If you’ve had the (mis)fortune of listening to me wax poetically about Croatia, then no doubt you will have noticed a slight preoccupation (obsession) I have a particular city – Zadar. Since the first moment I walked through the city gates leading into the Old Town, I knew that I had arrived. There’s just something special about this beautiful coastal city that drew me in and so far has refused to let go. Other than just saying IT’S AWESOME I decided to try to break out some actual concrete reasons why I love the city so much and why I think it should be on everyone’s Croatian travel itinerary.
1. Coastal beauty and THE sea organ
Like most Croatian cities that line the warm waters of the Adriatic, Zadar has a beautiful waterfront area with a long promenade that always seems to be hopping, no matter the time of day or year. What first time visitors may not realize though is that those white steps leading down to the water are much more than they seem. It’s actually a complex set of pipes that when put together create the now somewhat famous sea organ. Completed in 2005 along with repair work after the Croatian War of Independence, the stairs extend for 70 meters and under them are 35 pipes of varying length and height that play 7 chords of 5 tones depending on the tides. Walking along the waterfront, watching kids jump into the breaking waves with the soft melody of the sea organ playing is a quintessential Zadar experience that everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives.
2. Weight of the ages
For a city that I didn’t know existed until a year ago, Zadar has a shockingly long history, much of it still on display around town. The current name of the city, Zadar, has been bastardized over the years and actually dates back to a people living there BEFORE the Greeks arrived. We’re talking 4th century BC here folks, a very long time for a town to be in near permanent existence. While most of the Greek influence has vanished, Roman life is clearly visible everywhere around Zadar. The main street running through the old town is the old Roman road, perfectly straight as are the laneways radiating out in all sectors of town. I always love thinking of the hundreds of generations of people who walked the same route when I visit towns like Zadar, the weight of history so heavy it’s almost debilitating. For a more obvious remnant of Roman life, in the center of town is the old Forum and the 9th century St. Donatus’ Church, built on the remnants of a Roman temple to Juno. A walk through town is a walk through time, from the Greeks to the Middle Ages and the more recent and sad history of the 20th century. The culture of the centuries is imbued on every sandy stone and old growth tree towering overhead. For a more detailed examination of this fascinating history, be sure to check out the new Roman exhibit at the Archaeological Museum next to the Forum. This expertly curated space reassembles parts of Zadar’s past that had been lost to the ages. It tells the story of Roman occupation in Croatia in a way that is both beautiful as well as innovative.
3. Amazing food
This is hardly endemic to just Zadar, all of Croatia suffers from an overabundance of delicious foods. Zadar seems to excel though when it come to cuisine and a good meal or snack is usually just a few feet away. If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to stop by Vitlov Chocolate in the old city. Famous for his Maraschino Pralines using the region’s favorite liqueur, the great master is constantly innovating by introducing flavors like orange blossom and red wine; flavors that reflect the country and its traditional flavors. For something a little more robust, there are innumerable outdoor restaurants and cafes where locals and tourists alike while away the hours, chatting and enjoying the cuisine for which the Dalmatian region is so well known. Fresh seafood is of course always on offer, but so is well-executed Italian food. Much of Croatia’s coastal areas were under Venetian control for centuries, creating a robust tradition of hearty Italian favorites. Look for the squid ink gnocchi at Bruschetta Restaurant for a special treat.
4. Wandering the streets
There is just something so special about the streets of Zadar and I’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere in the world. Paved with shiny white marble, they look slick but are actually just well worn with age. They introduce a certain element of elegance though; one almost feels guilty walking on them. Start on the main road that runs through the old city and just start wandering. Don’t be afraid about making a wrong turn, there’s no such thing, and just see where you end up. There are hundreds of small shops and cafes occupying small little corners of the city that would be nearly impossible to find more than once even if you tried. Take a break in true Croatian fashion by ordering a coffee and watch as the world walks by.
If you spend any amount of time in Zadar, someone will at some point tell you of a famous quote associated with the city. In May 1964, Alfred Hitchcock checked into Room 204 of the classic and now closed Hotel Zagreb on the waterfront in Zadar. The hotel’s location was one of the best in town and it was from there that the famed director opined that “The sunset of Zadar is the world’s most beautiful and incomparably better than in Key West, Florida.” This is a fact that Zadar residents have long known, but which the celebrity mention made world famous. In an effort to determine the truth of this grand statement, I climbed to the top of the St Anastasia Bell Tower in the middle of town for the best view in Zadar. Standing there watching the sun slowly fall into the sea, the colors and effect on the surrounding buildings was nothing sort of magical. Walking down the stairs to the main street that evening I thought to myself that no, Mr. Hitchcock was not embellishing when he named this one of the most amazing sunsets in the world.
Have you been to Zadar? What’s your favorite thing to do there?
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