Spending a few days around Zadar
If you consider yourself a true devotee to quality food, autochthonic specialties and some added history in between, then we have the ‘do all, know all’ information about the Zadar region which will certainly enrich your gastronomic and travel experience. There are a couple of culinary hot spots you simply have to experience either for their goodish foodish offers or for the historical tales that add to the entire experience.
For a sense of local fiesta outdoor market style, head to the geographical region known as Ravni kotari where a fair with a century-old tradition takes place on the10th of each month, in the town of Benkovac. This is the closest you’ll get to seeing locals from inland Dalmatia at their prime. Sure, there is livestock, handcrafted tools and pottery for sale, but the food offer adds to that indescribable experience. Lamb on the spit is consumed like water in the desert. Local lamb and goat meat is per excellence, take the opportunity to try ‘lamb tripe with peas’ or rooster under the ‘peka’, an iron bell hovered with burning wood and coal. What surely impresses is the homemade bread baked in the ‘peka’, wood oven style; and if you happen to get a snail or two that were baked alongside the bread, you've got yourself a winning combination. When going to Ravni kotari, a visit to local winemakers is a definite must. See list ...
Posedarje is a place for lovers of prosciutto. The process of salting and drying meat appeared in Dalmatia under Italian influence as brought by their princes and governors. Nowadays, authentic prosciutto from Posedarje is quite the specific product and it seems that the secret is in the climate. Since this area is a combination of wind and sea, the land and air thrives with salt. The livestock here is therefore primed for quality meat! Once in Posedarje you can see the 15th century Church of the Holy Spirit. There is a stone belfry above the entrance door and a bell is kept inside the church which is only set during mass celebrations. There are no decorations or inscriptions on the bell itself. On the feast day of Pentecost, Posedarje also celebrates its Municipality Day. Pentecost is traditionally celebrated with a boat procession along a nearby island where mass is celebrated next to the Early Romanic Church of the Holy Spirit. This happens to be a true gathering as a large number of pilgrims from all surrounding areas come to celebrate.
Then there is the coastal town of Nin for a taste of šokol which is obtained from pork neck meat. It is treated much like prosciutto; for three to seven days it lays in pure sea salt and is then marinated in red wine and coated with several kinds of spices. The unique aromatic flavours and ingredients of herbs from the Velebit Mountain and the sea air itself affect the drying process and the quality of Nin’s šokol.
The Island of Pag is the destination for cheese lovers. From a place called Lun in the north of the island to Povljana in the south, the traditional production of cheese is characteristic of the whole island. The key factor to the success in Pag’s cheese is in its raw content – pure sheep milk native to the island. The other key factor lay in the aging process. Young cheese matures for about five months, while old cheese matures for about a year or more. In order to produce one kilogram of cheese, six litres of sheep milk is used. Years of perfecting the art of cheese making saw Pag cheese Gligora enter the top 10 cheeses of the world in 2010, and has since received the award for ‘The Best Central and Eastern European Cheese’.
For those who want a real getaway there is the peaceful and quiet island of Premuda. It is adjoined to the tiny islet of Školj which locals have nicknamed Lutrošnjak. For generations they have kept sheep on the islet and built little houses called ‘blago’, which were built in the so-called suhozid (dry wall) technique; stone joined in series without any binding material, and some of which still remain. Sheep were kept on the island during the year and women would make cheese in these little houses, staying there for several days.
If you decide to go to the island of Ugljan, make sure to visit the Inventory Collection of the Monastery of St. Paul the Hermit. The monastery complex was built on the island Galevac (Školjić), situated opposite the village of Preko, on the island of Ugljan. Legend has it that the monastery was founded by the followers of St. Paul in the 14th century, whilst the construction of the monastery took place during the 15th century. The inventory collection of the monastery consists of more than 56 items.
Much can still be appreciated in Zadar with the culmination of natural resources and applied ancient techniques still so highly valued by its citizens today. It is clear that some things truly can stand the test of time!
North of ZadarEmbark on a journey where the two small tourist places of Nin and Zaton will surely amaze you with their anecdotes of history, buildings, artefacts and natural surroundings. Located a mere14 kilometres north of Zadar, these Adriatic gems have their very own story to tell.
Nin - ZatonThe region of Nin has been inhabited for over a staggering three thousand years. It was initially founded by the Illyrians who named the area Aenona. When the Romans gained control, the town had flourished as it was an important harbour in the Eastern Adriatic Sea – the growth and development of import, export and migration attracted merchants and other settlers to the area.
The beauty of Nin and neighbouring Zaton is twofold. Visitors are immersed in the historical treasures of the tourist places whilst also fulfilling the true holiday experience of picturesque beaches and breathtaking surroundings.
The historical town of Nin is situated in the middle of a shallow lagoon, whilst the historical part of the town is located on a small island that has a 500 metre radius. Visitors can enter the old town via one of two bridges which lead to the blissfully preserved historical city gates. The arched gates are the steppingstone to a sightseeing tour of the city walls and the many valuable and historical monuments.
Some of the archeological highlights include two original and reconstructed old Croatian ships ‘Condura Croatica’, (11th Century) that were found at the entrance to the harbour, the ruins to the biggest Roman Temple (from the 1st century) on this side of the Adriatic, the gothic chapel of Saint Marcela and the pre-Romanic Church of the Holy Cross (9th century) which is also known to be the smallest cathedral in the world. The gold and silver of the town as well as the historical treasures provide for a feast of culture.
The other attractions that Nin and Zaton boast are their long sandy beaches which are perfect for that summer holiday. The blue sky waters are striking and the accommodation on offer includes hotels, nicely decorated apartments, holiday villas and small idyllic camps.
A hidden advantage that entices many to this region is the ‘Nin Curing Mud Peloid’ which has been used for medical purposes since the Roman times. Supervised medical personnel assist visitors and patients with therapy. The curing mud effect can be seen through its medical, mechanical and chemical effect. The therapy is performed in a cosy natural environment and it includes bathing and swimming in warm sea water.
As you wander through Nin or Zaton, you’ll find that nothing much has changed over the years; ancient buildings built from Dalmatian Stone still stand in their purest form. What visitors cherish the most are these magnificent historical structures entwined with the natural ambience of mother-nature that provides the perfect getaway.
We recommend that you visit:
Park Solana Nin, Ilirska cesta 7, tel. (+385-23) 26 47 64. Open 08:00 - 20:00. Admission 35kn.
Dar Mar Donkey Farm, Poljica 2a, Žerava tel. (+385-23) 39 01 23, 098 180 51 71.
NovigradNovigrad (literally “New Town”, somewhat of a misnomer), a castle ruin perched on a hill above the town of the same name, also has had a turbulent history. The Romans, and before them, the Liburnians, built forts on the same spot. Some of the walls date from Roman times, but Novigrad has been modernized. It has several restaurants and cafes right on the water, offering nice views of the harbor. Located 31 km east of Zadar via route 502, Novigrad has been the front line in several conflicts. During dynasty wars (1385-1387) in what is now Croatia, two woman of royalty, Mary, the wife of Croatian-Hungarian King Sigismund Luxemberg, and her mother, Elizabeth, were murdered there. During the Kandian Wars (1645-1669) it was an important point of Venice’s defense against the Turks, who occupied the town during 1646-47. When the Venetians retook the town the castle was substantially destroyed. During the more recent war of 1991-1995 after the break up of Yugoslavia, the Serbs also held the town for two years. There is another spectacular view of the modern day town and the sea from the ruins, which are accessible from several trails. The easiest to find (again, no signs!) starts from the top of some wide stairs that ascend from the east side of town. Go right at the top of the stairs and then left after about 10 meters. It takes around 10 – 15 minutes to reach the castle.
Paklenica National Park - StarigradThe Paklenica National Park lies just north of Zadar within the Velebit mountain range. Two streams, the Velika and Mala Paklenica, carve their way through the soft limestone leaving gorges with cliffs up to 400m high, and fascinating rock formations characteristic of karst territory. The scenery is incredible: the interior is unexpectedly lush due to large quantities of pure spring water, allowing dense forests and lush meadows to flourish. Local residents include the rare Griffon vulture, sparrowhawks, chamois, wild boar, brown bears, wolves and lynx.
The park is a favourite destination for hikers and climbers. Over 150 km of hiking trails include the walk from the park entrance through the Velika Paklenica Canyon to the Paklenica Mountain Hut (about 2 hours), though there are many more demanding routes. The park administration publishes excellent maps. Mountain hut accommodation is available – reserve in advance on (+385-23) 30 16 36 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a campsite with a beach (prices are on www.paklenica.hr ). Starigrad, the town at the park's entrance, has excellent pebble beaches and a number of restaurants that offers dalmatian specialities.
ZatonThis small tourist town is a popular holiday destination for many visitors and is located between the two historic cities of Nin (2 km) and Zadar (13 km). It is the perfect escape for a family holiday and action packed vacation because of its great climate, preserved nature, the abundant sports activities available (horse riding, water sports etc.) and for its rich cultural and historical heritage.
South of ZadarSouth of Zadar and following the coastal road you will find yourself in Biograd and municipalities like Pakoštane, where extends several kilometres of coastline under the Vrana lake in its present lively and romantic Riviera.
A royal past and an active presentThe small but lively town of Biograd was once an important political centre of the Croatian state and the seat of kings. Croatia's crowned heads of the Middle Ages were peripatetic – travelling throughout their territories between their power bases – often smaller towns, since larger cities such as Zadar functioned almost as individual states. Biograd was one of these royal towns, as was Nin. One of the most important moments in Biograd's history was the coronation of Koloman as Croat-Hungarian king in 1102 – the first time that the states of Croatia and Hungary were joined under a single crowned head – this time, by treaty.
You can still see evidence of this proud yesteryear in Biograd's pleasant old centre: an obelisk bearing the date 925, the date of the coronation of Tomislav, the first true Croatian king and a figure with almost mythical status. It was he who united Pannonia and Dalmatia into a single Croatian state and built the country into a military power rivalling Venice. The 11th century Basilica of St John was one of the few buildings which escaped after the Venetians attacked Biograd in 1125. There is an early Romanesque Church of St Anthony (13th century), the Church of St Rocco (16th century), and the imposing Church of St Anastasia (Sveta Stošija) built in 1761, with a fine clock tower, a decorative well in front and baroque altars inside.
Fans of history should visit the Homeland Museum, which has archaeological, ethnographic and art collections, and presents a fascinating picture of the town’s colourful and turbulent past. It’s at Obala kralja Petra Krešimira IV 20, tel. (+385-23) 38 37 21, www.muzej-biograd.com. Open 07:00 - 15:00, 19:00 - 22:00, Sat 09:00 - 12:00, 19:00 - 22:00. Closed Sun. Admission 10kn.
Biograd is, however, far more than a destination for history nuts. The old centre is picturesquely laid out on a peninsula with a view over Pašman Island, which you can reach by the ferry which leaves from the town quay. Pleasant seaside promenades are lined with cafes and palms, and are attractively planted with lawns and flowerbeds. To the east of the centre is a large pine forest, within which you can find the tennis centre. The pebbly Blue Flag Dražica beach is just a ten minute walk from the old town. Voted one of Croatia’s best beaches, it’s isolated from traffic but has a car park. You can take part in watersports, and there’s an aquagun and a host of other amenities.
The pinewoods extend further, providing a healthy and scented environment with a number of campsites, hotels and apartment complexes. A coast path through them leads you past more beaches. Some, such as Soline, are shallow and partly sandy, so particularly suitable for children. Be aware that some of the more secluded beaches along the coastline here are “clothing optional”, while at Crvena Luka you’ll find a proper FKK naturist beach. Crvena Luka is a deep bay with a holiday village behind.
Apart from the aforementioned tennis centre, Biograd is well equipped with diving centres, and is a gentle place to learn to windsurf. You’ll also find many opportunities to try your hand at waterskiing. Another activity we can recommend is a bike route which takes you from Kumenat (a neighbourhood just east of the centre) through Crvena Luka, Pakoštane (a nearby resort) and to Lake Vrana (Vransko jezero). This lake, just south of Biograd, provided the water supply for Zadar since Roman times, and is a pristine Nature Park, with a rich stock of birds and aquatic life. As such, it's a mecca for fishing and birdwatching. The land there is very flat, so it's perfect terrain for biking - it's encircled by a 30km bike trail, which gets more hilly and interesting to the north of the lake. There’s a peaceful campsite which has a great fish restaurant. It’s a nice break from the hubbub of the coast.
Other trips you can take are a boat to the islet of Saint Katherine, just a hop away from Biograd’s shores. There’s an old lighthouse there and it’s great for bathing. Ask your host if they can arrange for a day trip for you. And a highlight of the entire Zadar region must surely be the Kornati archipelago lying scattered beyond the island of Pašman. Kornati is one of the most spectacular sights in Croatia, and dare we say, Europe.
Benkovac - AsseriaThe town of Benkovac lies 37km from Zadar, at the point where the rock and scrub of the Bukovice karst region meet the fertile Ravni Kotari plains – all part of Zadar County. The first records of the town’s name date back to the 15th century, when it was known in Latin as Castrum Bencovich. Benkovac is at a central point to all the other settlements of the Zadar region, and though it always had good communications with the coast and the capital, today its situation is even better after the building of the motorway which skirts to the south. Today, what is most painfully obvious to see is that this is a town which has suffered both war damage and economic problems. From its present appearance you would hardly guess the leading role the town once played in the region. Countless cultural and historical remains in the town itself and the surrounding countryside testify to this role. The remains hark back to the Middle Ages, to the Roman Empire and before.
Islands of Zadar CountyDon't make the mistake of missing some of these great places in Zadar's surrounding areas. Many of them are somewhat neglected by guide books, and therefore all the more delightful to discover.
Dugi otokAlthough it's easily accessible from Zadar by boat, Croatia's “Long Island” is rather far out to sea, and so remains one of those few places where you can enjoy tranquillity even in high season. Its capital, Sali, is a simple, historic and attractive fishing town with a summer cultural festival running from mid-July to mid-August. The climax of this is a festival called Saljski užanci - three days of music, fireworks, fresh grilled fish, drinking, dancing, donkey racing and parades in traditional local costume in a friendly atmosphere. The festivites sometimes get rather wild and climax in revellers leaping into the sea in full national costume! Another unique element is the strange and haunting folk music of the island, played on old irons filled with stones, and on enormous horns poached from some poor beast.
If that all sounds too hectic, head for the smaller village of Božava. The exceptionally clean sea makes it a haven for divers. Nearby is a white sand beach called Saharun. There are other sandy beaches in this area on the north tip of the island. Treat yourself and hire a boat and explore to your heart’s content – it’s the best way to explore any island. Beaches away from settlements and people are, of course, clothing-optional zones.
A trip to the Telaščica Nature Park is an unmissable part of a visit to Dugi Otok – it’s within biking distance from Sali. Telašćica Bay is a 10km deep inlet dotted with bays, islets and cliffs. A spectacular saltwater lake lies next to the bay – the water is warm and said to be curative, and you can swim there. Legends abound about hidden treasure and ancient inhabitants with five horns on their heads. More visible treasure is the wildlife that abounds there, from pine to fig to olive to moufflon (a kind of wild sheep). Although the park is not commercialised, there are facilities for tourists providing fresh fish and local wine. Paradise indeed.
IžThe Ceramics of the Island of Iž
Meet a man who has been working as a potter for 26 years and presents the making of traditional ceramics with glass. Petrović mastered his craft from his fellow islanders and is now the island’s last remaining potter, a tradition that has been upheld since 1530. The most characteristic feature of Iž pottery is the mixing of clay and calcium with feet on leather and baking it on an open fire.
On photo family of potters in island Iž, Predrag Petrović - Pepi, wife Jadranka Bukić-Petrović and daughter Nika Petrović.
photo by Tomislav Rastić
This is one for those of you with jangled nerves - a green, low-lying island with only two picturesque villages: Veli and Mali Iž. Veli Iž's Hotel Korinjak serves only vegetarian food, and offers personal development programs including yoga and massage. In the town, you can visit a shop and gallery displaying terracotta pots that have been made here in the same way since Neolithic times. Islanders used to take it to Zadar market every day, and it was traded along the whole Dalmatian coastline.
Ist & MolatMolat is a relative giant of the Zadar archipelago, having 3 – count ‘em! – attractive little hamlets. OK, we got a bit carried away – they are very, very small. With only one ferry a day, Molat really is far from the madding crowd. There are only a handful of restaurants and shops on the island. Molat is covered by low-lying shrubs feeding a few goats and sheep. It’s great to spend the day exploring the pretty coastline by boat. Some of the best beaches are around Brgulje, where the ferry docks.
Neighbouring Ist is tiny, measuring under 10km2. It has sandy beaches, vineyards and olive groves, and is good for sailing, fishing and total relaxation, absolutely uncommercialised.
PašmanYou can reach Pašman either by crossing the road bridge from Ugljan, or by taking the ferry from Biograd to Tkon, the island’s main settlement. Like Ugljan, it’s fairly low-lying and fertile, with olive groves and vineyards. There are a couple of sand beaches at Kraj, a pleasant hamlet with a wonderfully preserved Franciscan Monastery, St Dominius, dating back to the 14th century. Tkon also has a 12th century Romanesque Benedictine convent, sited on Ćokovac hill, overlooking the town. In general, Pašman consists of peaceful hamlets and coves to explore on land or by boat, to relax and enjoy healthy local produce, or even stay in an eco-cottage. If you fancy a little café society, head to Ždrelac, an idyllic little place where you’ll find a great lounge bar, also fine for morning coffee. 2km from Tkon, there’s the Sovinje Naturist Camp (http://fkksovinje.hr), which has lovely clean sandy beaches.
PagPag is one of the most unusual Adriatic islands. Parts of it are extremely rocky and devoid of vegetation, and look like the moon. Other parts are reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns, with desert-like scenery and the odd spiky cactus. It's not what you'd normally expect from the Mediterranean. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
There are many other weird and wonderful things about Pag. It’s oddly squid-like in shape, with the “tentacles” forming lagoons. The sea is very calm here and the water has an exceptionally high salt content. There have been saltpans here for centuries: you can still buy Pag salt normally in any supermarket. It’s completely natural and has a high mineral content. The salty winds mean that on many parts of the island, rather little vegetation survives except scrub and herbs, so sheep farming is the main agricultural activity. These salty herbs lend a special flavour to the animals' meat and milk, which makes great cheese. Pag cheese is highly valued – it’s one of Croatia’s most famous export products. A good Pag cheese is mature, strong tasting and hard, a little like Parmesan. The real Pag cheese is expensive, so don’t be surprised if cheaper offerings disappoint. We recommend being adventurous and trying to get hold of some home made stuff on the island itself. Ask your hosts to recommend someone, or look out for signs saying “Paški sir”. Pag island lamb is also regarded as a delicacy – do try it if you have the chance.
The island’s other renowned cottage industry is lace making. Since, once upon a time, there was nothing better for the women of Pag to do than keep an eye on a few sheep, watch salt dry and wait for hubby to come home with the day’s catch, they kept idle thumbs at bay by lace-making. Over the centuries they evolved a style so ethereal that it is considered one of Croatia’s most highly prized products. Hours of work goes into a tiny piece, so it is quite expensive – expect to pay from 200kn for a small piece direct from the maker, or around 400kn for a mounted example from a Zadar gallery (try the Lik gallery, see “Shopping”). But it is a beautiful memento of your holiday, and your purchase supports a vital cottage industry.
In the mid 15th century, the Venetians commissioned Juraj Dalmatinac, Dalmatia's most famous architect, to design the island capital, Pag town. It has a planned symmetrical layout, with a modest, drowsy feel. Walking through the streets, you intimately feel the life that goes on inside the little cottages, The town’s most striking church, St Mary's, was also designed by Dalmatinac. He combined a Romanesque Dalmatian spirit with Renaissance and Gothic elements to create a striking edifice. The town has a few other interesting churches and palaces, wonderfully clean pebble beaches and several good restaurants.
In the last few years, Pag has also built the reputation as Croatia’s party island, and the place where it all happens is the town of Novalja. Novalja, though not the capital, is the island’s most populous settlement, and has most of its facilities such as clinics and schools. A couple of kilometres from town is an excellent Blue Flag beach, Zrće, where a number of bars and clubs, including coastal versions of some of Zagreb’s most famous names, have opened to create Croatia’s answer to Ibiza. There are restaurants, ice cream parlours, pools and more. It’s wildly popular. Because of that, some might find it a bit too noisy and commercialised in high season. But never fear, Pag has the longest coastline of all Croatian islands (270km), and there are many places where you can escape the crowds. Expect lunar landscapes, white pebbles, crystal clear water and, on the north side of the island, spectacular views over the Velebit peaks on the mainland. One of our favourites is the Ručica beach near Metajna – turn left at the wooden sign before the village, and follow the road to the end. You'll need to walk the last bit. It's wonderful to watch the sun go down, turning the rocks pink as you sit on pristine white pebbles by the crystalline, lagoon-calm sea.
Silba, Olib & Premudaphoto by Darko Veršić
These small green islands with one village apiece, each necklaced by sparkling-clean beaches, are well off the usual tourist repertoire but easily accessible by boat from Zadar (see “Getting around”).
Silba, despite having no cars, is the liveliest of the three, and is favoured by artists so has a rather bohemian atmosphere. The nightlife there is relaxed with great live music, including jazz (of course), and a disco. Café Mik, by the church, plays jazz (sometimes live sessions in the evenings), and has a large space for art displays inside. Walk to the lovely gravelly beaches with agaves accompanying your way, learn to windsurf, rent a boat or (if you’re energetic enough) have a game of tennis, basketball or volleyball. Although only 15km2, Silba has 6 lovely small churches, some of them dating back to the 17th century. Sadly, they are not in a great state of repar. The island has an unusual monument – a 30m high tower (known as the Toreta) built by one of the island’s sea captains so that his wife could look out to sea and know when he would return (and know when to get his dinner ready?). Some people are a bit less cynical than us and see it as a symbol of love.
Olib and Premuda are rather more sleepy. Like most Dalmatian islands, sandy Olib has no water sources, but unusually it has an undersea pipeline bringing Velebit's renowned pure water to the island. It also has many pheasants and rabbits, which people run after with pop guns. Some say Olib's cheese is better than the more famous one made on Pag, and the local wine and olive oil are also great stuff. Olib has a lovely little fort, the remains of a monastery, and five churches including the Church of the Assumption of Mary, where you can see a document written in the Glagolitic script – the alphabet in which Croatian was first written.
Premuda is a superb place for diving enthusiasts – it has an underwater cavern known as The Cathedral to explore, and the wreckage of a ship, the St Istvan. Apart from that, expect nothing other than true, idyllic island life: stone houses, oleanders and bougainvilleas, olives and figs and clean, clean shingle beaches. The perfect getaway.
UgljanThat tower you see on the pinnacle on the island opposite when you look from Zadar is St Michael's Church, an easy hike from the village of Preko on the island of Ugljan. The island’s name comes from the Croatian word ulje, meaning oil – olive oil production used to be one of the main activities here. The gentle slopes facing Zadar are fertile, and there’s a pleasant agricultural feel away from the coastal settlements – you’ll see ladies walking along the road carrying the day’s harvest.
Kukljica is the main tourist development on Ugljan, and is a great starting point for hiking and biking, a great way to see the numerous historical sites on the island. There are a number of routes outlined by the Tourist Board – call into their office or check out the website below. A 15 minute walk takes you to the other side of the island where you come to excellent beaches at Sabuša and Jelenica, some of which are sandy. The nearby cove of Kostanj also has a lovely shallow beach and the 13th century Romanesque Church of St Jerome (Sv. Jerolim) is nearby. Close to Kukljica is the Zelena Punta (Green Cape) peninsula, a tourist settlement where you’ll find a fantastic beach formed of a promenade with deep shade from pine trees, super-clean water and shingle and sand in the water. The islet of Ošljak is also popular for bathing – two Jadrolinija ferries call here per day, taking you to Zadar or Preko.
On August 5, Kukljica celebrates the festival of Our Lady of the Snows - apparently it snowed once here in August - and everybody complains about how bad the weather is these days! A convoy of fishing boats travels ceremoniously to a nearby church. The port of Kali also celebrates this occasion – the townspeople are famous for being great fishermen, and oddly enough, 90 percent of them went to Panama and still can be seen fishing there to this day.
Ancient Churches and Castles of Zadar CountyLike other regions of Croatia, Zadar County has a myriad of spectacular and fascinating castle ruins and ancient churches. Because it was the heart of the medieval Croatian kingdom, a key trading post and militarily important in controlling the northern Adriatic Sea, this region is particularly rich in castles and history. For millennia, the area that is now Zadar County has been the front line in the struggles between various empires and ethnic groups: the Romans vs. the Visigoths, the Venetians vs. the Turks, the French vs. the Austro-Hungarians and most recently the Serbs vs. the Croats. Fortunately for the modern visitor, the only struggle these days is deciding where to go sightseeing first! The sea, hilly islands and Velebit mountains add a dramatic backdrop to ancient buildings.
If one starts in Zadar and proceeds on a clockwise circuit of the county, the first notable town encountered is Nin, 16 kilometers north of Zadar on Route 306. It has the oldest church in Croatia, the tiny, Romanesque Church of the Holy Cross (Crkva svetog Križa). An inscription on the lintel is dated 800 A.D. On the south side of Nin, just outside the town, is another tiny church, St. Nicholas’s (Crkva svetog Nikole), which was built in the 11th century. Located on an ancient burial mound, it’s easy to spot. When the Ottoman Turks occupied this area in the mid-16th century they refortified St. Nicholas, adding the crenellated top. It makes the church look like a miniature castle. After the Venetians drove the Turks out in the following century, St. Nicholas was refortified again.
There are several spectacular castle ruins in Zadar County. Starigrad Ljubač, 15 kilometers due north of Zadar City, lies on a cliff above the sea and has a commanding view of Pag Island to the north. Templar knights are believed to have built Ljubač in the 13th century. The castle provided them with a clear view of anyone approaching by sea from the north or west. When the Turks invaded in the 16th century, the local inhabitants took shelter there. Later the castle featured prominently in battles between the Turks and the Venetians. As is usually the case, there are no signs indicating the way to this site. To reach Ljubač turn right at the Sonik grocery store in the middle of the village. Go 1.2 km up that road, then turn left (north) on a dirt road at the first giant antenna at the top of the hill. Follow that dirt road to Ljubač. It’s about a 45 minutes walk on undulating terrain. It’s not advisable to drive unless you have a sport utility vehicle, in which it would take 15 – 20 minutes. Not too far from Ljubač, on the southern tip of Pag, is another precariously situated castle fortress called Fortica. Built by the Venetians in the 16th century, it’s just below the bridge from the mainland to Pag, guarding the strait below. It matches the color of Pag’s barren landscape. You can easily reach the Fortica from Ljubač. The two are visible from each other, making one speculate what rivalries or alliances between their occupants might have existed over the centuries. Alternatively, you can get to Fortica by going north towards the town of Pag on route 106 from the Posedarje exit on the A1 motorway. Novigrad (literally “New Town”, somewhat of a misnomer), a castle ruin perched on a hill above the town of the same name, also has had a turbulent history. The Romans, and before them, the Liburnians, built forts on the same spot. Some of the walls date from Roman times, but Novigrad has been modernized. It has several restaurants and cafes right on the water, offering nice views of the harbor. Located 31 km east of Zadar via route 502, Novigrad has been the front line in several conflicts. During dynasty wars (1385-1387) in what is now Croatia, two woman of royalty, Mary, the wife of Croatian-Hungarian King Sigismund Luxemberg, and her mother, Elizabeth, were murdered there. During the Kandian Wars (1645-1669) it was an important point of Venice’s defense against the Turks, who occupied the town during 1646-47. When the Venetians retook the town the castle was substantially destroyed. During the more recent war of 1991-1995 after the break up of Yugoslavia, the Serbs also held the town for two years. There is another spectacular view of the modern day town and the sea from the ruins, which are accessible from several trails. The easiest to find (again, no signs!) starts from the top of some wide stairs that ascend from the east side of town. Go right at the top of the stairs and then left after about 10 meters. It takes around 10 – 15 minutes to reach the castle. Obrovac is another hill top castle/fortress above a modern day town of the same name. You can reach this small town easily from the Maslenica exit on the main Zagreb – Split highway, A1. There are plenty of eateries and cafes in Obrovac. It takes about 10-15 minutes to ascend the steep hill from the middle of town to the castle. The stately Velebit
Mountains loom in the distance. Obrovac was built atop a Roman settlement called Clambeta. The Kurjaković noble family occupied the castle from the 14th century until the Turks captured Obrovac in 1527. During the Kandian Wars the Venetians overran the town, but the Turks reoccupied it on the basis of a treaty ending that conflict. Forces under the command of Zadar nobleman, Šimun Bortolazzi, liberated Obrovac from the Turks in 1699. Like Novigrad, the Serbs captured Obrovac in 1991 and exiled all the Croats. The Serbs withdrew in 1995. Happily, in the town there is very little evidence left of that modern conflict. There are two castles worth exploring in the town of Benkovac, which is 28 km south of Obrovac on routes 502 and 27. There is a Benkovac exit off the Zagreb – Split highway. Benkovac is a sizable town with several restaurants and taverns. The Croatian family, Benković, built Benkovac Castle, which has been nicely restored. It’s on a low hill on the east side of town. Benkovac has undergone occupation by a succession of armies and governments. The Venetians took over the town in the 15th century. Then the Turks captured Benkovac in 1527. They held it until 1683. Next, the Morlacs, a mountain tribe, took over. It became a rural county district under the French in 1811 and the Austrians in 1847. The Serbs occupied this town as well for a time during the 1991 – 1995 “Great Patriotic War”. The other castle in Benkovac is Kličevac, a well-preserved ruin. Even the roof of its main tower is intact, a rarity for castle ruins. There is an excellent view of Kličevac to the east (right) from
a bridge at kilometer marker 276 on the north bound side of the Zagreb – Split highway. That view will entice you, but it is not possible to reach the site from there. You need to drive about 2 kilometers west from Benkovac on route 56. You will see a one lane, macadam road going up to the left and across railroad tracks. The road leads to a private homestead on the edge of a flat, cleared, gravel area. When the road curves sharply to the right you should turn left and cross the cleared area towards some pine forest. A gravel track runs along the south end of and then into the woods. At a dip in the track take the right fork. Follow this track (ignore others) and after about 100 meters you will head down and see the castle through the trees. Perched on the edge of a stony ravine, it is an impressive sight! Be sure to take a peek through the tower door to get a glimpse of the intact roof. Feudal lords of the Kurjaković family built Kličevac at the end of the 14th century on a cliff above the Kličevica River. An extension was constructed in the 15th century. Kličevac’s inaccessibility did not prevent the Turks from capturing it in the early 16th century. Several senior Turkish government officials occupied the castle over the next 150 years. Cont inuing on our counterclockwise circuit of castles in Zadar County, Starigrad (“Old Town”) Vrana lies 11 kilometers south o f Benkovac via a secondary, but paved road. The modern day village of the same name surrounds the ancient, ruined, walled town. Much of the town walls remain, and the remains of a church are clearly discernable.
Vrana also has had a turbulent history. Originally it was a Roman settlement called Blandona. In the Middle Ages it was a Benedictine monastery, but the Holy See gave the town to the Templar knights in the 12th century. In 1312 Vrana came into the possession of the Templars’ rivals, the Knights Hospitaller, who served not only as combatants but also as medics in the Crusades. For two centuries Vrana’s prior was wealthy and influential, owning 40 other monasteries in the region. As with nearby towns, the Turks overran Vrana in the early 16th century. A Turkish military commander, one Alibeg Atlagić, re-fortified the town. When the Venetians captured Vrana and evicted the Turks in 1647, they destroyed much of the town’s fortifications. If you are feeling adventurous, take a ferry from Zadar to Preko on the island of Ugljan, a journey of 20 minutes. About three kilometers from the ferry pier is the castle fortress of Saint Michael (“Sveti Mihovil”). It is perched on the highest point of the island (265 meters) and there are spectacular views in every direction, particularly of Iž Island and Dugi Otok (“Long Island”) to the west, but also Zadar to the east and countless Adriatic islands to the south. When you drive up from the ferry pier, turn right on the main road. After a kilometer or so take the narrow but well paved road that leads up to the west (left). There is a sign pointing the way to the castle (will wonders never cease!?). You can drive all the way, but there are several walking trails that ascend to the summit, too. Various monasteries were located at Sv. Mihovil beginning in the 10th century. The Venetians fortified Mihovil in the 13th century as an observation post. Because the site is so advantageous for this purpose, the Serbs shelled Sv. Mihovil in 1991. This is one place that the Turks did not succeed in capturing. Unfortunately, now a communications tower inside the walls of the castle mars the atmosphere somewhat. Nevertheless, this ruin is worth visiting because of the great views. As you travel around the county you may observe other hilltop ruins. There are many more, but those described above are the largest and most spectacular. The fact that they were built for military reasons and changed hands so many times reflects the strategic importance of the Zadar area through the millennia.