Discover the Pearls of the Adriatic: the white marble Dubrovnik, facing the sea and surrounded by formidable walls, Split with Emperor's Diocletian Palace and the medieval Trogir. Make silk with local women, visit the lavender covered island of Hvar, stroll among the blue-green terraced Plitvice lakes and waterfalls and sail among the lemon-scented Adriatic islands with tiny, red-roofed villages spilling to the sea.
The Dalmatian Coast
So what comes to your mind when someone mentions Croatia? Is it the Balkan War which ended over a decade ago, or is it the Dalmatian Coast with beautiful, exotic beaches surrounded by idyllic islands? While we need to be aware of the war, the last one of so many in the history of Croatia, the real focus is on the awe-inspiring nature and the incredible history of the place.
Croatia has always fascinated people. It is commonly believed that Mljet Island near Dubrovnik is Homer's Ogygia, where mythical Ulysses met his Calypso nymph. It is also thought that the descriptions of Ilios in the Iliad and Ithaca in the Odyssey reflect geographical and archeological realities of the Dalmatian Coast, especially Peljesac Peninsula, famous for its vineyards.
Today, NASA astronauts claim that the Adriatic Sea, with its limestone sea floor, is the bluest place on Earth. What I find most fascinating is the intersection of different cultures which forms a cultural tectonic fault: the ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the communist Yugoslavia, all in one place. There are Greek temples strewn among the hills, Roman ruins and ancient cities with marble streets, Byzantine mosaics in shadowy, candle-lit churches, ornate Venetian windows with carved parapets, and the Art Nouveau architecture so beloved by Austrians who ruled here for over a century. The same variety is reflected in Croatian cuisine: not only Mediterranean olives, cheeses, and wine, but also Italian pizza, Greek baklava, and Austrian sausages. And there is so much more...
Dubrovnik: the Pearl of the Adriatic
Some call it the new Riviera, some the new Capri, and others a jewel of unsurpassed beauty. The medieval walled city of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea has inspired poets, intrigued historians and enchanted travelers for generations. To me, Dubrovnik is a historical treasure chest encased in ancient ramparts, but it is much more: the exotic natural beauty and the balmy climate it is set in, makes all this history seem unreal; I always have to pinch myself to see if I am not dreaming. Dubrovnik is like Venice without the canals, but being in Dubrovnik is like traveling back in time. Because of regulations forbidding advertising on the buildings, the city looks and feels like it must have in its Golden Age.
The Marble City of Split
Most people don't realize that the narrow streets of Split's Old Town are actually hallways in Emperor Diocletian's Palace. Many restaurants and shops occupy the former palace rooms and the underground shopping center selling souvenirs used to store drinking water and wine in terracota amphoras.
Split is such an amazing place... 1700 years ago the Roman Emperor Gaius Valerius Aurelius Diocletianus, who called himself son of Jupiter, built his lavish summer palace in the bay of Aspalathos, the land of his birth.
The Ragusa Republic
Dubrovnik is one of the world's best preserved, fortified medieval cities. The city is filled with architectural treasures and abounds in fascinating history. In the Middle Ages, as the Republic of Ragusa, it became the only eastern Adriatic city-state to rival Venice in the maritime trade and in the arts. Supported by its wealth and skilled diplomacy, Dubrovnik achieved a remarkable level of development during the 15th and 16th centuries.
From its establishment in the 7th century, the town was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire. After the Crusades, Ragusa came under the sovereignty of Venice and after the Peace Treaty of Zara in 1358, it became part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Between the 14th century and 1808 Ragusa ruled itself as a free state named Repubblica di Ragusa. As early as 1272, the Republic of Ragusa received its own Statutes, which, among other things, codified Roman practice and local customs. The Republic was very inventive in its early laws and institutions: the medical service was introduced in 1301, the first pharmacy (still working today) was opened in 1317, a refuge for older people was opened in 1347, the first quarantine hospital was opened in 1377, slave trading was abolished in 1418, the orphanage was opened in 1432 and the water supply system was constructed in 1436.
Today, Dubrovnik offers beautifully preserved limestone buildings topped with red tile roofs, quaint streets with charming shops and cafes, and wide medieval walls on which to walk around the city and experience it from many scenic vantage points.
Water and Wine
Although Dubrovnik, overlooking the aquamarine Adriatic Sea, is defined by water, the beautiful coast of Dalmatia has a serious competitor: the Dalmatian wine. Dalmatian wines, like olive oil and salted olives, have been highly esteemed since ancient times. Grape cultivation in Croatia pre-dated the Romans by several hundred years, and became more organized under the Roman Empire.
The Two Shades of Red
But is it safe? Despite the fact that the war of independence from the former Yugoslavia ended more than a decade ago, many people still envision a ravaged land where visitors sleep in drab Soviet-style hotels and wander streets lined with bombed-out buildings. The truth is that this Mediterranean country of 5 million people feels like Italy or Greece, only fresher and less crowded.
The remnants of Dubrovnik's troubled past are fading away. The city is again the premier tourist destination in the region. Yet the harsh history of the end of the 20th century should not be forgotten.
Dubrovnik does not have much strategic value, except that destroying it would be a serious emotional blow to the Croatian psyche. Despite that, in 1991, Serbs began a months-long shelling of the city, razing centuries-old burgher houses and tearing up Dubrovnik's famed marble pedestrian streets. When the siege was over, 100 residents had lost their lives and 70 percent of the houses in the Old Town had been hit. Historic palaces were gutted by fire while the Sponza Palace, Rector's Palace, St Blaise's Church, Franciscan monastery and the carved fountains, Amerling and Orlando were seriously damaged.
But unless you know where to look, the signs of the '90s conflict are hard to spot. Psychologically, the war has perpetuated many false beliefs on both sides, which hold on to warped views of the other. Physically, to see the evidence that the war took place here, you must walk the city walls. Looking down at the tile roofed houses you will notice what is apparently one of the few explicit signs of the war: bright red shingles on most houses replace the old, sun-faded tiles of which there are only a handful surviving. As you gaze across the rickety rooftops, both the new ones and the old ones, past Baroque and Renaissance spires which pierce the deep blue skyline, and where the turquoise sea crashes against the thick walls, it is hard to feel anything but wonderment at this city and thankfulness that it was not completely razed in the war.
As if the natural splendors weren't enough, Hvar also has a fascinating history, derived from its many years of Venetian rule. The intricately carved Venetian architecture and wide, welcoming seaside promenade of Hvar Town made the island the most romantic and the most chic in southern Dalmatia.
The island's first inhabitants, who lived here in the Neolithic Era, left unique ceramics decorated with spiral ornaments in red, yellow, brown and white. Because such ornamentation is not found anywhere else, this kind of art has been named Hvar's Culture. Around 500 BC the island was settled by Illyrians, followed by Greeks from Paros who first developed Hvar Town and by Romans bringing their vines and wine cultivation which blossomed into a major industry here in the Middle Ages. Fishing, boatbuilding, cultivating lavender, rosemary and olives made the island prosperous. It reached its heyday in the Renaissance when its riches attracted poets, writers and scientists.
The stunning Hvar Town displays the best preserved Venetian architecture in Croatia. The first, short intrusion of Venice onto Hvar Island occurred in the 12th century. But soon the island became part of the Byzantium and then the Kingdom of Croatia. When the pirates of Omis became a growing threat along the Adriatic coast, Hvar turned to Venice for protection, and Venice was only too happy to oblige. In 1331, Hvar became a part of the Venetian Empire, which reigned here for over 400 years, with a short break when it was part of the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik). Most of the Hvar Town's beautiful sculpture dates from that period and many of the buildings are marked with winged lions, Venetian arched windows, marble columns and the opulence typical of Venetian Renaissance.
Hvar Town may have the Venetian sophistication, but the island's true character is revealed in a smattering of small villages, dotting the coast or nestled in the lush interior and in the spirit of the Hvar people.
Hvar's Benedictine nuns, for example, practice a unique craft producing the most intricate lace using the threads of agave leaves. However, the best known folk product on the island is the "Queen's Wash".
In many ways, Croatia is at the crossroads showing the influence of the Latin, Slav, Byzantine and Finno-Hungarian worlds. Croatian gastronomy is a reflection of the cultural mosaic of the country that is the gateway to the Balkans, the place where central Europe and the Mediterranean intersect, and a land that remains deeply Slavic despite its ties to Latin Rome.
Trogir has a fascinating 2300 years of continuous urban tradition. Its rich culture was created under the influence of Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. Trogir has a high concentration of palaces, churches, and towers, as well as a textbook perfect fortress on a small island, and in 1997 the town was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The fairyland setting of the Plitvice Lakes is one of the Europe's great natural wonders. The vivid, constantly shifting landscape of the Plitvice National Park continues to amaze visitors with its exotic, lush and misty beauty.
Klapa singing is a well-known folk singing phenomenon of coastal-urban and suburban areas and the islands of Dalmatia. The character, musical content and style of klapa were dynamically modified throughout the time, freely adopting new changes.
According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in the garden of Emperor Huangdi around 2,700 BC. The emperor wondered what was damaging his mulberry trees and ordered his wife, Xilingshi, to find out.
Mostar derives its name from the bridge keepers, mostari, that watched over its historic bridge. The Old Bridge over the Neretva River, has been a symbol of both the unity and the divisions in this multiethnic city, ever since it was built in 1566.