When we booked our holiday to Croatia, one place we knew we definitely wanted to go back to was Zadar. With a beautiful old town situated beside an improbably blue sea, it quickly became one of our favourite destinations. Getting to Zadar proved to be a bit problematic though, with Ryanair offering only sporadic flights from the UK, so eventually we decided to fly with Wizzair to the nearby town of Split. The 9am flight was fairly late in the morning by our recent standard of holiday flights, so we were able to get up at the (comparatively) civilised hour of 4.30am before heading down to Luton.
The flight to Split was amazing. I was lucky enough to get the winning combination of a window seat and a clear sky and was treated to fantastic views, firstly of the Alps and then of the Adriatic and some of the Croatian islands as we began our descent to Split. Landing at Split airport is not for the faint-hearted; the captain announced that we would be landing in ten minutes as the plane flew lower and lower across the sea, but with no land yet in sight I was starting to wish I'd paid more attention to the location of the lifevests during the safety briefing. It wasn't until we were less than 60 seconds away from touching down that the coast came into view and it became clear that the runway was on a small strip of land right beside the sea!
Split airport is rather 'compact', with the result that baggage reclaim, passport control and customs somehow all fit into the same room. None of the guidebooks which I have read on Croatia give any indication of how difficult it is to get from the airport (which is located approximately 30km away) into the town of Split itself, making blithe references to an airport bus which conveniently meets every flight. The truth is that the airport bus meets every flight... of Croatia Airlines. If you're flying with a different carrier, you need to make your own arrangements, unless you are fortunate enough for the arrival of your flight to accidentally coincide with one from Croatia Airlines. There is, apparently, a public bus which comes to within a few hundred metres of the airport, but information available about it on the web is limited, even if you search in Croatian. Specifically, I couldn't find any confirmation about exactly where the airport bus stop was or whereabouts it dropped you in Split, although it sounded like it was potentially at a location 20 minutes outside the main centre.
After a lot of fruitless searching I gave up and opted for the only other solution; a private transfer. There are a significant number of companies who offer taxi services from the airport into Split and if you book online in advance, you will have a driver waiting for you in the arrivals hall holding a sign with your name on it. We used Jam Transfer, who had good reviews online and indicated that the driver would wait for you at no extra cost if your flight was delayed. Sure enough, our driver was almost the first thing I saw when we walked into the arrivals hall and we were efficiently transferred to the main bus station in Split within half an hour. Although at a price of about €30 I'm sure it was significantly more expensive than the public bus would have been, I think it was worth it for the lack of hassle and peace of mind of knowing that we would at least make it to Split bus station, if not all the way to Zadar.
The thing I was most worried about, you see, was that we wouldn't actually make it to Zadar. Buses are a very important method of transport in Dalmatia, because there isn't really a train line down the coast, and so the only way to get from Split to Zadar is by road. The system of buses is a bit primitive compared to what we are used to in other European countries, however, and it is very difficult to find out information about the buses in advance. The main bus stations for larger towns do have their own websites which publish timetables, but the most you are likely to learn from these is the departure time of the bus. Only very occasionally is there an indication of the time it might arrive at its destination and there is virtually never an indication of the ticket price. This is because the buses are run by a myriad of small regional companies who all seem to have their own routes and prices. A lot of the bus companies have their own websites too and these also (sometimes) display timetables which can give more information about the bus than the bus station version (although probably still not the ticket price, that seems to be classified!), but the departure times and bus frequency can differ between the two timetables and it isn't clear - to me, at least - which should be believed most.
That is a mild irritation but the bigger problem for obsessive holiday planners who like to have the tickets for everything in advance is that you can't buy bus tickets online. Not all. Ever. Not from the website of the bus station and not from the website of the bus company. Not even if you speak Croatian. Advance online purchasing of bus tickets simply does not exist as a concept. Croatian guidebooks, however, are unanimous is advising that you purchase your bus tickets at least a day in advance for any travel along the coast in summer as places are likely to sell out. That means a trip to the counter at the bus station which is fine, if you happen to be in Croatia, but not very helpful if you want to travel along the coast on the Saturday you arrive from abroad. My worst nightmare was that we would arrive in Split, find all bus tickets to Zadar were already sold out, and spend the first day of our holiday completely stranded.
As it turns out, I needn't have worried and I managed to buy tickets for a 14.30 bus without any problems. At a mere 85 kuna each, the tickets were even significantly cheaper than I had anticipated. With a bit of spare time before the bus departed, we even had chance to get a burger at the station bar. Split and Zadar are about 100 miles apart, but the bus journey took around 3 hours. Partly because the roads are quite curvy, partly because there were quite a few bus stops in smaller towns along the route and partly because the driver just seemed to go incredibly slowly. The vehicle wasn't quite up to the standard of LuxExpress but it was fine and the journey itself was exciting as we travelled along the coast and through mountains to Zadar.
We arrived around 17.30, which was earlier than I expected, and despite getting slightly lost on the way to our apartment, we arrived there well ahead of 18.30 which was the time I had told the owner than we would check in. There was no one around, so Tim set off for the nearby Lidl to stock up on food while I waited with the bags. The apartment, when we eventually got into it, was lovely. The room itself is small but the space is cleverly utilised, with the bed being hung from the ceiling. When we first stayed here last year, I was a little apprehensive about the fact that this meant you could only access the bed via the ladder, but actually it's an extremely sturdy ladder and it would be difficult to fall off.
The best thing about the apartment is how hi-tech everything is; there's a TV/computer which is connected to the Internet and has a large selection of music and films available for watching. The films are all in English with Croatian subtitles, which is great for me learning Croatian, so the first night of our holiday was a quiet night on the sofa with crisps, wine and a film
I deliberately hadn't planned any excursions for Sunday, to give us chance to relax and enjoy Zadar. Our apartment is only a kilometre or so from the old town, so we were able to stroll into the centre after breakfast. Crossing a bridge over the marina, we soon found ourselves in one of the main squares, Narodni Trg.
The EU flag was flying proudly with the national one. Split airport had lots of shiny new EU signs too.
We walked through the narrow streets of the old town, though the city gate and round onto the seafront.
After a walk along the coast, we explored the Roman ruins. Zadar has an interesting history, having been invaded by the Romans and then the Venetians, becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to Italy after the First World War and only joining Yugoslavia in 1947. The city was bombed heavily during the Second World War, with the result that there are some concrete eyesores between the more attractive buildings, but an unexpected silver lining of the bombardment was that during reconstruction works in the city centre, significant Roman remains were uncovered. These are now on display outside the former church of St Donatus.
This was the largest Roman column still intact:
There are lots of smaller remains scattered around, which make an intriguing park:
This is me with a smaller pillar and a monastery in the background:
The centrepiece of the square is the rotund church of St Donatus, which has the remains of a human sacrificial altar inside:
A line of sculptures leads from the church down to the sea:
After exploring the ruins, we wandered along the seafront and back to our apartment to get some respite from the hot afternoon sun.
The promenade in Zadar is an exciting place, with a unique sea-organ that plays music powered by the waves all day and a large circle of solar panels, known as the Sun Salutation, which absorb sunshine during the day and make pretty light patterns all night. We resolved to come for another walk round town in the evening to experience it.