Having never spent time in any portion of the former Roman Empire, I was immediately struck by the prevalence of Roman archaeological remains along the coast of Croatia. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Zadar itself is the exposed foundations of the ancient Roman Forum, which are now proudly displayed as part of recreational urban space in the center of old town Zadar. Whether it be foundations of walls, portions of the old city gate, or even fragments of Roman columns that were subsequently utilized in 8th or 9th century constructions, the Roman component of Zadar is striking and most notably related to its role as an administrative colony in the province of Dalmatia.
However, as a living city, it is often difficult to gauge the layout and structure of the former Roman settlement, apart from the predominantly orthogonal street pattern installed by the Romans. In fact, Roman organization of space is often more accessible in the remains of smaller Roman towns or ‘municipia’ that are scattered across the countryside – some of which have been partly excavated like Asseria or Varvaria, while others remain buried and overgrown with scrub vegetation of the Mediterranean environment, as in the case of Nadin. Regardless, the material record that survives and sits on display in local museums is impressive and reflects a high degree of craftsmanship, wealth, and power, as Dalmatia was brought into the empire sometime in the first century B.C.
The city of Salona, which now lies in ruins on the outskirts of Split, was the established Roman capital of Dalmatia, while Zadar and Narona represented other important cities in Roman administration. Pula, a major Roman colony in Istria along Croatia’s northern coast, was never a part of Dalmatia but is nevertheless one of the more impressive examples of Roman engineering in the region.
However, it wasn’t until our recent excursion to Rome that we realized just how much the Roman heartland ranks above and beyond any provincial establishment in terms of grandiose displays of power, wealth, and political might. Everything in Rome, from the Colosseum to the Pantheon to the Forum, was constructed on an astonishing scale and with an unparalleled degree of architectural skill and creativity. Even the aqueducts, which were engineered to bring water from the surrounding hills to Rome, were an impressionable sight. In many ways, such displays were not simply for the ‘glory of Rome,’ but rather, for the glory of the emperor himself.
Returning to Dalmatia, there is one monument that is on par with the absolute power and over-the-top wealth of the Roman emperor, and for good reason. The palace in the city of Split was constructed early in the 4th century A.D. as the retirement home of Emperor Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 284-305. Born in Dalmatia, he simply wished to return home for his golden years. Although most of the palace has been reconfigured, walking through some of the more ancient halls certainly has the vibe of the spacious palaces of Palatine hill in central Rome where several emperors and other aristocratic families called home.
Interestingly, when the Roman Empire collapsed and the ancient city of Salona was abandoned, the former palace building with its imposing fortification walls served as the heart of the growing medieval settlement. The interior of the palace was restructured to accommodate the medieval town nucleus, which ultimately expanded beyond its walls. Today, the remains of Diocletian’s palace still arguably serve as the most impressive example of Roman architecture in all of Dalmatia, and coupled with the waterfront, it continues to be a focal point of the vibrant city of Split.
After recently moving to the city of Split (more on that later), and having driven most of the Croatian coastline from Dubrovnik in the south to the Istrian Peninsula in the north, we have come to understand the kinds of elements that distinguish Zadar from the dozens of other Roman, Medieval, and Venetian cities that stand guard in the Eastern Adriatic. Apart from the hundreds of islands of northern Dalmatia and the matrix of modern, historic, and more ancient monuments, churches, and other buildings of old town Zadar, the seaward facing waterfront, or ‘Riva’, perhaps stands out the most.
The city itself has changed faces a number of times over the past 2000 years, with a well-established Roman colony surrounded by a city wall, and subsequent Medieval and later Venetian walls that testify to the city’s strategic and military role along the coast through time. The most imposing walls, built by the Venetians in the 16th century, surrounded the entire peninsula until the late 19th century, when the seaward facing walls were finally removed and the long boardwalk installed in its place.
While it may be the longest urban boardwalk along the Croatian coast (~800 meters), it is most noteworthy today for its 2005 installment at the northwestern tip—the sun salutation and sea organ, designed by Nikola Bašić. The sun salutation consists of a circular plate with solar panels that light up in various patterns at night, and it includes an alignment of small circular plates of differing sizes, symbolizing the eight planets of the solar system (sorry Pluto!). The sea organ lies nearby within a series of steps leading down to the water and includes a system of tubes through which air compresses by wave action, creating melodious, though somewhat whale-like, tunes.
Check out this great ~4 minute helicopter ride over Zadar—it provides a nice glimpse of the old town peninsula and a bit of its urban character, including the riva:
A while back, Sasha and I came across a number of historic images of Zadar—mostly old postcards—posted on-line. We thought it would be interesting to seek out the original context of the images and take duplicate photos to illustrate historical changes in Zadar’s urban landscape. Although the city stretches back more than 2000 years and certainly exhibits significant change since Roman occupation, one of the greatest changes resulted from the destruction of Zadar during WWII. During the early 1940s, Zadar was heavily bombed, leaving many buildings completely destroyed. In some cases, new buildings were constructed, while in others, the urban landscape was left open and converted to public squares, parks, and other recreational uses. In fact, much of what is known of the ancient Roman cityscape—including the Forum—was revealed after many of Zadar’s central buildings were destroyed during the war and subsequently removed. Most historic images we found date to the late 18th and early 19th century, and hence demonstrate significant change in the city’s urban space.
Last weekend, Sasha, Austin, and I booked an excursion to the Kornati Islands—part of the outermost archipelago off the coast of Zadar—that didn’t quite turn out as advertised. We have no real complaints, but rather wish to share a few humorous observations. Indeed, we had a wonderful time, enjoyed the crew of the boat very much, and were able to visit some very beautiful island landscapes while also gazing upon the open waters of the Adriatic Sea for the first time.
We shopped around a bit and learned that many (most?) companies that advertise day excursions to Kornati seem to offer the same basic package: depart Zadar around 9am with breakfast on the 3 hour boat ride out to the islands, spend two and a half hours at Telašćica Nature Park that includes lunch along with opportunities to visit an inland salt lake and the seaward facing vertical cliffs of the island, and the return trip to Zadar for an early evening arrival. We were quite excited for this excursion, since Kornati—with its 140 or so islands—is described as the densest archipelago in the Mediterranean region.
We were alerted early in our journey that something was amiss when “breakfast” was served: a two-course meal consisting of a shot of schnapps (and not one of those good, flavored kinds!), followed by our choice of water or wine. In fact, wine was available throughout the journey, and though we didn’t partake, we suspect it was complimentary given the number of repeated visits a particular tourist couple had made. We also noted that, although the tour group normally books around 100 people, the boat only seats about 40 for a 6 hour trip. The most interesting observation we made, however, would have to be that our excursion to Kornati wasn’t actually to Kornati. We simply passed by the northern most island of Kornati National Park before docking at the southern portion of Dugi Otok (Long Island) for our two and a half hour island stay. Ironically, these are the types of things that made our visit to “Kornati” more memorable!
Traveling is always a richer experience when you can communicate with the local people. Greg and I both feel presumptuous speaking English while abroad, so we began our study of the Croatian language (hrvatski) before leaving the U.S. We were very lucky to receive help from a retired University of Maine language professor who is from Croatia. She generously gave her time and helped us with the alphabet, pronunciation, and vocabulary. When we arrived in Zagreb we found that many Croatians speak English, making it easy for us to get around. However, neither of us wanted to depend on English, so we have been working with a wonderful tutor here in Zadar.
Perhaps it’s true that you do not learn a language until you have made ten thousand mistakes. If that’s the case, then we are well on our way! One day, while shopping in the market, I attempted to ask for a quarter kilo of onions. I realized I had not employed my hrvatski correctly when the vendor started filling the second bag! I tried again, “četiri kilo?” I asked. “Da” (yes), she said. Then it hit me: I was asking for four kilos (about 9lbs) of onions instead of a quarter kilo. I quickly corrected myself, “četvrt kilo,” and thankfully she laughed and sold me a quarter kilo of onions. Despite the fact that I almost had to carry 9lbs of onions home, in the mistake department Greg is king. He has managed to introduce me as his husband, as well as exclaiming, “volim se!” (I love myself) instead of “vidimo se” (see you later) when saying farewell to our tutor.
Croatians themselves seem well aware of the complexity of their language. When we share with someone here that we are trying to learn Croatian, without fail we receive a friendly smile and a somewhat sarcastic “Good luck!” Mostly we find that people are appreciative of a foreigner attempting to speak their language (even if we do butcher it in the process). We stumble quite a bit in our communications, but everyone here has been very patient with us, allowing us to take our time to find the right words and responding slowly or, in many cases, in English so that we will understand.
Across the Zadar channel lies Ugljan Island, a long and narrow strip of land with rolling hills and a few interior valleys. The island’s highest point, rising to an elevation of 249 meters above sea level (817 ft), is easily visible from Zadar but is made more apparent yet by the giant radio tower that crowns its summit. Actually, the real jewel of the peak lies not in its communicative powers in the present, but rather in its strategic location in the past, evidenced by the centuries-old stone fortress that currently encloses the tower, the fortress of Sv. Mihovil, or St. Michael.
To visit the site, we set out early on foot to catch a ferry from Zadar to Preko, and proceeded to follow a narrow road up and over a small set of hills, across an interior plain predominantly covered with olive groves and undoubtedly centuries-old field walls, and up a steep switchback path to the summit. Fortunately, most of the path was paved with asphalt or cobblestones, since I had the unfortunate pleasure of pushing Austin’s Jeep stroller to the top. We made the journey from the ferry to the fortress in a couple of hours and enjoyed lunch with a view that was well worth the effort.
From what I gather, little is known of the history of the fortified structure, but archaeologists here at the university suspect the foundation may date to the 13th century, with probable renovation and reinforcement by the Venetians sometime between the 15th and 18th centuries. Regardless of its history, the view from the summit is spectacular and offers sweeping views of much of the island, Zadar to the east, and dozens of Adriatic islands to the west.
We descended with nice afternoon views, took the ferry back to Zadar, picked up some tortellini from a local trattoria, and walked home to complete the 9 mile journey (round trip). Let me just conclude by giving a plug for the Jeep stroller. If you are in the market, get the Jeep—it’s for gettin’ around.