Zadar 4-9 June 2017
We woke on board the ferry after a good night’s sleep and had a breakfast while the ship docked. Unfortunately for us, the docking point has changed from its old location in the old town, which would have made for an easy walk to our accommodation, to a new complex still under construction a little way south at Gazenica. This meant a two bus transfer into the old town and a bit of a walk to actually reach the bus stop. The facility is so new that there is a n almost complete lack of signage so it took a bit of doing to work out just where to catch the bus. We finally located a timetable and found we had missed a bus by 10 minutes and had a 90 minute wait for the next one, due to the fact that it was a Sunday. Why do so often get somewhere on a Sunday? Australian Governments will have us believe that the rest of the World works 24/7 but it simply isn’t true. The only things that work on Sunday in Europe are church bells.
Eventually, we made it into Old Zadar and walked into the central Plaza called People’s Square, a gorgeous little square surrounded by medieval buildings. Our accommodation is right on the edge of the square but we were early and still had a few hours to kill before we could check in. A hot chocolate and a spot of crowd gazing soaked up an hour then we wandered off in search of a spot to sit. A couple of hundred metres along we entered the old Roman Forum area, chock full of broken columns and arch ways. The layout of the forum was easily visible and the whole place just reeked of history. As we sat and looked at the buildings around us we saw that most had incorporated pieces of ancient Roman stonework into their facades. There were magnificent porticoes, gracious stone columns and strangely carved gargoyles in abundance. It was an introduction to our home of the next six days that held a lot of promise.
By noon, we had access to our little apartment and met Mate, our host. The apartment is hidden away through several sets of doors, up a flight of stairs and overlooking a tiny courtyard. It is old, full of mis-matched bits of furniture and plumbing but the location is to die for and the whole thing works for us. We live right in the middle of one of the World’s top tourist destinations with everything in walking distance (there are no vehicles allowed in the old town) all for less than $A60 a night. We are in heaven!
Old Zadar is on a peninsular, making it a near impregnable fortress throughout history. A solid wall surrounds the town, broken in places by gateways. Each gateway is an individual masterpiece of old World charm, most incorporate sections of Roman ruins with one, the Seagate, even using an old triumphal arch. The whole of the old town is very walkable and there is an easily accessible walk bridge across the water divide to the newer area. Most of the bigger hotels are on the newer side so the walkway is filled throughout the day and much of the night with a steady stream of tourists crossing over to soak up the atmosphere. We just walk outside anytime we feel like a dose of ancient Zadar. However, there is a price to pay for the location. Things are quite a bit more expensive than we experienced in Split back in 2012. Part of this would be because the Aussie Dollar is not as generous now as it was then but it is also because we are living right in the heart of touristville. You go to one eatery and the drinks are cheap but the food expensive then the next one goes for the opposite approach. Nowhere is cheap. We have cooking facilities so we hit the supermarkets and planned a program of cooking and eating in. Meat is cheaper than in Italy but otherwise things seem to be somewhat on the dear side. Maybe it settles down once you get outside the old city area.
The history of Zadar is so much a part of the place that we put aside our usual reluctance to visit museums and went to the Zadar Museum of Archaeology. It proved to be a wonderful display of artifacts dating down from Neolithic times to the Medieval Period, with a whole floor devoted to the Roman times. The sheer size and scope of the collection is amazing, with a great number of pieces collected from the immediate vicinity of the town and the nearby areas. What struck us most was the relatively short period of time it took for humans to come out of the stone age and into the sophistication of the bronze age and just how clever they were once they had discovered working with metals. The second floor was devoted to the Roman era and immersed us in a time of incredible organization and civic development. Once again, the display of artifacts far outweighed anything we had seen before and with a Roman Forum laid out before us right outside the door of the museum we were almost transported back to another age. Well worth the visit.
One evening after dinner we walked to the tip of the peninsula to the famous sea organ pipes, a simple yet fascinating structure along the sea wall. A series of holes and caverns have been formed in the steps leading down to the seawall, allowing the waves from the ocean to become trapped underneath and force air through carefully constructed holes. Each one resonates with a slightly different pitch, producing a beautiful church organ type of sound as the sea moves in and out. The stairs extend for about 70 meters along the coast with 35 pipes of different length, diameter and tilts. The pipes play 7 chords of 5 tones. It is a very soulful and restful sound and many people come down to watch the sun set and listen to the calming sounds of the sea organ.
A bit further along is a 22 metre circular light display, powered by solar power generated and stored during the day. By night, the huge display turns on a myriad small lights, arranged to simulate the size and position of the planets. Huge crowds congregate to watch the display come to life as the sun sets.
The highest point in Zadar is the church spire of St Anastasia’s Cathedral so we climbed the 190 steps to take in the views of the city. Narrow spiral stairways usually send Christine into a fit of the heebie-jeebies but she was very well controlled, showing that all this exposure to medieval history is starting to pay off. The views were quite breathtaking, all though we kept a very wary eye on the time lest the damn church bells started peeling while we were next to them. They are deafening from our apartment and that is about half a kilometre away.
Besides the walk bridge over the water there was a tiny little rowed ferry boat that operated from 6am to 11pm. It has been owned by the same family for years and different members take turns to do the rowing. It costs 5HRK ($A1) a trip and they seem to be continually on the move with between 2 and 8 passengers so they must pay their way. We used the service a few times. A charming way to go.
By far the highlight of our time in Zadar, and even of the trip to date, was a day trip on a boat out to some of the nearby islands. We went on the Zvida Mora (www.zvidamora.hr) a small traditional wooden boat, with its wonderfully entertaining and knowledgeable skipper Milan. What helped make the day a highlight was the terrific mix of fellow passengers, which included a family of Brits/Aussies, a lovely couple of girls from Hungary and Norway, and a fun group of young Germans. We all got on really well and tried hard to rid the boat of all alcohol as we went. We snorkeled (some SCUBA dived) in wonderfully clear but icy cold water, we stopped for a beer (which we didn’t need) in a gorgeous little village and we trekked around Osljak, the smallest inhabited island in the Adriatic Sea. Besides handling the boat all by himself and providing a wonderful running commentary of the sights and history, Milan showed off his culinary skills by cooking a magnificent fish lunch. We each got a perfectly cooked whole fish on the bone with some excellent potatoes fried with a herb mixture. The fish was local Seabream, similar to an Australian Bream, full of flavor and firm of texture. The tour followed along the inside of Uglijan Island, passing by numerous gorgeous little secluded coves, usually with a couple of cruising yachts anchored up. I would love to hire a yacht for a week from Zadar and spend some time exploring the huge expanse of water available to cruisers. We had an absolutely amazing day, one that will remain a highlight for a long time.
For the last five years we have been singing the praises of Split as a top place to visit and stay for a while. Zadar has probably taken the crown away from Split. It is so easy and laid back yet so packed full of charm. Is it the best of Croatia? Only time will tell.