Croatia close-up

With Croatia poised to join the European Union, this breakaway country is set to hit the big time


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.

“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.”

To experience a slightly slower pace of life, we take a 50-minute ferry ride from Split to the island of Brac, best known for the pebbled beach of Zlatni Rat and the quarry that produced the bright white limestone used to build the White House.

But the most memorable part of our visit is a lengthy lunch at Konoba Toni, where three generations of men, each with the lantern-jawed good looks of a movie star, serve us heaped portions of lamb and fresh seafood, washed down with copious amounts of house wine.

Our moveable feast continues on our drive towards Dubrovnik, a Unesco world heritage site and arguably Croatia’s most famous tourist destination.

On the way, we pause for a wine tasting in Trstenik at the birthplace of Mike Grgic, who opened this offshoot of his California-based Grgich Hills Estate winery in 1996, and lunch on oysters and mussels plucked directly from the sea at Bota Sare in Ston.

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 harbour 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 1990s, 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 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, tourists sipping pale pints of beer, and pigeons – awaiting a man who feeds them every day at noon.

The city has been restored to its 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.

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