Croatia’s tradition of dry-stone walls

Dry stone walls on Croatia island
Image by Croatia.hr

If you have ever visited the Adriatic coast, most of the Croatian islands or Lika, you’ve probably noticed long walls made of stones. They are very noticeable when set against the blues and greens of Croatia’s coastline.

These walls are called suhozid (dry-stone wall, in singular) or suhozidi (dry-stone walls, in plural).

Dry-stone walling is a long tradition in Croatian coastal areas, built using a specific technique. Given that this stone is a part of Croatia’s natural landscape, it was used to build houses, walls, and stairs.

It is hard to precisely pinpoint when people started to use the dry-stone walling technique. Some say that it dates back to before written records.

People used this technique to protect their land and plant species from harsh weather. The tradition was passed down from generation to generation. In Croatian, we use the phrase “s koljena na koljeno”, which means “from generation to generation”.

While people more commonly use modern building techniques today, there are some enthusiasts who continue to embrace this eco-friendly tradition.

Suhozid can be found anywhere on the Croatian coast including:

  • Beaches
  • Courtyards
  • Fields
  • Forests
  • Gardens
  • Mountains
  • Vineyards

The ones situated in fields or on mountains are often a few kilometers long. They form stone artwork that reminds me of mosaics or some other painting technique.

In this article we cover:

Let’s build suhozid…

Dry-stone walling technique

The technique of building dry-stone walls is often referred to as:

  • Gradnja u suho
  • Suhozidanje
  • Suhozidna tehnika
  • Tehnika suhozidanja

This technique involves building walls out of stone without any binding material. Even without binding material, the walls can survive for decades or even centuries. Parts of walls can collapse over the time if they are not built properly from the start.

Weather also affects the stability of walls, so sometimes reconstruction is needed after a while. If you build a wall with the proper technique, it should survive for decades.

Before construction begins, the terrain must be properly prepared. It is cleaned of branches, unstable rocks, roots, and any other stuff that could have an impact on the stability of the wall.

The construction process includes putting one stone to another. They must fit perfectly and have good pressure, otherwise the wall will become unstable and dangerous. Holes between big rocks must be filled with small rocks when building a double dry-stone wall. This makes it more stable and firmer.

Walls can be of different height depending on the purpose. Sometimes they are just used as decorations. An approximate height is usually ~1-1.5 meter.

In 2018, the dry-stone walling technique was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

Types of dry-stone walls

Although it may appear that all dry-stone walls are the same, there are actually 3 types:

  • Jednostruki zid (single wall)
  • Dvostruki zid (double wall)
  • Podzid (subwall)

Jednostruki zid

Single wall is made of only one side, i.e. row. It looks like it is easy to build, but it isn’t. Rocks that are usually used for this wall are unprocessed. They must be very tightly laid one to another.

Single wall isn’t very common on the coast. They were mostly built to protect olives and fig, since they leak the air during summer days and protect from the wind during winter days.

Dvostruki zid

Double wall is the most common type of dry-stone wall on the Croatain coast. It has two sides (rows) with the space between them filled with rocks. Bigger rocks are put in the middle and then the remaining space is filled with smaller rocks. There mustn’t be any holes between rocks.

Double walls are easier to build and more stable than single walls. When built properly, they are also firmer and more secure.

Podzid

Subwalls are dry-stone walls that are used to make wooden terraces more stable. The Adriatic coast has many arable land areas that are inaccessible. Throughout history when there were no modern building techniques such as concrete, people built terraced surfaces and solidified them with dry-stone subwalls. Subwalls are built on the side of each terrace, which protects the land from collapsing.

Purposes of dry-stone walls

Dry-stone walls have several useful purposes including:

  • Marking boundaries of the property
  • Restriction of certain passages
  • Prevention of soil erosion
  • Obstacles for animals so they don’t get lost
  • Protection of vineyards from coastal winds (mostly bura)
  • Protection from floods
  • Protection from snowslips
  • Protection from drainage
  • Shelters for plants
  • Shelters for animals – bees, lizards, frogs, insects, etc.
  • Decorations in the garden

Dry-stone houses called “kažun”

Small houses can also be built using this dry-stone walling technique. They are usually round buildings with false domes, without windows and just one hole that serves as the door. They are usually called “kažun”, but they have several names.

Here are variations of the name:

  • Bunja
  • Ćemer
  • Hižica
  • Kažun
  • Komarda
  • Kućarica
  • Kućerica
  • Kućica
  • Poljarica
  • Trim

These houses are built as stand-alone structures usually in fields, next to dry-stone walls or as a part of the wall. They are used as shelters during bad weather or strong sun when working in fields and vineyards. Shepherds used them while guarding the cattle. People also used to sleep over in these houses to protect the land from thieves.

Most impressive dry-stone wall constructions in Croatia

#1 12 dry-stone crosses, Kornati National Park

The 12 dry-stone crosses monument on Kornati islands was built as a memorial to the victims of “Kornatska tragedija” (Kornati tragedy). In 2007, 12 firefighters died while trying to save the Kornati National Park from a big fire. Only 1 firefighter survived the accident.

12 dry-stone wall crosses memorial for Kornatska tragedija at Kornati National Park
Image by jutarnji.hr

#2 Dry-stone walls of Velo Grablje, Hvar

Velo Grablje on the island of Hvar has the nickname “Dom suhozida” which means “a home of dry-stone walls” thanks to its dry-stone wall terraces. Velo Grablje is also known for its tradition of growing lavender mentioned in this post.

Dry stone walls at Velo Grablje, island Hvar
Image by pjover.com

#3 Maklavun near Rovinj

Maklavun is located near the village Šovići near Rovinj. It is called “Hrvatski Stonehenge“. Maklavun is an archaeological site that includes tumulus from the bronze age. It is built using the dry-stone walling technique.

Maklavun dry stone walls outside Rovinj
Image by visitkanfanar.hr

#4 Monkodonja near Rovinj

Monkodonja is an archaeological site located 5 kilometers from Rovinj. It is also called “Istarska Mikena”, which means “Istrian Mycenae”. It is the biggest dry-stone wall construction in Croatia inhabited between the years 2000 B.C. and 1200 B.C.

Monkodonja dry stone walls near Rovinj, Croatia
Image by regionalexpress.hr

#5 “Mrgari na Starošćini” near Baška

Stone sections called “mrgarići” built out of dry-stone walls were used for keeping sheep. The central space was used to gather all sheeps together. Smaller sections “mrgarići“ around the central space were used for sorting sheeps. Owners would sort their sheeps to “mrgarići” according to marks on their ears.

Mrgari na Starošćini dry stone walls near Rovinj, Croatia
Image by Dragodid

#6 Težački “labirint”, Srima peninsula

The Srima peninsula near Šibenik is one of the largest and probably one of the oldest dry-stone landscapes in Croatia. It was likely constructed in the middle ages using a complex dry-stone walling structure. You can get the real experience only when seeing it from the air.

Tezacki labyrinth on Srima peninsula in Sibenik, Croatia
Image by sibenik.hr

#7 Island of Baljenac, Šibenski arhipelag

This small Dalmatian island looks like a giant fingerprint or tricky labyrinth when seeing it from the air. The surface of this island is only 0.14 square kilometers, yet 23 kilometers of dry-stone walls are built all over the island.

Dry stone walls on Croatia island
Image by Croatia.hr

#8 Starograjsko polje, Hvar

Built 2.400 years ago, Starograjsko polje on the island of Hvar is the oldest ancient Greek parcelling in the world. It was included on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2008. Its dry-stone walls have been repaired over the years.

Starograjsko polje dry stone walls on island Hvar, Croatia
Image by hvarinfo.com

#9 Veliki Bucavac vineyard, Primošten

The vineyard “Veliki Bucavac” is located above the marina of Primošten. It is the most well known dry-stone landscape in Croatia, yet is considered quite young compared to most of this list. It was built in the middle of the 20th century.

Veliki Bucavac vineyard in Primosten, Croatia
Image by Kroati.de

Udruga “Dragodid”

There is a prominent non-governmental organization in Croatia that covers the field of dry-stone walling. Udruga “4 GRADA DRAGODID” is named after the small village Dragodid, situated on a hill above Komiža on the island of Vis. There is no electricity or water in the village and all houses are made of stone. Dragodid was founded in 2007 and I have been a member for several years.

Udruga Dragodid organizes and manages dry-stone walling workshops, conducts various researches in the field of dry-stone walling, organizes numerous lectures and projects, and even holds a dry-stone walling competition.

They cooperate with a bunch of non-governmental organizations, state bodies and other local partners on the coast, islands and outside of Croatia. Their members are very well educated young people from different areas, but mostly from the field of architecture, construction, ethnology, archaeology, art history, and forestry.

If you would like to hire someone to build a dry-stone wall on your property, there are professionals who offer this service. Dragodid has put together a list of people who build dry-stone walls in Croatia, which you can get by contacting them.

If you find dry-stone walling interesting or you think that you could contribute to Dragodid, follow them. During the summer season, they organize workshops around the coast that are often open to the public.

Web Site | Facebook

Sources:
http://www.dragodid.org/
http://www.marjan-parksuma.hr/kulturna-bastina/suhozid/
“Gradimo u kamenu”, priručnik o suhozidnoj baštini i vještini gradnje, udruga 4 GRADA DRAGODID, Split, 2016
https://www.dalmacijadanas.hr/tako-malen-a-tako-poseban-ovaj-dalmatinski-otocic-iz-zraka-izgleda-kao-divovski-otisak-prsta-zbog-24-kilometra-isprepletenih-suhozida/
https://nova-akropola.com/kulture-i-civilizacije/tragom-proslosti/istarski-newgrange/
https://www.jutarnji.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/kornati-10-godina-od-tragedije-najcrnji-dan-hrvatskog-vatrogastva-ostao-je-misterij-a-roditelji-stradalih-uvjereni-su-da-drzava-zataskava-uzrok-6501559

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2 thoughts on “Croatia’s tradition of dry-stone walls

  1. Jane
    April 21, 2021 @ 2:43 pm

    Fascinating! One of my best ever Christmas’s was with friends staying in Kažuns on a ranch in Lupoglav, Istria. My ex decided to light the wood burner while we were having breakfast on Christmas day and we came back to dense fog but, apart from that, it was an amazing experience. Here’s a link to a blog I wrote about it way back in 2006! http://croatiaonline.blogspot.com/2006/12/today-were-reporting-on-inland-istria.html

    {reply}

    • Marija Tkalec
      April 21, 2021 @ 3:35 pm

      Hi Jane,

      Thanks for sharing your experience and a blog!

      In this article, I’m mentioning a traditional kažun built by the dry-stone walling technique. See example: https://izletipoistri.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Vodnjan_15022014_01.jpg. Seems that you were staying in an accommodation that was built on the model of kažun. Sounds sooo romantic!

      Warm regards,
      Marija

      {reply}

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