The fastest-emerging tourist destination in inland Croatia is not one you might expect. Twenty five years ago, the pretty Danube-hugging town of Vukovar was almost razed to the ground in one of the ugliest sieges of recent European history.
Falling to Serbian forces on November 18, 1991, Vukovar remained under occupation until 1998. In the meantime the restorers have been busy and, a quarter of a century after the siege, the town is at last beginning to resemble its charming old self.
Vukovar is an important symbol of resistance to Croats, and memorial tourism is deeply embedded in the fabric of the place. However it’s also it’s also the kind of town where you can laze beside the river, go cycling in parks, dine on catfish, and marvel at one of Europe’s most compelling prehistoric sites.
Vukovar is best treated as a double date with the historic fortress town of Ilok, 30 kilometres downriver, where you’ll find the best of the local wines and some great B&Bs. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Vukovar and Ilok.
Where exactly is it?
Vukovar lies in the green, agriculturally-rich southeast of Croatia, about as far away from the tourist-swarmed Adriatic coast as you can get. The nearest city is Osijek, a Baroque jewel 40km to the north; you can either fly to Osijek or catch a bus from Croatian capital Zagreb (5hr 30min), or from Novi Sad in Serbia (2hr 30min).
What should I see in Vukovar?
The one essential sight in the town centre is the mid-eighteenth-century Eltz Palace, a sweeping Baroque cake of a building that looks out on riverside meadows. Inside is one of Croatia’s best museums, offering everything from bronze-age jewellery to the boots made by legendary footwear manufacturer Bat’a, who set up shop in Vukovar in 1931.
The Museum of the Vučedol Culture, five kilometres out of town on the banks of the Danube, is one of the most exciting and well-represented archeological museums anywhere in Europe. Built into the hillside below the original excavation site, this award-winning structure celebrates the copper-smelting civilization that flourished hereabouts 5000 years ago.
The Vučedol people used highly decorative astronomical pictograms to decorate their ceramics, and laid out their dead in shapes imitating signs of the zodiac. Knowledge of astronomy was crucial in deciding when to sow and when to reap.
Where can I get to grips with the 1991 siege?
Dominating the horizon south of the town centre is the stark silhouette of the water tower. Perforated by shell holes, but still standing, it’s a dramatic and rugged symbol of survival.
Vukovar General Hospital (Opća bolnica) was deliberately targeted during the siege, and patients were crowded into a basement that now serves as a memorial centre. Makeshift wards have been recreated to show how beds and equipment were crammed together, with dummy-like sculptures symbolizing staff and patients.
Six kilometres east of Vukovar on the road to Ilok is the Ovčara cattle farm, site of one of the most notorious single massacres of the Croat–Serb conflict. Just after capturing the town, Serb forces took 261 defenders, civilians and hospital staff from Vukovar hospital to storehouses at Ovčara, where they were tortured and shot.
One of the storehouses is now a deeply poignant memorial space, with the personal effects of the victims conveying the obvious but nevertheless necessary message: that these were ordinary, innocent people.
Is there anything to do outdoors?
Only two kilometres west of central Vukovar, the Adica Forest Park offers an enthralling mixture of mixed woodland, riverine swamp, hiking trails and cycle paths. In high summer locals take shuttle boats to the Ada, a tree-shaded island in the Danube that boasts a long, luxuriant sandy beach.
What should I eat and drink?
The mainstay of the restaurant menus in this part of Croatia is fiš paprikaš, a spicy stew comprising chunks of catfish and pike-perch seasoned with a generous shovel-full of paprika.
It’s Ilok that is the area’s main wine destination, with a dozen family-run cellars grouped around the town’s hilltop castle. Dry white Graševina represents the bulk of Ilok’s output, although it is the slightly sweeter Traminac that gets the wine buffs excited.
Is there any budget-friendly accommodation?
Again it’s Ilok that has the edge when it comes to places to stay. Villa Iva has neat en-suite doubles ranged around an attractive flower-bedecked courtyard; Hostel Cinema has dorms and quads in a converted cinema; while the smarter, riverside Hotel Dunav is also affordable.
Is there anything else I should know?
If you’re planning to come in summer then don’t forget the Vukovar Film Festival. Held in a variety of (frequently outdoor) locations every August, it’s a leading showcase for new films from southeastern Europe, with the new wave of Romanian directors a perennially strong presence.