The coast-hugging, mountain-boasting, island-splattered land of Croatia is firmly back on the travel map and for good reason as our travel guide shows
Is Croatia’s Istria the new Tuscany? Is Dalmatia the new Provence? Or is the whole country ‘the Mediterranean the way it used to be’? For some reason, every new slogan the tourist board comes up with seems designed to convince us that Croatia is somewhere else. In fact, Croatia has quite enough charms of its own. Take Zagreb, for instance.
The old Austro-Hungarian capital is a seductive blend of Central European dignity and Mediterranean joie de vivre where you can sip coffee in Viennese cafés and spend a night at the opera for a fraction of the cost elsewhere. And the arrival of cheap flights means that Zagreb is now an attractive weekend-break destination without – so far – the crowds of people that flock to Budapest, Krakow or Prague.
Now is the time to visit Croatia. The cities are buzzing, the coast is stunning as ever and the mountainous interior is still largely free of tourists. The country has a spring in its step as it revels in its new-found independence.
There are some regions of this bright little European star you shouldn't miss out on. The following itineraries will help you get the most out of the waters, mountains, wineries and national parks of this resilient land.
Chill out between Dubrovnik and Split (two to three weeks)
Split – Trogir – Bracˇ – Hvar – Vis – Korcˇula – Dubrovnik
As the hub of the Jadrolinija ferry network, Split makes an obvious starting point for a journey along the Dalmatian coast. Croatia’s second city grew up around the remains of Diocletian’s Palace, where the Roman emperor, born in nearby Solin (Roman Salona), retired around AD305. Over the years, bits of the palace have been recycled and incorporated into the modern city – the basement is now a shopping mall, the emperor’s mausoleum has become a cathedral, and Roman columns turn up in shops, cafés and hotels. While you are here take the local bus to Trogir, a perfectly preserved Venetian island town.
Ferries leave from Split to the Dalmatian islands of Bracˇ, Hvar, Korcˇula and Vis. In summer you can also travel between the islands on hydrofoils and excursion boats, but in winter these stop so you have to keep returning to Split before heading to the next island.
Each of the islands has a distinct character. Bracˇ is big, bold and brash, with the highest mountain of all of the Croatian islands and a busy summer resort at Bol, based around Croatia’s most famous beach – Zlatni Rat. In summer, boards by the beach advertise an array of activities: windsurfing, kite surfing, diving and sea kayaking are all ready and available.
Hvar is pretty, laid-back and ultra-chic, with flashy yachts moored in the harbour while their owners hang out at trendy waterfront bars. Vis, which was out of bounds to foreigners until 1989, is in danger of going the same way, but is still a lovely relaxing island of vineyards and fishermen – a great place to unwind for a few days.
After a short ferry crossing from Korcˇula, a bus takes you across Peljesˇac Peninsula towards Dubrovnik, with views across to the mainland and the craggy mountains of the Biokovo range. Arriving in Dubrovnik, take a stroll around the ramparts to get your bearings and enjoy the best views over this medieval city. It’s easy to spend days here soaking up the atmosphere from the café terraces on the Stradun, the central promenade of the walled city, but try to make time for one last ferry trip to the wooded isle of Lokrum or the peaceful, traffic-free island of Lopud.
Mountains, rivers and national parks (three weeks)
Zadar – Paklenica NP – Northern Velebit NP – Plitvice Lakes
Renting a car is the easiest way to make a circuit of Croatia’s national parks. Begin in Zadar, a lively Dalmatian port city with an eclectic mix of architecture. There’s the Roman forum at its centre and the newly built Sea Organ on the promenade – here you can sit on the white-stone steps listening to the symphony of nature created by the action of the waves on the underwater pipes.
Follow the coast road north to Paklenica National Park, whose steep gorges carve out a course from the mountains to the sea. The park contains some of Croatia’s best hiking and climbing, and there is a mountain refuge where you can stay overnight. The shelter is at the southern end of the Velebit Massif, a sheer wall of limestone that rises up from the coast for 145km. At the northern end of the range, Northern Velebit National Park is cut off by snow for much of the year.
Turn inland at Senj and climb to the Plitvice Lakes, where waterfalls and lakes are linked by footpaths and boardwalk trails. In summer the place is crawling with coach parties – visit out of season if you can. With shuttle buses and boats, you can explore the national park in a day, but there is plenty of accommodation in nearby villages if you want to stay longer. Next, take the old main road south to Knin, capital of the Serbian Republic of Krajina during the Homeland War.
The countryside around Knin contains its share of abandoned, burned-out villages, but also the beautiful Krka National Park where you can take a boat trip along the canyon of the River Krka in summer. Continue down to the coast at Sˇibenik, another city that suffered during the war. It is well worth stopping here to see the 15th-century Venetian Gothic cathedral with its playful frieze of stone portraits carved around the outside.
On the way back to Zadar, take a cruise around the Kornati Islands – an archipelago of 147 uninhabited isles with a stark, ethereal beauty. Boats depart in summer from Sˇibenik and the nearby island of Murter.
Truffles, wine and olives (one to two weeks)
Pula – Rovinj – Motovun – Buzet – Opatija – Volosko
Two hours across the water from Venice, Istria is a gorgeous peninsula of vineyards, oak woods and Italian-style hill towns. Known throughout Croatia for its food, Istria produces excellent wine, ham, seafood, wild asparagus, truffles, olive oil and a unique mistletoe brandy.
First stop is the Roman amphitheatre at Pula, once used for gladiatorial contests but now an atmospheric concert venue where Sting and Pavarotti have performed. Wander around the city and you stumble across other Roman remains, from a triumphal arch to the Temple of Augustus in the old forum.
Continue by bus up the coast to Rovinj. Even by the standards of the Croatian shoreline, Rovinj is a gem – an impossibly pretty Venetian town crammed onto a rocky outcrop with pastel-coloured houses reflected in the sea. You cannot walk along the harbourside in August without hearing Italian voices outside the pavement cafés, wine bars and ice-cream parlours.
The coast around Rovinj is the summer home of Europe’s naturists, who arrive in their thousands each year – the biggest nudist camp in Europe is at Vrsar. Nearby Porecˇ is blighted by mass tourism; instead, hire a car and head inland to explore the Istrian countryside.
Motovun is the archetypal hilltop town, with a church on the main square and fine views from the ramparts. From here, follow the Mirna River Valley to Buzet – the self-styled ‘city of truffles’. Local farmer Giancarlo Zigante made a name for himself in 1999 when he found what was at the time the world’s biggest white truffle, weighing a whopping 1.3kg. Check out his delightful shop on the main square (www.zigantetartufi.com). If you can’t afford £2,000 a kilo, local restaurants serve truffle omelettes and pasta.
After indulging in the delicacies, drive through the tunnel beneath Mount Ucˇka to reach Opatija, a fin-de-siècle resort where the ghosts of the Austro-Hungarian empire live on in its elegant seaside villas and hotels. For a final treat, take the bus to Lovran and follow the Lungomare promenade for 12km to Volosko. This will work up your appetite for lunch at Le Mandrac, whose chef gives Istrian ingredients a post-modern twist – how about tucking into octopus gazpacho with Bloody Mary granita?
After the war (one to two weeks)
Zagreb – Varazˇdin – Osijek – Vukovar
Zagreb has only been a national capital since 1991. Ruled at various times by Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade, it encapsulates Croatia’s position at the cultural and historical crossroads of Central Europe, the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Take the funicular to Gornji Grad (Upper Town) – the oldest part of the city – to stroll its cobbled streets. Buses outside the cathedral will take you to Mirogoj cemetery, where there is a recently erected memorial to the victims of the Homeland War.
Travelling around by bus is generally quicker than by rail, but the slow train to Varazˇdin is a delight – a three-hour journey through the rolling hills of the rural Zagorje region with its picture-book villages and churches. If you have a car, you can spend some time here, stopping off at farmhouses for the night and gorging yourself on local mushrooms and hearty stews.
Varazˇdin is a charming city of 18th-century baroque palaces built at a time when it was briefly a royal capital. It takes around four hours by bus from Varazˇdin to Osijek, crossing the rural heartland of Slavonia. Roadside stalls sell sacks of red peppers – a mainstay of Slavonian cuisine. Meals here are cheap, filling and hot, from kulen (sausage flavoured with paprika) to gulasˇ (goulash) and riblji paprikasˇ (spicy fish casserole).
Osijek – the largest city in eastern Croatia – was repeatedly shelled during the war and the evidence is still there in the pockmarked facades of the Tvrd/a district. A riverside path follows the River Drava to the city centre, newly spruced after the war.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Vukovar, a short bus ride from Osijek. This once prosperous town on the River Danube is now in ruins, a ghost town with empty shells where buildings once stood. As a symbol of the Homeland War, the name Vukovar strikes an emotional chord with every Croat. Rows of white crosses in the cemetery on the outskirts of town tell their own story. At the Ovcˇara farm, a plaque recalls the massacre of more than 200 wounded civilians, taken from the hospital and shot when Serbian forces overran Vukovar after a three-month siege. It makes a sober place to end your journey, reflecting on the horrors of war.