Top spot on the Dal­ma­tian coast

Diane Arm­strong has a blast in the Croa­t­ian port of Zadar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHEN Al­fred Hitch­cock stayed in Zadar in the 1960s, he de­cided that the sun­sets, like the blondes, were the most spec­tac­u­lar in the world. For to­day’s vis­i­tors, how­ever, the most re­mark­able fea­ture of this vi­brant port on the Dal­ma­tian coast is its rich patina of his­tory and cul­ture span­ning 2000 years.

As you stroll around the old city, your eyes leap from Ro­man arches and Ro­manesque churches to me­dieval wells, Vene­tian gates and state-of-the-art tech­no­log­i­cal in­stal­la­tions. But Zadar is too re­laxed to be crushed by the weight of its past. The an­cient and ul­tra-mod­ern blend so seam­lessly in this port that its res­i­dents re­gard the an­tiq­ui­ties as a back­drop to the more se­ri­ous busi­ness of meet­ing in cafes, bou­tique shop­ping and strolling along the water­front.

Best Ro­man re­mains: Wher­ever you travel in Europe, the Ro­mans have been be­fore you, and they’ve left arches, col­umns and walls to prove it. None­the­less, it’s a sur­prise to dis­cover a Ro­man fo­rum in Zadar.

Mas­sive blocks of stone in­scribed in Latin are all that re­main of the an­cient tem­ples to Jupiter, Juno and Min­erva, but one col­umn sur­vives in­tact and soars above the fo­rum, like an ac­cus­ing fin­ger raised to the sky. In the Mid­dle Ages it was used to shame wrong­do­ers who were chained there and spat on by passers-by, but to­day it’s a mag­net for trav­ellers who can’t re­sist be­ing pho­tographed be­side it.

Best churches: There are so many re­mark­able me­dieval churches in Zadar you could eas­ily get churched out. The most re­mark­able is St Donat’s, which was con­structed on the site of the Ro­man fo­rum in the 9th cen­tury. It’s in­trigu­ing to see that the huge stone blocks sup­port­ing the lofty dome were taken from pa­gan sac­ri­fi­cial al­tars and are cov­ered in Ro­man in­scrip­tions. Napoleon, who had no time for or­gan­ised re­li­gion, stored his ex­plo­sives here, but the only blasts you’ll hear in­side th­ese days are pro­duced by mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

As you’d imag­ine, the acous­tics are su­perb, so con­certs are held here dur­ing sum­mer months. Be­side the church, an im­pres­sive Re­nais­sance bell­tower is topped by a statue of a gilded an­gel. If you’re en­er­getic and don’t suf­fer from ver­tigo or weak knees, climb up the corkscrew stair­case to the top for a stun­ning view.

Near St Donat’s you’ll find the beau­ti­fully carved Cathe­dral of St Anas­ta­sia, which dates from the 12th cen­tury. Less or­nate is St Mary’s, where black lace grilles over the ar­caded bal­cony con­trast with the white walls. If you’re lucky enough to hear the Bene­dic­tine nuns singing Gregorian chants, you’ll be trans­ported by their ethe­real voices.

Best saintly relics: It’s not ev­ery day that you get the chance to see John the Bap­tist’s fin­ger, St Ur­sula’s clav­i­cle or St Krys­to­van’s big toe, but th­ese are some of the trea­sures of the Ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal Mu­seum in­side the Bene­dic­tine monastery, which has stood on this site for more than 1000 years. Peer­ing into the ex­quis­ite fil­i­gree sil­ver and solid-gold reli­quar­ies con­tain­ing th­ese re­mains, it’s hard to avoid the sus­pi­cion that th­ese saints must have had an un­holy num­ber of bones.

Other trea­sures in this daz­zling col­lec­tion in­clude 13th-cen­tury icons and cru­ci­fixes, jew­elled crowns and me­dieval stat­ues. It may sound flip­pant to say th­ese mas­ter­pieces are to die for, but in this case it’s true. When Ital­ian sol­diers ar­rived to re­move the trea­sures dur­ing World War II, the nuns in charge said they’d kill them first. The sol­diers left empty-handed.

Best mod­ern at­trac­tion: If they held a com­pe­ti­tion to guess the pur­pose of the Mon­u­ment to the Sun, you might sug­gest a gi­ant game of hop­scotch or per­haps a disco of in-ground strobe lights mi­nus the mu­sic. But Zadar’s most re­cent and most orig­i­nal at­trac­tion is just pure en­ter­tain­ment. It’s a cir­cu­lar glazed sur­face, 22m in di­am­e­ter, and has 10,000 tiny light­bulbs set into an un­der­ground grid to col­lect so­lar en­ergy by day and con­vert it into a pul­sat­ing kalei­do­scope of ge­o­met­ri­cal pat­terns and bril­liant colours at night.

Zadar is a city that looks si­mul­ta­ne­ously at the past and the fu­ture, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that the en­tire cir­cum­fer­ence of this fu­tur­is­tic mas­ter­piece is edged with nav­i­ga­tional hi­ero­glyph­ics taken from the me­dieval tablets of Zadar. Ev­ery evening, hun­dreds of vis­i­tors wan­der across this in­trigu­ing mon­u­ment and watch the mes­meris­ing de­signs and colours change around them.

Close to the Mon­u­ment to the Sun is an­other un­usual mod­ern in­stal­la­tion, the sonic Wave Or­gan. Thirty-five pipes set into the wa­ter pro­duce sonorous or­gan-like sounds when­ever ships sail past, some­thing re­sem­bling mourn­ful whale calls, the in­ten­sity of which changes as waves strike the pipes.

Best street: Siroca Ulica, also known as Calle Larga, is a long mar­ble-paved mall lined with chic bou­tiques. Enor­mous willpower is re­quired to re­sist the trendy jeans, sky-scraper stilet­tos, sexy lin­gerie and huge leather bags. If you’re looking for a neck­tie, you’re in the right place. This uni­ver­sally loathed item of men’s cloth­ing is said to have orig­i­nated here; it’s reck­oned the French word for tie, cra­vat , de­rives from the word Croat.

For more se­ri­ous shop­ping, there are more than 1000 sil­ver­smiths and gold­smiths work­ing in Zadar and their jew­ellery de­signs are ir­re­sistible. And when you need a break from shop­ping, drop into an out­door cafe. The best place for vanilla slices, cheese­cake and hazel­nut and lemon ge­lato is Dan­ica’s cafe.

Best drinks: Zadar’s con­tri­bu­tion to al­co­holic drinks is maraschino liqueur, which has been dis­tilled from Dal­ma­tian marasca cher­ries since the 16th cen­tury by Do­mini­can monks, who clearly put their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion on spir­i­tu­al­ity. This po­tent, clear spirit, flavoured with crushed cher­ries to­gether with the pits, has a bit­ter­sweet flavour. A good place to sam­ple maraschino cock­tails is the newly opened Ar­mory, a trendy com­plex of cafes, bars and mu­sic stores near the Mon­u­ment to the Sun. The wine menu in­cludes Din­gac, the best red pro­duced in this re­gion; in case you’re home­sick, there’s also Clare Val­ley shi­raz.­se­

For a live­lier at­mos­phere, try the Ka­vana bar on Siroca Ulica and lis­ten to the bands on week­end nights.

Best ex­cur­sion: About three hours’ drive from Zadar is one of the high­lights of Croa­tia, the Pl­i­tivice Lakes, which are World Her­itage-listed. Six­teen mag­nif­i­cent lakes tum­ble into one an­other via a se­ries of gush­ing wa­ter­falls and cas­cades. Vis­i­tors can walk along 8km of im­mac­u­lately kept tim­ber foot­bridges and walk­ways that wind above, be­low and be­side the lakes and falls, giv­ing awe­some views of this unique nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. The falls are most spec­tac­u­lar in spring be­cause the melt­ing snow in­creases the vol­ume of wa­ter.

If you have time, take a cruise boat from Zadar to the Kor­nati Is­lands. This ar­chi­pel­ago of 147 is­lands re­sem­bles a moon­scape of low-ly­ing bar­ren rocks tossed into the sea and is more noted for its des­o­late, lime­stone ter­rain than for its beauty. Most boats stop at Kor­nat Is­land, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore the rocky fore­shore of the bay with its scat­tered fish­er­men’s cot­tages be­hind fig and olive trees. It’s balm for the soul to sit on the large ter­race of a water­front farm­house eat­ing freshly caught grilled mack­erel washed down with home­made wine, gaze at the clear, pale-green wa­ter and hear noth­ing apart from the oc­ca­sional cry of seag­ulls.

Best eat­ing: Zadar cui­sine is a com­bi­na­tion of Balkan and Hun­gar­ian, with a strong em­pha­sis on seafood and pasta. The most pop­u­lar seafood restau­rant, and one of the prici­est, is the Ri­blji Fosa on Kralja Dmi­tra Zvon­imira, near the Vene­tian sea wall. Try the sea bass, squid-ink risotto, scampi or pa­prika fish hot­pot. The best ta­bles are on the ter­race over­look­ing the ma­rina. An­other pop­u­lar restau­rant is Dva Ribara (Blaza Jur­jeva 1). Konoba Sko­plar (Trg Pe­tra Zo­ran­ics) has a rus­tic at­mos­phere and a long menu that in­cludes grilled pork neck (raznici), pasta, and sal­mon. Diane Arm­strong was a guest of Pere­grine Ad­ven­tures. www.pere­grinead­ven­

Hide and seek: The re­mains of the Ro­man fo­rum at Zadar with St Donat’s church in the back­ground

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