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Frommer's EasyGuide to Croatia

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The Adriatic Coast of Croatia, with its beaches. marinas, and countless resorts, its ancient and well-preserved medieval cities (Dubrovnik, the star), all supplemented by the great city of Zagreb, and a superb climate, is the current "hit" of European tourism. It is predicted by some that Croatia will soon be the world's 12th most popular travel destination--all ample reason for the publication of this new Frommer's guidebook. Jaunty and fun to read, yet detailed, practical and cost-conscious, this Easy Guide is sure to be a best-seller.

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1 The Best of Croatia

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The Best of Croatia

Until recently, Croatia’s tourist season ran from July through August, and belonged almost exclusively to Europeans, who clogged border crossings in their annual migration to the country’s endless coastline and clear blue sea. Finally, however, the rest of the world has discovered Croatia’s charms: its wealth of Roman ruins, medieval hilltop castles, and staggering cache of natural wonders. Even though the summer season now runs longer and the crowds are larger and more diverse, it is still possible to find a secluded pebble cove, or a family-run winery where time seems to have stood still. Every town and village has at least one restaurant where the locals hang out and where the slice of life you get with your meal is the best dessert there is. When all the big modern hotels are filled, there is always a room waiting in a private home where the landlord welcomes you like a long-lost friend.

This chapter is a “road map,” directing you to some of my favorites. I know you’ll add to the list when you find some of your own.

 

2 Croatia In Depth

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CROATIA IN DEPTH

“T he Mediterranean As It Once Was,” “Europe’s Summer Home,” “Ethnic Battlefield,” “War-Torn Nation.” Croatia has been labeled all these things, but which identity is correct, and is the country worth visiting when there are so many exciting but less controversial destinations vying for a traveler’s time and dollars?

The answer is that Croatia is a little of each but not dominated by any, and that’s part of its allure.

Where else can you spend the night in a room on a working farm, then spend the day poking around an intact Roman amphitheater? How many places let you walk atop a massive fortification in the footsteps of a guard on the lookout for invaders from the sea, then sip martinis at midnight watching models strut down a runway in a square surrounded by churches and remnants of the Renaissance? Is there another destination where you can hike through a forest to the tempo of water rushing from falls too numerous to count, then dress for dinner on a candlelit terrace where passengers from the Orient Express once mingled during a layover?

 

3 Croatia Regions & Suggested Itineraries

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Croatia Regions & Suggested Itineraries

Croatia is such a diverse country that it is difficult to make any touring plan of action to cover all its important places without leaving out many “must-sees.” Consequently, I’ve divided itineraries into two parts: routes for those who enter the country at Zagreb, and routes for those who start in Dubrovnik. These include my favorite places and allow for time frames of varying lengths.

Note: If you plan to spend 2 weeks in Croatia, simply follow two 1-week itineraries, in whichever order you prefer.

The Regions in Brief

There are many ways to designate Croatia’s regions—coastal and inland, islands and mainland, northern and southern—and the best way to get a feel for the diverse charms of its geography is to look at each from a variety of perspectives.

Dalmatian Coast    Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is characterized by extremes. From Zadar in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, the terrain that extends westward from the dramatic backdrop of the rugged Dinaric mountain range becomes a sun-washed 3-D mosaic of red-tiled roofs, graceful bell towers, lush vegetation, and shimmering beaches as the land rolls toward the sea. The coast is also a repository of history, with very visible Roman and Venetian influences. Add to that a mild Mediterranean climate that supports a thriving fishing industry and an agricultural economy rich in olives and grapes, and you have the formula for tourism gold. Offshore, Croatia’s many islands (1,168 to be exact, if you include all the islets and reefs, although only 47 are inhabited) lure boating and water-sports enthusiasts, sun worshipers, Europeans on vacation, and celebrities trying to get away from it all. They are part of Dalmatia’s mystique and some of its most valuable assets.

 

4 Zagreb

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Zagreb

There is a new spirit in Zagreb, a city that travelers regarded as more a stopover than a destination as far back as the days of the Orient Express. No more. Zagreb’s attractions aren’t as famous as Paris’s, or as numerous as Rome’s, but it’s still impossible to experience all the city’s delights on just an overnight stay.

Zagreb has always played a pivotal role in the life of Croatia, mostly because of its location at the crossroads where western and eastern Europe meet. This is not a glitzy city, but one of history, culture, and purpose, informed by war and natural disasters. Zagreb is still finding itself after nearly a millennium of foreign domination, but it is changing and growing, and emerging as a destination in its own right.

Nowadays, Zagreb’s squares fill every summer with people speaking a variety of languages. New restaurants, attractions, and entrepreneurial ventures are sprouting everywhere. As so often happens with travel, much of how one experiences Zagreb can come down to luck—being here at the right moment. On rainy Sundays, central Zagreb is deserted: Stores are closed and restaurants and museums are empty. If a visitor has just a day and is forced to see the city from under an umbrella, Zagreb seems a sad, gray place. But if that same visitor is lucky enough to be in the city center on a sunny Saturday, Zagreb is a vital metropolis, pulsating with color and buzzing with energy. On a day like that, Zagreb hums with chatter as fashionistas haggle with wizened old ladies in black at the colorful Dolac Market, and the city becomes a backdrop for curious tourists, for friends sipping wine at sidewalk cafes, and for anyone listening to the street musicians that fill Trg Ban Jelačić with beautiful noise.

 

5 Excursions from Zagreb

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Excursions from Zagreb

Most visitors to Croatia know something about its sophisticated capital, Zagreb, and the country’s stunning Adriatic coastal scenery, but they know little about what lies beyond. There is much less traveler chatter about Croatia’s inland towns—both close to Zagreb and farther away—than there is about the coast, even though these interior regions provide rich alternatives to sun-and-fun culture. Croatia away from Zagreb and the coast dances to a much less frenetic beat than its glamorous siblings. The atmosphere in the cool, green hills is more down-to-earth and less commercial. Working towns and farms are juxtaposed with castles and medieval fortresses, built centuries ago to protect the country from foreign invaders.

The northern regions of the Zagorje and Međimurje are where many of Croatia’s heroes were born, and where many patriots died fighting for Croatia’s freedom. There, hilltop towers stand sentry, as if to protect the land against harm, and tiny klets stand between crop rows to provide shelter for farmers and their tools.

 

6 Osijek & Inland Croatia

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Osijek & Inland Croatia

Few visitors to Croatia include the region east of Zagreb in their itineraries. While many of the towns between Zagreb and the country’s eastern border on the Danube have not recovered fully from the 1991 war, a visit to this region will help you build a fuller picture of the real Croatia, far away from the hedonistic Dalmatian beaches, exotic islands, and romantic harbor towns.

Inland Croatia is home to vast flat plains and the country’s most fertile arable land, along with historic towns, rural wetlands supporting rare bird species, and gastronomic delights capable of wowing even the most jaded traveler. Visitors can walk through Čigoć, a village in the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park, where whole families of storks nonchalantly regard you from mammoth nests built atop centuries-old timber cottages. You can visit solemn Jasenovac and its poignant monument to victims of World War II’s ethnic violence and feel the sadness in the air. In Osijek, the biggest city in Slavonia, you can take a turn around the promenade along the mighty Drava, and walk the perimeter of the city along the top of what’s left of the medieval walls surrounding the Old Town. Then, in Ilok, you can taste local wines in a vast, centuries-old wine cellar. It’s almost a certainty that you’ll cringe at the devastation still visible in Vukovar, and you’ll shake your head at the unspeakable cruelty that the town’s citizens suffered when you visit the touching memorial to victims of a 1991 hospital massacre there.

 

7 Istria

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Istria

Istria is bucolic bliss in primary colors: Dark red earth, glistening blue sea, and rolling hills that tumble into valleys cloaked in shades of green and gold. Its sensory stimulation is packed into a triangular peninsula at the northwestern end of Croatia, dipping into the Adriatic just far enough to catch the seductive Mediterranean climate. Most of Istria’s pine- and rosemary-scented coastal landscape is lined with pebble beaches and marinas framed by Venetian-style harbor towns.

Many nations have occupied Istria over the centuries, and it is remarkable that the peninsula has not become a cultural hodgepodge. Instead, the region has embraced the best of every country that contributed to its development through the ages, a philosophy that still informs Istrians’ easygoing attitude, tolerance for diversity, love of fine food and wine, and above all, their passion for the land and sea.

Even the most transient tourist will recognize that Istrians have acquired Italian sensibilities without losing their Croatian souls. Istria was part of Italy until World War II, and many residents still communicate with each other in a local dialect that is a lilting blend of Italian and Croatian. Most towns are known by both their Italian and Croatian names and sometimes fool visitors into wondering if they’ve made an inadvertent border crossing.

 

8 Rijeka & the Kvarner Gulf

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Rijeka & the Kvarner Gulf

Centering on the industrial port town of Rijeka, the Kvarner region is backed by mountains and overlooks the deep blue waters of the Kvarner Gulf. The region’s best known and oldest tourist destination is Opatija, with its 19th-century villas, lush gardens filled with palm trees, and upmarket waterside seafood restaurants.

From the port of Rijeka, travelers can catch ferries and catamarans to the islands (most—but not all—leave from Rijeka). To visit the island of Krk, with its lovely long pebble beach in Baška, you don’t even need to board a boat—it’s joined to the mainland by a bridge, so a bus journey will suffice.

The island of Lošinj does requires a boat journey. Its main town, pretty Mali Lošinj, is one of the region’s top destinations. Ecologically savvy tourists can explore the rocky hills of Cres Island, joined to Lošinj by a bridge, where rugged paths monitored by grazing sheep run a dizzying course to deserted azure coves.

 

9 Upper Dalmatia

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Upper Dalmatia

The region known as Upper Dalmatia, lying between Kvarner and Lower Dalmatia, with Zadar as its main city, is a collection of contradictions: The cities and sites are among some of Croatia’s most accessible and enchanting, but the region is also home to what is arguably some of the most forbidding and barren terrain in the world. Still, there is something for everyone in this gateway to Croatia’s glorious coast, whether your interests tend toward climbing the rugged peaks of the challenging Velebit mountain range, sailing the deep blue Adriatic to explore the uninhabited rocky islets of the Kornati, or listening to classical music at the medieval Church of St. Donat in Zadar.

All roads to and from Upper Dalmatia seem to go through Zadar, the largest city on the region’s coastal highway. In many ways, Zadar’s mix of monuments and commerce, of ancient history and contemporary nightlife, make it one of Croatia’s most cosmopolitan centers.

From Zadar, you can visit the arid rocky island of Pag, known for its delicious Paški sir (a sheep’s milk cheese similar to Parmesan), and the all-night summer parties hosted on Zrće beach in Novalja.

 

10 Lower Dalmatia

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Lower Dalmatia

The skinny strip of land stretching north to south between Bosnia/Herzegovina and the sea presents one breathtaking moment after another. It’s almost impossible to zip through lower Dalmatia on a scattershot tour, even though driving from Zagreb to just outside Ploče (21km/13 miles south of Split) is now a high-speed breeze on the country’s new toll road. However, once you run out of divided highway, traffic—and life—slows to a languid tempo. Visitors to this rat-race-free zone are forced to go with the flow. The Dalmatian coastal region from Split to Dubrovnik is the inspiration for Croatia tourism’s “The Mediterranean as It Once Was” slogan with good reason.

Split is Croatia’s second-largest city and home to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world, as well as the main port of departure for ferries to the islands. Hvar surrounds visitors in a cloud of glamour and herbal fragrance while Brač puts wind in the sails of board bums off its Golden Cape. Korčula draws people through Marco Polo lore, its endless vineyards, and the white stone of its medieval walls. Farther out on the Adriatic, Vis and Biševo islet beckon travelers to bask in the blue glow of an underwater cave and to explore what was Tito’s war room. In between multiple towns, islands and beaches, historic sites, architectural gems, natural wonders, and age-old traditions are the keys that unlock the doors to treasures waiting for anyone savvy enough to seek out this stretch of the Dalmatian coast.

 

11 Dubrovnik

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Dubrovnik

Hollywood’s most creative designers would struggle to build a set as perfect as Dubrovnik. In fact, this magnificent medieval walled city (proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has been used as a location for filming HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Neil Jordan’s “The Borgias.”

Yugoslav National Army shells poured down on Dubrovnik during the 1991–92 sieges. But, thanks to extensive restoration, today the walled city is remarkably whole and is as lustrous as it was 5 centuries ago, when Dubrovnik was a major sea power bustling with prosperous merchants and dripping with Renaissance grandeur.

Dubrovnik (née Ragusa) began as a Roman settlement. From the Middle Ages on it was a prize sought by Venice, Hungary, Turkey, and others who recognized the city’s logistical value as a maritime port. But Libertas (Liberty), the city’s motto, has always been uppermost in the minds of Dubrovnik’s citizens, and through the ages their thirst for independence repeatedly trumped other nations’ plans for domination.

 

12 Planning Your Trip to Croatia

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Planning Your Trip to Croatia

Croatia can be unfamiliar territory for even the most seasoned traveler, but it’s no more difficult to put together a dream trip here than with any other European destination. Once you understand that there are no direct flights from North America to Croatia, and that getting here requires a stop in a city with connecting flights, ferry routes, or land access, planning gets much easier. A visit to one or more of Croatia’s countless islands requires more precise logistical planning, if only to make sure you don’t waste time on long layovers and missed connections. For specific information on planning your trip and for more on-the-ground resources in Croatia, please turn to individual chapters on the regions in question, or the “Fast Facts” at the end of this chapter.

When To Go

Summer, specifically July and August, is the busiest time on Croatia’s coast and islands. This is the country’s “season,” a time when the sun is the hottest, the sea the bluest, and the traffic at its most endless. The Croatian coast is at its best—and worst—during midsummer. Hotel room rates top out, restaurant tables are always full, and crowds can be overwhelming. This is the period that makes or breaks many businesses that depend on a season’s tourism for a year’s income, and it can be tough on unsuspecting travelers. Much of the madness is due to traditional European vacation schedules, which coincide with the coast’s glorious summer weather. Boating enthusiasts, tour groups, and independent travelers from all over the world make up the rest of the traffic.

 

13 Useful Terms & Phrases

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Useful Terms & Phrases

Glossary of Croatian-Language Terms

Most of the natives you’ll encounter in Croatia will be fluent in at least one other language besides Croatian, usually English, or German or Italian. However, if you try to learn at least a few rudimentary words and phrases in this Slavic variant, you will be richly rewarded for your efforts. Pronunciation is not as difficult as it looks when you’re staring at a word that appears to be devoid of vowels. With a few guidelines and a little practice, you should be able to make yourself understood.

Ordering a meal (& paying for it)

English

Croatian

Pronunciation

menu

jelovnik

yay-lohv-neek

order

naručiti

nah-roo-chee-tee

waiter

konobar

koe-noe-bar

I am hungry.

Ja sam gladan.

Ya sahm glah-dahn.

Do you serve food here?

Da li poslužujete hranu ovdje?

Dah lee poe-sloozh-oo-yay-tay ha-ra-noo ohv-day?

 

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