We didn’t plan to visit Zadar. It was the closest city to Paklenica National Park that Katy wanted to hike and it seemed like a better alternative to the seasonal climber village outside the park where I would be trapped in what appeared to be a week of cold deluge predicted by the weather app. But we both ended up feeling very comfortable there and were pleasantly surprised at the mix of modern and ancient the city had managed to cobble together in the aftermath of a history that seemed determined to destroy it.
The bus picks us up by the side of the road outside of Plitvice Lakes the day before and we speed towards Zadar first through rolling hills and farmland then on thin treacherous roads piercing mountain clouds and down slowly to the sea. Zadar is another ancient port city much like Pula with a fortified Old Town jutting out into the sea on a peninsula that’s geared towards tourists with the regular town spreading out and around the bay. The bus station is a bit in the city so we hoof it to Old Town for about 25 minutes and meet our AirBnB host at a cafe.
At first Zadar comes across as metropolitan, a welcome change after the 60’s summer camp vibe of off-season Plitvice and our fullboard meals. But it’s soon obvious that Zadar isn’t quite as bustling as Pula. It’s about 75,000 people and the town seems to be struggling a bit. The areas between Old Town and the bus station are pretty run down consisting primarily of large soviet era block housing in varying states of disrepair. There’s a mall (we saw the new Terminator movie there) but it’s a bit run down too and quite a few older gentlemen sitting around in the middle of the day with hard faces and not too many smiles to share. I didn’t get out into the areas opposite to Old Town so I might have gotten an unbalanced perception. But the locals we had extended conversations with all seemed good humored and friendly and I knew there was a local community just out of my reach.
Zadar has a very complicated past and has changed hands more times than I can keep track of. It’s been around. And it seems that just about everyone has attacked or bombed this small little city into oblivion. The allied forces bombed Zadar for over a year in 1943 destroying 80% of the buildings and killing 4,000 of the 20,000 residents. Even as recently as the mid 90’s the city was bombarded by artillery in the Homeland War. Almost everyone has left it’s mark. But the city persists and has a resilient charm about the place.
Old Town was pretty fun. We snagged a primo spacious modern apartment with a big tub and a nice bed right beside the big bell tower (with these great zombie-proof roll down metal shades that blocked 100% of the light). Most of the restaurants and shops were still open in early November with a few but not many tourist groups walking about. There are some old churches and towers, roman ruins (or what’s left of them), cool town gates and walls. But Zadar seems to have embraced a more modern stance than many of the cities we’ve been to so far. Including one of the main attractions. At the tip of the peninsula a sea powered organ was created by architect Nikola Bašić in 2005 that converts wave energy to an organ like sound. It’s pretty cool for any modern town. The subsequent light installation by the same artist in 2008 collects solar energy and turns it into a fantastic light show across a 22 meter diameter LED panel reminiscent of a Burning Man installation.
Luckily the allied bombers left a few bits and pieces of Old Town to explore. But not all that much. The Roman Forum was reduced to bits. But there’s still a few old churches and the surrounding fortifications and gates are still up. The city plan still follows the roman plan and the streets are still shiny white stone. There’s still a charm and I enjoyed walking around the streets and exploring. It’s not Rovinj or even Split. But that’s ok. The food was good, the people were nice, and we had a really good time just chilling out in Zadar’s Old Town.
Outside of Old Town
Outside of Old Town things get a bit more sketchy. I never felt unsafe but the buildings are run down and the graffiti is a bit thicker. Lots of empty businesses. Honestly it reminds me of my home in the rust belt. A bit of decline contrasted with a higher water mark of some older better days.
Signs of war
I also noticed quit a few buildings pocked with holes that looked suspiciously like bullet and artillery holes. Both through Old Town and seemingly everywhere in town, across apartment walls and down alleys. No one was trying to hide the bad shit that’s gone down here. But that was a different time. And yet not that long ago at all.
A few places worth checking out
Our AirBnB host was a charming guy who seemed to know a thing or two about food in town and quickly added a few bookmarks to my googles maps to check out later. That coupled with some searches on cheap eats and traditional food, we had all the options we needed for great food every night.
Snack Cafe Mario
This place came recommended as a cheap eat and it was. Packed with jovial Italian tourists, you get the amazing view of the square for free. We each got a margarita pizza and a beer for about $8.50 each. And it was pretty good. I really wanted sausage but I wanted to keep with the affordable spirit and took the lunch deal. Located right by the main entry gate to Old Town.
This place was recommended by our AirBnB host and we ate here twice for lunch and dinner. A little more upscale with an Italian and French slant. Great food. Pretty plates. Good wine. Reasonable prices. A great choice for old town that typically has higher prices with lower quality food.
Buffet Kod Stipe
Another recommendation by our host as a local spot. It’s about a 40 minute walk from our apartment (should have Ubered) out in a residential. Apparently locals eat their large meals at breakfast and lunch. No one mentioned this. So by the time we make it over for dinner the place is deserted and only serving about 20% of their menu. But what was available was tasty and the prices were fantastic. I wish we’d been able to go here for lunch.
Pet Bunera was also right at the main gate. A romantic spot serving traditional fare. I got the pasticada which was much better than my first attempt and Katy stuck with a light seafood risotto. And reasonable prices for Old Town. Entrees were around 100-150kn for most things. Seafood was at market price. We enjoyed our meal under the patter of rain on the tin roof.
I wanted to have dinner here but ran out of time. It’s also in the main square by the front but was highly rated. They specialize in local food with a menu of tourist dishes and a blackboard of local traditional dishes in Croatian. I grabbed a plate of truffle gnocchi which were soft and pillowy and delicious for 105kn for lunch one day. I assume everything else would be as delicious.
A sandwich I made
I also made this tasty sandwich with an olive mortadella, edamer cheese, and ajvar that local bright red spread they put on civapi. I mean, I know it’s just a crappy sandwich. But I love mortadella and you can buy this stuff everywhere here. I love all of the emulsified sausage family and I think it gets a bad rap. I even think bologna gets a bad rap and somehow I’m going to change that. I used to really love the overly processed square thin sliced plastic packs of “olive loaf” my mom would bring home from the store for school lunches. Even when my friends would make fun of it. Delicious is delicious. And I’m delighted to stumble my way through some language complications to order 100g of olive mortadella to snack on late at night or the occasional hasty apartment lunch. Respect.