With Croatia poised to join the European Union, this breakaway country is set to hit the big time
The old town of Dubrovnik on the Croatian coastline
Konoba Toni on the island of Brac, where the cooking is done by three generations of the one family. Photograph: Amy Laughinghouse
Zlatni Rat beach on the island of Brac, Croatia
Nearly 20 years after the end of the Croatian War of Independence, the once battle-scarred slice of the former Yugoslavia is officially hitting the big time with its entry into the EU. If you haven’t yet dipped your toe into the waters lapping its stunning Dalmatian coast or discovered its museum-packed capital of Zagreb, now is the time – before the rest of the world arrives.
For my first taste of this croissant-shaped nation, I join Abercrombie & Kent’s new nine-day Connections tour, which the company launched last month. 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 and natural history to more unexpected finds.
My favourite 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, to fuzzy handcuffs, and a can of Lover’s Incense. (The accompanying description reads simply, “Doesn’t work”)
With its baroque architecture and winding lanes, you could easily spend a day just wandering Zagreb’s streets. Well-dressed denizens gossip over coffee along Tkalciceva Street. Women with 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, which survived a great fire in 1731 and is thought to possess healing powers.
St Mark’s Church, with its peacock-coloured 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 lunch of pork schnitzel, I begin to doze as we pass 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 1990s 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 even-handed 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 commingling of past and present is baldly evident in the architecture. On the outskirts, tall, monolithic apartment buildings – erected under Yugoslavia’s communist leadership – dominate the skyline. But, nestled on the Adriatic, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace dates back to about 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.