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Pirates of Makarska Riviera

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

There is nothing in the world that captures the spirit of freedom and adventure quite as well as pirates. Sailships and swords, storms and treasures, a pirate's life was never a dull experience. But in Makarska Riviera it was so much more. In Makarska Riviera pirates actually fought for freedom of our people against the mighty Venetian navy.

Old sailing ship of East India Company is nothing like Croatian pirate boats
Not all pirate ship looked like they were hijacked from the East India Company
With coast full of hidden coves, bays, caves and beaches accessible only by ships, Makarska Riviera was a pirate heaven. Safe harbors at Mucrum (Makarska), Beroullia (Brela), Ostrog (Zaostrog) and Labinica (Gradac) made Pirates of Makarska Riviera, known as Narentines, the most dangerous sailors of the Adriatic Sea.

During the 9th and 10th century, pirates became more than just a nuisance in the eyes of Venetians. Just like Vikings, Narentines refused to accept Christianity, believing it to be just another type of political and social control, so the area between rivers Cetina and Neretva was called Pagania. And just like Vikings, they used small and fast ships called sagena which made them impossible to catch after raids.

Venetians used Croatian side of Adriatic coast for all of their merchant ships. For Pirates of Makarska Riviera they were an easy prey. Pirates would attack quickly and silently and no one was able to stop their raids. Then they would disappear in the night between many islands of the Adriatic sea.

Old map of Makarska from 1571 shows the town in Ottoman Empire times
Map of Makarska from 1571

Imagine you are a sailor aboard Venetian merchant ship. You are standing night watch in these dangerous waters. The sea is calm and dark, the moon is nowhere to be seen and only the dim starlight shines through this darkness. Small waves gently rolling around the ship are the only sound. Suddenly you are under attack. Narantines successfully sneaked through the night with their ships only 1 meter high, invisible in the dark from the tall merchant ship and boarded your ship. You lost everything.

By 887. this scenario became so common that Venetians had to take action. This small and unconquered tribe on the Dalmatian coast was a thorn in their side and it was time for Venetians to rule whole of the Croatian coast.

Venetian Doge Pietro Candiano I sent in troops against Narentines. Venetians defeated Narentines in August 887. and destroyed five of their ships with axes. But their victory was short lived. Pirates, usually not being the ones to just roll over and give up, mounted a counterattack on the 18th of September 887.

The reenactment of the naval battle in Makarska harbour in Croatia celebrates pirates
The reenactment of the naval battle in Makarska harbour

The Doge Pietro Candiano I himself was on one of the 12 Venetian battle galleons in front of Makarska harbour. He disembarked the ship in pursuit of Narentines on land. Narentines, using their pirate tactics and quick ships attacked Venetians in the night swiftly and viciously. Venetian navy was destroyed completely and the Doge lost his life in the battle. His body was not returned to the Venetians and had to be stolen by Venetian Tribun Andrea to be buried in Venice.

For the next 100 years, pirates of Makarska Riviera ruled the coast and the sea.

Venetians paid a tribute regularly to Narentines just to be left unharmed and to be able to trade.

In 948. Venetian Doge Pietro Candiano III, grandson of the defeated Doge, sent 33 war galleys to regain power in Pagania but was, much like his grandfather, defeated completely and Venetians had to pay for the right to sail for another 50 years.

September 18th is celebrated in Croatia to this day as Croatian Navy Day. Yes, you read that correctly. We love our pirates so much, our actual Navy celebrates it as their day and a testament to the naval supremacy of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea.

Every year on that date celebration is held in Makarska harbor, near the peninsulas of St Peter and Osejava, with arrival of modern Navy ships and thrilling historical reenactment of the battle for freedom.

So if you're ever in Makarska, come down to the harbor, find yourself a ship (to rent, not to commandeer) and sail out to the adventure. Who knows, maybe there's still some Venetian treasure hidden around the coast.

Getting to Makarska by car can be tricky in the summer months, due to crowds and lack of parking space, so to make sure you don't miss out a second of this naval battle feel free to download our free mobile guide, also available for IOS and Android users. There, you'll find info on public transport and taxis you can call to help you out. If you're in need of some authentic Dalmatian accommodation, we have a few suggestions. Make sure you book your stay in time, the best places often sell out the quickest. And if you're hungry, check out this link.

18th of September is still considered summer in Makarska, but it can get chilly in the evenings, so if you're planning your vacation in this time of year, make sure you bring a swimming suit for your daytime hours spent at the beach, and a jacket for the evening walks around the town. Happy Croatian Navy Day!

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