After World War II, the former Yugoslavia's communist government considered destroying Zadar, a coastal Croatian city with a history stretching back nearly 3,000 years. It had already been nearly wrecked in the war, and it was tainted by association with Croatia's wartime fascism.
Today, you wouldn't know this city of 90,000 — with its post-war construction, classic waterside architecture, Old Town walls, restaurants and bars and scores of pleasure boats — came so close to becoming nothing but an archaeological site.
I visited Zadar recently with several travel agents on a fam sponsored by British Airways, New York-based Picasso Tours and the Croatian ground operator Uniline. Our itinerary introduced Croatian coastal attractions that go beyond island-hopping in the Adriatic or sightseeing in the country's best-known cities, Dubrovnik and Split.
We visited several lesser-known gems, including Pula and Trogir as well as Zadar, as follows:• Zadar's pedestrian-only Old Town,
set on a small peninsula, still uses the street plan laid out by the Romans. The remains of Roman columns sit at the site of the Forum, as do a few historical churches. The oldest is the ninth century St. Donat Church, built using some of the Roman stones; it is now a concert hall.
Parts of the medieval city walls still stand, providing a backdrop to the natural harbor between the peninsula and mainland Zadar.
The town, on Croatia's northern Dalmatian coast, isn't all about history. It boasts the world's only sea organ, an underwater musical instrument. Under steps that descend into the Adriatic Sea, pipes blow notes in random order, determined by the movement of the water. As we listened, it didn't sound all that random either!• The Roman ruins in Pula
are more numerous and impressive, starting with an elliptical amphitheater (350 feet by 400 feet), sufficiently intact to host entertainment events. When built, it accommodated 23,000 spectators for gladiator fights.
Located in northwest Croatia on the Istria Peninsula, Pula is a city of more than 50,000. The Roman Forum, now aptly called Forum Square, is the heart of Pula's historical city center.
A rebuilt Temple of Augustus sits next to the City Hall. The latter looks vaguely Venetian, but then Venice was Pula's overlord for 600 years. Indeed, our guide said, Venetians built their own city "with our stone."
Other buildings on Forum Square are of medieval origins or later, housing cafes and the like, and are often painted in Mediterranean colors.
Our short tour provided tantalizing glimpses of marinas and their pleasure boats, then took us through narrow streets with colorful houses in various states of repair. We exited at the Sergius Arch, one of Pula's four surviving Roman gates.• Trogir's historical town center
occupies an island 20 miles west of Split; only a thousand of the town's 10,000 inhabitants live on the island.
It is a Unesco World Heritage Site in recognition of its unique collection of medieval buildings, especially the 13th century St. Lawrence Cathedral and its stone portal featuring scenes that reveal details of medieval life.
The cathedral occupies one side of People's Square, which was the Roman Forum. The other three sides feature buildings — City Hall, a loggia and a palace — that have Venice written all over them. Our guide said most of Trogir Old Town architecture was built by the Venetians, who as with Zadar and Pula controlled Trogir for centuries.
The site is valuable for historical reasons, but busy marinas and the sidewalk life on a broad, palm-lined quay make this Old Town considerably more charming for tourists.