There seems to be no stopping Zadar. This formerly rather frumpy seaside town has in the last few years attracted some of Croatia’s most visionary initiatives: the Garden club and its various festival offshoots; landmark public installations such as the ‘Sea Organ’ and ‘Greeting to the Sun’; and the Arsenal, an arts centre in a beautifully-restored Venetian armoury.
Despite taking a battering from the recession, Zadar’s nightlife scene shows no sign of letting up, with a rash of new bars filling the gaps left by businesses that didn’t quite make it through the crisis. The world-renowned Garden Festival spent six years at Petrčane just up the coast, and since 2012 has been based at Tisno, just down the coast in the Šibenik direction.
In Zadar itself, the excellent Museum of Ancient Glass has bolstered the city’s sightseeing potential. Once the city authorities decide what to do with the notoriously derelict Hotel Zagreb (a promenade-hugging building once patronized by Alfred Hitchcock and other celebs), the city’s transformation will be complete.
Zadar was isolated from the mainland for significant chunks of the 20th century. Italian (Zara) between the wars, after severe Allied bombing, Zadar became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia until 1991. Under serious threat by Serbian forces for four years, Zadar was cut off from Zagreb completely for 14 months during the 1991–1995 war.
Zadar’s isolation has given it a distinctive local culture. It is perhaps most identified with the cherry liqueur Maraschino – you’ll see the sign of the local producers, Maraska, all over town. It is also known for its sunsets, which drew Alfred Hitchcock here for one memorable evening in 1964. His portrait can still be seen around town and he provided inspiration for the Nikola Bašić’s ‘Greeting To The Sun’ installation. The famous red sunset, and prime space atop the Venetian city walls attracted the UK crew to plant the Garden club there, accessed, if so desired, by rowboat from the mainland to this busy peninsula. The setting could not have been scripted better – although sadly Hitchcock never made his film.
Everything takes place in this criss-cross of streets on a tongue of land some 600 metres long and 300 metres wide, encircled by the fortifications, with scenic embankments below and the sea beyond. Cars are only allowed as far as these quays; locals scurry about their business in the narrow downtown streets. To reach the mainland, pedestrians either have to walk as far as the narrow section of channel at Foša, halfway to the bus and train stations away to the east; cross the busy footbridge enclosing the border of the marina of Jazine; or, as people have been doing for centuries, throw a few coins into the ferryman’s open sack to take them over the water.
The most central point of entry is by boat, with three ferry points dotted on the north embankment below the Venetian fortifications and the new terminal on the south embankment.