While Croatia's unique natural beauty continues to draw tourists, its medieval cities also have a lot to offer. Besides Split and Dubrovnik, Zadar is one such attraction. DW's Eesha Kheny travels to find out more.
Over time, Croatia has emerged as a year-round alternative travel destination. With this increasing demand in mind, several low cost airlines fly to Zadar from numerous airports in Europe. This ease of access gradually helped to put the city on the radar of holiday makers elevating it from its former status of being a stop-over along the way. Taking advantage of the competitive prices, I caught a flight from Berlin to Zadar on Saturday morning. My journey was filled with anticipation. I was excited to visit this 3,000 year old city which has over the centuries managed to survive wars and destruction only evolve into the place it is today.
The Old Town of Zadar
Arriving in the city on the airport bus, the first thing I encountered was the impressive Land Gate of Zadar. It is the main entrance through the old city walls into the town - dating back to 1543 - and one of the six functional Venetian Gates. With detailed motifs of Zadar's main patron saint, St. Chrysogonus and the Shield of St. Mark, Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli set the right tone for further exploration of all that lay beyond this gate. Not wanting to waste any valuable time, I walked under one of the two smaller arches to enter the compact and pedestrianized Old Town.
Zadar is the oldest continously inhabited city of Croatia with ancient ruins as well as interesting museums. It is also a progressive city with cafes and innovative installations. This mix of architecture emerged after World War II when efforts were made to rebuild the city from the ground up, all the while keeping its cultural identity intact. And it is evident that this goal was achieved. While exploring the Old Town – which lies on the peninsula of Zadar - I was impressed with the ease at which architecture has fused over time. Ancient monuments such as the 9th century Church of St. Donatus, the 11th century St. Mary Church and 12th century Cathedral of Anastasia enjoy and share the spotlight with modern restaurants and boutiques offering global cuisine and fashion. And all this is just a stone's throw away from the Roman Forum which is the largest of its kind in the entire country. The Forum has been remarkably preserved and is open to the public, completely free of charge. I made my way through the Forum, amazed by the details on the pillars and the gory reality of the chains on one of the columns which were used n by-gone days to punish wrong doers.
After leaving the Forum, I strolled down the marble streets - scented with fresh lavender being sold at nearby souvenir shops - and reached the main square of the city. On the one side I could see the Gradska Loza, a restored building which currently serves as an exhibition hall for international events. On the other side the City Guard - a clock tower in late Renaissance style- is located overlooking white umbrellas of pavement cafes enticing passers-by to stop for a drink. Tempted by the divine fragrance of food and coffee, I treated myself to lunch before making my way to the port to board a ferry for the next part of my trip. As expected, I had to pass through another Venetian archway, this time the Sea Gate –also known as St. Chrysogonus' Gate - which depicts a naval battle on the renaissance panel in its Roman arch on one side and St. Mark's lion on the other.
A visit to Ugljan
Ugljan is an island in Zadar's archipelago, frequented by locals and tourists alike. After a short ferry ride, I had left the stone city behind and arrived in natural dwellings. I walked the short distance from the port- where the ferry docked- to the village of Preko. A small hamlet with a marina and restaurants, Preko is the administrative center of the island and a good place to rent bicycles. From Preko, I headed to the nearby village named Kali for a quick visit to the 15th century Church of St. Laurus along with some delicious fig icecream. With a length and width of 14 miles and 2.4 miles respectively, the entire island is relatively small in size. Its shores are dotted with small fishing villages lined with pine and fig groves creating cool shady corners stretching out into the sea. Although fishing and tourism are the main occupations of the inhabitants, a very old olive growing tradition infuses a Mediterranean vibe to the surroundings. With no set itinerary in mind, I simply cycled around, making frequent stops on the way to take photographs or swim in the clear waters. Ugjlan also boasts of picturesque coves and beaches, most well-known being Luka beach. After a few hours, I made my way back to Preko, returned my bicycle to the store and started the climb to St. Michael's fortress. Its well-preserved ruins are situated at a height of 265 meters above sea level, offering a panoramic view of the ocean with its islands. Initially, everyone wants to make it to the top but the ascent is steep and can be strenous in the afternoon heat. Due to the constraint of time and energy, I made it only halfway up the hill. Nevertheless, the view was beautiful and with it I ended my day on a high note.
Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun
The sea promenade of Zadar these days is a regular haunt for everyone in the city - but this was not always the case. I learnt in the past this part of the peninsula was considered mundane due to a lack of attractions and activity. But that all changed when local architect Nikola Bašić in the period of 2005 to 2008 installed two innovative projects: The Sea Organ and The Greeting to the Sun. Incorporating technology with the natural elements of wind, water and sunlight, these renewable energy projects revamped the very face of this public space. I spent a lot of my time here taking long walks along the seaside and relishing hearty meals in its restaurants. This experience was heightened by musical melodies from the Sea Organ floating in the breeze. I was fascinated to learn that the movement of sea waves and compression of air through 35 plastic tubes and resonating chambers create the random sounds. The entire mechanism is located along the coast under the large marble steps setting the stage for a unique musical concert composed by nature – and where the "instrument" is completely hidden from sight.
In stark contrast to this subtle invention is the very noticeable Greeting to the Sun installation. As I stood on this 22 meter disc – meant to represent the sun - I could not imagine what might happen here after dark. This strange and wonderful creation is filled with 300 multilayered glass plates that collect the sun's energy during the day. Together with the wave energy that makes the Sea Organ's sound, it produces a trippy light show from sunset to sunrise that's meant to simulate the solar system. It also collects enough energy to power the entire harbor-front lighting system. At this point of time however I was happy to just enjoy the technology rather than try to comprehend it. So I simply found a spot on the stair-like promenade where I settled to listen to the Sea Organ while waiting for the sun to go down.
Incidentally Zadar's sunset has long been admired. Back in May 1964, film director Alfred Hitchcock referred to it as the most beautiful in the world, although he never actually used Zadar as a location in any of his movies. These days the promenade is usually abuzz with people. Along with a big crowd, I watched the sea turn orange in the glow of the setting sun. The fading light cast silhouettes of the boats and yachts, while the air tingled with music and the Greeting to the Sun gradually came to life. I watched in awe as the whole disc lit up slowly in different colors with varying intensity. The lights created images and gave the illusion of movement under my feet which seemed to coordinate with music from the Sea Organ. In this moment of wonder, I looked back on the past 36 hours spent in Zadar and realized just how justified all those travelers were, who yearn to see this part of the world. I could empathize with them as I found myself working out how I could organize a next visit to this magical place.