Few cities deserve more love than the millennial Zadar. In addition to the whirlwind of turbulent historical events and frequent destruction, the tale of Zadar is the story of its perpetual renewals and urban vitality. Nested in the heart of Zadar's old town, in the historic area of Campo Castello, the history of the place that is now Almayer intertwines with the turbulent history of the city. The reconstruction and adaptation of the Almayer were more than just the renovation of a future hotel building. For us, it was an invocation of a part of the heritage and spirit of the mythical, and almost forgotten, Mediterranean, cosmopolitan and bourgeois Zadar.
If only walls could tell the story of Almayer! They would, for sure, start with the Croatian Ban Stjepan, who built and lavishly adorned a church of St. Nicholas, located at the northwestern edge of the Zadar peninsula, next to the sea coast, and then bestowed it to the monks of the Benedictine monastery of St. Chrysogonus in Zadar.
This site is mentioned for the first time in old Zadar chronicles as territorium Sancti Nicolai.
The year marks the beginning of the Fourth Crusade, ominous for Europe. Crusaders, instrumentalized by the political interests of the Republic of Venice in Dalmatia, firstly besieged and destroyed Zadar - a part of the Croato-Hungarian Kingdom at the time, and then continued towards Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, with atrocious massacres and looting. After Zadar came to life again, the nuns of St. Benedict ceded the complex for the reconstruction of the monastery around the church of St. Nicholas, in the northwestern part of the city.
According to ancient tales, while on his way to the East, strong winds threw Saint Francis of Assisi to Zadar shores. During a visit to the Benedictine monastery of St. Nicholas, the saint miraculously cured one of the nuns, after which the nuns undertook the rights of St. Clare becoming one of the first all-female monasteries of the order of St. Francis of Assisi ordinis sanctae Clarae - Clarisse.
Conquering Zadar - their main rival on the Adriatic coast at that time has always been one of the main goals of the Venetian Republic - a maritime power on the rise on the other side of the sea. In the year 1000, for the first time, Venice succeeded in subjugating both Zadar and Dalmatia. Its success was perpetuated by the establishment of the tradition of "Wedding with the Sea" (Sposalizio del mar), where the doge of Venice cast a ring in the sea, symbolising the connection between the Adriatic and Venice. The centuries-old battle between Venice and Croatian-Hungarian rulers over the possession of Dalmatia has begun. The battles between seditious citizens of Zadar and the Republic of Venice lasted for centuries, in which period and according to the records, a Venetian flag with the winged lion of St. Mark has been thrown into the sea at least eleven times.
Never trusting the rebellious people of Zadar and in order to keep them in obedience, in 1243, on the northern part of the town, across the St. Nicholas monastery, the Venetians started to build a fortress. Kaštel, surrounded by a moat filled with sea, although incorporated into the city walls system, was not necessarily intended to defend Zadar, as much as it was a defence from its citizens.
Venetians break through the city walls, dig a moat around the castle and fill it with the sea. In order to improve the defensive properties of the fortress, all the nearby houses were demolished creating a large open field (lat. campus), that the entire part of the town - Campo Castello is named after. The enhanced fortification of 14th-century Zadar is reflected in the monastery of St. Nicholas. Because of its location in a strategically sensitive part of the town and on the borders of the new fortifications, the old church and parts of the monastery were demolished, and the second church of St. Nicholas was built. The urban scars of these times are still visible today. The cut-off north facade of the hotel and the tall courtyard wall still follow a long-established defensive logic and long-forgotten riots.
Having gradually lost his influence in Dalmatia, the Croatian-Hungarian ruler Ladislav of Naples, from the Anjou dynasty, sold both Zadar and all his rights to the whole of Dalmatia, to the Republic of Venice for 100,000 ducats. From then on, Zadar is stunned by the stern sight of the winged Serenissima lion, as well as the shadows from the east, which, under the sign of the crescent moon, were slowly approaching the city.
The Middle Ages ended with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and Byzantium, which consequently led to expanding their power all through the Balkans. In 1459 Serbia fell, and in 1463 Bosnia followed. Zadar begins to prepare the defence. Standing directly beside the northwest city walls, the monastery of St. Nicholas becomes a fort to defend against attacks from the sea. The Centennial monastery wall is the standing reminder of those turbulent times, nowadays overlooking the courtyard of the hotel.
In the 16th century, the monastery went through the toughest period since it was founded. Due to the constant Ottoman threats and wars, the monastery began to rapidly impoverish and lose its holdings. The construction of the ramparts and anti-war embankments led to its occasional abandonment.
Ottomans are at the peak of their power. Zadar hinterland is a burned no-man's land and heavily depopulated, with the city of Zadar, turned into the largest fort in the Republic of Venice. Under the constant attacks of Turkish cannons, a multi-century struggle against Ottoman invaders took place, along with everyday life, exchange of culture and commerce.
A Church of Our Lady of Castello (Health), which still dominates this part of the town, was built.
Exhausted by constant wars and despair, the monastery of St. Nicholas slowly declined in every way, losing the substantive basis for its maintenance. In the year 1760, on the remains of the previous ones, a third and still existing baroque church of St. Nicholas was built. The church was never completed. The monastery, as well as the Republic of Venice, was dying.
The Napoleonic Wars ravaged Europe. The Venetian Republic ceased to exist in the year 1797. In Zadar and Dalmatia, the armies and powers of Austria and Napoleon's France are interchanging. In 1798 the monastery of St. Nicholas was abolished and converted into barracks and warehouses, as well as a military hospital.
The first Austrian Cadastral Survey of the City of Zadar shows the Military Hospital (Ospitale militare), today’s yard, and two buildings whose foundations were found during the reconstruction of the hotel. According to the old cadastral survey, the yard and buildings, at that time situated on the edge of town next to the ramparts and the sea, are built on plot number 1/1.
On the premises of the former monastery of St. Nicholas, the building of nowadays hotel was built as an annexe of a military hospital and barracks.
The ramparts are partially demolished and intensive construction begins. Views of the city changed dramatically and Zadar welcomes fin de siècle as a world famous centre of Maraschino production - king among liqueurs.
Opposite the building of the present Almayer hotel, Tomaso Burato - one of the best known and most awarded photographers of his time, opened his photographic studio. Being named the official royal photographer of Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph, Burato created numerous photos of Zadar and its citizens, including the oldest known photographs showing the building of today's hotel dating back to 1875.
After the demolition of the old military building "Quartieretti", on the idyllic terrain of the former Venetian Fortress of Kaštel, and nowadays Three Well Square, the owner Juraj Bianchini raised an interesting and luxurious residential building that now houses Almayer Hotel’s depandancé. This building is the first modern armoured-concrete construction in Zadar, built by Rings & Bonavia from Trieste. Here was the editorial and printing house of Narodni list - the oldest Croatian newspaper that are still existing, and which, at that time, were edited by Juraj Bianchini. It was in the very space of what is today a dependence of the hotel, that was an editorial office at the times of Zadar’s crucial days of the early 20th century.
At the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed and disintegrated into several states. Due to diplomatic games of the Triple Entente and the Kingdom of Italy, as well as the fact that the Italians were the ethnic majority in the city of Zadar, the Treaty of Rapallo, signed in 1920, tore Zadar from its natural environment and annexed it to Italy as an enclave on the eastern Adriatic coast. Italian authorities promoted a process of complete Italianization and numerous Croats emigrated from the city. Narodni List the most important Croatian newspaper has been shut down and its offices devastated.
During 1943 and 1944, after the surrender of fascist Italy and the Allied landings in southern Italy, Zadar was exposed to heavy Allied bombing as well as Nazis mining it in retreat from the city. With 80% of the city’s historic core destroyed, Zadar got its sad title of "Adriatic Dresden". Since it was made impossible for one to survive in such a city, the bombing and the revenge of liberators, created a new sad exodus, this time of Zadar’s Italians. The urbanity of the former capital of Dalmatia is almost completely destroyed.
Zadar was liberated, and the completely demolished and abducted city was returned to Croatia. There followed the exodus of the remaining Italians fleeing the destroyed city. A long and heavy recovery and rebuilding have begun. The building of the Almayer hotel, one of the few preserved in the old city centre, becomes a residential building, with a winery situated on its ground floor.
The bloody end of Yugoslavia is taking place, and Zadar and its surroundings are one of the epicentres of the conflict. The city is held hostage by rebel Serb forces, yet again enduring heavy shelling with numerous civilian casualties and great damage. Electricity supply had been interrupted for over a year, and water supply was maintained with great difficulties. In the bombing of Zadar from the sea, ship missiles heavily damaged the roof of the building that is now the hotel.
A neglected and dilapidated complex of the building and courtyard that now houses the hotel was acquired by spouses Irina Bakija and Vjekoslav Bobić.
The reconstruction and adaptation of the 1863 building into present-day Almayer has been more than just a hotel renovation. For us, it represented a desire to restore a part of the heritage and spirit of the mythical and almost forgotten Mediterranean, cosmopolitan and bourgeois Zadar.
When we created the idea of Almayer, our desire was to design a space and ambience with an emphasis on identity, refinement and value. We recognize architecture as an evolution. By adapting and transforming spaces, we strive to unify them, connect interiors and exteriors and create a harmoniously built environment that is not separate from or dominant over nature and the surroundings, but represents a unique whole.
The layers of time, and various interventions in the space, required thorough cleaning, all the while offering us an insight into the energy and story of the place. Under the influence of the century which made the city change and grow alongside the building and courtyard complex, the building remained 45 cm and the courtyard over 90 cm below the level of a nearby street.
The ravages of time, as well as the conversion of the entire complex into an attractive boutique hotel, required a comprehensive, thorough and thoughtful reconstruction.
After the initial archaeological excavations, the entire reconstruction was carried out in collaboration with the conservators. Revitalization and revaluation of heritage were one of the imperatives of the whole project.
In accordance with the holistic approach that we nurture in all of our projects, architecture has not competed with heritage but has enhanced the timeless quality of the building that conveys a spiritual experience.
During the renovation, special emphasis was put on the restoration of the hotel and the arrangement of its courtyard. Hidden behind the ancient monastery wall, our secret garden tells the visual story of Zadar.
Throughout the project, we tried to revitalise the heritage, but also reinterpret it with recycled materials from the house itself. For example, we paved the outdoor terraces with preserved hand-baked bricks, applying the ancient method of "fishbone" (lat. Opus spicatum) and used a visual trick to "underline it" under the old monastery wall, thus erasing the boundaries of the new and old.
Our Orangerie is a visual allusion to the fin de siecle and the golden age of bourgeois Zadar, constructed to resemble those that existed in Zadar in the early twentieth century. Surrounded by lush Mediterranean greenery and spatially integrated with the hotel, along with the rest of the secret garden makes an ideal place for contemplation, indulgence and recountals.
The architecture of the complex was underlined by the application of visual identity in the space. From the sumptuous front door to the courtyard, considered the most beautiful in the city, to many other thought-through details that unobtrusively connect the whole visual story.
The demanding and meticulous renovation of the 1863 building and the much older mediaeval courtyard, and their evolution into an elegant high-class hotel, transformed this forgotten part of the Old town into a unique place with a strong identity, integrity, and timeless beauty and emphasised urban value. Almayer is a prime example of the reconstruction and adaptation of hotels in the old Dalmatian city centres and is one of the best of its kind in Croatia.