Take a rowing boat to Zadar's old town and discover medieval loveliness, Roman ruins, fine dining and an organ played by the Adriatic Sea!
When it comes to Croatia's Adriatic allure it has always been Split and Dubrovnik that rolled off the tongue. Their pleasures are well-known, but Zadar somewhat less so and commonly touted as some kind of unexplored gem. This may have been true at one time, but not now. Budget airlines are landing at the airport and the streets are busy with people all thinking they are going somewhere “undiscovered”. Zadar couldn't hide its charms forever and now it is my turn to rave about it.
The Old Town, sited on a peninsula that is only 500 meters wide, retains many of the walls and city gates from the era of Venetian rule. Inside these walls there are shiny marble paved streets leading to churches, Roman ruins and squares with laid back cafés.
What to see and do
I have yet to come across a more pleasurable way to enter a town. The short rowing boat crossing to Zadar is one of the most endearing things about the place. Known as barkarioli these boats and the men who work them have been keeping up an 850 year-old tradition by taking passengers on the 80m crossing. It takes minutes, costs small change, but is oh so lovely with deep blue water, gentle summer breeze and the approaching city walls for a view.
Another quirky attraction in town is the Sea Organ. A local architect, Nikola Bašić, constructed a collection of 35 pipes and whistles by the shore. These produce music as the sea passes through, the sound varying according to the power and rhythm of the waves; when a big boat passes there is an impressive crescendo.
Right by the Sea Organ is another piece of street art called the Sun Salutation. It works like a solar panel collecting sun energy during the day to power a light show that attracts a crowd in the evenings. People walk across the panels entranced by the dancing and colourful lights. Combined with the organ music it creates a peaceful and happy place.
Zadar is also blessed with fabulous architecture and monuments. The main place to head for is the Roman Forum. In this relatively small area there is an incredible concentration of pretty things. There are many columns and stone carvings, including a “Pillar of Shame” that was used to chain up people who had committed some misdemeanor or another. The great thing about the Forum is that there are no barriers or signs saying “don't touch” and it is quite normal to see people sitting on 2000 year old stones.
The Forum is dominated by the 9th century Church of Saint Donat. This is Zadar's poster boy; featuring on all the tourist literature. Its pocket-size and unique roundness make it very attractive.
Nearby, taking the 180 stairs of Saint Anastasia's belfry is worth it for the superlative views. From this point it is clear to see how compact the old town is and the sparkling blue Adriatic waters virtually surrounding it on all sides.
Five Wells Square contains the Venetian-built wells that were instrumental in helping the town to successfully withstand Turkish sieges in the 16th century. There is a nice shady park here and a great view down to the best of the city gates: Land Gate, with its Republic of Venice coat of arms.
Where to stay
The Old Town is pristine because the tourist infrastructure is kept 3km away in Borik. There are buses and walking takes about 20 minutes. Most of the big hotels are geared towards package tourists, so for more of an authentic Croatian welcome I would recommend staying in a guest house.
My first choice was Villa Hresc (from 750kn for a double). The swimming pool, balconies with sea views, garden and bar shaped like the prow of a boat had an undeniable allure. However, they were fully booked.
Instead, I checked in to Pansion Albin (from 450kn for a double). It is a family run place with simple and comfy rooms. My room had an airy, homely feel with lemon-coloured curtains and bedspreads. The swimming pool is the real treat. In the height of summer the water is warmed by the sun to a pleasant temperature and greenery provides plenty of shade. The owner, Leo, pointed out that much of the greenery is actually fig trees and encouraged us to help ourselves and pick the fruit. I have fond memories of lazing by this pool, reading, playing cards and gorging myself on figs.
Leo is a bit of a character, basing his persona on the British TV comedy creation Basil Fawlty. He regaled us with lines from the show and acted out famous scenes each time we rang the bell at reception. Thankfully, Pansion Albin did not replicate the shoddy customer service of the hotel on the TV show!
Eating and drinking
Pansion Albin's own restaurant is good and it saves you the hassle of getting to and from the Old Town. This is straightforward cooking, mainly seafood, with the emphasis on taste and freshness rather than fancy flourishes. The outdoor terrace is the place to be in summer and subject to hushed conversations by couples and easy going wait staff. Mains from 40kn.
For a treat that you will not regret I urge you to get to the best restaurant in town; Kornat (Liburnska Obala 6, 254 501). That moment when you open the menu to read about what you could soon be satisfying yourself with is always special, but here even more so. A starter of gnocchi in shrimp sauce and monkfish in truffle sauce for the main course was a taste sensation with every mouthful. Crisp table linen, heavy silver cutlery and finely turned out waiting staff suggests a formal air, but I wore jeans and nobody cared. Mains from 80kn.
Try a glass or three of Maraschino, a locally produced cherry liquor. It is made from a Dalmatian cherry that is reputed to be sweeter and more delicious than any other kind of cherry. I drank it after every meal and am pretty sure “they” are right about it being the best tasting cherry.
There are cafés all over Zadar, so you won't be stuck for a caffeine or ice cream hit. One to point out is Café Bar Lovre on Narodi Trg. It has a large number of umbrella protected seats on the terrace, ideally positioned for that favourite of spectator sports; people watching.
Direct flights to Zadar airport from many European destinations, including Edinburgh, London, Oslo, Berlin, Brussels. www.zadar-airport.hr/en
Fast trains from Zagreb take 7 hours. www.hznet.hr