Continental Croatia: Europe’s Next Hot Spot?

Tram on the streets of Zagreb

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

With trendy Croatia one of the top travel destinations these days, I learned quickly that everyone wanted to go with me when I visited this small southeastern European country, tucked between Bosnia, Hungary and Slovenia.

Who wouldn’t want to go to the country that invented the sophisticated cravat, the forerunner of the modern tailored necktie and bow tie, or was now producing a truckload of good white wines, or was bounded by the romantic Danube? Although this land still bears the scars of the Bosnian War which affected the region between 1992 and 1995, the country is gradually moving on.

The warmth of the Croatian people, the abundant agricultural possibilities of the land, and the natural beauty of the country’s rocky mountains and green woodlands are only now being discovered, and touted in national tourist publications.

Some eye-opening travel gems await those who venture into the awakening interior.

National Theater in Zagreb

Croatia is shaped somewhat like a horseshoe, with one side extending 1,100 miles along the Dalmatian Coast, with seaside Dubrovnik at one end and Croatia’s third largest city, Rijeka, at the other. The entire country of 4.2 million people is only as large as West Virginia, or just 21,829 square miles.

While I wasn’t going to where most tourists journey—the coast and the Adriatic Sea— the interior of the country presented its own set of unique opportunities for exploration. I started my venture at the capital, leafy-green Zagreb, which sits on the historic and political threshold between Eastern and Western Europe.

Sitting on the Pannonian Plain as well as on the edge of the Dinaric Alps, this Hapsburg-inspired city has been inhabited for centuries by people coming from all over Europe, thus insuring a rich cultural heritage. It is the home of Croatia’s parliament, government and its president. It sits next to the lush, forested slopes of Mount Medvednica, often referred to by the name of its summit, Sljeme.

The city’s elegant facades, a horseshoe of green spaces—eight green squares created by Milan Lenuci in the 1880s— and a growing contemporary scene, are attracting the curious traveler; more may come soon as well, as Croatia and thus Zagreb are poised to join the European Union in 2013. Known as Vienna’s little sister, Zagreb is smallish—about one million residents—which makes it easy to walk around without a car, meet the populace, and indulge in the city’s cultural and historical attractions, and growing nightlife. I did a little of each.

Palace Hotel, Zagreb

My flight on Lufthansa from Frankfurt landed at Zagreb airport outside of town, where I hopped a cab to the Palace Hotel, located in an Art Nouveau palace in the center of the city. It was the first hotel in Zagreb, opened in 1907, across from a beautiful green park and where the likes of Orson Welles and actress Sophia Loren have stayed. I figured I was in good company.

Finished in elegant woods, the hotel’s lobby is inviting, and glass cases filled with historical artifacts give the visitor information about the history of this four-story gem.
Zagreb was on the route of the famous King of Trains, the Orient Express, where Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case, where Alfred Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes was staged, and on which James Bond rode from Istanbul to London in the movie From Russia With Love. Everyone loves a train with a good mystery, and Zagreb uses these connections to promote its mystique as a city. The train station is just a few blocks from the Palace Hotel, and an old black steam locomotive decorates the lawn on one side of the station.


Like all major cities, Zagreb is divided into areas, but the Upper Town (located on a hill) and the Lower Town, where streets are laid out in a simplistic and government-mandated style, are two that most visitors will learn quickly. You could cover the town’s main attractions in two days, but a third day will offer the best impression of the city.

Main square, Zagreb
Main square, Zagreb

Zagreb’s main square, referred to as Jelacic plac, is a large, busy place with adjacent Ilica Street housing many shops. Croatians use the main square, just down from the hillside settlements of Kaptol and Gradec, to make connections with friends, to catch one of the many street trams pulsating here and there on tracks that run through the streets, or use the square’s large clock as their time-keeper. There are 37 clocks like this throughout the city, all maintained by the sixth generation watchmaker Lebarovic Dalibor, who has manufactured more than 200 public clocks in this country.

The main square, featuring a large statue of Croatian hero Ban Josip Jelacic, has been the commercial heart of the city since 1641. It is so large that fairs used to be held here; the buildings around the square date from the 19th century, and feature Biedermeier, Art Nouveau and post-modernism architectural styles.

The city’s twin-spired landmark structure in the Kaptol neighborhood is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, created by Hermann Bolle in the 19th century after an earthquake badly damaged the original church. In the 15th century it was the furthest outpost of Christianity. Beautiful marble side altars, statues and pulpit adorn the inside, as does the life-like tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac by Ivan Meštrović. You can’t miss it: it sits dead-center in front of the church near the choir.

Giant Easter eggs in Zagreb

While you’re there, notice the adjacent overpowering bishop’s palace with large turrets on the corners. The accompanying lawn features large colored Easter eggs during this season.
Not far away, the fortified 13th century Lotrscak Tower in Upper Town, signals 12 o’clock by loud cannon fire and trailing white smoke, as it has every day since 1877. The bells of the stone tower used to summon residents back into the town gates at night before they closed. After watching this display of time-keeping, wander a few steps down the hill to the family-owned Pod grickim topom restaurant, where you’ll be treated to large portions of pork, beef and spaetzle while overlooking the city.

Croatian food
Dish at the Pod grickim topom

A funicular, the shortest in the world at 216 feet in length, takes you up to Upper Town in 55 seconds. Departing every 10 minutes, it accommodates 28 people each trip. Once powered by steam, the brilliant blue funicular pre-dates horse-drawn trams by a whole year.

St. Mark's church, Zagreb

At colorful St. Mark’s Church in St. Mark’s Square, you’re in the heart of Upper Town; the square used to be Gradec’s main market area. The 13th century Church of St. Mark’s is a Romanesque structure with Gothic arched ceilings and 15 Parler family statues that stand in the southern portal. The colorful roof is decorated with coats of arms of the triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, as well as the city of Zagreb.

Dolac market

The Dolac open-air market is a must-see, must-do free attraction. Close by the Cathedral, sun-ripened fruit, fresh fish including octopus trucked in from the coast overnight, colorful vegetables and hearty meats, nuts and fragrant spices are sold every day of the week. Known as the “belly of Zagreb,” the market dates from the early 1900s.

Zagreb market

Croatia is a religious country, with about 77% of the residents Roman Catholic. The Upper Town is entered via the Kamenita vrata or the Stone Gate, which is the only city gate still remaining. It was built in the Middle Ages, and today acts as a Christian way station for anyone wanting to give thanks, or to make requests. The small chapel inside, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Zagreb, houses a painting of Mary miraculously saved from a fire in 1731. At all times of the day, this small chapel—complete with several wooden benches— attracts worshippers and the curious.

Candles at the Stone Gate, Zagreb

Stop by Zagreb’s oldest pharmacy on Kamenita ulica (Stone Street) where you’ll discover a two-story white building which has housed this business since 1355. And built along the former Medvescak Creek is Tkalca, Zagreb’s colorful downtown street where you’ll find a plethora of nightclubs, small boutiques, traditional shops and cafes. Stop by the Bulldog, an upscale downtown bar where the drinks flow until 3 a.m. from Wednesdays to Saturdays. The decor features aviation and nautical themes, with propeller-shaped ceiling fans, and there’s a mezzanine observation level. A bowl of shelled peanuts to accompany a cool drink doesn’t cost much, either.

If you’re heading into the countryside, Samobor is one of Croatia’s best-preserved villages. The light rain and mist which covered the surrounding hills and the Gradna River that flows through them, presented a magical Sunday morning welcome. Local villagers presented their farm-fresh cheeses and honey in the market square, and smiles and free samples were plentiful, as merchants waited until the packed-to-the-rooftop Catholic church let out.


Many other locals were sitting in the Slasticarnica U Prolazu restaurant, having their Sunday coffee and Samoborska Kremsnita, a custard-colored 3 in.-high cream pastry square, a rich-flavored local tradition. Others were strolling down the path on the outskirts of town near the river, enjoying the budding of colorful flowers and trees, and soaking up the fresh fragrances of spring.

Samoborska Dremsnitz – a delicious dessert

At the Town Museum, check out the intricately-woven folk costumes. Another option is a woodland stroll to the hillside park of Anindol that will take you to the ruins of Samobor’s 13th century castle, which you can see on the hill as you drive down the narrow road into town.

Samobor, Croatia

Samobor is also noted for Bermet, a local version of vermouth. This fortified wine, flavored with citrus fruits and aromatic herbs, goes well with crackers and the local Mustarda, a rich brown mustard with a fruity tang. Both the Bermet and Mustarda have been made for generations by the local Filipec family. A tour of their small facility and their shop, guarded by the family dog, will add extra interest to your visit.

Croatian vineyards
Krauthaker winery

Just west of Samobor are the Samobor Hills, a group of forested smooth-topped mountains which make great one-day hikes. The highest point is the 2,883-foot-high Samoborsko gorje, a two-hour walk from Soiceva kuca, a popular restaurant and recreation spot.

Varazdin, Croatia
Main square, Varazdin

If you have time to explore Croatia further, a trip to Varazdin near the Slovenian border is worthwhile. With its 18th century Baroque churches and the oldest rathaus in Europe, Varazdin is a jewel. First founded because of its Stari Grad, a well-preserved 16th century castle, the town today evokes “oohs” and “ahhs” as visitors discover the Baroque facades. On a clear, sunny day, the town is spectacular.

The city, in fact, was the capital of Croatia in 1756, but fire destroyed 50% of it 20 years later. This gave the city a chance to rebuild in Baroque style, and thus today Varazdin enjoys the benefits of tourism. The city first came to light in 1181 in a document sealed by King Bela III of Hungary. It was granted the right as a free royal city 33 years before Zagreb, the locals are fond of pointing out.

Schnitzel in Croatia

The Town Hall (Gradska Vijecnica) has been the seat of the city’s town council since 1513, making it one of the oldest buildings of its type in Europe. You can sit out in front of the hall on the main square to soak in the sun, or have a coffee, or watch the changing of the guard by soldiers in their tall, black-tasseled hats between May and September.

Zlatko Puntijar shows world’s smallest Croatian recipe book at Stari Puntijar Restaurant

The Cathedral of the Assumption with its magnificent interior became the seat of a diocese in 1997, and is noted as the first Baroque structure in town. Known for its acoustics, the cathedral is used during the Varazdin Baroque Evening Festival in September, where both domestic and foreign soloists and ensembles perform.

Croatian dancers
Croatian vineyard

Take your camera with you to this picturesque town.
The Varazdin countryside produces “Varazdin Sauerkraut” (sour cabbage), pumpkin seed oil, honey, goat and sheep cheeses, and fruit wines with a low alcohol content.

Croatian produce
Croatian produce

Stretching to the southeast of the country, Slavonski Brod, on the north bank of the Sara River, and bordering Bosnia, features the star-shaped Brodska Tvrdjava (Brod Fortress). With bastions and moats designed to protect against Ottoman soldiers, this huge embattlement could accommodate 4,000 soldiers. The local peasants built the fortress under a forced work program.

The town features the remains of a number of industries, including a large factory where Croatian steam locomotives were once manufactured. Past examples of the plant’s engines dot the factory entrance.

Osijeck, Croatia
Memorial dedicated to Bosnian war victims

Moving further into the interior of Croatia and to the east, the city of Osijek is the largest town in Slavonia. Located on the Drava River, the town was founded by the Romans in the first century AD, and after a number of battles, Osijek became the administrative center of the rich agricultural region of Slavonia.

During the battle for independence, it came under siege for several months. A long promenade leads along the river to a large modern suspension bridge which connects Gornji Grad to Copacabana, the town beach.

Osijeck bridge
Bridge connecting Gornji Grad and the Copacabana beach

Close by Osijek is Kopacki Rit Nature Park, a large tract of marshland with many varieties of birds. Located between the Drava and Danube rivers is part of a region called Baranja, with abundant fertile farming land.

Cooking over an open fire
Cooking over an open fire for guests at Kormoran

For an excellent meal, stop at the cozy restaurant Kormoran, located in the park. Some foods are especially prepared in a large black caldron over an open wood fire, and served at your table. You won’t go away hungry.

If you enjoy wine, and touring vineyards, Croatia is “ripe” for the picking. Many of the wines I tasted—both reds and whites— were excellent. Croatia’s vineyards started around the 6th century B.C. in the coastal regions, and as far back as the 2nd century in the interior.

Wine barrels in Croatia

I especially liked the white wines such as Grasevina (pronounced: gra-she-vi-na), a wine cultivated in the countries along the Danube. Light and refreshing, it tastes different than Riesling, and can have slightly different flavors based on soil and sunlight. A bottle of Grasevina found its way home with me. Ice wines are also popular here, and are often awarded gold medals in competition. A 2009 Pinot Crni with 16.5% alcohol content also was a good wine, perfectly balanced.

Croatian vineyard

Many of the vineyards I visited offer richly decorated banquet halls, capable of serving complete multi-course meals for up to 100-150 people, along with a variety of wines from their cellars. Winery Kutjevo, with the oldest wine cellar in southeastern Europe (dating from 1232); Belje, the biggest; and Ilocki Podrumi at Principovac all offer a variety of excellent wines. You might find bottles from these vitners in the U.S., although not much is exported.

Ilocki Podrumi winery
Ilocki Podrumi winery

Croatia is making a solid effort to produce and distribute their many wine varieties, and Zagreb hosts an annual Wine Festival that’s a great wine-tasting opportunity and is packed with visitors.

I found continental Croatia refreshing because of its simplicity, its natural beauty, its tasty foods and wines and its unassuming people. I expect Croatia’s interior to be one of the “hot” travel destinations in the years ahead.

As they say in Croatia, “Zivjeli” — a toast to your good health!

For more information about travel to Croatia, go to:

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