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Friday, 02 May 2014 12:47

The Call of Croatia

Written by  Cheryl-Anne Millsap

The city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage site since the 1970s, is one of the jewels in Croatia’s tourism crown. The intact Medieval walled city on the Adriatic Sea, as well as Split, the largest city in the scenic region of Dalmatia, contain fascinating medieval, Renaissance and Baroque historical sites that draw millions of tourists each year. Many arrive on cruise ships in the heat of mid-summer, drawn to the beautiful beaches, breathtaking views and the city’s unique architecture. But, while most of the attention is focused on these seaside villages and towns and islands off the coast of Croatia, there is so much more to see. especially in spring and fall, before and after the busiest part of the travel season, when the crowds thin, streets and hotels empty and there’s room to breathe, to take in the unique beauty, ancient culture and complex modern history of this small country.

I was there in May and it was a fine time to explore. The days were warm, the nights cool, and everything was green and blooming. Still weeks from the height of the tourist season, I didn’t have to deal with crowds and peak fares. Fall is another good time to visit. Here are a few suggestions for seeing the most of Croatia in the spring or fall. For those who like to explore by car, Croatia’s freeway system is modern and easily navigated, making it easy to go inland and see the heart of this
small country.

A Capital Idea
To capture the cosmopolitan side of Croatian culture, spend a few days in Zagreb, Croatia’s bustling capital city. Easy to reach from major European gateway airports like Frankfurt or Heathrow, Zagreb, with a population of around 1 million, is as beautiful and elegant as any of the grandest old cities of Europe. But don’t let the old world glamour fool you. This is a modern hub.

Zagreb is built around a horseshoe-shaped greenway of parks and squares, filled with flowers in the spring and colorful foliage in fall. Bicycle and Segway tours are easy to arrange and offer a way to see more of the city in a short time. The tram system is an efficient way to get around and the airport is only minutes from the city center.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to at least step into the lobby of the elegant Esplanade Hotel, located in the center of the city, across the street from the beautiful Art Nouveau National Railway building. The grand hotel, built in 1925 and completely restored and renovated in 2004, was one of the original stops on the luxurious Oriental Express as it traveled between Paris and Istanbul. The interior, filled with marble, crystal, ornate stained glass and a wall of large clocks (part of the original decor) telling the time in major cities around the world, reflects the gilded status of the hotel’s origins. A large patio is the perfect place to soak up the late afternoon sun, preferably over a cup of espresso.

Zagreb’s coffee culture rivals that of Vienna. On a sunny day, the many sidewalk cafes around town are packed with students, couples and other people-watchers, lingering for hours over cups of excellent coffee and delicious, delicate pastries. Shopping and fine dining round out the experience.

The oldest section of the city, “Upper Town,” sits high on a hillside and can be reached by a short ride on the popular funicular. The more adventurous can climb the hill via the steep, winding, cobblestone lanes and the view is worth it, no matter how you get to the top.

Istria’s Italian Appeal
The countryside of the Istrian region of Croatia, the shield-shaped peninsula on the northwest side of the country, is often compared to Tuscany, and with good reason. Rolling hills, dotted with stone villas and villages, are surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, reflecting the Italian heritage still so much a part of the region. There are still tangible traces of the region’s Roman past, including the Roman Arena in Pula. Istria is known for its wines, particularly the fruity Malvasia and the robust red, Teran and seafood is an important part of the local cuisine. Another Istrian specialty is the truffle. Three kinds of black truffles, as well as the larger white truffle, can be found in the dark soil of Istrian forests and it’s possible to participate in a truffle hunt, following one of the trained dogs who help harvest the prized and valuable fungi. I joined a truffle hunt near the small town of Buzet.  The dog we were following found two truffles within moments, and I was asked to dig out the fragile buried treasure while the group leader worked on the other. Someone snapped a photo of me holding the prize, my hands and fingernails caked with dirt, and it’s one of my favorite travel souvenirs.

Later, we feasted on omelets sprinkled with paper thin slices of aromatic truffle, and glasses or robust red Istrian wine. To this day it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted.

Wild and Wonderful
Of Croatia’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, only one is a natural wonder. Plitvice National Park encompasses a series of 16 beautiful turquoise-colored lakes connected by waterfalls and whitewater cascades, and draws millions of visitors each year. The park is especially beautiful in spring when snowmelt and spring rain swells the streams and spills over to the falls and the foliage is lush and new. The water is especially mineral-rich and is constantly creating new, otherworldly-formations. More than 10 miles of boardwalk and bridges cover the perimeter of the park’s lakes and waterfalls.

Plitvice is emerging as one of the “Must See” destinations in the world.

Take in the Grand View from Hum
In summer and early fall the Istrian landscape flares into autumnal color and that makes it the perfect time to visit Hum, a tiny hamlet situated high on a hill overlooking a scenic valley.

With a population of fewer than 25 people, Hum claims to be the smallest town in the world. While some might argue the title, what can’t be disputed is the appeal of the old stone fortress city, with its weathered buildings and towers and the expansive view from the top of the hill. Biking is popular in Croatia and one of the most popular routes is the Glagolitic Alley, a three kilometer path up to Hum, interspersed with massive stone monuments dedicated to the old Croatian Glagolitic script. Outfitters provide the bikes and once at the top, if the view wasn’t reward enough, a hearty meal and a bottle of Croatian wine make lunch a celebration.

Travel trends come and go, but Croatia, with its dramatic landscapes, picturesque architecture, complex culture and and historically significant past, is a destination worthy of a place on the top of any traveler’s bucket list. And seen in one of the more leisurely seasons, when the crowds have gone home, leaving you free to explore and discover, it is all the better.

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