Zadar has had a traumatic history, but despite its frequent reconstruction, it remains a beautiful city brimming with more than 3,000 years of history and culture. Like most cities on the Dalmatian coast, Zadar evolved from a prehistoric settlement to an Illyrian village to a Roman municipality. It came under the control of Byzantium, was ransacked by the Crusades, spent several centuries under the Venetians, and then passed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Zadar is first mentioned in 9th-century writings as the residence of Bishop Donat, the cleric who built the Church of the Holy Trinity in the former Roman Forum, remains of which lie next to the cathedral. Today that 9th-century church is known as St. Donatus to honor Bishop Donat, and it has become the city’s symbol. After the construction of St. Donatus, many other churches were built in Zadar, making it a center of Roman Catholicism.
When Venice tried to capture every city on the Dalmatian coast starting in the late 10th century (it took it until the 15th century to finally succeed), Zadar fought back harder than any other municipality. From 1096 to 1346, Zadar was conquered and liberated an incredible seven times, and then taken over six more times until it was sold in 1409 to Venice by King Ladislav of Naples, who was Zadar’s ruler du jour. Following the sale, Venice had authority over Zadar for almost four centuries, until 1797. During that time, the Venetians developed the city and its economy, but only to the extent that those efforts benefited Venice.
Eventually, the Venetians were driven out, and for 120 years or so after that Zadar was governed by Austria (with a short stint of French rule), a regime that ended with World War I, but did not end Zadar’s occupation. From 1920 to 1944 Zadar was governed by Italy and forced to accept Italian acculturation, though many citizens left rather than submit to Italianization.
During World War II, Zadar was heavily bombarded by Allied forces, though it was mostly rebuilt during the postwar Yugoslavia era. Then, during the 1991 war, the city suffered isolation due to its position—Serb forces in the hinterland effectively cut the city off from the rest of the country. The road to Zagreb did not reopen until 1993. In 1995, during Operation Storm, the Croatian army reclaimed outlying rural areas, which had historically had a sizeable Serb population.
Today’s Zadar is an exceptional combination of new and old architecture and a diverse mix of cultures. It is also fiercely nationalistic, a characteristic that took hold while the city was isolated from the rest of Croatia by the Serbs.
Cherries in a Glass
Before you leave Zadar, try the local drink that has become one of the city’s specialties. Maraschino is made from a unique variety of maraska cherry grown in the region, and it can be had in both alcoholic or nonalcoholic forms. According to legend, alcoholic maraschino, usually a treacly sweet cherry liqueur, was first made by monks in the 16th century and was thought to improve the disposition. Today the liqueur is made in Zadar in a factory near the footbridge. The factory is not open to visitors or tour groups, but all the local general stores and liquor stores sell the liqueur, which makes a fine gift to bring home. The most obvious place to taste the stuff is at Maraschino Bar.