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Dalmatian adventures

Anand Sankar 

Emerging from the violence and chaos of the 1990s, Croatia is a great tourism destination today. It has excellent infrastructure, including a new six-lane expressway connecting all its main regions, not to speak of a rich heritage, culture and cuisine. Anand Sankar spent a part of the summer travelling through the central European country and lists the six things that you must do there

SPLIT
SplitZAGREB MIGHT be Croatia’s political capital but it is the city of Split which is the country’s economic and entertainment hotspot. The second largest city in Croatia, you feel Split’s vibe as soon as you set foot in the city centre which is built around the ancient palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The Split waterfront is humming with massive ferries that connect to Italian ports across the Adriatic and the palace which overlooks the waterfront is alive 24X7 with buzzing life. Today the palace is a veritable shoppers’ paradise and full of hole-in-the-wall cafes and bars. If you are lucky you might even be able to rent a service apartment overlooking the waterfront. Split’s architectural landmarks are the bronze Nin Statue (rub its toe for luck) and the magnificent bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It takes a few hours to climb, but the view of the palace and the waterfront from Marjan hill overlooking the city is worth it. Split is said to have the best nightlife in Croatia, and though other parts of Croatia might disagree, the most beautiful women in the country.

KRKA NATIONAL PARK
KRKA NATIONAL PARKTHE CASCADING waterfall at Krka National Park is awe-inspiring. Located a few kilometres north of Sibenik town, the River Krka, which flows down from the Bosnian mountains, creates a spectacular cascade over rocks made of calcium carbonate before it flows into the Adriatic Sea. The flowing water creates breathtakingly clear pools of water in the calcite rock which draw people from all over. Taking a dip in the ice-cold mountain water of the Krka is a welcome change from the balmy Adriatic. The waterfall is also home to the second-oldest hydroelectric plant in the world (the oldest is the plant at the Niagra Falls). The Jaruga power plant was built in 1895 and still produces alternating current. Also well preserved at the park is the ancient flour mill which was used to pound maize using the natural force of the waterfall.

OSIJEK

OSIJEKTHE REGION of Slavonia is a world away from the coastal regions of Croatia. It is the bread basket of Croatia and boasts of the most fertile black soil in the entire Balkans. While the coast is all mountains and blue sea, Slavonia is flat country with hardly a mound in sight. You can drive for miles with only fields of maize and orchards bearing plums, pear and apples for company. Osijek, the main city in Slavonia, is built around the baroque architecture of the old quarter known as Tvrda. Osijek was a strategic outpost during the rule of the Ottoman Turks and later the Austrian Habsburg Empire, who built Tvrda. Besides Tvrda, another must-see in Osijek is the spectacular co-cathedral of St Peter and Paul in the city centre, which is a treasure trove of neo-Gothic ornamentation.

At Osijek, try the local beer called Osjecko Pivo, which has been brewed by a local brewery since 1697. The River Drava north of Osijek is excellent for angling and you can also hunt deer and bear in the forests that abound on its northern bank. Downstream from Osijek, the Drava flows into the mighty Danube at Erdut. The best way to explore Slavonia is to hire a bicycle and ride along the Drava and Danube to Vukovar and Ilok.

VUKOVAR 
VUKOVARNOT SINCE World War II has any town in Europe seen as much war-related devastation as Vukovar. This town by the Danube, on the eastern border with Serbia, saw some of the worst fighting during the Yugoslav wars. During a 100-day siege, known today as the “Battle of Vukovar”, the town was razed to the ground by Serbian artillery and bomber aircraft as over 45,000 Serbian troops tried to overpower a stoic band of 1,800 Croatian defenders. Vukovar is today a popular spot for conflict tourism, even though most of it has been rebuilt in a UN-funded effort. It is surreal to walk through those parts of the town where the damage caused by war is still evident.

The war apart, Vukovar is considered the spiritual home of Slavonian cuisine. Do check into Dunava Golubica (Danube Beach House) restaurant to try the signature Slavonian dish, Fish Paprikash (river fish stewed in paprika broth and served with egg noodles).

ILOK 
ILOKILOK IS the easternmost town in Croatia along the border with Serbia. It is probably one of the most picturesque settlements by the Danube that you will find in all of Europe. Ilok is at the juncture of Asia and Europe and its architecture is a mix of Muslim (the Turks ruled these parts for nearly 200 years) and neo-gothic. Ilok Castle overlooking the town is the best example of this synthesis, and houses a Franciscan monastery as well as Turkish tombs. The castle offers a wonderful view of the Danube as it flows into Serbia towards Belgrade.

Ilok is best known for its wines and has a centuries-old winery located inside the castle. The best grapes from the Slavonian vineyards make their way into oak barrels at Ilok Winery. Do try to spend a night at Hotel Dunava, which is a cosy little hotel right on the bank of the Danube with an exclusive river beach. There is nothing like the combination of Slavonian food, Ilok wine and a view of the Danube.

MURTER
MURTERTHE DALMATIAN coast glitters with the sparkling-clean azure waters of the Adriatic Sea. The island of Murter, located midway between the ports of Zadar and Split on the Sibenik archipelago, is the most idyllic place from which to soak in the ambience of the Dalmatian coast. Looking out from the chapel of St. Rocco, located on a hilltop, a sea of red-tile roofs frames the azure Adriatic into picture-postcard perfection. The masonry architecture of Murter Village is UNESCO-recognised as it dates back to the 13th century and is today protected by law.

The island is famous for its mix of sandy and rocky beaches. While the main beaches are well-marked, you can traipse through trails that lead from olive groves to hidden beaches that you can then have to yourself. From Thursday to Sunday the Murter marina comes alive with street parties that generally last all night long. If you are into scuba diving, the Kornati Islands off the Murter coast offer some of the best reefs you will find in the entire Mediterranean region.

HOW TO GET THERE
There are no direct flights from Indian cities to Croatia. You can fly through Istanbul, Doha or Dubai. The Croatian rail network doesn't connect to the coast, but bus services have boomed along the new expressways, making buses the best way to travel. At all the tourist spots you can hire bicycles or motorcycles to move around — but you need to carry an international driving licence to hire these.

BEST TIME TO VISIT
Summer and autumn are the best time to visit. You are guaranteed warm weather from May to almost the end of October. You’ll get the best deals on rooms in September, which is the tail end of the season.

WHERE TO STAY
Service apartments offer the best value for money. Look out for boards that say “Sobe” along with an image of a bed. You can get a two-bedroom apartment accommodating up to six people for Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 a night at most places.

VISA INFORMATION
Visas are issued at the Croatian Embassy in New Delhi. The embassy does not accept direct applications from tourists. You need to go through a registered travel agent such as Thomas Cook.

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First Published: Sat, October 06 2012. 00:53 IST
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