Zadar, the city of sunsets: A local’s perspective

Story by: Ana - Marija Dzaja     Date: 29 March 2021    Image by: Unsplash | Sidharth Bhatia

11 minutes reading time Croatia

You sit on a terrace of a bar on a narrow street between old stone buildings. You are drinking a glass of red wine. You watch as people walk by, chatting and laughing. The waiter approaches you, noticing your glass is now empty. ”Another one?” he asks. You shake your head no. ”Maybe later.” you think to yourself.

The evening is warm, perfect for a walk. You get up and start walking without any real intent, any real direction. You know that wherever you go you will see a piece of history. You can feel it in every stone of the street you walk through. You can see it in the hands of an old lady stringing up her linen, carefully placing it on a clothesline stretching from her window to the window of the building across the way. You can hear it in the voices of young men singing traditional acapella songs.

A narrow street in Zadar's Old Town
Without even noticing you find yourself by the sea. It’s funny – in your short time here you always seem to be pulled towards the sea. The sound of waves is calming. You can smell the salt in the air. The sun has just set but the sky is still full of colors you can’t even describe – words couldn’t do them justice. You start walking back to the apartment you rented from a middle aged man who insisted on having a shot of rakija with you when you first arrived. ”This is how we welcome guests. Drink, drink!” he said in broken English while pouring you a shot.

As you walk by another bar terrace, you decide ”One more glass of wine, white this time.” The night has fallen, and it’s too beautiful of a night for it to end right now. You are in Zadar and you noticed there is no rush here. If the locals don’t rush, why should you?

Drying clothes in this manner is usual all over Dalmatia

Let’s start with the mandatory basics. Zadar is a Croatian town located on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It is relatively small, with a population of around 70.000 people. It is situated in the north of the Dalmatian region. No, the region wasn’t named after the dog breed – it was the other way around. It is believed that the popular breed originally came from Dalmatia, hence its name.

Zadar is located around 300km form the capital city of Zagreb, and around 158km from Split – the nation’s second largest city. This actually makes it a great starting point of your Croatian journey.

Throughout its history Zadar has had a few names. It was first mentioned in 384 BC under the name Jadera (Idassa). During the 2nd century BC the city was inhabited by Roman colonists under the name Colonia Julia Jader. It is believed that the colony was founded by Julius Cesar himself. Monuments of the ancient Roman rule remain scattered throughout the city ’till this day and make for some amazing sites.

Croatia, Peace, Sunset, Adraiatic

Almost all of Zadar’s sights are located in Old Town on the peninsula. The most common way of getting to the peninsula is over the bridge that connects it to the rest of the city. The view from the bridge is absolutely stunning in every direction and is equally beautiful during day and night.

When walking the bridge I recommend walking on the right side, following the flow of the traffic. To be honest I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a bit frustrated with tourist being all over the place, basically slowing or outright blocking the locals from going about their daily business. If you really want to feel like a local keep to the right side and every now and then murmur to yourself: ”Nobody knows how to walk around here.” referring to the people who are blocking the traffic. You get bonus points if you sigh loudly at the end of that sentence.

Impressive architecture in Zadar

I’ll also let you in on a local secret. During summer the city is full of tourists, and it tends to get pretty crowded. The trick to avoiding the crowd is taking the stairs on the left, right pass the main gate entrance to Old Town. They lead you to the top of the city walls known as Muraj. From the walls you can see the bridge and the city port. The walk takes you all the way to the seaside. It’s a win/win situation – you avoid the crowds and have a great view to accompany your walk.

The other, absolutely charming way to get to the peninsula is via a small rowing boat called Barkajoli. This tradition has been present in Zadar since the 14th century. The ride lasts about 2 minutes and gets you directly in front of one of the entrances to Old Town.

Once you reach Old Town, I have a little piece of advice for you – don’t rush. You are in Dalmatia a region known throughout Croatia for its laid – back attitude. Some call us lazy, but I believe we are simply a representation of the old Latin saying – ”Festina lente” meaning ”Rush slowly”.
Many times I’ve seen groups of tourists clumping together over maps deciding where to go and what to see. Trust me, this is completely unnecessary. You really don’t need a rigorous schedule. The peninsula is small and each inch of it is a sight in its own right. Simply pick a direction and start walking. You are bound to end up in front of Zadar’s most famous sights – the 9th century Church of St. Donat, the Bell Tower of St. Stošija, the Ancient Roman plaza, etc. All of the sights are within arm’s reach of each other.

The Ancient Roman plaza (Forum), Saint Donat Church and Saint Stošija Church Bell Tower.

I should also point out that the access to any of the Ancient Roman ruins is unrestricted. It is simply a part of our city. You can freely walk through them, sit on them, climb on top of them, etc. Old churches might have a small entry fee tough, like the St. Stošija Bell Tower. You can climb the top of the Bell Tower for about 15 – 20kn (around 2 – 3 euro). It is a really small price for an absolutely amazing view of the city and the sea you get.

Just having our morning cup of coffee on some Roman ruins. You know, the usual.
Wherever you go you will eventually end up on Riva – a long seaside promenade that ends with the famous Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun. The Sea Organ is an underwater installation that turns the power of the waves into sound which then comes out of small holes in the promenade. The sound is reminiscent to that of an organ. Watching the setting sun while listening to the sea composed music is a truly magical experience. It is also worth noting that Alfred Hitchcock once said that Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world. If you won’t take his word for it, you definitely need to check it out for yourself.

Zadar, Croatia - Croatian sunset

After the sun has set the Greeting to the Sun, known as Pozdrav Suncu in Croatian, comes to life. It is a circular installation of solar panels right next to the sea organ. It absorbs sun rays during the day and turns them into a light show during the night.

My mom and cousin on Greetig to the Sun.
If you are up for some unconventional sightseeing, I have a great recommendation -”Jadera Secrets.” It is an innovative sightseeing puzzle game which takes you on an adventure throughout Old Town. You are given a wooden box to carry over your shoulder (it is really light, don’t worry.) The box contains wooden tablets with puzzles connected to locations on the peninsula. You get your first puzzle at the starting point and then make your way to the location specified in the puzzle. Each solution reveals a numeric code which then unlocks the next tablet. While solving the puzzles, you also learn a bit about Zadar’s history since every tablet holds information about the location you are visiting.

My friends and I played the game in the Summer of 2019. and were amazed to find out how much we didn’t know about our own city. We found a piece of history hidden in a place we passed by almost every day. None of us never even knew it was there. Besides seeing the sights and learning some cool history the game also does a great job of making you feel like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, uncovering ancient secrets in order to find a powerful artefact before the bad guys do. Spoiler alert – you actually kind of find a sweet little artefact at the end of the game.

The two of us trying to figure out the puzzle in front of the entrance to St. Stošija church. We approached it from all angles.
So you’ve seen the sights and now you are getting kind of hungry and thirsty, aren’t you? Well fear not – there are restaurants, cafes and bars all over the peninsula. The food is mostly Mediterranean but you will also find alot of meat dishes, like the popular ”čevapi.” I mean you are in the Balkans after all.

If you want to try out the best local seafood dishes, restaurants ”Foša” and ”Kornati” are the places for you. Be warned tough, those places are on the pricier side, especially ”Foša”, but offer the most authentic experience when it comes to seafood. If you are more of a meat person then I recommend ”Rafaelo” – one of the local favorites with great price to quality ratio. Although it is not located on the peninsula, it is easily accessible via public transportation (bus) or cab, no matter where you are situated.

Frutti di mare

For all the vegans reading – I myself am not vegan so I am unsure of the availability of vegan menus in restaurants but feel free to ask the waiter, even before sitting down for a meal. I’m sure they will be happy to help you and point you in the right direction if they themselves do not prepare vegan food.

With amazing food you need an amazing drink and there are a few things you should definitely try. If you are a wine lover, ask your waiter to recommend an Istrian wine to you. These wines come from the Istrian peninsula and are fairly well known across Europe. While visiting a street market in London, I saw a stand selling Istrian wines and delicacies with a sing that read ”Istria is the new Tuscany”. When I saw that sing the only thought that popped into my head was ”Preach.”

Another drink I would recommend is called ”pelinkovac”. It is similar to Jägermeister but wayyy better. In Zadar we drink it with tonic, ice and a slice of lemon. Ask the waiter for ”PT” short for ”pelinkovac tonik” and they’ll be amazed a tourist even knows what pelinkovac is, let alone knowing to drink in with tonic.

Okay, now is the time for me to tell you about the real deal, the big star, the nemesis of all known dieses and injuries – rakija. It is a strong alcoholic beverage (around 40% alcohol content) drank mostly in shot glasses we call bićerin. Rakija is also the biggest Balkan life hack. You have a fever? First drink some rakija, and then we’ll put a rakija soaked cloth on your forehead. Your back hurts? Rub some rakija on it for good measure. You need to disinfect your hands? Pour some rakija on your hands and clap them together a few times – you are now good to go.

Rakija bottle
One of few rakija bottles in my home. To be honest I’m not even sure what this one is made of. All I know is that it tastes good and helps when my stomach hurts.

We have many variates of rakija, one of the strongest being šljivovica (plum). Try drinking a shot of šljivovica in one go without making a sour face, you’re sure to get mad respect from the locals if you manage to pull it off. If you would rather opt for something sweeter and a bit lighter you can ask for medica (honey), višnja (cherry), borovnica (blueberry) or orahovica (walnut). You can’t visit a Balkan country and not have at least one shot of rakija. It is the equivalent of not having sake in Japan, wine in France, beer in Germany or Czech Republic.

Well, after I told you all about rakija I feel comfortable with ending the article. I’ll leave you with this – Zadar is beautiful and welcoming yet many people tend to skip it in their journeys. Trust me when I say you are really missing out if you decide not to visit Zadar. I’ve been living here all my life, and the city still continues to amaze me. There are things I still don’t know about its history, and I’m sure it holds many secrets I am yet to discover. So visit Zadar and enjoy it just like the locals do – without rush.

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