Zoran Debelic dabs his paintbrush contentedly at an easel outside his art gallery in the old town of Zadar in Croatia, intriguing passers-by with his use of acrylics to capture the ancient surroundings.
“People always see this painting as an underwater cathedral,” says Debelic, who paints by the 9th century church of St Donat, a must-do photo spot for visitors to the former capital of Dalmatia on the Croatian Adriatic.
Debelic lives and works in a hub of antiquity that people come from afar to admire. His gallery is located on what was once the largest Roman square in Croatia, although only a few low sections of wall and fragments of columns remain today.
Visitors are in for an acoustic as well as visual surprise, as the wind carries a succession of deep, elongated blasts of sound from the nearby shoreline. They come from the sea organ powered by sea water flowing through 35 pipes set in the quay wall that feed the connected organ pipes. The natural music undulates in pitch and strength with the surf and passing ships.
Like many other cities on this coastline, Zadar has a colourful history. It was founded by the Greeks and controlled by the Romans from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, taken under Byzantine rule until the 11th century, when it was conquered by the Venetians.
Austria, France and Italy all held the city for a while, before it was finally ravaged by the destruction of World War II.
Visible traces of the centuries can also be found in Split, located about 160km to the south. In its time it also drew first the Greeks and then the Romans. In around 300 AD, the Emperor Diocletian began to build a 215m by 180m palace here as a retirement home. Today, this once self-contained building ensemble is the heart of the old town and a Unesco World Heritage site.
“You can breathe the Roman era in the basement levels of the old town and see 13th century buildings above them,” says city guide Anita Birimisa.
Over the years, Split’s inhabitants increasingly built out the remains of the palace, turning the former mausoleum into the cathedral and the Jupiter temple into the baptistery. Today, about 2,000 people live on Roman foundations, within Venetian walls and with modern extensions.
“This is my private museum,” says local man Braco Crnogorac, standing on a small, ivy-covered plot opposite his house near the cathedral. Between the tendrils on the wall to the neighbouring house and under a few palm trees lie the weathered bases of Roman pillars, stone slabs with chiselled faces, and other ancient fragments.
Crnogorac wanted to build a small apartment house on the plot, but this dream was scattered when he uncovered stonework with the first digs of his spade and dutifully reported this to the authorities.
Split and Sibenik
Split also famously draws the tourists with its ancient relics and traces of lost ages. Less well known is Sibenik, located on a hill at the mouth of the Krka River halfway between here and Zadar. The 950-year-old city has a good share of Unesco sites, most notably St Jacobs Cathedral in the medieval old town.
The dome of the light stone Venetian-Gothic edifice was destroyed in the Yugoslavian civil war, leaving restorers to figure out how to reassemble the dome without using cement or concrete.
It took them four years to do it, but the result is so impressive that it convinced the creators of the HBO series Game Of Thrones to use the cathedral and the adjoining Renaissance square as a location setting.
So in addition to visitors with a passion for history, the city attracts fans of the series who also hanker for some sundrenched seaside relaxation.
But summer visitors to the Dalmatian coast should be ready for intense heat, with the mercury pushing above 35˚C in July and August. The best months to come are May and September. – dpa/Nina C. Zimmermann