[THE HERALD MAGAZINE] Alfred Hitchcock said of Zadar – the stunning Croatian city on the edge of the Adriatic – that it had “the most beautiful sunset in the world”. He wasn’t wrong. The view across the sea at sunset in Dalmatia is amazing and worthy of the praise. So too is the diversity of the Croatian landscape around Zadar – it is so rich and varied that I pack more into four days than I usually do in week-long stay elsewhere in the world.
Ancient Italian-style towns with stunning sea vistas, beautiful waterfalls nestled in protected nature reserves, stunning beaches and rag-tag collections of houses set in foggy green hillsides all sit together. There’s the craggy majesty of the Velebit Mountains, cities forged from war and unstable unions, sea salt farms, amazing olive oil, award-winning cheese, prosciutto and good wine. Whether you are a holidaymaker who wants to pack every minute with outdoor adventures, you prefer to relax beachside with family or are looking for a foodie adventure, Dalmatia has it covered.
I’m staying in Zadar – where culture, history and contemporary art meet – at the boutique, four-star Hotel Bastion. This historic luxury hotel is located half an hour from the airport, right next to the marina and two minutes from the old city centre. It is a sympathetic renovation that combines the battlements of a 13th-century fortress with excellent modern facilities to give a relaxing and restrainedly opulent base for four days of activity in Dalmatia. The town centre is packed with enough Roman and Venetian relics to satisfy every history hound. Short walks away are the sparking sun salutation – a solar-powered art installation positioned at the end of a wide sea promenade and lighting up at night to stunning effect and the sea organ, driven by waves sounding out an oddly relaxing random tangle of notes.
Out of the city and two hours from Zadar is Plitvice National Park. Winding around teal-coloured pools tinted by magnesium while supported by small slats and avoiding the overflow and rushing white water is exhilarating even in the drizzle. Set in over 240 sq km, this protected park is stunning, with 16 tiered lakes that cascade into each other by way of waterfalls. It’s a jewel in the Croatian crown with global travellers visiting to hike, picnic, canoe and spot wildlife (including wolves and bears). There is an other-world quality to the jeep safari into the heart of the Velebit Mountains. Wind tears icily through the winding hand-hewn roadway that looks down on to small green pastures cleared by farmers for use in the summer months, eerily out of place amongst the bare landscape. The journey to the summit takes around an hour but the view at the top is stunning – stretching out to sea and towards islands changing colour in the oncoming sunset.
An hour from Zadar, Pag is an altogether different proposition – a barren looking island reminiscent of smaller Greek isles and connected to the mainland by bridge. Pag is made bare by the the bora – a harsh wind that strips the landscape clean ensuring that only the hardiest plants cling to the earth. Sheep graze on wild sage to give the international award-winning cheese that the Sirana Gligora dairy produces its distinctive saltiness. On our way to the town centre we drive past salt fields – an ancient Pag industry that still generates around 60,000 tonnes of salt a year and is turned into everything from bath to eating salts and exported world-wide.
Pag was formerly a walled city with nine towers but now it is a quiet tourist haven – there’s a small salt and lace museum – with tavernas sitting on the edge of the sea looking out towards distant islands. It doesn’t hurt that the day we visit is around 25 degrees – not bad for April. Everything is different in the sun and the prospect of adding another out-of-season destination to my list is good, especially given how relatively inexpensive it is to get to and stay in Croatia.