From the time we stumbled off the ferry and saw her, the tiny lady in a daisy-print dress holding a sign, handwritten, that said “Sobe,” we knew Zadar would be memorable.
We had been told to keep eyes open outside every ferry, bus, and train terminal along the coast for Croatian ladies holding these signs advertising affordable (ok, downright cheap) rooms in their homes.
That was six years ago and the ferry journey had taken hours longer than expected. It was well past midnight when we arrived in the industrial zone south of the city without a room reservation for the night or a plan. We were in dire need of a friendly face and there stood Olga.
Squeezed into her tiny car with two other travelers and a load of backpacks, she speed north of town while telling us how she came to the port every night to collect tourists, complete strangers like us. Renting rooms in her home was how she supported the family, which included a granddaughter in her care.
As we rode through the dark, quiet streets, I remember being anxious, wondering where we were going and how $25 a night would look and smell. When we walked through her back gate into rose-scented gardens leading to an immaculate courtyard apartment, we were stunned and relieved. I think I hugged her.
The accommodation was beyond our hope and set us up perfectly to experience a city that itself defies and exceeds expectation. In the four days of our visit, we fell in love with Zadar and swore we would return, next time for longer.
I couldn’t help but think about that experience as we disembarked on another ferry for that promised return visit. So much has changed in the last few years for this alluring city. Today it is a hotspot – maybe the hotspot – for vacationing Europeans, thanks in part to Ryanair coming into the market and the development of new hotels and guesthouses. As an Italian friend recently said when hearing about our travel plans, “You do realize that is Europe’s top vacation destination in August. Everybody goes there.”
Natural resources meet creative ingenuity
Within the beautifully walkable footprint of Zadar lies more historic and contemporary attractions than most visitors can take in with one visit. There’s the well-preserved, charming old town centered around a Roman forum built by Augustus (discovered in the 30s; restored in the 60s.) Together with the neighboring 9th century St. Donatus church, the area continues to serve as the town’s living room and public forum.
There are crazy cool modernist buildings sprinkled throughout the city, side-by-side with historic structures, as a result of rebuilding after the destruction of WWII.
There are walks along the beautiful Adriatic-front promenade to pine-forest lined beaches and swimming holes just north and south of the city center.
There’s the peaceful urban green space of Perivoj Vladimira Nazora Park, featuring winding walking paths through lush gardens built on ancient city walls. A runner’s shaded dream come true.
And, there are endless excursions to be made along the Adriatic coast and to surrounding islands.
But for me, the biggest draw of Zadar is the city’s visionary public art installations, two in particular created by Croatian architect Nikola Baŝić. The installations were designed to revive the waterfront promenade and provide a sense of healing to the once-war torn area. Developed in the 2000s, these works became tourism magnets for the city, signaling an era of creativity and growth while serving as a new source of pride for the city’s residents.
Sea Organ (Morske Orgulje)
With this installation, opened in 2005, the artist took a simple concept, using air flow through pipes to produce sound, and created a work of staggering genius. The piece is a giant pipe organ, consisting of 35 pipes built into concrete steps along the waterfront, whose musician is the sea. All day, every day, with every boat that glides or motors by, waves push varying amounts of air into the pipes, striking different chords, creating endless music. The effect is hypnotic. The steps have become a gathering place for visitors and locals to swim, take naps, and meditate. It’s the most peaceful urban patch of land imaginable.
Greeting to the Sun (Pozdrav Suncu)
What’s the next logical step to using natural resources to create sound? For Baŝić, it was to use the abundance of coastal goldbeams to create light. Just down the promenade from the Sea Organ lies a massive work using solar-panels built-in ground (for lack of more technical description,) that spends all day soaking up sun rays and serving as a groovy metallic dance floor for tourists, then as the sun sets a pre-programmed light show begins. A trippy illuminated public space that burns every day and shines bright every night.
Both projects bring people from all over the city together. Both are free, open to everyone, and self-perpetuating. Both are brilliant.
Baŝić is currently working on a new project for the city called Gates of Zadar. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
A place to lay your head
My hope is that with her granddaugther’s help, Olga made the transition, like so many other “sobe-ladies,” to renting her garden apartment oasis via Airbnb or a similar forum. I wasn’t able to locate her for this visit – and I tried mightily – so we went a different route. Since the city was at full occupancy during August, and we waited until the last-minute to book, we landed in bunk beds at a hostel. And, as crunchy as that might sound, it was perfectly grand.
With a dose of creative vision of their own, the owners of Lazy Monkey Hostel, have developed a funky, friendly place for travelers of all ages. Located outside the old city, via a nice 20-minute waterfront walk, in the low-key area of Arbanasi, the hostel has a great porch for relaxing, big communal kitchen, and spacious clean, shared baths. We loved strolling through the quiet alleys past colorful bungalows in this neighborhood and experiencing a residential part of the city.
Owners Chris and Kyle suggested, and made reservations for us, at the acclaimed restaurant Pet Bunara for one of the best meals we’ve had so far in Croatia, and generally went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed the visit.
They made us feel at home just as Olga did so many years ago.
And, once again, we left Zadar with a promise.
We will return, next time for longer.
More images of Zadar: