St Donat's Church in the Forum, Zadar, Croatia

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Northern Dalmatia

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Compact and easily explored, northern Dalmatia presents a greater concentration of the highlights of Adriatic travel than almost any other part of Croatia. Along the coast are beautifully preserved medieval towns poised above some of the clearest waters in Europe, while offshore are myriad islands adorned with ancient stone villages and enticing coves. The region increasingly serves both as a focus for the party crowd and as a get-away-from-it-all destination, with a burgeoning roster of festivals dovetailing neatly with stirring scenery and soothing beaches.

The main urban centre of northern Dalmatia is Zadar, an animated jumble of Roman, Venetian and modern styles that presents as good an introduction as any to Dalmatia’s mixed-up history. It’s within day-trip distance of the medieval Croatian centre of Nin, and is also the main ferry port for the unassuming northern Dalmatian islands of Silba, Olib and Dugi otok, where you’ll find peaceful villages, laid-back beaches, and a level of tourism that has not yet become an industry.

The next major town south of Zadar is Šibenik, with a quiet historic centre and a spectacular fifteenth-century cathedral, and the most convenient base from which to visit the tumbling waterfalls of the Krka National Park. The main natural attraction in this part of Dalmatia is the Kornati archipelago, a collection of captivatingly bare and uninhabited islands accessed from the coastline-hugging, easy-going island of Murter. Joining Murter to the mainland is the swing-bridge at Tisno, a small town that’s become the main venue for the summer-long cycle of festivals run by the Garden organization.

Dalmatia’s long history of Roman, then Venetian cultural penetration (for a history of the region) has left its mark on a region where children still call adult males barba (“beard” – Italian slang for “uncle”) and respected gents go under the name of šjor (the local version of signore), but modern Dalmatia’s identity is difficult to pin down. People from northern Croatia will tell you that life is lived at a much slower pace in Dalmatia, whose inhabitants are joshingly referred to as tovari (“donkeys”) by their compatriots, though the briefest of visits to bustling regional centres like Zadar will be enough to persuade you that these clichés are somewhat wide of the mark. The Dalmatians themselves will tell you that life is to be enjoyed and should not be hurried – which is why food, wine, music and café life are accorded so much quality time.

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