The ancient capital of Dalmatia, ZADAR is one of the runaway success stories of the Croatian Adriatic, combining ancient and medieval heritage with a bustling café life, a vibrant bar scene and the kind of go-ahead architectural projects (such as the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun) that give the seafront the appearance of a contemporary art installation.
Zadar was bombed no fewer than 72 times by the Allies during World War II, and it lacks the museum-like quality of so many Adriatic towns, displaying instead a pleasant muddle of architectural styles, where lone Corinthian columns stand alongside rectangular 1950s blocks, and Romanesque churches are jostled by glass-fronted café-bars. With a population of around 75,000, the city boasts an international airport and is also the main ferry port for northern Dalmatia, and Zadar’s growing popularity with visitors ensures that the central streets are swarming with life from June to September. Outside that time, the city’s invigorating café culture is left very much to the locals.
Long held by the Venetians (who called it Zara), Zadar was for centuries an Italian-speaking city, and its university, established by Dominican monks in 1396, claims to be the oldest in Croatia. Ceded to Italy in 1921 under the terms of the Treaty of Rapallo, the town became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1947 – when most Italian families were expelled. Postwar reconstruction resulted in something of an architectural mish-mash, and further damage was meted out in 1991, when the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), supported by Serbian irregulars, came close to capturing the city. Despite the UN-sponsored ceasefires of 1992, Zadar remained exposed to Serbian artillery attack right up until 1995, when the Croatian offensives finally drove them back.
After spending the 1990s in the economic doldrums Zadar became an important focus for investment from around 2000 onwards, when bars and clubs mushroomed and the city’s airport became a major entry point for tourists visiting the middle Adriatic.