the WW2. Most impressive bunkers date back to Yugoslav military days as they spared no expense to build all sorts of military installations all over the former country in anticipation of “imminent attack” from the West. Or East. “Vanjski neprijatelj” – or enemy from abroad – was the most talked about menace and a reason why military service was mandatory and millions of dollars were spent on weapons and all sorts of military stuff.
The bunkers at Zvizdulja are in fairly good shape and one cannot enter them. That saved them from the devastation back in the 90s when most military outposts were stripped by Gypsies in search for scrap metal. Žirje Island, somehow, stayed off the radar.
We continued to the neighboring hill: the hilltop fortress of Gustirna.
Gustirna Byzantine Fortress
Now this is a very special site! The Byzantines never finished the fortress but the location boasts some amazing ruins of massive blocks that the soldiers, back in the day, used to create a serious defense wall. The wall consisted of the megalithic front wall and the back wall that was a typical for the Byzantines. Really a special site for all history lovers!
Gradina today is one section of the wall still standing + outside, megalithic wall + numerous structures still seen after the big campaign in the early 2000s.
The Gradina fortress was part of the 6th century defense system designed and executed by Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great. Gradina is now explored during several archaeological campaigns and, old opinion that it was built on top of seriously old megalithic walls (considered to be Phoenician by some), is now completely abandoned as it is clear from the evidence that the construction of megalithic and “regular” walls occurred a the same time.
Walls of Gradina are still impressive and tower over a small beach. One can easily get to the small beach just below the hill following a narrow path. The beach, unfortunately, is not clean as there is lots of trash in the Adriatic sea these days… Sad but this is the reality.
After a short rest, we continued on foot to one of the most interesting monuments of Žirje. It is a well known Samograd complex.
This unique complex consists of 5 “rooms” in two big buildings (12 and 7 meters in length). All constructed of stone without cement. This ancient technique is known all over the Mediterranean but Croatia has some of the most interesting examples. The Samograd complex buildings were finished in 1903. and 1920. respectively and served as shelter and storage for Alić family members who were working the fields and olive groves in this part of Žirje.
The crawl space connects the “rooms” and there is a small niche as well. Interior is not spacious but it served the purpose back in the day.
The Samograd complex is not difficult to find and only thanks to a Czech couple, Renata and Tomaž Večera, who moved to the island permanently few years back when they bought a house back in 2009. They realized that Samograd was not easy to find and made several signs to help the curious ones.
More on stone masonry of the Adriatic, I have written on several occasions like https://secretcroatia.blog/2018/11/23/ghosts-in-stone-of-dragodid/
The visit to the island is usually not complete without visiting yet another military complex – Vela Glava.
This military complex is not as impressive as the one on Zvizdulja but it boasts a view of Kornati and a fabulous sunset. And some tunnels to explore.
Local folks put a strip with various information and distances to select points, islands, cities… on the fence of the highest observation point and it is a lovely touch to be able to know what surrounds you while there.
And, before saying good bye – catching the last ferry – we stopped to see the pond of Žirje that was here from the ancient times. Surrounded by overgrown vegetation, there is not much to see.
Žirje is one of those islands that are mostly a destination for yachts people during summer months. There is much, much more than just a solid restaurant with fresh fish on this island. There are remnants of distant (and not so distant) past all over this beautiful island well worth exploring and only within few minutes walk.
Soon, there will be no more evening lights on this island in the winter months. Historic monuments will stay as silent witnesses of times long gone.
More on archaeology of Zirje, one can find in this document (in Croatian):
Thank you for describing your adventure. I’m always looking forward to finding something new to explore each summer.
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