Julia Periac takes us on a guided tour of her much-loved Croatia:
Northern Dalmatia, a blissful, Adriatic haven for holiday makers and my home away from home.
My Dad was born in the small village of Polaca in Dalmatia, the southern coastal region of Croatia. A decade ago when I mentioned my Croatian heritage people would often look at me blankly. One person did in fact ask me “Is that somewhere in Asia?” Some would ask about the war and the break-up of Yugoslavia. Others would question whether it was safe to go there now.
How times have changed…For the last few years I’ve received countless emails and texts asking for travel tips and recommendations. It seems that Croatia is having a moment with the British holiday maker. Everyone has heard of Dubrovnik and Split and many will know someone who’s been there recently and returned raving about the spectacular islands, fantastic weather, crystal clear waters, the cool, relaxed Mediterranean vibe and the relatively inexpensive cost of high quality food and wine. Europe has discovered a hidden gem of a destination for holiday makers of all types – island hoppers and beach lovers, those with wanderlust, culture vultures, families and sailing enthusiasts.
In this two part blog (there’s simply too much to squeeze in to one), I’m going to share with you some of my highlights and recommendations in Northern Dalmatia, my father’s homeland and my very favourite place on earth. In part one I’ll pass on my favourite things to do in Northern Dalmatia’s largest city, Zadar. Voted European Best Destination for 2016, this beautiful city by the sea is a perfect long-weekend getaway or a day trip whilst visiting Croatia. In part two, I’ll branch out to the highlights of all this region has to offer, from beautiful beach towns, to spectacular island tours, breath-taking national parks, fantastic gastronomy, uber-cool music festivals and an abundance of world heritage sites.
So as the nights draw in and the temperatures begin to dip, let me whisk you away to unspoiled, sun drenched shores, where the air hangs heavy with the scent of fresh pine. The Mediterranean as it once was…
Zadar is Croatia’s oldest inhabited city. Dating back over 3000 years, the city has many times over been built, destroyed and rebuilt. It has been conquered by the Romans, Venetians, Turks and Austrian Empire, and was badly damaged by the allies in World War II and the Serbian armies in the 1990s.
And yet, from the ashes this city has managed to rise up and retain features of immense historical interest such as the Roman Forum and St Donatus church and rebuild itself to embrace a bright new era with phenomenal modern instillations like the famous Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation.
Zadar is less well known to British tourists than its famous siblings – Dubrovnik and Split. But don’t be fooled in to thinking this is a back water town or an after-thought on a travel itinerary. Zadar is a destination to be savoured. Alfred Hitchcock famously declared the sunset here to be ‘the most beautiful he had seen in the world’ and only this summer non-other than Brad Pitt was spotted taking in the sights and enjoying the magical, timeless atmosphere found in this small but splendid city.
Zadar is easily accessible from the UK, with direct flights operated by Ryan Air running from April to November, flying in to the city’s airport from Manchester, East- Midlands and London Stansted. Flight times are approximately two and a half hours.
Alternatively, Zadar can be reached by car, the drive taking an hour and half from Split, three hours from Zagreb and approximately five hours from Dubrovnik.
The weather here is typically Mediterranean, the most pleasant time to visit being late spring (May-June) or late summer (September-October) when you can pretty much guarantee sunshine, warm water for swimming and day time temperatures on average in the mid to high 20’s. At this time of year you can savour the city and avoid the heat and crowds typical of July and August. However, recently, owing to our family ties to school holidays, we tend to visit in the peak season and embrace the buzz and vibrancy of the city in the full swing of tourist season.
Things to see & do:
For us, a day in Zadar typically starts in the mid-afternoon after the heat of the midday sun has started to wane a little. You’d be hard pushed to experience the best this city has to offer in one day, though it is small enough to do a circuit on foot. If it’s a one off visit I’d recommend you allot at least a couple of days here so that you can experience the city fully.
We arrive entering the city via the spectacular 500 year old, Venetian built Fosa Land Gate and wander through the beautiful, narrow marble streets, polished by tens of millions of feet that have passed over them for centuries. The streets are lined with charming boutiques, the odd hidden fashion haven and high end sunglasses shop, little restaurants known as ‘konobas’ and markets where local traders sell exquisite, artisan products – olive oil, cheeses, bread, wine, cured meats and essential oils. Above the shops and konobas are romantic, Venetian style apartments with rustic, paint flaked shutters. The old town is lived in and adored by its residents who are immensely proud of what their city has to offer.
The main square in the city, Narodni Trg (Peoples Square) is a fantastic place for a coffee, ask for the local favourite Bijela Kava (the Croatian’s love their coffee as much as their Italian neighbours) and enjoy a spot of people watching before wandering through one of the city’s nearby art galleries, or the archeology museum.From here it’s a short walk through the pretty, bustling Street – Kalelarga, to the Roman Forum where you can walk amongst ruins dating back to 1st Century BC.The stunning St Donatus Church, an amazing example of Byzantine architecture, sits along-side the Roman Forum and during the peak summer month’s street entertainers often gather around this part of the city. We’ve stopped frequently in this area to watch trapeze artists, mimes and street dance acts, who come to entertain the tourists wandering around these historic landmarks.
Stroll on from here to St Anastacia’s Cathedral, built in the 12th Century. Climb the bell tower and take in astonishing views of the city and the spectacular landscape surrounding it, including the imposing Velebit Mountains. Located on the square at the back of St Anastacia’s church is one of my favourite Zadar finds. Slasticarnica Donat – makers of the best ice cream I have ever tasted by a country mile! I cannot visit Zadar without making a stop here. Expect to queue for your cone, this place has earned itself quite a reputation, but it’s worth the wait and at only 8 Kuna (approximately £1) for an ice cream, you won’t be disappointed.
Ice cream in hand, our next stop is always the highlight of my visit to Zadar. Heading back past the Forum to the edge of the city, where land meets sea, follow the pilgrims heading along the promenade toward the sun and you will eventually reach the Sea Organ.
The Sea Organ is without doubt my favourite place to watch the magnificent and world famous Zadar sunset. Arrive 30-45 minutes ahead of the main event, park up and simply feel, hear and see an orchestra of nature. The installation was designed by architect Nikola Basic, a series of chambers built in to the harbour wall produce sound reminiscent of whale song, driven by the waves. It is a spectacle that for me is quite spiritual and no words can do justice here. You simply must go and experience it for yourself. A few years ago, we watched a bunch of young men, dive off the harbour wall by the Sea Organ, and view the sunset from the best seats in the house.
The next year we came back intent on doing the same ourselves. For those bold enough to take the plunge, I’d highly recommend you take your swimming cozy and a towel, and enjoy the sunset from the sea with an entirely unobstructed view whilst you bob around in the calm of the warm Adriatic waters. Be warned, this is not suitable for young children or weak swimmers as the port is incredibly deep and it’s a bit slippery when climbing the steps to get out. Children are much better positioned on the giant steps that tumble down in to the sea, where they can watch the sunset safely. Again, street entertainers flock here in the peak season, so there’s plenty to keep young visitors engaged. My kids adore this place.
Next to the Sea Organ is the Salutation to the Sun. Once the sun goes down and dusk descends a fantastic light show starts up, powered b y the rays soaked up all day long. The kids love jumping up and down on the multi-coloured square panels. Once again Basic creates an installation that embraces the forces of nature in this beautiful city.
Finally, our evenings in Zadar draw to a close with a bite to eat, followed by a cocktail at one of the multitude of restaurants and bars on offer. The cost of dining out in Zadar is relatively inexpensive compared to the UK. An evening meal with drinks will on average work out at about £12- 15pp (assume about half for children). The cuisine is generally Mediterranean in style, with some wonderful Dalmatian specialties mixed in. Make sure you sample the Dalmatian dish ‘blitva’ – a delicious chard and potato side dish, dressed with the regions fine olive oil. Cheese from the near-by island of Pag is another mouth-watering, Dalmatian delicacy. If you’re there in August do what I do and order tomatoes with everything. The Croatian word for tomoato is ‘rajcica’ which literally translates to ‘little heaven’ and for good reason, ripened by the strong Dalmatian sun they are simply divine.
In terms of restaurant selection you are spoilt for choice but I’ll share a few of my favourites with you. For a fine dining delight try Restoran Kornat, with beautiful views looking out over the harbour this place can boast amazing service and the best tuna I have ever tasted. Restoran Fosa, located just outside the city walls by the Fosa land gate, is a spectacular seafood restaurant and Bruschetta which sits in close proximity to the Sea Organ is contemporary and chic. In peak season I would advise calling ahead and reserving a table as all three restaurants are in high demand.
For a more laid back and casual dinner with a lower price tag I’d recommend Groppo, Calzone or Konoba Stomorica. It’s not usually necessary to book ahead at these restaurants, unless you are a large group.
Finally, after dinner we wander back through the vibrant streets to our favourite cocktail bar which is perched on top of the city walls. The Garden is a cool and contemporary out door lounge, owned by two former members of UB40. The bar is decked out like a secret garden with an amazing drinks menu, cool DJs, a totally chilled out eclectic crowd and a fantastic view overlooking the harbour. We perch here, under the stars and drink a Blackberry Press and a Cuba Libre whilst we await our taxi which comes to take us back to the beach town where we stay about 20 minutes down the coast, Biograd Na Moru… But I’ll tell you all about that next time.