The ancient capital of Dalmatia, ZADAR is a bustling town of around 100,000 people, but it preserves a relatively small-town feel, with a compact historic centre crowded onto a tapered thumb of land jutting northwest into the Adriatic. Pretty comprehensively destroyed in the last war by the Allies - it was bombed no fewer than 72 times - it lacks the perfectly preserved, museum-like quality of so many of the towns on this coast, displaying instead a pleasant muddle of architectural styles, where lone Corinthian columns stand alongside rectangular 1950s blocks, and Romanesque churches compete for space with glassy cafe-bars. Zadar is a major ferry port, so you'll pass through here if travelling on to the islands of the Zadar archipelago - Ugljan, Pašman, Dugi otok and a host of smaller islets. As the major urban centre between Rijeka and Split, Zadar can boast a university and a smattering of cultural distractions, and the presence of big hotels on the outskirts of town ensures that the central streets are swarming with life in July and August; outside that time, Zadar's relaxing cafe culture is left very much to the locals.

Long held by the Venetians (who called it Zara), Zadar was for centuries an Italian-speaking city, and you'll find the Latin influence still strong - Italian is widely understood, particularly by older people, and the place has much of the vibrancy of an Italian coastal town. It was ceded to Italy in 1921 under the terms of the Treaty of Rapallo, before becoming part of Tito's Yugoslavia in 1947, when many Italian families opted to leave.

Postwar reconstruction resulted in the current patchwork of old and new architectural styles, although further damage was meted out in 1991, when a combination of Serbian irregulars and JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) forces came dangerously close to capturing the city. As the country slid towards all-out war in early autumn 1991, JNA artillery units quickly took control of the low hills around Zemunik airport east of the city, leaving Zadar open to bombardment. JNA-Serb forces reached the high-rise suburbs but never pressed on towards the centre, possibly fearing the heavy losses that would be incurred in hand-to-hand street fighting. Despite the UN-sponsored ceasefires of 1992, Zadar remained exposed to Serbian artillery attack right up until 1995, when the Croatian Oluja offensive finally drove them back.

After some years spent in the economic doldrums, today's Zadar has a more dynamic feel than some of the other Dalmatian cities. Major money earners are the tuna-fishing fleet, with most of the catch exported directly to Japan, and the almost totally refurbished Borik hotel development - built in the 1980s, this was given a wide berth by tour operators throughout the 1990s, but looks like becoming a fashionable destination once again.

 

Arrivals at Zadar's airport, lOkm southeast of town at Zemunik, are met by Croatian Airlines buses into town. Ferries arrive at the quays lining Liburnska obala, from where the town centre is a five-minute walk uphill. Zadar's train and bus stations are about lkm east of the town centre, a fifteen-minute walk or a quick hop on municipal bus #5. For local bus rides, pay the driver or buy a ticket in advance, valid for two journeys, from newspaper and tobacco kiosks.


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