The unwise traveller who wants to see as much as possible of the Croatian Adriatic coast in as short a time as possible, inevitably realises, at the end of the trip, that of all the places visited none can be named from the other.
Romanesque cathedrals, Gothic churches, fortress walls, Roman ruins and the peeling façades of 18th Century houses, which in reality belong to different cities, merge in the tired mind of the traveller into a single town.
As in Plato's idea, this imaginary town combines all the Croatian Adriatic towns and at the same time is none of them.
It is only when the traveller is back home and takes a look at the pictures that they recall, with a certain effort, what makes Trogir different from Rovinj, what is particular about Krk and why the cathedral in Šibenik is a UNESCO world heritage monument.
Zadar could have been one of these towns. It was one of these towns.
Traces of Venetian domination are all over old Zadar, from wells to St Mark's lion overlooking the city gates
Founded in the 1st Millennium BC by the ancient Liburnians, a nation of merchants and pirates, the town has accumulated enough history, architecture and good restaurants to justify a three-day stay. In the shell of the Venetian fortress walls from the 16th Century, traces of all the epochs of Zadar's life live side by side and one on top of the other.
The remains of a Roman Forum from the 1st Century BC stand beside the massive Romanesque cathedral of St Donat from the 9th Century. Only metres away rise undistinguished co-ops from the years of Tito's Yugoslavia, while carefree residents drink their morning Maraschino near the church of St Simeon, where an exquisite 14th Century sarcophagus holds the miracle-working relics of the eponymous 6th Century saint.
In Zadar, people came and went over the centuries. Liburnians did business with Ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Etruscans, all striving to control this strategic trade outpost. The Romans became interested in the area in the 2nd Century BC and by Caesar's time, the Liburnians were already a part of Pax Romana.
The boats of a tiny marina now fill the waters of a harbour which separates the Old City from mainland
This ended in the 5th Century, when the Huns and other migrating nations stormed Dalmatia. A century later, Byzantium took over. When its power finally ended, in the 10th Century, the city was already largely inhabited by Croats. Pirate raids proved too dangerous for the locals to deal with and in 998 the people of Zadar asked Venice for help. The same year the ships of the Serenissima invaded all Dalmatia. Unpleasantly surprised, the citizens of Zadar spend the next several centuries fighting first against the Italians and then, from the 16th Century onwards, the Ottomans.
Italian domination finally ended after the downfall of Venice in 1797, but the old masters were replaced with new ones – the Austrians. After the Great War, however, Zadar was given to Italy, as an enclave within a brand new political entity, The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). The city joined Socialist Yugoslavia in 1947, and stayed in it until 1990, when Croatia broke away from the federation. In 1991–1993, Zadar and whole of Dalmatia were cut off from Croatia's mainland and suffered heavy destruction by Serbian forces.
Yes, until very recently Zadar used to be an ordinary Adriatic town.
In 2005, however, local architect Nikola Bašić unveiled on the promenade his Sea Organ, and this supposedly simple construction hidden in the quay turned Zadar into a town like no other. The musical harmonies created by the waves leave an indelible mark on the memory and are so captivating that you forget your initial plan of taking a look at the Forum, climbing up the belfry of St Donat and having orada, or European sea-bass, for dinner with white wine, in one of the seaside restaurants. You stop being a tourist and get into meditation.
Bašić's idea is charmingly simple. Tubes of different lengths are inlaid into the marble steps of the quay. Flowing through them, the waves create sounds that modulate depending on whether the sea is stormy or peaceful, whether it is winter or summer, raining or windy.
The belfry of the 9th Century St Donatus cathedral hovers over the roofs in the old city
The tourist authorities claim that from this side of the promenade you can view the world's most beautiful sunsets, something that one Alfred Hitchcock seemed to agree with. Too many places around the planet claim this fame, but Bašić, however, has used the glory of the Zadar's sunsets to create one further piece of art in which man and nature work together.
In 2008 the A Greeting to the Sun installation appeared near the Sea Organ. During the day it is only a circle on the promenade – you can walk over it without noticing, but at dusk the circle starts to shine, using the solar energy that has accumulated during the day. Ever-changing, luminescent lights swirl over its surface – a Mediterranean version of the Aurora Borealis.
The spectacle attracts as many visitors as the famous, though brief sunset, and there are more people near the sea in the early hours of the evening than in the nearby bars. All the bars in Europe may be alike, but the quay at Zadar, like the city itself, is something that cannot be seen, heard or experienced anywhere else.