During the previous eight days in Croatia, we had explored the atmospheric Zagreb, the lovely northern town of Varaždin, the charming coastal and hilltop towns of the Istrian peninsula and the magnificent Plitvice Lakes National Park. On the ninth day of our trip, we finally arrived in the region that is Croatia’s biggest claim to fame as a tourist destination – the Dalmatian Coast. A long stretch of rugged coastline, hundreds of big and small islands, world-famous beaches, ancient and medieval architecture and several UNESCO World Heritage sites makes Dalmatian Coast attract millions of tourists every year. In addition to all this, there is another factor that has helped increase the popularity of the Dalmatian coast immensely in the last few years. This factor is the most popular TV show in recent times – Game of Thrones – which was shot extensively in various cities of Dalmatian Coast, especially Dubrovnik. So now, the Game of Thrones fans have also added to the regular influx of tourists.
ARRIVAL IN ZADAR
After a two hour drive from Plitvice, we reached Zadar, our first city of Dalmatian Coast, at 11:20. We decided to first check into our apartment and then proceed with the sightseeing. Our apartment, situated in a large residential building, was modern, spacious, sparkling clean and one of the best of our entire trip. We dumped our bags in the apartment and left for the old town of Zadar which was just 10 minutes away on foot.
WALLS, GATES AND CHURCHES
Zadar is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited Croatian city. Due to its strategic location on the eastern Adriatic coast, it has been a significant centre of trade since the Roman era. The numerous structures belonging to different periods in the old town of Zadar are a testament to the importance of Zadar over the centuries.
The old town of Zadar, just like its counterparts of Rovinj and Poreč, is situated on a peninsula which was first fortified with walls and towers by the Romans. In the 16th century, facing the threat of guns and cannons of the Ottomans, the Venetian rulers of Zadar decided to build new fortifications. After almost half a decade of construction of walls, bastions, gates, moats and a fortress, Zadar became the largest fortified city in Dalmatia. These impressive Venetian fortifications, which surround the city on three sides today, were accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. Unlike some other Dalmatian towns which have left their walls untouched, Zadar has integrated them into the city by building parks, promenades and roads on the top of the walls and bastions.
Apart from the usual land route, the narrow peninsula containing the old town of Zadar is also connected to the mainland by a bridge which was constructed in 1962. We took this bridge to reach the historic centre of Zadar. The bridge provided a fantastic view of Zadar’s walls that spread out before us. Among the many gates that provided access to the old town, one – Bridge Gate from mid 20th century – was directly opposite to the bridge. We did not enter from this gate and continued walking along the walls. After a few minutes, we reached our designated gate of entry – the Sea Gate. This gate was built by the Venetians in 1573 to celebrate a victory over the Ottomans. Prominent among the decorative elements on this gate is a relief of Venetian lion on the outer side and a relief of St. Chrysogonus – the patron saint of Zadar – on the inner side.
We entered the old town through the Sea Gate and almost immediately came upon the large 12th century St. Chrysogonus Church. This was one of the many churches that we saw in Zadar and like most of the others, it was closed because the day on which we visited Zadar was a Sunday. In fact, the churches in Zadar’s old town were so numerous that we started wondering whether building churches was actually a hobby of Zadar’s citizens.
A few metres down the street from St. Chrysogonus Church was the ancient and medieval core of Zadar – the Zeleni Square. This square was the site of the most important monuments of Zadar. First and foremost among them was the Roman Forum – the largest on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. According to the stone inscriptions, the construction of the forum started under Roman Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC and got completed in the 3rd century AD. The ruins of the forum, which include foundation walls, paving stones, columns, capitals and sarcophagi, were laid out neatly in the square. Right across the forum was the 11th century Church and Monastery of St. Mary which houses an exhibition of religious art and the Archaeological Museum of Zadar.
One building that stood out on the square, and has become a symbol of Zadar due to its unique cylindrical shape, was the Church of St. Donatus. This imposing building was built by Zadar’s Bishop Donatus in the 9th century. Surprisingly, we found the church open so we bought the tickets (slightly expensive) and went inside. We immediately regretted our decision because the church was almost entirely bare from inside. This, we later got to know, was because the church had stopped serving as a place of worship in 1798 and since then, had functioned as a warehouse, a wine cellar and a museum. In the past half a century or so, due to its excellent acoustics, it has been used as a concert venue in summers. Not willing to waste our money, we wandered around the two floors of the church for some time before exiting. Later in the afternoon, while wondering why the tickets to an empty building were so expensive, we realized those tickets also provided entry to the archaeological museum. The twinge of regret we felt at this realization did not last long as we were anyways not very interested in the museum.
Just behind the Church of St. Donatus, and adjacent to the town’s main street Kalelarga, was the most important church of Zadar – St. Anastasia’s Cathedral. The cathedral, built during the 12th and 13th centuries, is the largest church in entire Dalmatia. The church’s exterior facade, adorned with sculptures and rose windows, was certainly the most beautiful of all the churches that we saw in Zadar. The ground and first floor of the bell tower were built in 1452 and the upper floors in the late 19th century.
Few other churches that we passed by while exploring the old town were the 13th century Church of St. Francis, 16th century Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet and the little Church of Our Lady of Health built in 1703.
A HISTORIC SQUARE
We had had more than our fill of the churches so we proceeded to the bustling People’s Square in the middle of the old town. The historic square was ringed by important buildings on all sides. The most notable was the late 16th century City Guard with its clock tower. Opposite the City Guard was the City Loggia which too dates from the same period. Having served as a courthouse and a library during different periods in history, it is currently used as an exhibition space. Apart from these two historic structures, the square was also the site of the City Hall. In the centre of the square was a street light pole which is a replica of the one from 1894.
After walking around the old town of Zadar for close to two hours, we sat down at Restaurant Skoblar near the Five Wells Square to refuel ourselves.