Zadar: An Unexpected Little Gem On Croatia’s Coast
I don’t know what I was expecting from Zadar but, oh my goodness, it wasn’t what I got. I’ll be completely honest, Zadar wasn’t really on the top of my list of places I wanted to see, but since the bus journey from Split to Zagreb was just a little bit too long, I decided to have a little stop- over in Zadar. I was only planning on staying for two days but I loved it so much I ended up staying for three nights, four days.
I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t love at first sight for Zadar and me. I’d just spent what seemed like a god damn eternity on a hot, sweaty bus, for some reason my bag seemed like all my belongings had been swapped with bricks, and I need to buy a bus ticket to the old town but the smallest note I had was a 100KN and my dodgy Croatian wasn’t enough for me to get it changed into something smaller at the ticket stand. One good thing, though, was the bus stop was in front on a McDonalds which meant I could have a full meal for the first time in like two days. Huzzah. I also can’t believe I’ve just said McDonald’s is a good thing but here we are…
After making my way to the old town, via the local bus, I ended up entering the town through the wrong gate (my fault. Apparently I can’t follow bloody instructions) which meant it took way longer than it should have to find where I was staying, the old town seemed empty, and my hostel was horrible.
But travelling’s not all sunshine and roses though, is it?
That being said, after I’d given myself a little time to freshen up and relax (in the dorm room that I’d bagged all to myself!), I had a little afternoon meander through the town, and this is where my love affair really began.
Zadar is a perfect example of a modernised city; the old relics of eras gone by are still all there, but the addition of things from the modern day have brought it bang up to date. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, where else can you sit on 2000 year old roman ruins and watch a guy play something by Vance Joy on his guitar? How do you feel about watching a magic show from the steps of a Venetian church? What about being serenaded by the sea playing an organ with a Roman Forum behind you? Are you on a plane to Zadar yet?
HISTORY OF ZADAR
Zadar is one of the largest old Croatian cities that I visited on my trip, and that’s probably got something to do with its vast and complex history. Over the years the city has been conquered by the Romans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the French, the Austrians again, the Italians, and finally, it was brought into Croatia within Yugoslavia, and remained Croatian when they declared independence in 1991. After their declaration of independence Zadar took the worst hit it’d ever seen in it’s 3000 year history and much of it was destroyed by the Serbians. Today, however, the buildings and ruins which survived have been well preserved and stand together to make the city one of the most fascinating to walk around- so fascinating, in fact, that it won European Best Destination 2016.
At one end, by the gorgeous harbour, a Venetian stone gate, with a lion carved into it for protection, stands tall in front of the steps leading up to a Gothic five wells square. In the square, Gothic posts and wells give way to roman ruins and pillars. In the centre of the town, a Roman forum stands surrounded by roman archaeological ruins, churches and bell towers. Just across the road from the Forum is the very modern marketplace and Riva, which is home to the Sea Organ and the Greeting To The Sun light show.
I spent my first full day in Zadar learning more about its history. Using my hostel’s wifi I found some good blog posts and guides and took myself off on a self-guided walking tour, which also obviously doubled as a Gelato sampling tour (they do Nutella and Kinda Bueno ice-cream for god’s sake!). I explored the Roman Forum first. The Forum is set behind a long stretch of Roman ruins which are just there. No ropes, no signs telling you to stay off of them. Nothing. It’s great. Around the ruins are stone steps which lead onto a square, empty except for the Church of St. Donat, the new convent, and the Pillar of Shame- which prisoners would be chained to and people would throw rotten food and faeces at them because there was no other form of entertainment in those days, and people have always been pretty cruel. To add to the creepy factor, parts of the chains still hang from the pillar today. I think it’s also worth noting that, throughout the day, the pillar was never out of the sun making for a pretty brutal punishment! Urgh.
Behind the Church is the old bell tower that used to belong to the Cathedral of St. Anastasia which, for 15KN, you can climb up and admire the stunning 360 degree views of Zadar. There are roughly 205 steps (according to the German guy counting them aloud on the way down. My German isn’t as ropey as my Croatian so that number is pretty accurate!), so it’s quite a tough climb but completely worth it. I climbed up it just before sunset one night as it wasn’t as busy but it was still beautiful to see the sun just starting to dip.
Next up was the Venetian gate, where the little details carved into the stone are definitely quite something to behold. Just above the Venetian gate, next to the Gothic Five Wells Square, is a park built in the space around the remaining parts of the old city walls. The park isn’t huge but it was a nice, peaceful place to sit and relax away from the city and a good place to look out at the harbour and listen to the classical Italian music coming from the most famous boat there (you’ll know if you’ve been). But you know the best part? It has an outdoor nightclub! An actual outdoor nightclub in a Romanesque park in old city walls overlooking a Gothic square. I love ya, Zadar, I really do!
BEACH LIFE IN ZADAR
History tour done, I decided it was time to see the sea. Walking out of the city through the Venetian gate I carried on walking down the street until I found a stone beach (because Croatia and their aversion to sand), which had a grassy section overrun with lizards at the back and a three tiered diving board in the ocean. Back on the other side of the city, I found the Riva which is home to the Sea Organ aka one of the best inventions ever. No sooner had I got to the Riva did a German guy come up to me, patted his head and proceeded to pretend to play the piano whilst repeating Klavier over and over. I’d inadvertently found myself in a game of charades with a stranger and looked at him, puzzled, until I realised what he was doing. Oh! Organ! I exclaimed, maybe a little too excitedly, when I realised he was asking where to find the sea organ. I pointed him in the direction and was thanked repeatedly by his laughing wife who’d been watching from a distance!
I didn’t know about the organ before I got there, but a little research told me that it was designed by Nikola Bašić. It is 70ft of steps which descend into the sea and, inside the steps, are hollow pipes with whistles in them which, when the sea pushes the air through them, make a sound which sounds like someone playing an organ. Pretty cool huh? Although it’s a little creepy sitting on them in the dark because you can barely see the sea and, when it gets choppy, the organ is pretty loud, in the day it’s so lovely. I spent a whole day relaxing by them and have 0 regrets. At night, though, they become super busy with people watching the sunset and, to be honest, I preferred being the other side of the pier to watch it as it was practically empty and very peaceful. Every night I sat, legs dangling over the edge of the Adriatic, pizza in hand, marveling at the beautiful, vibrant, blood-orange hue of the sky. I know this word is thrown around a lot, and is therefore quite meaningless, but it really was breathtaking! There’s a reason why Zadar’s sunsets are world famous you know?
If you wish to buy this as a print you can do so here from my Etsy store!
When the sun had set I wandered over to the Greeting To The Sun which is just next to the sea organ and was designed by the same guy. In the day it’s just a huge solar panel in the ground but, at night, it comes alive with colourful lights changing colour and dancing around the panel. Children and adults alike enjoy dancing and running across it every night- and I even saw a dog getting in on the action whilst I was there!
There’s no denying that Zadar is a uniquely spectacular place to visit, and, whilst it’s busy in the summer and is rising in popularity because of it’s EBD16 win, I hope (selfishly) that it remains quite undiscovered and unspoilt for just a little while longer.
Has anyone ever been to Zadar? What did you think?
If you want to download this article as a handy pocket guide you can do so here! The guide is free to download and use offline but if you want to upgrade it, so it gives you gps directions to each place of interest, you can do for a small fee (and if you do I’ll get a few pennies!)
Want to see more? You can follow me here: