Croatia, once part of the former Yugoslavia but now proudly independent, must surely have the highest proportion of Catholics of any country in the world.
At the last census, 87.8 per cent of the population identified themselves as Catholic.
Christianity was established in Croatia early. Charlemagne’s Franks seized the stunning Dalmatian area in the late seventh century and baptised the Slavic tribe of Croats. Early ecclesiastical riches were due to the Croatian kings, who, supported by the popes, built monasteries and churches to promote Catholicism throughout the region.
Over the centuries, Croatia fought the Turks and Tartars so bravely and consistently that the country was given the title of “Bulwark of Christianity”.
We start our three-week tour at the southern end of the Dalmatian coast in ancient Dubrovnik, where the first building we enter is the Franciscan Monastery. Its 14th century cloisters have been repaired from the relentless shelling by the Yugoslav Army in 1901.

St Mark's Church, in the old quarter of Zagreb, with its wondrous roof.

In the surface of the cloister walls are shallow hollows, made to hold feed for Napolean’s horses, stabled here in the early 19th century! Croatian church buildings are like that — they represent different chapters of the country’s story.
A contrast to the elegant monastery are the two modest churches in nearby Cavtat. The Church of Our Lady of Snow is on the edge of the water. It is a 15th century single nave church with simple wooden pews. You can stand on its front step and watch all the different craft on the blue Adriatic waters.
Further along the waterfront is St Nicholas Church, the parish church of Cavtat, also built in the 15th century. In pale grey stone, it is reached from the waterfront by wide sweeping steps. The interior is baroque and it has unusual wooden altars. Art gallery as well as church, its paintings include those of Vlaho Bukovac, the famous Croatian painter who was born in Cavtat.
The location of another cathedral fills in an earlier chapter of Croatian history — the many centuries under Roman rule. This is the Cathedral of St Domnius, in Split. It is situated within Diocletian’s Palace, which is more a village than a palace and one of the world’s most impressive Roman monuments.
Emperor Diocletian was the ultimate local lad made good. He joined the Roman legion in his youth, rose through the ranks and finally became emperor. His fame — or infamy — lies in his relentless persecution of early Christians, whom he put to death in horribly inventive ways.
So it is with a certain irony that I discover that the cathedral was built on top of Diocletian’s tomb. The original octagonal form of the mausoleum still exists with its 28 columns virtually intact. The cathedral has remarkable 13th century scenes of Christ’s life — ornate altars, frescoes on the vault, and the dramatic sculpture of the flagellation of Christ.
At the northern end of Diocletian’s Palace is the imposing statue of Gregorius of Nin, the 10th century Croatian bishop who fought (successfully) for the right to use the Croatian language in liturgical services — extremely unusual at the time, when services throughout Christendom were in Latin.
The other church I dearly wanted to see was St Mark’s Church in the old quarter of Zagreb. Not because it was the most important or the most imposing in the city — that belongs to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kaptol Square, which is a wonder of neo-Gothic artistry, but because of its famous roof. Which was why, when I finally locate St Mark’s in Markov Square and find it closed for restoration, I’m not too disappointed. The roof is in full view.
The plainness and simplicity of its outer form only serves to increase the impact of the colourful, decorative roof. The background of the roof consists of red, white and blue alternating tiles, so finely worked they almost look like tapestry. A deep frieze at the bottom edge adds yellow and black to the red-white-blue.
But what leaps out are the coats of arms, worked in tiles into the roof in 1880.
The white castle is the coat of arms of Zagreb. The other coat of arms combines Croatian, Dalmatian and Slovenian emblems.
St Mark’s and its unusual roof is sometimes used as the emblem of Zagreb, instead of the official one which is depicted on the roof.
It was the last example of Croatia’s huge variety of church architecture that I explored. It was also an interesting image to take away from that intriguing country.
— Judith Doyle is a freelance journalist and travel writer from Wellington.