Tucked into the far northeastern corner of Slavonia, 30km from the Hungarian border and just 20km west of the Serbian province of Vojvodina, OSIJEK is the undisputed capital of the region. An easy-going, park-filled city hugging the banks of the River Drava, Osijek has a relaxed spaciousness – owing in large part to its being spread out across three quite separate town centres. The oldest of these, Tvrđa, retains the air of a living museum; originally a Roman strongpoint, it was subsequently fortified by the Ottomans and then finally rebuilt in Baroque style by the Austrians, who kicked the Turks out in 1687. The Austrians were also responsible for the construction of Gornji grad (Upper Town – so called because it’s upriver from Tvrđa), the nineteenth-century area which still exudes a degree of fin-de-siècle refinement and now serves as the administrative heart of the modern city. At the eastern end of town, Donji grad (Lower Town) is a relatively quiet residential district, developed at around the same time as Gornji grad in order to accommodate economic migrants from the surrounding plains.
After the fall of Vukovar in November 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serb irregulars laid siege to Osijek and subjected the town to a nine-month bombardment. Osijek survived, but the sense of economic stagnation that followed the conflict is only just beginning to lift.
Osijek has enough in the way of sightseeing and nightlife to detain you for a day or two, and the city’s proximity to the Kopački rit Nature Park provides the perfect excuse to lengthen your stay.
Two kilometres east from Gornji grad lies the Baroque quarter known as Trvđa (literally “citadel”), a collection of military and administrative buildings thrown up by the Austrians after the destruction of the earlier Ottoman castle. Tvrđa’s grid of cobbled streets zeros in on Trg svetog Trojstva, a broad expanse bearing a plague column, built in 1729 with funds donated by the local fortress commander’s wife to give thanks for deliverance from a devasting outbreak of plague which is thought to have killed a third of Osijek’s population. The square is surrounded by former Habsburg military buildings, many of which are now occupied by high schools or university faculties – the local cafés are filled with coffee-swilling students on weekdays.