Nick Harrison offers an essential cultural guide to Zadar, the city with the best sunset in the world.
The "Boatmen of Zadar" have been rowing passengers across the city's harbour for centuries. Today, as I make the five-minute crossing to the old town side, the red skiff rolls in the choppy sea. It looks hard work for my oarsman, who is from one of the local families that have long run this service. I disembark at Liburnska Obala, fringed by 16th-century walls, and enter the city through the magnificent Port Gate, built in 1573. It's the perfect way to begin a day exploring this wonderful city in Croatia's Dalmatia region, which has endured a turbulent history of occupation and bombardment.
The diminutive Port Gate looks like a Roman triumphal arch and is decorated with an equestrian statue of St Krsevana, a local patron saint who is also remembered in a Romanesque church nearby. Outside, underlining Zadar's rich literary heritage, is the bizarrely muscled statue of Petar Zoranic, the Zadarian who wrote the first novel in Croatian.
For coffee, Croatia's favourite pastime, I head to Narodni trg. This small, busy square was the heartbeat of Venetian Zadar. Inside the Kavana Sv Lovre cafe I find a preserved part of the fine 11th-century church of St Lawrence, while from the outside tables I enjoy the view of the Ghirardini Palace, the 16th-century loggia and guardhouse, with its pink 18th-century clock tower.
Heading east from People's Square I pass the bright orange facade of the church of St Simeon. Inside is a slightly macabre silver reliquary of St Simeon, another of the town's patron saints, commissioned by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, supposedly in repentance for stealing one of the saint's fingers - it is Europe's biggest reliquary.
To escape the midday sun I head to Dalmatia's oldest park, the manicured Perivoj Kraljice Jelene-Madijevke on the Grimani Bastion. From here I can look down upon the 16th-century Land Gate, surmounted by the winged lion of St Mark, another reminder of Venice's stranglehold over Dalmatia in the Middle Ages.
I descend the steep steps into the pretty Fosa harbour, from where a path leads past an array of yachts onto Zadar's Riva, a stunning seaside promenade created after the city walls were pulled down in 1874.
I tear myself from the Riva to visit the Roman Forum - just a few scattered remains, making the real draws in this enormous square the simple ninth-century pre-Romanesque church of St Donat and the vast St Anastasia Cathedral, the largest in Dalmatia.
With the sun starting to set I find an outside table at the Zadar restaurant for a glass of the local tipple, maraschino. The Zadar's building on the Riva was once the Bristol Hotel and from room 204 Alfred Hitchcock famously declared Zadar to have the world's best sunset. It is hard to argue with him as the sky reddens spectacularly beyond the nearby islands of Ugljan and Pasman.
I end my day at a concert from the Sea Organ. This art installation built into steps on the Riva uses the force of the waves to produce a continual stream of hauntingly beautiful music. It is just another string to the bow of this unsung, but unforgettable, Dalmatian city.
DID YOU KNOW?
Georg Ludwig von Trapp, of The Sound of Music fame, was born in Zadar in 1880.
Zadar airport is five miles from the old town. Taxis cost around $A20. Alternatively, a bus meets every flight arrival; the 25-minute journey to the centre costs about $A5 one-way.
- The town's tourist office is at Mihovila Klaica 1 (+385 23 316166; tzzadar.hr).
- Taste some of Zadar's famous maraschino. The drink is made from marasca cherries found only in the city's hinterland.
- Zadar boasts some of Croatia's best museums. Do not miss a visit to the Museum of Ancient Glass housed in the Cosmacendi Palace or the wonderful exhibition of church art in a wing of the Benedictine St Mary Monastery.
- The city has a rich cafe culture. The tiny Cafe Toni on Ulica Mihe Klaica opposite the 14th-century church of St Michael serves great coffee and is perfectly situated for a spot of people-watching.
- The beautiful Island of Ugljan is only a 30-minute ferry ride from Zadar port (jadrolinija.hr). The wonderful landscape of olive groves, vineyards and pine forests is best appreciated looking out from the 13th-century Venetian fortress of St Michael.
- Festivals are a feature of Zadar's cultural life. Most take place in summer, but you should find some sort of event, or performance, year round; visit tzzadar.hr for current listings.
This is a 15-minute walk or a five-minute bus ride from Zadar; all rooms have large sea-facing balconies and there is a small swimming pool (+385 23 337570; villa-hresc.hr; doubles from about $A116).
Built on the remains of a 13th-century "kastel" this four-star hotel offers 28 luxurious rooms, a delightful terrace and impeccable service (+385 23 494950; hotel-bastion.hr; doubles from about $A190).
Art Hotel Kalelarga
This excellent four-star hotel opened this summer and offers 10 elegant individually themed rooms. It's a stone's throw from Narodni trg, on Zadar's most famous street, Kalelarga. Gourmet Kalelarga on the ground floor serves great food all day (+385 23 233000; arthotel-kalelarga.com; doubles from about $A190).
The pick of the many places to eat in the lively restaurant area of Zadar. Friendly staff serve generous portions at tables on the narrow streets or in the cosy interior (Stomorica 12; +385 23 315946).
Zadar's most famous contemporary son is Luka Modric, one of Croatia's best footballers and lately of Spurs. When he returns home, this is where he likes to eat, an Italian restaurant that serves up reasonably priced food across the street from the Riva (Mihovila Pavlinovica 12; +385 23 312915).
This stylish modern seafood restaurant, housed in the old custom house at the entrance of Fosa harbour, must have one of the best outdoor terraces anywhere on the Adriatic; the food is good, too (Kralja Dmitra Zvonimira 2; +385 23 314421).
WHAT TO AVOID
- Zadar is best visited for a cultural trip during spring and autumn as July and August can be impossibly crowded.
- Book hotels in good time as accommodation is in short supply in the old town. You might consider staying in the beautiful seaside resort of Borik just over two miles away, where the Falkensteiner offers reliable accommodation (falkensteiner.com).
- In mid-May high-school graduates take to the streets in their hundreds blowing whistles and throwing flour and eggs. It is all in good humour but if you're here for peace and quiet give this time a miss.
- The Telegraph, London