Some seasoned travelers may cast a weary eye upon Europe. London, Paris, Rome…check, check, and check. But if you think you’ve “been there, done that,” it may be time to consider Croatia.
Since joining the European Union in 2013, this slice of the former Yugoslavia has officially hit the big time. Twenty years after the Croatian War of Independence, its once battle-scarred cities have been beautifully rebuilt, and the country wants the world to know: it’s open for business.
If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in the sapphire Adriatic Sea abutting its shores or discovered the museum-packed capital of Zagreb, Abercrombie & Kent’s nine-day Connections tour–“Croatia: Jewel of the Coast”–offers a tantalizingly moreish taste of this croissant-shaped nation.
The journey begins in Zagreb, renowned for its cultural attractions, including nearly 70 galleries and more than two dozen museums devoted to everything from archeology to natural history.
My most unexpected find is the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, a collection of alternately amusing and poignant mementos of failed affairs, including an “ex-axe” one spurned woman used to destroy her partner’s furniture (talk about having an axe to grind) to fuzzy handcuffs (ahem) and a can of “Lover’s Incense.” (The accompanying description reads simply “Doesn’t work.”)
With its mixture of baroque architecture and winding lanes, you could easily spend a day just wandering Zagreb’s streets.
Well-dressed denizens gossip over coffee along Tkalciceva. Women with tanned, weathered faces framed by headkerchiefs sell fruit and vegetables in the Dolac Market, and religious folk flock to Stone Gate to light a candle and kneel before a portrait of the Virgin Mary.
This revered icon, now encased by glass, survived a great fire in 1731 and is thought to possess healing powers.
St. Mark’s Church, with its peacock-colored tiled roof, may feature on every tourist brochure, but according to guide Valentina Buklijas, Stone Gate is where locals come for serious miraculous mojo.
After two days in Zagreb, my group, accompanied by a tour leader and driver, piles into a bus for the ride towards Split on the Adriatic, with a break for a hike alongside the surreally blue lakes and cascading waterfalls of Plitivice National Park. Following a filling lunch of pork schnitzel, I find myself fighting off carcolepsy—my term for the somnolent state brought on by long drives—as we pass bucolic farms, pine forests and hills unfurling towards the mountains.
I’m jolted to full consciousness by the sight of a tank parked beside the ruins of a building. That, according to our driver, Drago Krsticevic, is a monument to “the war,” as the 90s conflict is known here. As we continue, I notice more crumbling, abandoned buildings, one spray-painted with a lone word, “Alamo.”
Attitudes about the war vary, but Krsticevic—a jovial, well-spoken young man—displays a remarkably evenhanded view. “The younger generation not born during the war is fed up with this idea of hate,” he says. “We must look in the future; we shouldn’t look in the past.”
Arriving in Split, a coastal community at the foot of stony mountains, the comingling of past and present is baldly evident in the architecture. On the outskirts, soaring monolithic apartment buildings—erected under Yugoslavia’s post-World War II communist leadership—dominate the skyline. But nestled on the Adriatic, the ancient Roman Diocletian’s Palace dates back as far as 300 AD.
The palace is not simply an historic monument, however. It’s a compact walled city where people still live and work. As the beating heart of Split, it’s filled with shops, restaurants, bars, apartments, and laundry lines strewn like bunting across labyrinthine alleyways.
“Within the palace, you can see Egyptian columns from Luxor, Roman arches, gothic palaces and 18th century Baroque balconies,” explains our guide, Mislav Luketin, a wiry fellow with the indefatigable energy of a Jack Russell terrier. “When I see a satellite dish on a Roman wall…” he kisses his fingertips to express his appreciation. “What I love is that life goes on.”
And so does our journey. Although I’m reluctant to leave Split, my taste buds are tingling with the promise of a unique culinary treat—a feast plucked directly from the sea at Bota Sare in Ston.
Hopping aboard a small launch, we accompany the owner, Bozidar Sare, as he reels in lines of oysters and mussels with his large, meaty hands.
With a deft flick of a knife, Sare cracks them open the minute they reach the surface, and we slurp the tongue-like meat from the shells with a surprisingly sensual French kiss.
Physically, I’m satiated, but I’m thirsting for my first view of Dubrovnik, which George Bernard Shaw once proclaimed “Paradise on Earth.”
From atop its medieval walls, which stretch for more than a mile, I’m rewarded with views of the Adriatic to the south, the harbor to the east, and red-tiled roofs and domed churches inland. It might look familiar to fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which adopted Dubrovnik as a stand-in for King’s Landing in the second season.
During the 90s, the world watched in horror as this splendid city was shelled by Serbian and Montenegrin forces from the Yugoslav army. Tea Batinic, a local gallery owner with whom A&K arranges for us to meet, describes those dark days.
Her attic was hit by five shells, buildings were burning all around town, and the city was without power or water.
But the only time this strong, feisty woman comes close to tears is when she describes seeing a shell strike the Gundelic Square fountain, which she recollects “from childhood, before I could even touch the bowl.”
Today, the fountain is fully repaired, and the buzzing square is filled with vendors hawking fresh produce, folks sipping pale pints of beer, and pigeons awaiting a man who feeds them every day at noon.
The city has been restored to its former glory, with only a few shrapnel pockmarks on its walls and pavements, if you know where to look. Under the skin, scars may always remain for those who remember the war, but, as they say, life does indeed go on.