Sitting alone on the deck overlooking the Adriatic in the early morning, I watch fishing boats criss cross the sea in search of the day's catch. Zadar is a tranquil and beautiful fishing town. But this was not always the case. Perhaps this beauty brought war to this setting so often. Zadar is a jewel and jewels are the target of thieves.
A Little History
Zadar is an ancient city about 3000 years old and was referenced for the first time in history in the 4th century B.C. as a settlement of the Illyrian tribe of Liburnians. Originally Zadar was a small island just off the shoreline of the Damlatian coast. This made Zadar's location easy to protect. The Roman's built a modern city here around 50 BC complete with roads, temples and a public forum. Ruins of old Roman forum still stand today.
When the Western Roman empire fell Zadar became part of the Byzantine empire. In the 7th century Zadar became the capital of the Byzantine province of Dalmatia and at the beginning of the 9th century Zadar became the home of bishop Donatus and the Byzantine leader Paulus.
Do a quick google search with the words “siege of Zadar” and you get page after page of links to the abominations that have plagued Zadar.
In 998 AD, the Bulgarians captured the city and in 1202, the Christian crusaders attacked Zadar at the request of the Venetians who had their eye on Zadar for many years. After wintering in Zadar, these crusaders conquered Constantinople the following year. In 1346 Zadar was again under Venetian rule. The winged lion symbolizing St. Mark (patron saint of Venice) still stands guard above the city gates proclaiming that Zadar is ruled by the Queen of the Adriatic. During the 16 & 17th centuries, the Ottoman Turks attempted to conquer Zadar multiple times, however, the Venetian’s fortified city walls successfully held. And in 1806, when Venice surrendered to Napoleon, Zadar was under Naploeon's rule for a brief period. In 1813, the Austrians with the help of the British, invaded and so Zadar finally became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of course, WW1 would change everything. Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, the fuse was lit in Sarajevo, with the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand who was the younger brother of Franz Jospeh the Emperor of Austria. The visit of Franz Jospeh to Zadar is described in the Zadar city history. The "war to end all wars" (or the peace to end all peace) ended the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. New nations were born from the ashes of these empires and in 1946, the communist revolutionary, Josip Broz Tito declared the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia a sovereign nation. He died in 1980 and within 11 years, Zadar was yet again, a war zone.
Fast forward to the “War for the Homeland” as they call it here, and Zadar was once again under siege, this time by the Serbs. In 1991, the people of Zadar suffered greatly as water and electricity were cut off for over one year. This horrific struggle lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
As this war occurred a mere 25 years ago, many alive today either fought or have memories of the war. It was a force that impacted the lives of most people in this part of the world. The people of Zadar endured and eventually won their fight for independence.
On this trip we built deep friendships with a handful of people. We heard about the shopkeeper who was under sniper fire and a bullet missed by inches. Another shared that his son had taken a sniper's bullet. And yet another shared what it was like to live under Tito's communist rule as a Catholic. He explained that his family continued to pray in secret. And a man who was too young to fight but old enough to deliver supplies for the soldiers. Many towns and villages have a memorial dedicated to the local people who made the ultimate sacrifice. The Croatian people have a deep love of country, a love that comes from struggle.
What to do in Zadar
Get on a boat
There are many islands close to Zadar. Ferry boats are the most inexpensive mode of transport and the schedule is here. Tip - Always check the schedule online and/or at the dock because hours vary depending on the time of year. It is also easy to hop on a sight seeing boat or charter a private boat for a few hours. Cruise past the city center and head down the coast before visiting an island or two in the archipelago. Our 3 hour cruise included a visit to a small harbor where we enjoyed the catch of the day at the water's edge. Floating in the blue water of the Adriatic is really what a visit to Zadar is all about.
Visit the Sea Organ
The Sea Organ is a unique instrument where the random motion of the waves creates haunting music. It is built with a set of complex pipes capturing wave motion which forces air through the pipes. This is a popular place for tourists and locals so you will always find people of all ages enjoying the wave symphony. In 2006, Croatian architect Nikola Bašić received the prestigious European Prize for Urban Public Space for his Zadar Sea Organ project.
Visit the Greeting to the Sun
Located next to the Sea Organ is a circle of glass, lights and solar cells measuring 22 meters in diameter. The sunlight is captured during the day to power the lights at night. And the lights seem to change in harmony with the music of the Sea Organ. If possible, visit the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun as day transitions to night and you will experience a mesmerizing visual and auditory spectacle as the sun sets on the horizon.
Watching the world go by - Zadar style
Our Airbnb host provided a "what to do" in Zadar list. Spending time at cafes is at the top with the explicit suggestion to visit the old town cafes, especially on Saturday in the late morning. You will witness a very important weekly social ritual in Zadar. All the locals put on their finest clothes and visit with friends and family for several hours in the cafes that surround the public square in Zadar. At times, it felt like a scene from a movie.
Visit the fresh market
Each and every morning fresh fish and produce are sold in the Zadar market in old town. You don't need to buy anything but you can certainly enjoy the colors and sounds of the bustling market. Grandmas hand out samples of fresh fruit and cheese at every kiosk. This fresh, local food is delicious. Arrive in the morning because the good stuff sells out quickly.
Walk the city
A leisurely walk around the perimeter of Zadar takes about an hour and provides a glimpse of the city's rich history. White limestone streets are polished with centuries of footsteps since Zadar's history spans from Roman ruins of 20 centuries ago to the solar powered Greeting to the Sun. Look out for reminders of Venetian rule. The winged Lion of St. Mark still guard every city gate. Stand in a public square with the centuries old Venetian water wells. The main square has not changed since the Venetian's built it. Be sure to look up as you walk the polished streets in the old town and you will eventually spot some colorful clothing drying in the Adriatic breeze just as they have for centuries.
Where to stay
Our Airbnb was located right outside the walls of the old town and free parking was close by. The apartment was wonderful with a comfortable balcony overlooking the sea. The rooms were furnished with antiques and family photos along with excellent internet service. We give this place a thumbs up! Price - $$
A Luxury Hotel and Spa
A week or so later, we found ourselves once again in Zadar and decided to stay at a modern resort. The Falkensteiner Hotel and Spa offers all the amenities including multiple pools, spa, restaurants, patios, lawn, beach access and an extravagant breakfast buffet. It is the perfect destination if you simply wish to relax and not leave once you arrive. Price - $$$