Pirates of the Adriatic – Senj: Refugees & Reprobates (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #48)

The stretch of coastline I was traveling between Zadar and Rijeka had once been the preserve of a famous band of outlaws. If they ever make a “Pirates of the Adriatic” movie than it will almost certainly be filmed in Senj. During the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the de facto capital of the Uskoks. The very name struck fear into the hearts of the Ottoman Turks and Venetians. Even by Balkan standards, the Uskoks were an especially fearsome lot. Ruffians and refugees, brigands and bandits, independent individualists and malevolent maniacs and the Uskoks were a breed apart.

The winding road brought us to Senj, the first decent sized town we had seen in hours. The forbidding and wildly beautiful stretch of coastline between Zadar and Rijeka had a hell for leather harshness.  Historically this had made it a difficult place for human habitation to take hold. Even today, this stretch of coastline is sparsely populated. It is most notable for a terrible beauty. The area offers little respite to travelers. The sun blazes, the sea is mostly inaccessible.  As the bus stopped in Senj, I could not help but think this was rather ironic. The town was once a place to be avoided at all costs. Four hundred years ago, it had been home to a cast of dangerous characters whose livelihood was spurred by depravity and thievery. Only the toughest survived Senj. No wonder the Uskoks made it the epicenter of their world.

Remember the Uskoks – Nehaj Fortress (Credit: Bvlahov)

The Embattled Shore – A Force of Ferocious Nature
The bus emptied within a couple of minutes as passengers sought relief from the dizzying journey they had endured up to this point. Senj was good for a bathroom break and a history lesson. I made a mental note that one day I would have to return and visit Nehaj Fortress, a 16th century defensive construction that was the town’s most notable landmark. From the highway it could easily be seen. I imagine that those who came to Senj by watercraft would not have looked at the Fortress with the same sense of enchantment that I did. They would have been fearful at what lay within the fortress’ impregnable walls. The fortress still made a formidable impression, looking like it could still be used in warfare rather than in its current iteration as a museum. The fortress’ fine condition as viewed from the roadway was a reminder to passersby that it had never fallen in warfare. It was also a physical representation of the Uskoks, who after being expelled from the stronghold of Klis by the Ottoman Turks fled to Senj and made it the capital of piracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Uskoks were as close to a force of the most ferocious nature in human form that has existed in Europe during the last 500 years. Their exploits struck fear into the hearts of those who dared oppose them. Specifically, the Ottoman Turks and Venetians. Since the land around Senj was too unforgiving for agriculture, the Uskoks lived off banditry and so did Senj. While the Uskoks were used by the Habsburgs to fight the Ottomans in this area to a standstill, they spent a great deal of their time plying the coastline of the eastern Adriatic in watercraft that could maneuver at great speed. These boats were used to plunder shipping that came anywhere close to their domain. While the Uskoks were never great in number, estimates put them at a few thousand at most, they were able to terrify their enemies. Anyone unlikely enough to be captured by them could hope for slavery at best, a tortuous death at worst.

Independent individualist – Illustration of an Uskok

Bloodlust & Banditry – Pillaging Their Way Into History
The Uskoks used extreme violence on their foes. Those who rose to the highest ranks in their hierarchy were known to be among the most violent. They would nail turbans on to the heads of captured Turks. Tearing out the heart of a captive and roasting it over an open flame was not beyond the Uskoks. Bloodlust rituals were favored by these exotic military warriors or so the Venetians had everyone believe. More than a few Venetians fell into the hands of the Uskoks, some of whom lost their heads, others their hearts. Venetian shipping was plundered to the point that they opened a propaganda offensive against the Uskoks. Often lost on those shocked by the Uskoks’ unique combination of bloodlust and banditry, was that they were products of their environment. The Uskoks had originated from Croats and Bosnians who had been run off their lands in the Neretva River delta by the Ottomans. Other refugees from Herzegovina and Dalmatia who had suffered the same fate soon joined them. They guarded a semi-permanent military frontier that was marked by raids and lethal acts of violence.

Without the invasion of the Ottoman Turks, the venality of the Venetians and the Habsburg strategy of (deliberately) underpaying the Uskoks, they would have never existed. Those who felt their harsh hand in warfare might have taken some time to reflect on their own role in creating such a lethal force of resistance. The culmination of this rabid banditry was the so called Uskok War precipitated in 1615 by the Venetians to finally bring a semblance of order to a calamitous situation. In the Treaty of Madrid that followed, the Habsburgs and Venetians agreed to accommodate each other’s needs. For the Uskoks, this meant the end of their depredations as the Habsburg authorities agreed to resettle them further inland. The Uskok’s rapacious reign in Senj ended, but they have not been forgotten. Nehaj Fortress stands as a testament to their skills in defending themselves against anyone who dared to cross their path. 

Beyond imagination – The Kvarner Gulf

Transition Zone – Mitteleuropa On The Adriatic
Reading about the Uskoks kept me distracted long enough to ignore all but the final stretch of the journey between Senj and Rijeka. We were now entering a cultural transition zone that stood between Dalmatia and Istria. The Latinizing influence of the Venetians gave way in the past two centuries to central European influence. The area is one of the least trafficked by tourists along the Croatian coast. That is such a shame because the ride into Rijeka was a revelation. The Kvarner Gulf stretched out before us, a giant body of placid water of cools greys, soft silvers, and luminous blues. The worst of our serpentine bus journey was behind us, but the beauty would continue.

Click here for: Doses of Dramamine – Rijeka to Split: The Adriatic Highway (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #49)