Zadar was inhabited by the Illyrian Liburnian tribe as early as the 9th century BC. At the end of the 3rd century BC, the Romans began their 200-year-long struggle with the Illyrians and, by the 1st century BC, Zadar had become a Roman municipality and later a colony. It acquired the characteristics of a typical Roman town, with a rectangular street plan, a forum and baths. Water came from the nearby Lake Vrana. Zadar does not appear to have been a particularly important town for the Romans, but when the Roman Empire was divided it became the capital of Byzantine Dalmatia. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the city was settled by Slavic migrants and Zadar eventually fell under the authority of Croatian-Hungarian kings.
All was well until the rise of the Venetian empire in the mid-12th century. For the next 200 years Zadar was subjected to relentless assault by Venetians seeking to expand their hold on Adriatic trading interests. There were four unsuccessful citizens’ uprisings in the 12th century, but in 1202 the Venetians managed to sack the city and expel its citizens with the help of French Crusaders. The people of Zadar continued to rebel throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, with the help of Croatian-Hungarian kings, but finally it was sold to Venice in 1409 along with the rest of Dalmatia.
Zadar’s economic growth declined under Venetian rule because of Turkish attacks and frequent Veneto-Turkish wars. The city walls were built in the 16th century and it was not until the end of the 17th century that the Turkish threat finally receded. With the fall of Venice in 1797, the city passed to Austrian, French, and then again Austrian rule. The Austrians took a city that had an Italianised aristocracy and imported more Italians from their provinces in Italy to administer the city. Italian influence endured well into the 20th century, with Zadar being excluded from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and remaining an Italian province. When Italy capitulated to the Allies in 1943, the city was occupied by the Germans and then bombed to smithereens by the Allies; almost 60% of the Old Town was destroyed.
The city was rebuilt following the original street plan and an effort was made to harmonise the new with what remained of old Zadar. As though the city had some magnetic power to attract trouble, history repeated itself in November 1991 when Yugoslav rockets launched an attack, keeping it under siege for three months. Bombs sailed overhead and the city’s residents were virtually imprisoned in their homes with insufficient food or water. Although the Serb gunners were pushed back by the Croatian army during its January 1993 offensive, this experience has embittered many residents and made them more receptive to nationalists and flag-wavers.
No war wounds are visible, however, and Zadar’s narrow, traffic-free marble streets are again full of life. Tremendous 16th-century fortifications still shield the city on the landward side and high walls run along the harbour. Zadar can be a fascinating place in which to wander about and, at the end of the day, you can sample its famous maraschino (cherry liqueur).