Zadar, Croatia

WE LOVED ZADAR!  We arrived on Friday at night and the air was warm with a light breeze. It seemed so mysterious as the taxi drove us down the dark road from the airport until we reached the city (turns out that dark road wove between agricultural farms just outside of Zadar).  We stayed at Hotel Bastion which is built into an old fortress, the stairwell had huge thick stone walls and there were cannons out in the garden.

When we woke up on Saturday to the bluest skies and views of the Port of Zadar, the modern part of town and the Dinaric mountains in the distance we were just giddy!  Wandering around the old town peninsula of Zadar, the streets are narrow, and the abundance of old churches are surrounded by shops, cafes, hotels and flats circa 20th century.  Even though Zadar dates back 3000 years, the city as been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times.  Recent history includes a devastating bombing campaign during WWII which destroyed almost everything, as well as bombing during the Croatian war of independence between 1991-1995.  When they rebuilt most recently they narrowed the streets in order to fit in more buildings within the peninsula, so exploring town means turning corners to come across a towering stone church or building, which share Roman, Gothic, Venetian, and modern architecture styles due to the cultural influences in the region over the millennia.

Determined to see the Adriatic sea, one of the first places we stumbled across was the modern sea organ within a 5 minute walk of our hotel.  What an innovative, lovely creation.  The organ is cut into the sea promenade marble as steps that walk down to the water, and as the waves roll (or crash!) in, they create suction in pipes below the steps that resonate under your feet.  Depending on the pressure of the waves, the sea organ can range from light classical to an epic classic rock.  It lures in people of all ages who gaze out upon the water and islands across the sea and listen to the sounds of nature.  Its absolutely spectacular – especially during sunset!  (scroll down for those pictures)

So we walked along the promenade, admiring the crystal clear water and views of the Zadar old town peninsula and nearby islands, enjoying the light breeze and clear skies. Out of nowhere the ancient roman forum plaza, adorned by St Donatus and St Mary’s ancient churches as well as the St Anastasia Bell Tower, came into view.  An interesting part of the plaza was that just a few years ago, it was a car park!  Luckily the town planners came to their senses and removed the car park to create this pristine plaza in the same location as the ancient roman forum from the beginnings of the city. Now it is a place where people meet and where public functions are held just as it used to be long ago.  The towering St Donatus church is just spectacular, having been built over 1,000 years ago. Pieces of the ancient forum pillars were even used for the foundation of the great church. There is a gorgeous outdoor café tucked next to the church which in some form or another has also been there for ages.  Later in the day we sat at that café, watching people in the forum and the sea in the distance and just enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere, just like people have for hundreds of years.

Next some window shopping on Kalelarga, the main shopping street of the peninsula.  Again, this street has existed in some form or another for 3000 years, destroyed and rebuilt throughout the many conflicts which have built the character of the city.  Like much of the city, the streets are extremely clean, a sign that the locals take pride in their town, and there are so many offshoots from the main street with adorable boutiques and cafes.  We enjoyed a delicious caprese salad with locally made olive oil and the amazing mozzarella cheese which just can’t be matched by any foreign imposters.

We organized a 2 hour walking tour of the peninsula for the afternoon where we learned a lot of the city’s history and saw all the main sites.  It really helped put perspective around what we were looking at.  Our guide Magda was so informative and fantastic!  Afterwards we ventured up the bell tower back in the roman forum and were blown away by the panoramic views in every direction.

We decided after hours of hard core sightseeing that the next most important thing to do was what the locals do – hang out and enjoy the amazing weather and scenery.  Hence the coffee shop, we had gelato at the best local ice cream shop (thanks Magda!), watched the gorgeous sunset and listened to the change in tide at the sea organ, and enjoyed a delicious Italian seafood dinner.

“Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, in Florida, applauded at every evening” said Alfred Hitchcock

We WILL go back.  Probably early autumn, when we can go swimming in the waterfalls of the nature parks nearby in the foothills of the mountains.  Check back for that blog…

I’ll leave you with this beautiful description of Zadar, c/o the discover Zadar… brochure published by the Zadar Tourist Office

“Zadar is a city with a soul.  Its irresistible Mediterranean charm has grown out of its city character, which goes back to the deepest historical background.  Zadar has always been a city.  It functioned as a significant urban center from the Liburnians, Romans, Bizantines and an independent urban commune, across Venice and Napoleon’s Illyria and the Austrian-Hungarian empire, all the way to the present Republic of Croatia.  It has never left anyone indifferent.  It has always been a city fit for living.  A secret and mystical strength of its soul connects the thousand-year-old memory of the Adriatic Liburnians with the inexhaustible source of excellent Zadar islands seamen.  It was from these islands that in ancient times naturally preserved white fish were delivered to the eternal city of Rome, salt anchovies to the Venetian papal state, and today tuna is exported to Japan.

Continually defended and conquered, destroyed and rebuilt, Zadar has never been left without creative energy, obvious in its disciplined, orthogonal urban street system, dating from the Roman period, the powerful and tectonic strength of the Roman structure, or in the humanistic and creative 14th century coffer of its patron St Simon.  Zadar is proud of its rich and tumultuous past, as well as its contemporariness and youth.  It is a city of universities, basketball, puppetry, photography, musical evenings, and youth, a city of joy, brightness and amiability.  Mediterranean liveliness and directness vibrate through the narrow, winding and shadowy streets of its historical center.

A guest in Zadar is not a statistical number but an active participant of the general Mediterranean swarming and rustle.  The scenes continually and vertiginously change in the street theatre.  From the ritual morning coffee sipping in front of the small coffee shops in the narrow city streets to the uproarious public entertainment under the name of Night of the Full Moon. . The citizens of Zadar, like all Mediterranean people, are always outside, in the open, always in company, always ready for singing and joking.  19th century Zadar was of the opinion that coffee shops were the first proof of the civilized behavior of a city.  It was not difficult to come to such a conclusion if it were known that the history of Zadar coffee shops was no younger than the European one.  Warm summer evenings are an ideal occasion for visiting the new quay, cult promenade of generations, and for listening to some of the numerous concerts that supplement the traditional love for the theatre of Zadar citizens.”

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