Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Adventures in Zadar, Croatia

I was searching for sunny, moderately-priced places to visit since we know our summer days here are numbered. Zadar, Croatia was among the choices listed on the Ryanair site. Without too much consideration, I booked the flight, secured a hotel, and packed a bathing suit and some sunscreen.

We stayed in the Villa Ivana hotel just outside of Zadar. It was more like an apartment, with a fully-functional kitchen and an awesome balcony overlooking the Adriatic. The owners were very friendly and helpful and our stay there was really enjoyable.

Many of Zadar's beaches (including the one in front of our hotel), are rocky. We didn't know that you're supposed to wear special shoes in the water to prevent slipping on the rocks. Fortunately, Villa Ivana had some extras on-hand so we were able to swim without injury. The water isn't as clear as Mallorca's but it was still nice and the temperature was perfect.

The walk into the Old City of Zadar from the hotel took about 40 minutes. It was pleasant enough: walking by the sea, listening to the gentle waves splashing against the docked boats. But it was hot. Oh boy, was it hot. Maybe it's because I've been away from Florida for so long, but I don't remember ever experiencing a heat like that. In Florida, it's usually really humid. The heat in Zadar is arid and suffocating. I began imagining myself wandering around lost in a desert, much like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation. By the time we reached town I was hallucinating about waterfalls and oases. It was very, very, very hot.

Zadar's history is interesting and dates back to at least the 9th century BC. Some of the city walls and towers built in the 15th century to protect against attacks from the Turks are still standing today. In some ways, Zadar feels like a city time forgot. The streets in the Old Town are made of shiny marble and ancient, crumbling churches provide the backdrop.

One of the biggest draws for tourists to Zadar is the Sea Organ. It's certainly one of the most unique and interesting things I've ever seen. Organ music is produced by the natural lulling of the waves. I didn't know what to expect. I thought it might sound weird and inharmonious, but it was lovely and soothing.

Another reason to sit on the steps of the Sea Organ is to watch the sunset. Alfred Hitchcock visited Zadar in 1964. He claimed that the sunset in Zadar was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. I haven't been everywhere in the world yet, but I think he was onto something. It was truly breathtaking.

We spent the first two days relaxing by the sea and walking to the Old Town. During one of our rowboat rides, we met a woman from New York who was traveling with her young grandsons. She told us she was originally born in Croatia but her family moved to New York when she was 11. She met her husband, a fellow Croatian, during college in New York. Every summer they come back to Zadar to spend a few months reconnecting with their roots. She generously paid our fare for the ride and then took photos of us posing with her grandchildren. It's moments like this that remind me how small the world is.

View from Elizabet
For our final full day, we decided to take a boat excursion to the Kornati Islands. There are many companies to choose from for the day trips to islands and national parks. We went with the company recommended to us by our hotel. Our boat was called Elizabet and she was a beauty. There were two decks to lounge on and complimentary coffee, lemonade, and wine to sip on as we cruised over the cerulean waters of the Adriatic.

The Kornati archipelago is comprised of over 120 islands, with many of them declared national parks. The Elizabet was set to dock for two hours, allowing us to swim, hike, and wander around to our hearts' content.

Salt Lake
We first made our way to the Salt Lake, fondly described by many a Zadar native as, "our wonderful, natural phenomenon! You must see!" The walk to the lake wasn't exactly pleasant. The scorching sun beat down upon us as we scurried up a gradually-sloping hill. We were sweating and breathless once we reached the lake. The beach was extremely crowded, with beach towels and suntan lotion bottles littering the rocky ground, and some topless Europeans sunning themselves by the water. We dropped our things off and immediately slathered on the sunscreen for our dip in the lake. The water was surprisingly warm and we decided to get out and go back to the lagoon area for a proper swim.

The water in the lagoon was much more refreshing and less crowded. We swam around for a while, looking at the fish and coral through our goggles. After that, we hiked up to a lookout point for some panoramic views of the sea. The two hours went by surprisingly fast and before we knew it we were walking back to board our boat.

We were walking at a leisurely pace, as we had 20 minutes to spare before departure. Suddenly everyone began getting out of the water. My first irrational thought was that there were sharks. After I realized no one was screaming, I noticed that the water was getting very choppy. We continued on to the docks and saw that Elizabet wasn't parked and waiting with the other boats. She was a little further out and we just figured she'd pull in once one of the other boats left. We perched on some rocks as we were joined by fellow waiting passengers. Suddenly the waves began crashing in earnest. All of the boats were swaying from side to side.

We quickly realized that our boat was the only one un-docked. All of the other boats were filled and their passengers gazed at us from the comfort of their sheltered decks. By now, all of the guests of the Elizabet were sitting on the rocks waiting like shipwrecked castaways. We began glancing and shrugging uneasily at each other as the waves crashed up over the docks splashing us. Some of the other English-speaking passengers began talking about a new reality show they'd cleverly thought of: Survivor: Kornati Islands.

Our departure time came and went. Someone asked one of the park rangers what was happening and he explained that the waves were too choppy for any of the boats to leave and until at least one of them left, our boat couldn't dock.

We watched as all of the passengers on the other boats were served their steaming-hot dinners, wondering what the fate of our meals were. Eventually a few of us decided to go back to one of the restaurants on higher ground to order some food. I was paranoid the entire time that our boat was going to suddenly come back, pick up the waiting passengers, and leave us stranded at the restaurant. It wasn't a very relaxing snack.

As soon as we saw one of the boats leave, we raced back to the shore only to wait another 20 minutes. Apparently the position that was vacated wasn't large enough for Elizabet so we had to wait for one more boat to leave.

Finally she came sailing toward us, our beacon of hope (for a hot meal) and our savior from the uncomfortable rock-seats. We all rushed forward as soon as the door was opened and our lukewarm dinner was served hastily.

Needless to say, the ride back was rather choppy. I've never been seasick and, thankfully, I wasn't this time. But if there was ever an occasion to hang your head off the side of a boat, this would have been it. We were supposed to make another stop at a tiny fishing village but because we were now almost two hours behind schedule, we went straight back to Zadar. I don't think anyone was too disappointed after our brief, unexpected adventure as Swiss Family Robinson.

Our flight home was very early the next morning. The Villa Ivana family graciously stocked our refrigerator with coffee, bread, yogurt, and fruit so we could have breakfast before we left. Our cab driver was gregarious (especially for 6:30am) and knowledgeable. He regaled us with interesting facts about Zadar during our ride. One thing that is very evident about the people of Zadar is how proud they are of their up-and-coming city.

"Zadar is the most beautiful place in the world!" he exclaimed. "You have mountains and sea and lagoons. There is the natural phenomenon of the Salt Lake! You can go snow skiing and then go swimming in the very same day. We have everything here!"

I describe Zadar as up-and-coming because the ravages of war are still glaringly present. It suffered greatly from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The city was shelled by Serbian forces for a couple years. All of this happened in the early 1990's so it's easy to understand why the people of Zadar are hopeful and proud of their city. As our driver was describing the terrain, he interrupted himself and said, "Oh, and up ahead I will show you a bombed-out house. This is where my friend lost his life in the war." And sure enough, there it was: a building that certainly looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. We somberly gazed out the cab window at the reminder of war's atrocities but we couldn't dwell on it too long because the driver cheerfully said, "And up here-- this is the biggest shopping center for miles around! Isn't it amazing?!"

I think there are lessons to be learned in a place like Zadar. The city and its people have been through countless wars and hard times, but they're all still standing tall and proud. They bond over shared hardships and happier things, like their favorite pastime: basketball. I think the people are remarkable resilient and it was easy to see that from the way our cab driver pointed out a hard reality of the past, but in the same breath, extolled upon the great things happening now in Zadar.

Our time in Zadar was unique and humbling. I can safely say I never really thought about Croatia until I saw it listed on the Ryanair website but I'm so glad we ended up there. I'd do it all over again, just to chat with the locals and see the sunset.

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