Croatia, literally unknown for westerners for decades, has become one of the most popular European tourist destination in the past few years. No wonder beautiful coastline, fairy tale-like waterfalls and Dalmatian towns with ancient Roman ruins has started to attract more and more visitors. Zadar, although less known, is a perfect spot to start your adventure in Croatia and the Balkan region. The good news for backpackers is that now many of low cost airlines from around Europe fly straight to Zadar. It's easy to get there, it's charming and can easily compete with Split and Dubrovnik. And it's more authentic, less touristy and crowded.
Turbulent History of Zadar
Zadar, just like the other towns on the Adriatic coast, has a rich and turbulent history dating back to antiquity. Even before the Roman conquest, the town had already been an important center for trade among the Mediterranean peoples. In the first century BC, Zadar was finally annexed and became a part of the Roman Empire. Its people, called Liburnians, fought for the Roman army in civil wars.
During the Middle Ages, Zadar was a bit forgotten and lost its grandeur and importance. In the 6th century, an earthquake struck the region and the monumental buildings from the Roman Era were largely destroyed. However, some of them still remain around the Roman Forum. Not long after the Byzantine Emperor took over the city and the region. Zadar was revived once more and many churches and stone buildings were erected during that period - we can still admire them up to this day.
In the next centuries, Zadar was invaded by the Venetians multiple times during the Crusaders in the Middle East. It was demolished, its citizens robbed and their homes plundered. Later on, the city went from hands to hands and belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary-Croatia, Venice once again, suffered from Ottoman attacks and finally became a part of Kingdom of Italy.
Finally, after World War I, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed in the Balkan region. It didn't last long as German forces invaded it during World War II. Zadar (together with Split) ended up in the hands of fascist Italy. The town suffered enormous loss of population during the years of war. When the war ended, Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was formed. During that time, peace finally came Dalmatia and the phase of redevelopment began. Zadar had lost the capital status of the region to Split, however the economic situation and standards of living improved.
You might think that it was way too much of turbulence for such a town like Zadar but the peace didn't last long. Not long ago, in 1990s, during the Yugoslav Wars between Serbian and Croatian forces, Zadar suffered enormous damage, both economic and historical. Many important UNESCO sites and buildings were damaged during artillery strikes.
Nowadays, Zadar, similarly to other cities in Croatia and the region is fully recovered. Beautiful old town, important buildings and monuments have been restored and it's a pleasure to walk down the little, narrow streets.
It's also worth mentioning that Alfred Hitchcock said that the most beautiful sunset in the world is in Zadar! And it is spectacular, indeed, especially seen from the sea organs.
What to see in Zadar
I'm sure you will be enchanted by Zadar's old town - beautiful buildings made of stone, cozy restaurant, amazing ice-cream, spectacular waterfront and Croatia's landmark - bright red roofs - you can find it all here. The best time to come to Zadar will be in the spring or autumn/fall when the weather is beautiful and the town is free from the crowds of tourists.
It's easy to walk around in Zadar and within two days you surely will be able to see the most important sites at a very relaxed pace. It's also possible to do it all in one day, if you're short of time.
Old Town is surrounded by the city walls and once you've passed the gate, you'll feel as you've traveled back in time. The little streets look like taken from a fairy tale. There are many monuments and architecture from all periods of history - from antiquity through the middle ages. Food is superb and still reasonably priced for such a lovely place and the ice cream on display is simply a piece of art.
Zadar's old town is located on a beautiful peninsula and it boasts numerous, astonishing old churches. St. Donat's Church is one of the oldest - it dates back to the 9th century. Nearby Zadar Cathedral (of St. Anastasia), from 13th century is also a beautifully decorated monument. It's oldest parts date back even to the 4th century.
Zadar is most beautiful from a bird's eye view but such a view might be a bit difficult to obtain unless you own a helicopter. As an alternative, climb the bell tower situated behind Zadar Cathedral and you will get an amazing view over the red roof tops. Entry fee - around 2 EUR. Another church with a close proximity to those previous two is St. Mary's Church from the 16th century located at the Roman Forum. St. Simeon's Church is different. It's not made of silver stone like the others, it's bright orange and it represents a different, medieval style of architecture. Although the first mentions come from the 10th century, the front facade and the outer finishes were completed not before the 17th century. It's home to the patron of Zadar - St. Simeon and it even has the saint's mummified body within its walls.
Roman Forum - The ancient center of Zadar is a beautifully maintained plaza, surrounded by old walls, churches and spotted with the remains of the ancient Roman Empire - columns and other parts of the buildings dating back as early as the 1st century BC. It's a nice place to just sit down, relax and feel the atmosphere of this cozy little town.
Waterfront and Sea Organs
The waterfront in Zadar, besides the beautiful Adriatic sea, Mediterranean flora and old architecture, is quite original. You can sit on the sea organs - original monument in the shape of organs that are played by sea waves crashing against the underwater passages. It's best enjoyed at around sunset - the view of setting sun, the sea and the calm sounds made by the power of nature - what more do you want?
After dark, a few steps away is another unique, modern monument, called Greetings to The Sun. The monument is a circular glass plate through which you can admire a stunning show of changing colors. All the lights are generated by solar energy.
Both sites were designed by architect Nicola Basić and were opened to the public very recently - in 2005.
Zadar, due to its location is perfect for further trips into Croatia - turquoise Plitvice Lakes which are more spectacular than Erewan Waterfalls in Thailand, Dalmatian Split with the surrounding islands, absolutely breathtaking Dubrovnik (although unfortunately so over touristy - I've described it here) and even more down south - to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. The Balkan Peninsula is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and diverse region in Europe. So easily accessible and so breathtaking that you won't want to stop exploring! If you wish to go to the north - you can visit Rijeka, Pula and skipped by tourists Slovenia (totally unfairly!) as well as the Alps - Slovenian, Italian and Swiss. Check out Related Posts below to find more detailed information.
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