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(E) The world is full of surprises. THAT'S CROATIA
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  05/26/2003 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) The world is full of surprises. THAT'S CROATIA


Adventures with Jason: Croatia

In the first of two parts, our intrepid traveler reports from a surprising Mediterranean idyll


{Editor s Note: Have you ever visited Croatia? Do you have an instructive anecdote, tip or horror story to share? We d love to hear it and possibly reprint it in our letters to the editor column. Simplyclick here to send a letter to our editors.}

Still an active fishing port, Rovinj, on Croatia's sumptuous west coast, is an hour's drive from Italy, while ferries to Venice take 2 1/2 hours

May 22  The more I travel, the more I see, the less I seem to know. As a travel writer, my job makes me familiar with an ever-growing territory, yet even as I absorb more of the world, the very fact that I m learning things reminds me that I know nothing. No matter how many new places I load into my memory bank, a single salient fact remains: The world is full of surprises.

THAT S CROATIA. Hidden in plain sight, wedged between so many major European attractions favored by Americans, but virtually ignored. Virtually next door to Italy, due south of Austria and Hungary, a day s drive from Germany, closer to Paris than Greece. Croatia lines the sweetest, cleanest stretch of coast on the entire Mediterranean Sea. The ugliness of the early  90s helped remove it from the international tourist panorama, but to be honest, even before that, it was never a major stop for visiting Americans still, how could I have avoided Croatia for so long?

Its identity crisis came out of more than recent trouble, though. As a lynchpin of mid-Europe, Croatia has bounced from empire to empire for hundreds of years, leaving it with a melting-pot personality more akin to the United States than to the venerable Adriatic Coast.

Zagreb, which began existence as two Middle Age cities sparring across a stream, now has an unmistakable Austro-Hungarian panache

As soon as I arrived my Croatia Airlines flight from London to Zagreb, it became clear that Croatia (or Hvratska, as it s called there) is not the Eastern European post-Communist sleeper state that some may believe it to be. The church steeples are as voluptuous and shapely as those in Vienna; the red-tile rooves are distinctly Venetian; the goulash on my dinner plate is straight from Hungary. Only the people (who came out of one of the world s most permissive Communist cultures only to stumble into a very messy internal insurgency that ended in 1995) seem as Eastern European as the country s reputation would have them be.

So I ve come to Croatia with a simple goal: to find out what it is.

Zagreb, its capital, is straight south of Vienna. And its charm surprises me. Communist Yugoslavia was kind to it. The main town, which slopes up a gentle and leafy hill, was never scarred with concrete high-rises or factories the way so many other bloc cities were. Instead, it is as cobblestoned and as meandering as it was 500 years ago. An atmospheric tram system, antique without irony, stretches through town and connects in a tangle at Josip Jelacica Square. Over the square, the equestrian statue of Jelacica, a 19th-century nationalist hero, presides; during the communist era, the artwork was mothballed in pieces for two generations before being restored to this place of glory in 1991.

Zagreb is agreeable. Nothing frenetic. This is a smallish city (1.1 million) in an emerging country (4.4 million), so its energy isn t cosmopolitan so much as fraternal. Croatians don t make much money, so you won t find them thronging restaurants (they re for visitors) or boutiques. Instead, they re at the cafes. Zagreb is jammed with them. One after another, beer-sipping, chain-smoking (never eating), people fill outdoor cafés on countless streets; the buzz of conversation seems to bounce around city corners and draw passers-by into joining. Just a few days here and I ve already spent hours sitting in cafes under the sunny spring skies, reading books and making notes. It s the pace of things here, and since I love settling into new cities and watching life go by, I m suited to it.

The Croatian National Theatre (1895) is one of several Gilded Age masterpieces in the Croatian capital's Lower Town, or Donji Grad

Pints of beer (Ozujsko, roughly pronounced  Oh-SHOO-sko is the local brew) are $1.50 to $2, and patrons are encouraged to sit and watch life pass by for as long as they wish. This is one of the many areas in which Croatia feels much more like Western Europe than Eastern Europe. Another is architecture: The Lower Town, built during a population doom under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, consists of regal, sherbet-colored, high-ceilinged buildings commonly found in Vienna or Prague. A series of Parisian parks comb through the Lower Town, forming a giant letter U; my hotel (the Palace, one of Europe s longest-running) is on one of them, next to a tram line that s as regular as the tides.

Zagreb is so full of life that a visitor might never know about the shelling that happened there. I ve always found it remarkable how easily a country can slip into violence and unrest, and incredible to see how quickly humans can adjust to any sort of living conditions, but most of all, I ve been repeatedly amazed at how fast a place can seem to erase all traces of recent misery. From my observations in Port Arthur, Tasmania, to Cambodia s Killing Fields, to here in Croatia, I have begun to view history s negative episodes as dark storms that pass overhead destructive, disruptive, but incapable of lingering.

Zagreb has zero tourist culture. I love that! Even the venerable churches have been so well-used and regularly overhauled that although they were constructed centuries ago, they re children more of recent generations than of history. Zagreb, then, is a city that hasn t wistfully frozen itself in the era of kings and queens; perhaps that accounts somewhat for its lack of gawping tourists. I found just one shop with a rack of postcards out front. Entire historic city streets, blocks long, lack trinket stores of any kind. I spent hours rambling the hilly old town above the rest of the city, and I didn t see a single collectible spoon or thermometer magnet. Its humbleness is magnificent.

The downside to that is, of course, a dearth of cheap places to stay. Granted, even the big hotels don t see enough demand to skin visitors (it s easy to find a room for under $50), but you could count the acceptable inexpensive places on one hand. There is no backpacker s culture in Croatia yet (by my count, there are about a dozen facilities in the whole country, and most of them are of the antiseptic YHA variety). But two- and three-star options are growing. As tourism grows, so will tourist amenities.

Odd, too, since Zagreb has a surprising cadre of museums. There s the Mimara Museum ($3), a 3,750-piece stash bequeathed by a Croatian-born tycoon. There s the Zagreb Museum ($3), a terrific walk through the city s multifaceted history (religious way station to Belle Epoque valentine to sleepy communist enclave) within a historic convent. There s the studio of legendary sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, a onetime Croatian nationalist who spent his latter years teaching at Notre Dame in Indiana. Plus a museum of folk art (or  naďve art), a museum of contemporary art, and an assortment of other down-to-earth galleries, none more than $3. And there s a piddly old funicular train, surely one of the world s shortest, that charges 50 cents to carry you a distance that would take perhaps 30 seconds to walk. Marvelous bits of color.

I have much more to see. I left Zagreb in a rental car (why do so many small countries neglect to mark their roads well?) and sped southwest toward Plitvice National Park. Croatia is a compact country; the trip barely took two hours.

When I was doing my research before arriving in Croatia, I found (to my shame) that I was hearing of many places for the very first time. How shocking, then, to arrive at a place like Plitvice (pronounced PLIT-vee-say) and find it s one of the most idyllic spots I ve ever been to.

Plitvice is essentially a series of lakes that cascade one into another. That sounds state-park dull until you re told that the top lake is at a relatively high altitude and the last one is deep in a chasm, so most waterfalls are stunners that are at least a few stories tall. Add to that the way they were formed:

Plitvice is a sort of landed coral reef in that the leading edge of the lakes  the waterfall walls  are not rocky cliffs but were gradually constructed over time by calcium deposits (travertine). So the whole area is a mossy, cool, cloistered affair, and the waterfalls aren t harsh and loud but smooth, soft, and seemingly designed to lull the visitor into a powerful desire to picnic. It takes about two hours to stroll from the topmost lake to the bottom along a series of handmade catwalks; a half-hour of the journey is on an electric ferry across one of the middle lakes (included in the ticket price of about $10).

Plitvice is a UNESCO World Heritage site one of the first such sites ever named, and one of six in Croatia (I ll be visiting five of them over the coming days). It also happens to be where the first death of the recent unpleasantness occurred; Serbian rebels occupied the park for four years, trashing all the buildings, but although they shelled Dubrobnik to tatters, they were transfixed by the park s serenity, and they left it intact. That should say a lot about how beautiful it is.

It stands in contrast to the decimated countryside around it. Zagreb got off easy during the fighting; the worst of it happened in the county east of Zagreb (like in Vukovar). But there was plenty of violence, some of it akin to ethnic cleansing, in rural Croatia, and a casual drive on the smaller roads quickly yields evidence of it. In rural Croatia, a town might consist of 10 to 15 houses on the road. I saw town after town of bullet-pocked walls, humanitarian-built red-tile masonry, and burnt-out buildings. The farther from cities I got, it wasn t uncommon to see lonely kerchief-wearing widows (at least, I imagined them to be widows) sitting forlornly on their stoops, waiting for international aid trucks to arrive. Some towns are still marked with signs denoting the donor countries that keep their inhabitants afloat, and sure enough, I did pass a UN truck as it rumbled into one outpost village. There is peace now, to be sure, and there s no danger for tourists. The brutality is over, but now the fight is of a different sort.

After that sobering journey through Croatia s hard-hit towns, I made for the northern coast. I didn t realize it at the time, but as I left inland Croatia, I was heading into a different world. Because while the Croatia of Zagreb is an Austro-Hungarian affair with magnificent coffees, handsome avenues, and industrious citizens, coastal Croatia is molto Mediterranean. Meaning protracted meals laden with fresh fish and olive oil, sapphire-blue seas lapping at stony fishing ports, and (my favorite) the mandatory mid-afternoon siesta.

Passing through more than a dozen tunnels, I headed seaward through the port of Rijeka to the coastal town of Opatija, about 15 minutes west. Opatija ( Oh-PAHT-ya ) found favor as a getaway for the rich and famous over a hundred years ago when its gracious Hotel Kvarner was built for Europe s elite to vegetate and socialize. A seaboard full of gracious hotels followed, but after the Great War, the crowds (like the royalty) dissipated. The grand hotels remain, but now the guests are decidedly less trendy. After all, Opatija is just a 45-minute drive from the border of Italy, and many tourists connect through Trieste for relaxing sojourns here. With mass tourism thriving there, it s possible to sample the grandeur of the Old World without breaking the $40/night mark.

I, of course, chose the Kvarner (I rolled up at 6 p.m. and got a room without a reservation) and was ushered to a small third-floor room with a walk-on balcony and a magnificent southerly view over the Mediterranean. At a glance, it s easy to see that this place must have been something in its day. The back terrace spills into the sea with palatial expansiveness; the lobby swims with fabric; and behind sheer white curtains, the grand ballroom (chandeliers intact) silently awaits its next storied function.

The next day, a quick one-hour drive brought me to Pula, to the third-largest remaining Roman coliseum in the world. Now, I didn t know that I d find one of the world s best collections of Roman ruins in Croatia, but it makes sense. The west coast of Croatia is only about 50 miles away from the east coast of Italy. In Caesar s day, this was all the same  hood, and Croatia hosted some of the Adriatic s most important ports. And influence from Italy never slowed down after that.

Venice (which, you ll recall from high school history, was once a powerful city-state) owned stretches of Croatia s coast, particularly Dalmatia, for some 500 years, giving it the marble-street/red-roof finesse it retains today. (It sounds picturesque, but the Venetians were slum lords.) It was only around 1797 that the area began a political flip-flop that led it inexorably behind the Iron Curtain the French, the Hungarians, Yugoslavia; they all had staked their claim at one time or another in the past 200 years. But Croatia as we know was developed before all that happened. It s Western European in body, but its people have grown slightly more Eastern European in spirit. Meanwhile, cuisine bounces between Italian, Austrian/German, Hungarian, and age-old Mediterranean. It all gives the country its peculiar split personality (so to speak).

Pula's 1st-century Roman coliseum is remarkably well-preserved and is still in use today (though not by gladiators)

The coliseum is in terrific shape, partly because of restoration work; it is still in use as a theatre today. But other Roman remnants dot this port city, too, such as the Triumphal Arch of Sergius, erected 27 B.C., now standing amidst gelato shops and pizza places. There s also the Temple of Augustus, also 2,000 years old, and standing on what used to be the Forum but is today humming with cafes and sandwich shops.

Istria hosted the Romans for a while, and it still hosts their decendants. Italians can t leave it alone. On weekends and in the summer, they flock down from Italy s northern parts and fill up the many resort hotels built a few miles outside of Pula, away from its unwelcoming deep-water piers. It s no accident that this part of Croatia is famous for its excellent pastas, delicious truffles, and fine olive oil; do you think Italians would stand for anything less?

You might ask what the Italians would want to drive around to the east coast of the Adriatic in order to take a dip. If you did ask that, it would prove that you have never been to Venice, the enchanting island city that floats in one of the most virulent cesspits in the known world. The Adriatic flows counterclockwise here; the water licking at Italy is fetid and cloudy, but here, it s liquid crystal. Boats seem to ride their own shadows on the seabeds.

In fact, the cities themselves sometimes seem to float on air. I m speaking of Rovinj, 45 minutes north of Pula. Like a fantasy, it juts into the waters, virtually an island to itself, rising in tumultuous layers of climbing rooves and weathered shutters, capped with a mighty cathedral. At first glance, it appears like a Mont St. Michel of the Mediterranean, its honey-toned ancient houses catching evening sunshine. Rovinj ( roe-VEEN-ja ) regularly appears as the poster city for Croatian tourism, with good reason.

Rovinj's knotted stone streets, which climb toward the giant Cathedral of St. Euphemia, are crowded with cafes serving the day's catch

And with mixed results. Rovinj is knee-deep in Germans and Italians, who, let me tell you, haven t yet realized that baby strollers don t work on cobblestones. The double bays leading toward the old town are lined with waterfront cafes and sponge-sellers hawking their wares from boats-and legions of European holidaymakers. I ve had to phone more than six hotels to find a free room (I should have booked ahead; it s my own fault). I finally find a place right on the main harbor (the Adriatic), facing the back but in the neighborhood. Most of the hotels are big, drab, and ugly (European tourists, blessed with three times the vacation time Americans get, are not too fussy), but one of them, the Hotel Park, has a vista of Rovinj that would enable me to overlook its architectural underachievement.

Once again it strikes me: If this place is chockablock with tourists, how come not one of them (except me) is a Yankee? Rovinj is the sort of European city that Americans dream about finding but never quite locate. It s hugely atmospheric, not terribly expensive, and sets a mean table of Italian standards. I think I paid $7 for a huge foot-wide pizza with fresh ham, mushrooms, and chili peppers (pizza is popular here because it s so cheap, and the good news is I have yet to eat a bad pie). And my fettuccine with truffles was all of $3.50.

Another Croatian pleasure: The people s love of ice cream. I rarely see these folks eating sit-down meals in public restaurants, but they re always strolling down the streets licking cones of smooth gelato. Since cones cost about $1.20, I find it easy to join in. Well, if slurping scoops of hazelnut ice cream is the best way to blend in, I plan to thoroughly camouflage myself. Right after this beer, that is.

Come back here in a few days, because my trip to Croatia isn t finished. I ve just dipped my toes. Coming up, I head down the coast to Dalmatia, where I ll explore the famous cities of Split, Sibenik, Trogir, and Hvar-where those four other UNESCO sites are located. I m most excited about the climax of my journey in the legendary city of Dubrovnik still encircled by over a mile of massive medieval walls where I will find out just how bad the recent war damage was. The second part of my report will appear at in a few days.

 Til then, I ll be here, under the Mediterranean sun, eating ice cream cones, drinking at harborside cafes, and taking notes for you. It s all in a day s work.

{Editor s Note: Have you ever visited Croatia? Do you have an instructive anecdote, tip or horror story to share? We d love to hear it and possibly reprint it in our letters to the editor column. Simplyclick here to send a letter to our editors.}

Copyright © 2003 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.



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