Croatia gems: Zadar

I love spring and autumn.. these are the best seasons to travel! The weather is good, travel is inexpensive..what more could you want 🙂

Now is just one of those ‘travel-friendly’ times of the year and I’m coming up with a series of posts on some great places you can visit in.. beautiful Croatia!

Why visit Croatia? My top 3 reasons are: the seaside and islands, beautiful nature, historical buildings. Croatia has 500+ km coastline and 1246 islands and islets. Lots of places to go, no? Even during high season, you can find yourself a perfectly peaceful beach spot on an easy-to-reach island. There are 8 national parks (with Plitvice lakes and Krka, which I’m going to cover, being the 2 biggest ones) and 10 nature parks.

What about historical places and buildings? Well, consider the fact that Croatia has been home to Roman and Greek civilizations, part of it (Dalmatia) had been 4 centuries under the rule of the Republic of Venice, later on the territory had been conquered by the Ottomans, then it became part of the Hapsburg empire and so on… All these different cultures left a magnificent architectural and historical heritage, wherever you go.

And finally, what I really liked about the country is the convenience of travel. You can easily rent a place in some village 5-10 kms away from your destination city/park. People are very friendly, you can taste delicious local food and, if staying at the seaside, have your morning coffee with a stunning view to the local harbor. Now, here’s the first spot in Croatia we truly enjoyed:

Zadar

They say Zadar is the perfect place to visit if you want to get a taste of Dalmatia without the crowds. Even though it had been bombed 72 times during World War II, it remains a town with many sights and a great atmosphere.

Lively square inside Zadar Old city

Of course the place to head for is the Old City – also called the Peninsula. Small (just 500 meters wide) but so charming! You can enter it via a bridge connecting the new and old part which goes straight into one of the city gates.

Some of the city walls were built by the Romans, then other were added by the Venetians as fortification against the Turk attacks. At some point, Zadar was the most fortified city in the Venetian republic! Now 4 entrances (gates) through the city walls remain. Using the bridge you enter through the Sea gate, which was redone during Venetian rule to celebrate a victory over the Turks in 1573. The most impressive is the Land gate. It’s decorated with marvelous sculptures like that of St Chrysogonus (the patron of Zadar) and of course the symbol of the Venetian republic – the winged lion of St. Mark.

The Land gate in Zadar with the Winged lion of St. Mark – the symbol of the Venetian Republic

Entering the city walls you get straight into a Venice-like atmosphere – with narrow streets, small shops, an open marketplace, colored houses, a roman forum with welcoming cafes, churches and – ice-cream of course!

The Old city marketplace

The Roman forum, founded by Emperor Augustus in 3rd century, is the largest on this side of the Adriatic. It used to be the place where all major political buildings stood, the ‘center’ of the city and hosted a pretty big Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. On one side there’s a pillar which used to be the Pillar of Shame in the Middle Ages – the place where people caught in misdemeanor were chained. It’s great that you can actually walk around the remnants of the forum and take a rest/photo on stones that are 2,000 years old!

The forum square with the church of St Donatus at the back

Among the historical sights the two very impressive are the Church of St Donatus and the Cathedral of St Anastasia. The church is the largest pre-Romanesque building in Croatia. There are no more religious services in it but because of the excellent acoustics inside, it’s used as the venue for the annual Musical evenings in St Donatus classical music festival, July/August.

Church of St Donatus with the Cathedral and the Bell Tower at the back

The cathedral is the largest one in the whole Dalmatia. Originally there was a small basilica there, built 4th century, then after the siege of Zadar by Venetians and Crusaders it was heavily damaged and rebuilt in Romanesque style. You should climb its impressive 50-meter high bell tower opening amazing view to the whole old Zadar peninsula. During the evening its interior is lit up and you can actually see the complex bell construction just under the tower roof. The construction of this tower started in 1452, and was finished more than 4 centuries later.

Inside Zadar 50-meter bell tower. Get in there just before sharp hour – the bell sound will truly freak you out 🙂

I would also advise visiting the Architectural museum just on the Forum square. You can figure out a lot about the history of Croatia from prehistoric times until Middle Ages.

Away from the forum, there’s also so much to see – cute little squares with shadowed picturesque cafes, historical remnants exposed using glassed flooring, refreshing parks..Especially interesting is the Five wells square. You can see 5 perfectly aligned well heads, but they are actually the outlets of a large drinking water cistern built during 16th century by the Venetians, to help the city survive the Turkish sieges. When the Turkish threat ended, the cistern was no more used and a park was built on top of the nearby bastion. This is now the oldest public park in Croatia.

What looks like five wells is actually the outlets for the large underground drinking water cistern

A very impressive attraction just beyond the city walls and next to the sea is the Sea Organ. This is a 70-meters long sculpture made of 35 organ pipes and whistles integrated into the shore concrete. When the sea is rough it crashes into the pipes/whistles, pushing air inwards and producing amazing sounds. Note that each pipe’s length was carefully selected so the sounds are always in harmony.

This attraction was made by a local architect. Many people come over to sit at the organ stairs, enjoying both the organ sounds and the views to the nearest islands from Zadar archipelago.

The sea organ stairs (the pipes are just beneath the stairs) are always full of people enjoying the amazing sounds

Another attraction from modern times is the Greeting to the Sun. This is a circle representing the Sun with diameter of 22 meters made from many glass plates. There are smaller circles nearby to represent the planets in our solar system.

Greeting to the Sun is like a mini power plant, producing energy of 46.500 kWh annually

Greeting to the Sun lights up after dusk

Under the glass plates there are photo-voltage solar modules which absorb the sun energy and transform it into electric one. The electricity generated powers up a stunning specially programmed light show that sets off at sunset. They say the light show is in synch with the sounds from the organ. What’s cool is that the generated electricity from this attraction is enough to power up some part of Zadar’s waterfront, cutting down electricity bills 3 times. Smart, no?

And of course, the best sightseeing of Zadar is the old city itself. Leisurely walking the small, peaceful streets, sipping a cup of coffee in some of the shadowed cafes, grabbing a cone of ice-cream while spotting another amazing historical remnant all make for an unforgettable experience.

Cafe tables are lined up on most old city streets

And if you are based in Zadar there’s so much to see – the islands from the archipelago, among which the famous Kornati islands, Paklenica, Krka and Plitvice park to the north. I cover Krka and Plitvice in this series on Croatia, so definitely check them out 🙂

Accommodation advice: Staying in Zadar might be expensive in the high season. So, a good option is to stay in the village of Bibinje, which is just 5-6 kms from Zadar.

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