Whilst Dubrovnik is Croatia’s darling of tourism, thanks to its medieval castle, overlooking the harbour, the old town and Game of Thrones site, and Zagreb has it neo-classical architecture, Croatia offers much for the traveller. There are old coastal cities which see fewer travellers and to find such a coastal spot, you need look no further than Zadar, the gateway for the Kornati Islands (and Diklo). Zadar is a beautiful city, located on the northern Dalmatian coast. With its gentle pastels mixed with bolder shades, streets made of burnished marble so smooth that you could almost ice skate across the cobblestones, this city is an ideal getaway as it offers history, beautiful beaches and a relaxed atmosphere.
Zadar has a rich history dating from Roman times – you can see the Roman influence and the urban character. The most popular sites are the Roman Forum, the circular St Donat’s Church and the 12th century St Anastasia Cathedral. The town retains its fortification, with city walls and gates used on a daily basis as you traverse the timeline from the modern to the ancient.
The old town of Zadar is the perfect size being small and easily walkable. And it’s low-key, without all the crowds of other popular destinations. We felt relaxed when walking around this town -not overwhelmed with things to see – the perfect place for wandering. Sitting in the Narodni Trg, Zadar’s central square, you have the opportunity to absorb historic buildings dating back centuries, to a time when Vikings were raiding northern Europe. It is also a nice way to watch the people, as they bustle their way to see the sights, or the old locals stopping under the clocktower and having a chat over a strong coffee, pondering life as it once was.
A little further afield, and by that I mean a few hundred metres, you will find the old Barogue Church of St Mary, next to the imposing yet austere, Church of St Donat. The Church of St Donat is built on the remnants of the Roman Forum and has an unusual cylindrical shape. As you enter the church and pass through the second cylindrical wall, you are greeted by a vast interior topped with a conical roof, supported by columns. The Church today serves as a venue for concerts, recitals, art installations…and the odd wedding.
Zadar has an extensive defensive system built, to protect its inhabitants from invasions from the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. The Ottomans coveted coastal cities to enhance its dominance in the region. Zadar was no exception. Over time, Zadar improved its defences and with it came decorative elements, particularly influenced by Venetian symbolism, such as the winged lion which can be seen on stone reliefs. Venice was fiercely protective of its city and invested heavily in Zadar’s fortification. The gates of Zadar were built as part of this ancient defence and the city still retains its walls and fortifications. Particularly impressive is the main entrance to Zadar, the Kopnena Vrata (Land Gate), designed as a classical triumphal arch. The elaborately designed gate includes the Venetian winged lion above a figure of St Chrysogonus, protector of Zadar, and coat of arms on either side above the pedestrian entrance.
The Land Gate sits adjacent to the Ponton Bastion, next to Fosa. This is an imposing bastion, which protected the Land Gate and forms an imposing entrance into the old town. The town has magnificently converted the old fortress into a park, accessed by winding paths, offering a wonderful views over Zadar and the Captain’s Tower. Zadar’s extensive and historic defensive system is easily explored on foot. Noteworthy as well is the Sea Gate, with its relief of the Venetian winged lion
A highlight of Zadar is its waterfront, as it sits on the Adriatic Sea, something that can truly be enjoyed. There is no better sound than one of lapping waves, chatty gulls and children enjoying the water. That is, unless you go near the Sea Organ. While hard to see, you’ll know you’ve reached it once you hear ‘organ music’ appearing to be coming straight out of the water. The marble steps leading toward the sea are tubular tunnels helping the waves create music. Next to the Sea Organ is the Sun Salutation, that blue disc is the Sun Salutation, a solar-powered light display that lights up at night, putting on a wonderful light show.
The food is good in Zadar and we went to and loved our visit to Restaurant Bruschetta. The food was just delicious, nicely presented and surprisingly well priced for this classy establishment.
Zadar changes as the sun goes down. The colours are richer and the light is more beautiful. The city is much quieter and also very safe walking around in at night. Renting an apartment in the old city allows us to walking those smooth marble streets and along the seafront and sitting in cafes, watching the passing procession of people.
The town’s beaches are a pleasant way to relax and a swim to cool off in the Adriatic is worth the effort of walking to nearby swimming areas. There are some excellent swimming spots on the nearby islands, an easy day trip from Zadar by boat – we spent a wonderful afternoon at Dobropoljana enjoying a long lunch (feast) and swim in the warm and inviting waters of the Adriatic.
Zadar has a lot to offer the traveller. It may not be on people’s bucket lists, and many travellers will drive past Zadar on their way to the national parks to the north of Croatia. But Zadar is worth a stopover, if for no other reason than to absorb its deep rich history and enjoy how well the ancient and medieval has been embraced by the modern. This is a city of raw and natural beauty.