Top spot on the Dalmatian coast
Diane Armstrong has a blast in the Croatian port of Zadar
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. www.arsenalzadar.com.
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.zadar.hr www.htz.hr www.peregrineadventures.com
Hide and seek: The remains of the Roman forum at Zadar with St Donat’s church in the background