Croatia is blessed with a wealth of natural riches, boasting almost 2000 km of rocky, indented shore and more than a thousand islands, many blanketed in luxuriant vegetation. Even during the heavily visited months of July and August there are still enough off-the-beaten-track islands, quiet coves and stone-built fishing villages to make you feel as if you’re visiting Europe at its most unspoiled. There’s plenty in the way of urbane glamour too, if that’s what you’re after, with swanky hotels, yacht-filled harbours and cocktail bars aplenty – especially in a-la-mode destinations such as Dubrovnik and Hvar. Wherever you go though you’ll find that Croatia retains an appeal for independent travellers that’s in short supply at more package-oriented destinations elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Most budget and mid-range accommodation is still in the form of private rooms and apartments, and there has been an explosion in the number of backpacker-friendly hostel-type establishments in the major cities.
The country has certainly come a long way since the early 1990s, when within the space of half a decade – almost uniquely in contemporary Europe – it experienced the collapse of communism, a war of national survival and the securing of independence. Two decades on, visitors will be struck by the tangible sense of pride that independent statehood has brought. National culture is a far from one-dimensional affair, however, and much of the country’s individuality is due to its geographical position straddling the point at which the sober central European virtues of hard work and order collide with the spontaneity, vivacity and taste for the good things in life that characterize the countries of southern Europe – a cultural blend of Mitteleuropa and Mediterranean that gives Croatia its particular flavour. Not only that, but the country also stands on one of the great fault lines of European civilization, the point at which the Catholicism of Central Europe meets the Islam and Orthodox Christianity of the East. Though Croats traditionally see themselves as a Western people, distinct from the other South Slavs who made up the former state of Yugoslavia, many of the hallmarks of Balkan culture – patriarchal families, hospitality towards strangers and a fondness for grilled food – are as common in Croatia as in any other part of southeastern Europe, suggesting that the country’s relationship with its neighbours is closer than many Croats may admit.
Croatia’s underrated capital Zagreb is a typical central European metropolis, combining elegant nineteenth-century buildings with plenty of cultural diversions and a vibrant café life. It’s also a good base for trips to the undulating hills and charming villages of the rural Zagorje region to the north, and to the well-preserved Baroque town of Varazdin to the northeast.
The rest of inland Croatia provides plenty of opportunities for relaxed exploring. Stretching east from Zagreb, the plains of Slavonia form the richest agricultural parts of Croatia, with seemingly endless corn and sunflower fields fanning out from handsome, Habsburg-era provincial towns such as Osijek and Vukovar – the latter, almost totally destroyed during the 1991–95 war, is now in the throes of total reconstruction. Inland Croatia also offers numerous hiking opportunities: Mount Medvednica, just above Zagreb, or the Samoborsko gorje, just to the west of the capital, are good for gentle rambling. Also lying between Zagreb and the coast, and easily visited from either, are the deservedly hyped Plitvice Lakes, an enchanting sequence of forest-fringed turquoise pools linked by miniature waterfalls.
Croatia’s lengthy stretch of coastline, together with its islands, is big enough to swallow up any number of tourists. At the northern end, the peninsula of Istria, contains many of the country’s most developed resorts, along with old Venetian towns like Porec and Rovinj, and the raffish port of Pula, home to some impressive Roman remains. Inland Istria is characterized by sleepy hilltop villages, often dramatically situated, such as Motovun, Groznjan, Rocand Hum – each mixing medieval architecture with rustic tranquillity.
The island-scattered Kvarner Gulf, immediately south of Istria, is presided over by the city of Rijeka, a hard-edged port city with an energetic cultural life. Close by are a clutch of resorts that were chic high-society hang-outs in the late nineteenth century and retain a smattering of belle époque charm, including quaint, diminutive Lovran and the larger, more developed Opatija. Not far offshore, the Kvarner islands of Cres, Losinj and Krk have long been colonized by the package-holiday crowds, although each has retained its fair share of quiet seaside villages and tranquil coves; while the capital of the island of Rab, south of Krk, is arguably the best-preserved medieval town in the northern Adriatic.
Beyond the Kvarner Gulf lies Dalmatia, a dramatic, mountain-fringed stretch of coastline studded with islands. It’s a stark, arid region where fishing villages and historic towns cling to a narrow coastal strip rich in figs, olives and subtropical vegetation. Northern Dalmatia’s main city is Zadar, whose busy central alleys are crammed with medieval churches. From here, ferries serve a chain of laid-back islands such as Silba, Olib and the ruggedly beautiful Dugi otok – none of them sees many package tourists, and they’re enticingly relaxing as a result. The site of an unmissable Renaissance cathedral, middle Dalmatia’s main town, Sibenik, is also a good staging-post en route to the waterfalls of the Krka National Park just inland, and the awesome, bare islands of the Kornati archipelago.
Croatia’s second city, Split, is southern Dalmatia’s main town, a vibrant and chaotic port with an ancient centre moulded around the palace of the Roman emperor, Diocletian. It’s also the obvious jumping-off point for some of the most enchanting of Croatia’s islands. The closest of these are Solta and Brac, where you’ll find lively fishing villages and some excellent beaches, while nearby Hvar and Korcula feature smallish towns brimming with Venetian architecture and numerous beaches. The cocktail bars and beach parties of Hvar town have earned the place a reputation for chic hedonism, although the rest of the island offers plenty of soothing corners. Slightly further afield, the islands of Vis and Lastovo, which were closed to tourists until the late 1980s, remain particularly pristine.
South of Split lies the walled medieval city of Dubrovnik, site of an important arts festival in the summer and a magical place to be whatever the season. Much of the damage inflicted on the town during the 1991–95 war has been repaired, and tourists have been quick to return. Just offshore lie the sparsely populated islands of Kolocep. Lopud and Sipan – oases of rural calm only a short ferry ride away from Dubrovnik’s tourist bustle. Also reachable from Dubrovnik is one of the Adriatic’s most beautiful islands, the densely forested and relaxingly serene Mljet.
Plitvice National Park