The spooky sounds of the Sea Organ come out of holes beneath the steps in Zadar, Croatia.
The hot sun gleaming on the blue Adriatic was too hard to resist. ‘Order me calamari and a salad,’ I called to my lunch companions as I headed for the ladies’ room with my bathing suit. I ran across the street onto the stony beach, where older couples were toasting themselves on this quiet Monday afternoon on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. I plunged right in, the warm, clear, salty water just what I needed after five hours in a van on switchback mountain roads curving down to the sea.
The long, bulky island of Ugljan dominated the horizon, and straight ahead lay the beckoning pile of Zadar—a former Roman colony then a wealthy Venetian port in medieval and Renaissance times—with a cluster of red roofs and a limestone campanile pointing to heaven.
I reluctantly eased myself out so as not to hold up the tour, dried off in the sun and the breeze, and returned to the terrace at Restaurant Niko just as my calamari arrived, perfectly grilled, with a taste that was sweeter, I think, after my invigorating dip.
Exploring Zadar on my own that evening, I asked some friendly high school kids how to get to the old town. They spoke perfectly inflected American English, thanks to a steady diet of undubbed American TV. I asked why they were getting out of school so late, and they explained that there aren’t enough classrooms and teachers in Croatia, so the school kids attend in two shifts: “One week we go from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the next week we go from 1 to 6 p.m.” I asked if they liked that arrangement? “We LOVE it! We can sleep late this week.” I admitted that my chronically sleep-deprived kids would love that schedule too.
I followed their directions through the park near their school, which was painted all over the front with graffiti as high as a teenager could reach. It helped to cover up the shrapnel holes in the façade from the war with Serbia that ended in 1995. Then I passed through the imposing Land Gate, a grand entryway to the city built by the Venetians, with their telltale winged lion symbol of St. Mark, on top.
In town I wandered a labyrinth of narrow stone streets shining in the lamplight, packed with fashionable shops, restaurants, people, and thankfully no cars. The streets opened up suddenly to a large square, the remains of the ancient Roman forum, where kids were jumping their skateboards over the antiquities in front of the round, ninth-century church of St. Donat.
What I loved about Zadar is that there weren’t gobs of tourists (October is off-season), but rather lots of people enjoying life in their own beautiful city. Although it’s got three millennia of history, the city feels like a place where people know how to live, not like a museum. Perhaps having survived a devastating war ten years ago has given them a keener appreciation of ordinary pleasures.
Further along toward the port, I discovered the Franciscan monastery, built in 1283, the oldest Gothic building in Dalmatia. It seemed closed, but I heard some singing from the cloister. I ducked in a side entrance to the chapel just as Mass by candlelight was ending, and the people in the pews sang a celestial a cappella hymn that filled the small stone space as such music has for centuries. I thanked St. Francis for the unexpected gift, and moved on.
Along the seaside promenade, just past the ferry dock, I came upon more haunting music. This time it sounded like whale songs. In 2005, the Croatian architect Nikola Bašić built a series of stone steps that go down to the Adriatic, and placed 35 organ pipes underneath. The wind and waves push air against the pipes and make these mysterious chords, which come out through holes under the stairs. When the wind and waves are strong, the music is louder, and when there isn’t much wind, the Sea Organ (which won the 2006 European Prize for Urban Public Spaces) doesn’t make much sound. I sat on the steps listening to the magical sea music, watching the sun set and the stars come out over the mainland.
- Nat Geo Expeditions