When we left Plitvice, we realized that our next planned stop was Dubrovnik, some 6 hours’ drive away. We didn’t want to drive that far so late in the day, so we decided to follow the advice of the nice car people in Zagreb, who told us that the town of Zadar had been voted the Best Destination of 2016 by some tourist organization. Only an hour and a half from the Falling Lakes and on the coast driving in the right direction, Zadar seemed like a good option.
The car guys were right. Zadar is a fantastic seaside spot, its harbor filled with some of the biggest, glitziest yachts I’ve ever seen. Far more laid back, however, and to our minds far more liveable than Dubrovnik, with a population today of about 75,000, the town has a well-preserved walled Old Town (substantially rebuilt after both German bombings in 1943 and attacks during the Balkan crises in the 1990s) and the nicest, specifically focused museums we have seen in Croatia.
A moment to explain the name, which, of course, we couldn’t help but snicker at, as sounding to us like a character in a bad sci-fi film. The region has been populated since prehistoric times, with people who spoke a pre-Indo-European language, from which the name Iader–meaning something to do with water–appears to derive. Given its strategic location in the Adriatic, constant waves of conquering people have landed here since ancient times, from Liburnians to Greeks and Romans, from Phoenicians to Venetians (especially those pesky Venetians) and then the Slavs. Each group changed the pronunciation of Iader to their own linguistic preferences, so that by the 16th century, the place was called either in Italian Zara, or in Slavic Zadar. In its centuries as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was called Zara-Zadar.
We stayed here at a guesthouse, Villa Valentina, which I found to have good reviews on one of the online booking sites. We were very pleased with its location in a residential neighborhood, which allowed us to see how comfortably the people around us lived. And very quickly we were able to get down to the ”Centar,” the center of the historical city. We managed to find our way to the old Roman Forum, with its stunning 9th-century Church of St. Donatus, now preserved largely as a venue for special events and for visits by tourists. Painted white, the interior spaces are both tranquil and breathtaking in their simplicity and sense of illumination.
St. Donatus is a perfect example of how medieval people re-used the bits and pieces of Roman sculpture and building materials they found lying around to construct new buildings: one finds little stones with Latin inscriptions embedded in the walls, or a stretch of Roman ornamentation appearing next to a Romanesque pillar. I just loved the feeling in this building.
We only had one day to explore the riches of this town before we headed out for Dubrovnik. But we liked it so much, we decided to stop again on our way back up the coast. This time, we hit all the cultural sites, of which there were many.
We walked through one of the City gates and along the charming narrow streets to the Franciscan monastery, where we saw a nun weeding the steps of the Church. In Italian, she told us we couldn’t get into the Church for some reason, but we could visit the Cloister. There we found several breathless young people frantically arriving to be handed a sheet of paper by a woman who was standing in the colonnade. They were part of an orienteering group on a place and history treasure hunt through the city! The most impressive thing about the complex is that it was built only two decades after the founding of the Franciscan order, in 1221. Here in the sacristy, the Treaty of Zadar was signed in 1368, by which the Venetians had to give up their holdings in Dalmatia (they would come back again many times!)
Our next stop was the town’s Archaeological Museum, right on the Forum Square. We were the only people there. The exhibition designs were quite impressive, with informative labels, and good chronological organization–a real sense of some scholarly effort. One of my favorite discoveries here were the Bronze Age pins made of metal and big hunks of amber, used to hold clothes together. The museum shop actually made some reproductions of these designs, but without the amber.
After a great lunch of seafood in the garden of a small restaurant on a side street (the waiter brought us a book of postcards of old Zadar to look at), we took the waiter’s advice and went to the newly-opened Museum of Ancient Glass. Housed in the 19th-century Cosmacendi Palace, the collection and the displays are spectacular. Money and scholarship have been invested in the place, and the efforts are more than rewarding.
The Museum has active glassmakers working there, giving demonstrations of glass-blowing and other glassmaking techniques. We couldn’t believe the amazing number of glass objects displayed, all of them from the Zadar region. Hundreds and hundreds of little vials found in gravesites, shipwrecks, and at other archaeological digs. The information, most of which was presented in both Croatian and English, gave the clearest explanations about how how glass was made and how glass was used in ancient times. I, for one, had no idea that the Romans cremated bodies and then placed the remains in glass jars. Hundreds of these have been found at digs around Zadar; the Museum includes great videos showing the uncovering of many of these finds.
So ended our culturally enriching day in Zadar. Then we went for a walk along the beach, and through a gorgeously wooded caravan park of the old Yugoslav days. The entire setting of this historically ancient town is so charming, so tranquil, and so at one with the sea that has been its lifeblood since the dawn of time, that we felt more at home here than in the more rugged and edgy parts of the coastline. We recommend Zadar and thank the Zagreb car guys for telling us about it!