How to approach Croatia, how to understand it? Layers of history, layers of geography and layers of culture conspire together – you cannot easily make sense of Croatia, but you can find very much here, much you might seek and much you might not expect.
Croatia is full of easily appreciated beauties: stark limestone mountains, lush riverine landscapes, historic towns full of character, a convoluted seashore on the Adriatic Sea and a kaleidoscope of islands. All of these places are the venues of an extraordinarily complex history, to be seen, explored, enjoyed and understood. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers, warlike Iron Age tribes, Greek settlers and Roman colonists, Slavic invaders, medieval city-dwelling traders, and Austro-Hungarian rulers have left their footprints all over Croatia. And wherever you are in Croatia, you can sense these presences and explore them.
A key thing to realise is how Croatia and its predecessors found themselves, more often than not, in an area that was conceived from a distance as a border, a region that the distant viewer from either direction saw as the edge of whatever they felt part of, but that felt from the inside as a place ‘in between’. From prehistory to the present, it is a region between the Mediterranean sphere, the continental European one and the Balkans, of which it is geographically a part. Look at a map: Croatia is a country of baffling shape, a C (the locals jokingly describe it as a banana) consisting of a long coastal arm, very Mediterranean in character, joined by a hilly heartland, with a Central European feel to it, to another long arm reaching towards the Danube and the Inner Balkans. What a theatre for history!
For the Greeks, Dalmatia, i.e. coastal Croatia, was the hazy mainland next to their colonies on the Adriatic coast, for the Romans the region was a border with the unconquered interior further inland, for the Byzantines a frontier with the Latin/Catholic West, for the Venetians and later the Italians a mosaic of some lucrative places they controlled and some threatening ones they didn’t, leading to trade and conflict alike. Most importantly, however, Croatia was the border between the Christian West (to which it belonged) and the Ottoman East for four centuries, from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, and again, sometimes it was also the battlefield between them and sometimes the venue of contact, trade and communication. Even Cold War Yugoslavia, of which it was an important part, was somehow between blocs. And many of us remember that Croatia saw conflict as recently as the 1990s, during the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia – but today it comes across as a quiet and peaceful place, a country of slow and balanced pace, certainly characterised by a strong pride in its identity, but one that appears settled and unaggressive.
If you go to a Croatian bakery in the morning (I recommend it highly), you can experience its in-between-ness first-hand: there will be Italian-style coffee (of Italian quality!) available, and in the glass counters you will see a shelf with burek, layered pastries with fillings of greens, cheese and onions, occasionally also of fruit, derived from Turkish börek, and next to it a shelf of strudel, apple or cherry, just as you would find in Austria, all three beckoning you to have a casual breakfast that bridges three cultural spheres in a few bites and sips.
The first stop for many visitors is quite rightly Zagreb, the capital. It is a capital town rather than a capital city, a small place of intimate dimensions, and one that doesn’t hide its history. Two hills form the old centre of this capital. One is crowned by a very fine thirteenth-century cathedral in the Gothic style, the long-established spiritual heart of a largely Catholic country. There is a fortification wall around it, reflecting troubled times. The other hill is the civic and now political centre, a typically Central European Old Town, with its lanes and mansions and the institutions that run a modern country. Between them sits a former stream-bed, now and long before now a lane, called Radićeva, a place where the visitor can relax or party in countless bars and restaurants.
Below all that lies the modern city, much of it looking like an important but provincial Austro-Hungarian centre, mixing a certain grandeur with a sense of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century architectural ambition, covering the range from stolid Neoclassicism to reluctant Art Nouveau (or rather Jugendstil) exuberance. It is quite easy to understand Zagreb in a nutshell, because it is one. Of course, it hides many great sights, such as the superb and treasure-filled archaeological museum, devoted to the entire country, the city museum, set in an old mansion and displaying a varied and colourful history as grand and entertaining narrative, and the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, the unique and surprisingly touching result of an odd idea that appeals to the entirety of humanity in its evocation of joy and loss.
Zagreb’s best moment is probably the open street market in Dolac square, between the two hills of the Old Town, with fruit and flowers and light on ground level, and a deep cavern below where the delights of a meat-loving and pork-curing country can be explored at length, helped along by the range of wonderful wines that Croatia produces, their variety reflecting that of its terrains and terroirs.
Having seen Zagreb, or having passed it by (they shouldn’t), most visitors head for the coastal part of the country, to Istria and Dalmatia, regions that have become very popular in recent years, and where much of European history has left its indelible footprints and fingerprints. There will be time to write about Istria, a wonderland of historic castle-towns and wine and truffles, for a long time Venice’s main eastern hinterland, soon. For now, let’s look at Dalmatia.
Everything we say above applies to Dalmatia: the historic depth, the natural beauty, the sense of peace, the variety of things to see. Arguably the three most striking mainland landmarks of Dalmatia, from north to south, are the cities of Zadar, Šibenik, Split and Dubrovnik. All four are amazing places to see, but each in a different way.
Zadar is an exemplary Venetian Town (on Roman foundations), with its peninsular location, defensive walls and great monuments, including the Church of St Donatus, a superb ninth century monument bridging the Byzantine tradition then dominant and the Carolingian innovation of the West. Zadar is full of glories, including a wonderful archaeological museum that includes great marble carvings from the era when Slavic Croats adopted Christianity, and the Museum of Ancient Glass, a place full of superbly beautiful material.
Šibenik rivals Zadar, also with a strong Venetian element, set by the estuary of the River Krka, a more vulnerable position, as indicated by the series of splendid fortresses surrounding it on inland hills and offshore islets. Its unique centrepiece is the splendidly domed Cathedral of St James (Sveti Jakova), erected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by a succession of Italian and local masters, and straddling the Gothic and Renaissance styles in its architecture and sculptural decoration. It has amazed travellers for many centuries.
Split is a place that is hard to describe but easy to experience. Croatia’s second city, it is a modern city that developed around a medieval one which, in turn, is centred on a Roman Palace. The centre of Split, to this day, is the Palace of Diocletian, the retirement home of a Roman emperor, constructed around AD 300! There is no other place like it and its wealth of history, even on a 30-minute walk, rivals Athens or Rome in the way it reaches through time, albeit at a smaller scale.
Dubrovnik is nowadays immensely popular, not least because it was the teeming venue of King’s Landing in the TV version of Game of Thrones. But it is so much more: Dubrovnik is medieval Ragusa, an incredibly important independent city, rival to Venice, ally of the Ottoman Sultan, with a global merchant fleet in the 17th and 18th centuries: Ragusa is a forgotten glory. Arguably, Ragusa was the first state to recognise the independence of the United States! Dubrovnik’s Old Town, ringed by extraordinarily well-preserved medieval walls, is virtually unspoilt, a planned and gridded city of extreme beauty. It was Venice’s main rival in the Adriatic for centuries and it is a perfect place to explore and understand an Early Modern trading city.
But the other thing that makes Dalmatia unique is its island world. Rivalling the Aegean, it is a place of hundreds of islands, a few large and usually elongated ones surrounded by many shepherded satellites. Each of them is a word unto itself and the range is incredible. Romantic Korčula has a delightful medieval town set on its own peninsula, a tiny place of huge character. Remote Vis, recently famed for being the venue of Mamma Mia Part 2, is a place afar and askew, the site of the first Greek settlement in Dalmatia. It wants to be explored with the help of expert guides. Then there is Hvar, where the Venetian Old City is the venue of vibrant party life, concealing its wonderful heritage and the extraordinarily resilient living traditions of the island, from a field system established by Greek colonists 2,400 years ago and still in use, to the agave-based lace made by nuns in a local monastery, creating textiles of stunning fragility. Brač, opposite Split, is an island of enormous depth, offering views across the Adriatic, splendid traditional architecture, a host of lovely villages and a marble sculpture workshop. Further north, the Kornati Archipelago is a mosaic of tiny rock islands, seemingly inhospitable, but a close look reveals long human presence in one of Europe’s most unusual locations.
I could write thousands more words about the Croatian islands, and maybe I will at some point, but what makes them so special is simply that they are islands in a region that was the venue of much change in history but little change locally. They are places where historic development is reflected in sites and buildings and museums, but at the same time, they are places resting in their own insular identity, basking in the peaceful sense of remoteness, restful most of the time, inviting us to enjoy the peace they offer, but active and bustling when events occur.
Dalmatia also has a cuisine to claim, one that is not yet known internationally, but deserves to be. It combines these different historic influences, and it could perhaps be called Adriatic, as it is part of a continuum reaching from Venice in the west to Corfu/Kerkyra in the East. It includes very carefully and thoughtfully prepared seafood dishes, such as brodet, a sauce-focused fish stew, equalled by equally slow meat dishes, the most famous being pašticada, a rich beef stew defined by a flavourful marinade and a thick sauce combining vegetables and sweet fruit. Going back to at least the Bronze Age, Dalmatians also excel with the peka, a way of cooking meat and vegetables under a clay or metal mini-dome covered in glowing-hot charcoal. Dalmatian cuisine at its best is slow food.
And of course, Croatia is inhabited by the Croatians, a remarkable people who have managed to preserve their identity from their arrival in the area thirteen centuries ago, throughout all kinds of challenges, to the present. It is always wrong to generalise, but what many visitors experience from the locals is a bright and positive and outlook combined with an easy acceptance and only slightly reluctant curiosity about foreign visitors and a desire to share one’s views. Many Croatians nowadays have good English and they are, once you get to know them, very outspoken, to an extent that can occasionally surprise the English-speaking visitor, but that is actually delightfully clear and honest.
Croatia is not one place, but many places. Like those breakfast foods, it beckons us to explore its flavours, its beauties, its characters, its sights, its landscapes and its stories.
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