A thriving port on the Dalmatian Coast, Split is a modern city built amongst the ruins of an old one. The Old Town is a maze of narrow corridors that seem equally likely to suddenly dead-end at a brick wall as they are to open into busy squares full of cafes and shops. Old stone arches and crumbling castle walls line the twisting streets, with restaurant menus hung immediately adjacent to historical markers, and racks of cheap sunglasses hanging in front of disintegrating columns. Through it all wound dense crowds of people, most of whom were too busy gawking upwards to note that they were plowing headlong into passers-by. It seems like a place that would have been spectacular decades ago, but the throngs of visitors disembarking from cruise boats for a quick afternoon of sightseeing have ensured the historic center has slowly transformed into a tourist trap. The central market, normally one of our favorite features in European cities, displayed sad-looking produce at prices that would have made me wince back in the U.S. Nonetheless, in the moments we could get away from the crowds, the city was truly beautiful, with the winding back alleys leading you to unexpected quiet corners and quaint cafes. During our explorations, we stumbled across a wonderful a cappella group singing traditional Dalmatian music in a stone vestibule, whose acoustics were marvelous; we sat and watched several songs before reluctantly moving on.
Though Split is not particularly well-known for its beaches, we ventured to one of the pebbled shorelines a few kilometers from the town center. The crystal clear waters of the Adriatic glistened invitingly, a sight that proved to be a bit of a tease when we dipped our feet in only to discover it wasn’t nearly as tropical as it appeared.
One of our favorite parts of Split was climbing up onto Marjan Hill and looking down over the city, the coastline, and the surrounding mountains. The short walk out of the city center seemed to evaporate the crowds, and after ascending the 314 stone steps leading to the lookout point, we enjoyed a great view of the port city and a wonderful sunset over the bay. The view got even better after dark, when the lights of the piers and downtown areas were reflected across the black waters. A beautiful view of a beautiful city.
We decided to meander up the coastal highway on the drive from Split to the Plitvice Lakes, stopping in Zadar on the way. While a decidedly longer route, our taste of the coast on the bus ride from Sarajevo suggested it would be worth the extra time, as the trip from Bosnia (north to Split) was full of seaside towns, perched at the intersection of the glittering sapphire waters of the Adriatic, and the rugged mountain slopes that plunged down to meet them. The journey to Zadar proved to be worth every extra minute, as mile after mile of beautiful coastline unfurled in front of us. Though less dramatic than the southern terrain, the terracotta roofs and stone bell towers of small villages stretched to the edge of sparkling ocean waters, where domed green islands emerged from the surface like enormous turtles. Intensely blue-green water filled small coves around every bend, where small boats floated on their moorings. Altogether, we covered some 266 kilometers (165 miles) of the spectacular Dalmatian Coast.
Zadar was a small, pleasant coastal town and, to our delight, far less crowded than Split. We spent a couple hours wandering around the historic district, admiring the old stone churches and city gates and enjoying the relative seclusion. Zadar’s historic center resides on a small peninsula, on whose tip is an interesting public art feature – the sea organ. Architect Nikola Basic was inspired to create the concrete pier during the reconstruction efforts following the Second World War. Below the pier resides 35 organ pipes, designed to whistle in varying pitches when wind, waves or boat wakes wash under the structure. It’s quite hypnotizing, staring out into the ocean and listening to the jumbled, haphazard soundtrack underneath you, rising and falling in time with the movement of the water, and made for a wonderfully relaxing break during our drive to the national park.