Travelers rediscovering beauty, history of Croatia

Photo by AMY LAUGHINGHOUSE -- The coastline of the community of Split has buildings dating to 300 AD.
Photo by AMY LAUGHINGHOUSE -- The coastline of the community of Split has buildings dating to 300 AD.

Travelers rediscovering beauty, history of coastal nation

Some seasoned travelers may cast a weary eye upon Europe. London, Paris, Rome — check, check and check. But if you think you’ve “been there, done that,” it may be time to consider Croatia.

Nearly 20 years after the Croatian War of Independence, the once battle-scarred slice of the former Yugoslavia has officially hit the big time with its entry into the European Union on July 1. 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, “Croatia: Jewel of the Coast,” which launched in May. The journey begins in Zagreb, renowned for its cultural attractions, including nearly 70 galleries and more than two dozen museums devoted to everything from archaeology and natural history to more unexpected finds. My favorite 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 (talk about having an axe to grind) to fuzzy handcuffs (ahem) and a can of “Lover’s Incense.” (The accompanying description reads simply “Doesn’t work.”)

With its mixture of baroque architecture and winding lanes, you could easily spend a day just wandering Zagreb’s streets. Well-dressed denizens gossip over coffee along Tkalciceva. Women with tanned, weathered faces framed by kerchiefs 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-colored tiled 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, continue towards Split on the Adriatic, with a break for a hike alongside the blue-green lakes and cascading waterfalls of Plitivice National Park. Following a filling lunch of pork schnitzel, I find myself fighting off carcolepsy — the somnolent state brought on by long drives — as we pass bucolic farms, pine forests and hills unfurling towards the mountains.

But 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 ’90s 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 evenhanded 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 comingling of past and present is baldly evident in the architecture.

On the outskirts, tall, monolithic apartment buildings — erected under Yugoslavia’s post-World War II communist leadership — dominate the skyline. But nestled on the Adriatic, the ancient Roman Diocletian’s Palace dates back to around 300 AD.

The palace is not simply a 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 criss-crossing 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 Kanoba Toni, where three generations of gentlemen, each with the lantern-jawed good looks of a movie star, serve us heaping portions of lamb and fresh seafood, washed down with copious amounts of house wine.

Our movable 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 winetasting 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 harbor 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 ’90s, 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 with whom 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, folks 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.