Zadar, the fifth largest Croatian city, lies on the shores of the Adriatic. Its rich cultural heritage adds another dimension to a relaxing seaside holiday.
The flourishing of tourism in Croatia this summer has also reached Zadar, the former capital of Dalmatia. The city is a living testimony of the many cultures which have flourished here along the centuries, beginning with the Romans, its first conquerors, up to the current Croatian inhabitants.
Travellers who go looking for fun in the sun will find the added bonus of the old and varied cultural background opening up to them, sharing its millennia-long stories.
The city boasts a timeline that can be tracked back almost 3000 years to the Neolithic period. The Roman, later Byzantine, rule was followed by centuries of rivalry over the Dalmatian territory between the kingdoms of Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and the Venetian Republic, to mention only the most important ones. Following this, the area was occupied by the Austrian Monarchy until the end if WWI, then Zadar found itself under Italian rule between the two world wars, after which it formed a part of Yugoslavia, which brought along strong Serb influence. All these cultures have left their marks on the city, marks that can be spotted in its architecture and local peculiarities.
Lying on the small peninsula in the southern Zadar, we find the old town, enclosed in a fortress built around it by the Venetians in the 16th century to keep out Turkish raids. The fortress was completely surrounded by walls (some of which still exist today), and the only access point was through the land gate (see picture 2), preserved in good shape, with the Venetian lion and coat or arms still visible. Today, a bridge connects the peninsula to the new part of the city. Much of the tourist access goes through this new gate.
A full day's stroll with the aid of an informative map is hardly enough to truly discover the grounds. Among the main points of interest we find the St Donat church, one of the oldest surviving architectural landmarks of the area. No longer in use, the St Donat can be visited throughout the summer and continues to provide an exquisite example of 9th century Byzantine architecture.
Nearby, we find the St Anastasia Cathedral, much of which was built through the 12th and 13th centuries over the remains of an old Christian basilica from the 5th century. Visitors can climb up its prominent tower, which overlooks the entire old town. Apart from the great number of churches, cathedrals and monasteries, the citadel is also home to a variety of museums and galleries, the Archaeological Museum being the most famous one of these.
More modern sights include the international port at the tip of the peninsula, where ships and ferries from other shores of the Adriatic dock, complete with a customs office. Just a few meters away, probably the most famous local engineering curiosity, the sea organ can be found. This consists of a series of tubes built into the marble steps on the seashore, which capture the motion of the waves to create harmonic sounds through the resonating holes in the uppermost step. Many passers-by choose to sit on the steps and listen to the sounds while taking pictures of just enjoying a chat. An addition to this curiosity is the nearby circle covering a set of miniature lightbulbs which capture the motion of the waves and 'accompany' the sea organ in a show of lights after dark, using solar energy accumulated during the day (see picture 3). A truly fascinating sight.
The most basic architectural elements serve as pieces of a puzzle: we find manhole covers with the inscription "Canalizzazione Comunale Zara", obviously dating back from the Italian period (Zara being the Italian name given to Zadar), streets laden with cobblestone in some areas, stone buildings and stone walls in others, each marking a different period or aspect. The imprint of the modern day combined with local traditions can also be found around the streets of the old town, paved by a huge variety of bars, fast foods and souvenir shops. One interesting aspect is that there is very little information written in English, so it is good to have a local guide to translate or to take along a map in your own language unless you understand Croatian.
The Zadar Citadel is therefore a condensed package of centuries-long cultural legacy, a site which has always been functional one way or another, from being home to a Roman forum to housing an international port today. Different corners of the old town transport the visitor into different stages of local history, each uncovering its own secrets and telling its own episodes of the long, rich story of Zadar, a story whose current chapter is being written in the 21st century.
Most toursits, however, choose Zadar as their destination in search of a refreshing dip in the Adriatic and a getaway. Seaside tourism revolves around the Puntamika and Borik areas, stretching out to the coastline along the neighbourhood called Diklo. Here, a wide selection of lodgings are available, including hotels, pensions, camping sites, RV camps, and private guest houses for rent. Options abound for travellers of all preferences, budget and means of travel.
The coastline in this area is thickly strewn with available suite-style houses that the locals advertise as "apartman". They come in all shapes and sizes, and some of them are just meters away from their own private beach. In late July - early August such houses were available for around 120 -130 euros per night. These were comfortable for six, but a group of nine could fit in with extra mattresses, and splitting the cost could reduce it to an extremely advantageous amount.
Those with a preference for comfort and a bigger budget can opt for the seaside hotels, most of which provide amenities such as windsurfing while pulled by a boat, jet skiing, diving lessons and many more. The citadel is about a 50 minute walk from this area. Plenty of shops, bars and restaurants make the neighbourhood lively. When shopping, it is advised to walk the extra few hundred meters to the chain supermarket, as beachside vendors and small shops tend to charge double for food and drink. The water is very clean and early birds have increased chances of finding sea creatures such as crabs and sea cucumbers, which usually stay away from the shore during the day due to the increased comotion.
The city is an ideal starting point to several one-day outings to surrounding sites.
The ports, marinas and even beaches are full of sales representatives of different boating companies organizing one-day boat tours to the Kornati National Park, a group of beautiful islands and islets in the southern archipelago. They offer roughly similar prices and routes, but before deciding which one to take, it is a good idea to have all the details clarified. Not all these tours actually enter the National Park and some of them only allow you to take pictures from the boat. When they claim that they stop on Mana island or any other, ask for clarification whether 'stop' means that visitors are allowed off the ship or if the ship only stops for 10 minutes without docking.
Two more national parks are nearby: the Krka National Park with its lovely waterfalls and the Plitvice National Park, an extensive system of lakes connected by smaller waterfalls and lovely scenery. Only a quick visit would fit in a Plitvice day trip from Zadar, as its grounds are extensive and it is worth spending an entire day or more there.
Whatever your reason to choose Zadar as a holiday destination, keep in mind its plentiful offer of both culturally enriching experiences and soothing getaways.