I had Croatia in my travel goals for years. A friend with Croatian heritage had once showed me pictures of his family vacation. I was floored. Crystal clear blue waters and lush greenery marked the landscape. He mentioned that it was also "dirt cheap". I am glad to report that Croatia is just as beautiful as I expected and as affordable as my friend mentioned. Most of the time I felt that I was robbing restaurants, museums, and stores because their pricing was so freakin' affordable. Croatia became a part of the EU this year, and I am sure that will affect some of its affordability. That being said, get yourself over there quickly. I hate to do this to France, but Croatia may have the best swimming water in the world. It also has some amazing Roman ruins, gorgeous churches, and amazing produce. The wine....there's a little work to be done there (no matter how many Pošips I tried I was unable to find one I loved), but I am sure with a little more time they will get it right.
During my short time in Croatia, I noticed just how varied the country is. The north is green and tall, an area where wine is made and fruit grows abundantly. The country is dotted by Baroque castles erected by the Hapsburgs. Then, there is the Dalmatian coast where the sun is king and olive trees give way to some of the most delicious olive oil I have ever tasted. This area is more similar to Italy, and rightly so, since Italy (Venice in particular) was a constant presence in Croatia's past.
Croatia has seen its share of heartache. It enjoyed a time of peace after the Hapsburgs beat the Turks, but that only lasted until the First World War. Croatia and its people suffered a lot, but right now they are undergoing a renaissance.
I started my Croatia adventure in Zadar because there was a direct flight there from Brussels. My true objective was to make it to Dubrovnik (I have an unhealthy obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire - I tend to spew crack pot theories on a daily basis) and the Salona in Split. I was thrilled to have started off in Zadar and slightly disappointed in Dubrovnik (why would you EVER let huge cruise ships into such a gorgeous small city - WHY???) but that is a conversation for another post.
Zadar sits on the Adriatic sea. This automatically gave the city points. I am a water baby and Zadar's waters are warm, calm, and super clean. Antonio and I had rented a Airbnb off the square from the Roman forum. Daily, we'd join locals off the pier for a dip in Zadar's clear, cool waters. When we got hungry, we'd hit up a Konoba (tiny restaurants that are meant to cater to the fishing crowd) to grab some food (nothing was amazing, but the food served its purpose and the ingredients were top notch), and then we'd wander Zadar's marble streets so I could check out the churches and ruins. Groups of men would fill the streets with music, wedding parties lasted for hours, church bells competed with each other for the attention of the city's residents. I really cannot describe the charm of this tiny little city, but I can tell you, I could easily have spent more time there.
WHAT SHOULD YOU SEE?
The Roman Forum: If you're at the forum you can see quite a lot of attractions, but perhaps the best part of being here is the unadulterated access to see Roman ruins. I ask you to be gentle. They are quite old and touching them will only harm them for future generations. The forum was founded by the first Emperor Augustus, the site was the location for a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. There's a “Pillar of Shame“ where people were chained and pilloried for punishment. One still sees remains of a colonnade that I assume corresponded with the Roman shopping area. Like I said, although there are no signs or regulations about you touching the ruins, I ask you not to. Enjoy them and ascertain that future generations are able to do so. This spot looks lovely at night and it is surrounded by St. Donatus' church, St. Anastasia's Bell Tower, St. Mary's Church, and the Zadar Archeological Museum.
Saint Donatus Church: As you know, I have a thing for churches and I think this is one of my favorites so far. Saint Donatus is a pre-Romanesque church which has a typical circular Byzantine floor plan. The church is from the 9th Century when it was called the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was renamed 600 years later in honor bishop Donatus who erected the church. The church is no longer in service as a place of worship, but you can visit and enjoy its beauty. The church also sits next to (and on top of) the old Roman forum. Really makes you think about the change of the religious and political scene in Croatia. if you happen to be in Zadar in July/August, you'll probably get to enjoy the International Festival of Medieval Renaissance Music which is held in St. Donatus because of the awesome acoustics. When we visited the church, it was empty - I loved the experience. Admission $3.50 (20 HRK)
Cathedral of St. Anastasia: This Romanesque Cathedral (random piece of knowledge for you - A cathedral is a Christian church which contains the cathedra - the seat of a bishop) hails from the 12th Century. It contains the relics of the martyr St. Anastasia, who perished at Diocletian's hands. If you're feeling active (or want to work on those buns of steel) head up its bell tower - it's kinda cool because it is unattached and the views of the city are spectacular from there. It's free to get in, so enjoy St. Anastasia's rose windows and arches.
Church of Saint Chrysogonus: This is Romanesque church was named for the patron saint of Zadar. The bell tower and the church were originally part of a Benedictine abbey from the middle ages that no longer stands. It has some really cool warrior saints in Contrapposto and some incredible frescoes.
St. Mary's Church: This Benedictine church was founded by a noblewoman of Zadar. It has a gorgeous baroque interior and Romanesque style frescoes. The convent that is nextdoor has an awesome collection of religious art. It also has a cloister, just ask the nuns to see it. They take care of the grounds and are proud to show the church's treasures.
Spiridon Brusina: There's a gorgeous bronze sculpture of a man looking into a seashell. Even if you know nothing about the man, you will figure out he was revered and that he loved nature. Spiridon Brusina was a Croatian zoologist, (animal biologist), faunist (studied the distribution of animals), palaeontologist (study of fossils), AND malacologist (he studied mollusks). He was the founder of the Croatian National Zoological Museum. It is said if you rub his nose, he'll bring you good luck. That's why it is so shiny.
Church of St Mary “de Pusterla” Stomorica: Perhaps one of the most interesting structures in the city. This is an Early Christian church from the 11th Century. When looked at from above, its circular apses make it look like a key. I didn't get too much history on this one, but I'll keep looking.
The Venetian Land Gate: Zadar was once Venetian land, to be more exact - a city fortress. This gate is a sign of Venice's foothold over the city. This entrance to the old city, located at the Foša harbor is full of symbolism. It was built as a triumphal arch by Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli in 1543. The larger entrance in the middle was for vehicles, and the two smaller ones were for pedestrian traffic. The skulls above warned enemies of the danger that lurked should they attack the city. Interestingly enough, the Venetian architect allowed the image of Zadar's patron, St. Chrysogonus (depicted as an equestrian figure) to remain in the composition. However, he is dwarfed by the attribute of St. Mark - a winged lion - who is the symbol of Venice who asserted their power via this imagery.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Visit the Archaeological Museum in Zadar : When it comes to museums, this one is tiny. But it is also quiet, calm and has a damn good collection. There are pieces from pre-history, Roman artifacts. It is a lovely museum and it will cost $5USD for an adult to get in. They even had dragonglass, you know, just in case White Walkers showed up. It is located at Trg opatice Čike, 23000, Zadar, Croatia +385 23 250 542
Listen to the song of the Sea Organ: This is one of the coolest public spaces I've ever seen. It is just as amazing during the day and at night. It's located near the port. It is made up of a set of stairs that run about 80 yards along the water. There are 35 pipes that make up the organ which sings a song, much like that of a whale, as the tide ebbs and flows as the sea pushes air out of the organ. It was created by Architect Nikola Bašić with the collaboration of hydraulics Professor Vladimir Andročec and Goran Ježina, an organ maker. Free
Greet the Sun: Not so far from the Sea Organ is another installation by Architect Nikola Bašić. This one has a completely different feel. Instead of tranquil and pensive, it demands attention, action and movement. His Saturday Night Fever -like installation is made of 300 glass plates that are on the same level as the ground and shaped in a circle. Below them are solar modules that shine and sparkle in rhythm with the Sea Organ. I was told it works off the energy of the sun, which also lights the waterfront. The names carved around the installation are Croatian saints like Saint Anastasia and Saint Donatus. Next to their names you will see the date for their feast days.
Go to the Farmer's Market: Croatian produce is some of the best. I am in love with their olive oil and if you can get a hand on Croatian figs, consider yourself lucky. You'll want to pick the ones that have the most flies on them (I'm serious - these are the ripest and sweetest). I have a special spot in my heart for the market, my first full convo in Croatian was there with the egg seller. I managed to ask for 6 eggs, be understood, and understand how much cash I had to dispense. BTW - those eggs...delicious. Whatever little old lady you choose to purchase them from will most likely put them in a tiny plastic bag, so do yourself a favor and bring something sturdy to put them in. Make sure to bring plenty of cash.
Go Swimming: Join the locals on the quay off the Roman Forum. Bring some food and leap into the crystal clear waters of the Dalmatian ocean. They are incredibly clean, and the pier stops the waves from the incoming ships. This quickly became one of my favorite spots. Just be careful climbing back up. The rocks are sharp and you can easily cut your foot like I did.
P1130047 from Blanca on Vimeo.
WHERE TO EAT?
I didn't love anywhere I ate in Zadar. This would be my one drawback to this great city. My suggestion, check out the market and cook for yourself. The produce and meats sold there are incredibly fresh and inexpensive - they really don't need much to turn them into an amazing meal. But, if one day you're feeling a little too lazy to cook, these spots should do the trick:
Bruschetta: This is a few minutes away from the Roman square and the church of St. Donatus. Grab a seat outside and people watch while you enjoy the scent of the Dalmatian coast. Bruschetta could not be in a better location. You can pick a seat right next to the key shaped ruins adjacent to the restaurant and overlook the Dalmatian coast. The view is gorgeous. Dishes at this restaurant at simple, but nice. Stick to seafood dishes and appetizer which will cost you around $15 USD.
Lunch was quiet, with maybe 5 tables taken. We sat next to the ruins and ordered a bottle of prosseco (180 Kuna/$31 USD). Why Italian wine? Because I think Croatian wines have a long way to go. Most whites I tasted had no acidity. They were flabby and uncomplicated, so after a while, I gave up and went back to safe menu choices.
We started by sharing bruschetta (19 Kuna/$3.25 USD). I assumed that if the restaurant was named for the dish, it would be a good choice. The bruschetta was tasty. The bread was very similar to the Cuban sandwich bread you can get in North Bergen, NJ (this is a very good thing). Light, crunchy on the outside and slightly grilled. We got your basic bruschetta, the tomatoes were incredibly sweet, the pine nuts added some great texture. I'd easily order this again.
I ordered mussels (90 Kuna/$15 USD), I simply refused to order anything but seafood...I was on the coast. My mussels were tasty, not as much as those I had at T Kapiteinje in Brussels, but they made my tongue and tummy happy. Only 2 were closed. The sauce was aromatic, rich. They were a slight bit too oversalted, but this was ever so slight.
Antonio had the chicken filet with truffles, vegetables, and potatoes (88 Kuna, $15 USD). The chicken was perfectly cooked and the sauce that came with the dish was divine. We could detect no "truffles" but there were tons of delicious mushrooms on the dish (probably a translation thing on the menu). I kept stealing the potatoes off his plate.
Mihovila Pavlinovića 12 in the Old Town of Zadar, Croatia
Pro Tip: In Croatia they charge a Couvert (cover) for bread. If you do not want to be charged for it, just let your server know as soon as you sit down that you do not want bread.
Kornat: This restaurant was fancier than most places we dined at in the city. Its specialty is seafood and it has a pretty decent wine list. Dishes will cost you around $30 USD.
I was thrilled to find Kornat. This was the best meal I had in Zadar, and a pleasure after the many disappointing meals I had in the city. While Kornat has a very similar menu to most of the restaurants in the area, they do it right.
We walked in on a quiet afternoon. There were three other tables at the restaurant all happily eating. There were two servers on hand. Ours welcomed us in Croatian and then broke in to English (there are plenty of English speakers in Zadar, so if you don't speak Croatian - this should not be an issue during your visit).
We ordered a bottle of Freixenet Cava for 150 Kuna ($26 USD), a fair price for this bottle at a restaurant. When our server arrived with it, he proceeded to tell us a bit about the winery and the wine (refreshing - this did not happen at every restaurant we visited). I could tell that he 1) knew his wine 2) was excited by wine.
We had seen reviews for the restaurant that complained of its high prices and small portions. I'm not a quantity over quality person, so I figured that the portions would be smaller but delicious.
They started us off with an amouse bouche: Tuna pate. It was a nice bite and very tasty. Nothing to be excited about, but a nice touch.
For my meal, I ordered the Monkfish fillet in truffle sauce with homemade gnocchi (150 Kuna, $26 USD). I had been to other restaurants in the city that advertised truffle, but what they meant was mushrooms (could be a translation thing). Not at Kornat. Here, truffles meant truffles. Gorgeous, pungent chunks of black truffles. The sauce was delicate and I was glad to have allowed for the couvert. This meant plenty of bread for me to soak up the sauce. The fish was slightly over cooked for my preference, but the flavors were simply perfect. I could easily overlook the fish's temperature. The star of the show; the gnocchi. They were velvety, gave just enough resistance on the first bite. This is gnocchi as it should be.
Antonio got the grilled veal cutlets with colorful vegetables (120 Kuna, $20 USD). He fell in love. They were cooked to perfection, juicy, tender and flavorful. He ate way more than he normally does at a restaurant.
We really enjoyed the meal and would return on our next trip. I think the complaints that came in about sizing were completely unfounded. Our portions were unexpectedly huge. I also think the price criticisms come in because the rest of the area restaurants are very cheap. What those reviewers forget to mention is that you get what you pay for.
I say skip the cheaper places and check out Kornat, you will leave happy, full (and can take your leftovers home).
Kornat is Located at: Liburnska Obala 6, Zadar, Croatia near the Trajektna luka Zadar port
Bistro Gourmet Kalerga: Lovely food at super affordable prices, this is probably one of the best places to eat in the city. It is located near Narodni Trg (People’s Square) and it is attached to the Art Hotel. Dishes cost around $20 USD Siroka Ulica 1, Zadar, Croatia
Pet Bunara: Located near the Five Wells Square, this restaurant has been around for 30 years (they must be doing something right). The space is comfortable and the menu focuses on slow food. Dishes will cost you around $30 USD - expensive for the area, but well worth it. Stratico by "Pet Bunara" Square, Zadar, Croatia
HOW TO GET THERE?
BY AIR: You can fly into Zadar airport, we flew in from Brussels. It's small, and it has some awesome coffee. The food is not so good at the airport, so make sure to bring something to snack on while you wait. The airport is small, so it is relatively easy to manage. There are taxis you can take there into town. There's also a bus you can take, check the schedule here.
WHERE TO STAY?
Airbnb: We had no idea of what Zadar would be like, so we were going in blind on this one. We arrived at night at this lovely apartment where we were greeted by the owner's mom. She spoke no English, but had an ice cold bottle of Croatian beer (Croatian beer is kick ass delicious) ready for this thirsty traveler. As mentioned, the apartment is located right at the main square by the Church of St Donatus (Anastasia), across the plaza to the Archeological museum, and across the street from the ocean. I could not have asked for a better location or better guests. The apartment had a full kitchen, an elevator, and WIFI. It was not fancy, but I would stay there again in seconds. AVERAGE COST PER NIGHT $100 USD