Cool, urban style in the Old Town married with rugged good looks in the surrounding mountains and islands – Croatia’s lesser-known Zadar is an Adriatic gem, says Mike MacEacheran
Long before the arrival of the Balearic-style cocktail bars and cruise ships, the transcendent experiences of sailing and island-hopping and the jetsetters on the hunt for the next Hvar – before all that, there was just a couple of churches and a Roman Forum here.
Zadar grew up in the shadow of the Roman empire and, despite its new lease of life as Croatia’s latest mustn’t-miss stop, there are still oodles of cobblestone streets and chessboard squares to drool over between groovy bars and glimpses of the neon-blue sea.
Even if Zadar has been 3,000 years in the making, it doesn’t show its age.
I begin my trip at the Unesco-listed Old Town’s Roman Forum on a sun-soaked morning and, instantly, it feels like stepping into an earlier, more untouched Croatia. Instead of Dubrovnik’s hordes of Game of Thrones tour groups or the sardines-in-a-tin reality of other Roman-era sites such as the Diocletian Palace in Split, here the Old Town’s core is uncrowded and ripe for wandering. It’s an area so easy to stroll, you can soak up centuries in seconds.
In front of the Cathedral of St Anastasia, ice cream sellers outnumber flag-waving tour guides and I’m almost alone with just a handful of tourists for company. Then at the nearby ninth-century Church of St Donatus, I have time to puzzle over the monument from different perspectives.
Visitors can gaze across the precinct to one of the city’s other draws on the quayside – boat charters and gleaming yachts. Like the off shore islands they cruise past in summer, boats around here are hard not to gawp at.
Elsewhere, there is a cluster of attractions. The Museum of Ancient Glass is a tribute to the glassblowers who once put Zadar on the map, and resident artist Marko Stefanac’s top-floor workshop is definitely worth seeing. As is renowned architect Nikola Basic’s one-of-a-kind tubular Sea Organ, which creates an unearthly mix of whale song and banshee howls from the waves lapping the quayside. Fall in line with the promenaders here around sunset and your clients will be in good company; Alfred Hitchcock was so enamoured of the big-sky-on-blue view he once described it as the world’s best.
That’s just a few of the reasons why an increasing number of Brits are visiting this chunk of the Croatian coast. UK tourists have been increasing year-on-year, and last year the number hit 821,000; a 37% increase on the 596,000 who arrived in 2017. With regular flights from London to Zadar, many have already substituted the Adriatic for Turkey, Greece and Spain. There’s also a far more compelling argument to beeline for Zadar, rather than stay in the south. Last year Split recorded a double-digit rise in travel trade, with more than 2.5 million overnight stays. By comparison, Zadar feels like a ghost town.
Smarter: The foodie highlight of the year is the annual Tuna, Sushi & Wine Festival, held each April. Squares are given over to food markets, while the historic arsenal turns into one giant restaurant with special events (sushifest.zadar.travel/en).
Better: Clients who fancy a city break with a beach trip could stay at Falkensteiner Hotel & Spa Iadera, a beachfront property that’s a 20-minute drive north of the Old Town. It mixes a pool, spa, mini-golf and tennis with urban-chic living (falkensteiner.com/en/hotel/iadera).
Fairer: Car hire isn’t necessary to explore Zadar. Buses and taxis are affordable, and clients will get more from guided tours than by driving themselves. Public buses are also far more efficient for traversing the surrounding area.
Zadar is big enough to cater for every kind of traveller. It veers between two differing personalities – the Old Town innocence of antiquity and the vast wilderness of its near-empty national parks and beaches. But there’s also too-good-to-miss wineries and plenty of bars serving Maraschino, the cherry-flavoured liqueur that was first distilled in Zadar (then known as Zara) in 1821 – and either with or without a hangover, it can be rolled into a city break with an extra dollop of beach time.
On the second day, I sign up for a photo safari. Despite the morning’s layer of cloud, it’s a revelation, introducing me to a side of Croatia I never knew existed. “It’s a hairy 41km mountain road,” local tour guide Marin Majo Marasovic says excitedly as we hit the road in a 4x4 that has clearly seen some action. “Then we’re almost off the map and the real adventure starts.”
For the next few hours we rattle about in the back, heading from Starigrad just north of Zadar into Croatia’s largest mountain range. Through the windscreen, the rocky massif looks menacing – all limestone outcrops scarred by time, with pockets of oak bent after too many seasons bowing to the wind. But most striking of all are the people who live here – the shepherds, who open the doors of their mountaintop farms to us for lunch served with fruit brandy, and the climbers who are drawn in by the most challenging cliffs this side of the Adriatic.
In the end, what we get is a punch of panoramas. The first is of Zrmanja Canyon, an old haunt for German film producers in the 70s and the likes of Kirk Douglas and Omar Sharif, who turned this mini Grand Canyon into the American West in a series of flicks.
Then, farther along the road near to 1,800 metres, Zadar and its whaleback islands fill the western skyline. Beyond is far-flung Kornati national park, the indented archipelago from where, rumour has it, Italian explorer Marco Polo once set sail. Locals say the view is the most spectacular in the country.
There are plenty of opportunities for food and drink encounters, too. In the following days, I’m offered melt-in-mouth blue fin tuna, farmed off the western shoulder of the island of Ugljan, and easily visited on a half-day boat trip. Pasticada, a tummy-cuddling stew drowned in wine, is served up at Kornat, a cutesy tavern overlooking Jazine Marina. Then zingy Pag cheese, plump figs and slivers of prsut, Croatian prosciutto blow-dried by the bura (the Adriatic’s north-east blast of air) appear while I wait to order at a nearby bar.
“You wouldn’t get that in Dubrovnik,” the waiter says, with a wink. Coming as it does with a ridiculously large measure of Croatian wine, I can hardly argue.
That, perhaps, is why Zadar is having a moment. It offers the sort of privacy that A-listers crave, the sort of buzz that places farther south along the coast have lost and the sort of devil-may-care food and drink moments that simply make you go “mmm”. Was it enough? Not at all. Next year, I’ll be coming back for more.
BOOK IT: A seven-night Luxe Collection summer holiday to Zadar with Jet2holidays, staying at the Falkensteiner Hotel & Spa Iadera, starts from £963pp, including flights from Stansted. The operator will begin flying to Zadar in 2020.
Flight time: 2 hours 25 minutes from London
Time difference: GMT +1
Best time to go: May to September
Travel time from airport: 20 minutes