After Zagreb, I had a spare night until I needed to be in Split to meet a buddy. So I went to Zadar, conveniently located equidistant between the two and interestingly the location of that Top Gear episode where they made fire engines. The drive down to Zadar, right in the middle of the famous Dalmatian Coast, was truly breathtaking – barren mountains, rocky coves, distant islands and water of pure blue. I thought it would be a pretty sweet spot to do some hiking, although I did worry about the practicalities of pitching a tent in the gravelly brush. An adventure for another time, at least.
Zadar itself pleased me enormously. I only had about 18 hours there, so I had to get busy from the get-go. I took the walk from the bus station to my hostel at breakneck speed, rationalising to myself that the less time I had to trek with my backpack in Croatia’s summer sun the better. I only stopped to witness two tortoises copulating. It was weird, especially the noises from the male. After two minutes of committed spectating, I began to feel like a bit of a voyeur and so left the two be-shelled lovers to it. I reached the hostel soon after, drenched in sweat and completely famished, but there wasn’t time to scran or shower if I wanted to see the city before the sun went down.
Bags dropped, hostel pool table duly noted, I headed down to the coast. Zadar has a promenade of sorts that stretches for a good couple of miles along the water, with stunning views over to islands with names like Ugljan. There are loads of cliff jumping spots, courts for basketball and futsal, and open-air swimming pools and bays made from weathered concrete. The whole place was very alive, joyous even, an encapsulation of everything great about being by the seaside (forgive the nursery rhyme). The tranquillity was briefly ruptured by a man shouting loudly in Croatian while watching his car get towed. His position was understandable, but amongst the crowd of bemused beachgoers there was little empathy.
Moving on towards the Old Town – yep, yet another one – I went through a little park and met some cats who were inhabiting some sort of derelict concrete structure, likely a relic of the Yugoslav War. I then came across a quaint harbour filled with small sailing boats at the base of the town walls, of which more than two had smooth jazz on the radio, which I like. The Old Town itself was pretty nice, whitewashed walls, a couple of lovely, sunlit Dalmatian-style churches, an old Roman forum, marble alleys that reflected the setting sun beautifully but were very slippery, a square that for some reason had five wells in it. It was refreshingly quiet too, as I was there in that lull of the tourist day between the beach and dinner where you lie on your bed eating crisps and sipping on Fanta Lemon™, as the stereotype goes.
The promenade proper also was situated in the Old Town, evident from its carefully spaced palm trees and pair of riviera-style hotels overlooking the seafront. It was along this charming stretch that I would come across what Zadar is arguably most famous for: its Sea Organ. You don’t really notice it from afar, it simply blends in with the rest of the pristine promenade, but then, as you approach, its sonorous tones wrap around you and draw you in. A network of chambers and tubes beneath the marble stairs of the promenade combined with the lapping waves of the sea produce an other-worldly, Eno-esque soundscape of interlocking harmonies that simultaneously evoke feelings of reassurance and unease. It was cool for a while but then I grew bored with the lack of tempo change, so I headed back to find some food.
Back at the hostel I had a quick dinner consisting of tomatoes, an entire cucumber and some bread and ham. Newly sated, I got stuck into beer and pool with some other hostellers, taking great pleasure in thrashing an extremely tedious man from LA, albeit being carried by a guy who had competed in amateur tournaments back in NZ.
In order to shift us from the hostel to avoid noise complaints, our hostess brought us out a tray of raki shots before sending us on our merry way. The night was spent in a bar that was actually just a fenced off bit of Five Wells Square and that had a horrible pop-art portrait of Drake on the door to the gents. All in all, Zadar was pretty mint, a chill spot replete with opportunities for relaxation, exploring and nightlife in equal measure.
The next morning, I was sad to leave the city that had so endeared itself to me, but such was the schedule. The next four days were spent in Split and on the island of Hvar, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. Lacking in the charm of smaller spots like Zadar, replacing it with a brazen party culture that was neither interesting nor unique, but certainly overpriced, the pair constituted the most disappointing leg of the first six weeks of the trip. It is what it is. I can always think about the Sea Organ to cheer myself up. In a bit.