The jumble of geographical regions that make up inland Croatia seem, on the face of it, to have little in common with one another. Historically, however, the Croats of the interior were united by a set of cultural influences very different from those that prevailed on the coast. After the collapse of the medieval Croatian kingdom in the early twelfth century, inland Croatia fell under the sway of first Hungary, then the Habsburg Empire, increasingly adopting the culture and architecture of Central Europe. This heritage has left its mark: sturdy, pastel farmhouses dot the countryside, while churches sport onion domes and Gothic spires, providing a sharp contrast with the Venetian-inspired campaniles of the coast.
The main appeal of inland Croatia lies in its contrasting landscapes. The mountain chains that run from the Alps down to the Adriatic meet the Pannonian plain, which stretches all the way from Zagreb to eastern Hungary. The Zagorje region, just north of Zagreb, resembles southern Austria with its knobbly hills and castles, while southwest of Zagreb are the captivating lakes and waterfalls of the Plitvice Lakes. Much less touristed but equally rewarding are the wetlands southeast of the capital, with the Lonjsko polje Nature Park offering a mixture of archaic timber-built villages and birdwatching opportunities. The eastern province of Slavonia features broad expanses of flat, chequered farmland only partially broken up by low green hills. Tucked away in the province’s northeastern corner is the Kopački rit Nature Park, a wildlife-rich wonderland of reedy waterways and sunken forests. It’s in these areas of natural beauty that rural tourism is taking off in a big way, with village B&Bs, folksy restaurants and well-signed cycling routes cropping up in the Zagorje, Plitvice, Lonjsko polje and Kopački rit. Vineyards and wine cellars are a growing feature of tourism too, especially around Ilok in the far southeast.
The region also has worthwhile urban centres, with several well-preserved Baroque towns in which something of the elegance of provincial Habsburg life has survived. The most attractive of these are Varaždin, northeast of Zagreb, and Osijek, a former fortress town in eastern Slavonia. Some gripping museums at Vukovar and a burgeoning wine industry at Ilok provide the ideal inducements to extend your trip to Croatia’s southeastern corner.
Spread out between Zagreb and the Slovene border, the Zagorje is an area of chocolate-box enchantment: miniature wooded hills are crowned with the castles they seem designed for, and streams tumble through lush vineyards. At the top of almost every vineyard is a klet, a small, steep-roofed structure traditionally used for storing wine (nowadays they’re more often put to use as weekend cottages). Although the area is covered with a dense patchwork of villages, human beings seem outnumbered by the chickens, geese and turkeys that scavenge between the cornfields and vegetable plots. The museum village of Kumrovec, the Neanderthal Museum at Krapina and the castles at Veliki Tabor and Trakošćan are the main targets for visitors, although there are any number of Baroque churches and rural villages awaiting those who wish to explore further.
Most towns in the Zagorje have direct bus links with Zagreb, but you’ll need your own transport if you want to explore the region in depth.
The village of Kumrovec, 40km northwest of Zagreb, is renowned both as the best of Croatia’s museum villages and as the birthplace of the father of communist Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The simple peasant house in which Tito was born was turned into a museum during his lifetime, while the surrounding properties were rebuilt and restored in the ensuing decades to provide a lasting example of an early twentieth-century Zagorje village. Those who remember Tito with affection (and there are plenty of them) still gather here on the weekend nearest May 25, which as Tito’s “official birthday” was once marked with concerts and parades.
Josip Broz was born on May 7, 1892, the seventh son of peasant smallholder Franjo Broz and his Slovene wife Marija Javeršek. After training as a metalworker, Josip Broz became an officer in the Austrian army in World War I, only to be captured by the Russians in 1915. Fired by the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution, he joined the Red Army and fought in the Russian Civil War before finally heading for home in 1920. Some believe that the man who came back to Croatia with a discernible Russian accent was a Soviet-trained impostor who had assumed the identity of the original Josip Broz – an appealing but unlikely tale. Broz found himself in a turbulent Yugoslav state in which the Communist Party was outlawed, and it was his success in reinvigorating demoralized party cells that ensured his rise through the ranks.
Broz took the pseudonym Tito in 1934 upon entering the central committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party (he became leader in 1937). Nobody really knows why he chose the name: the most frequently touted explanation is that the nickname was bestowed on him by colleagues amused by his bossy manner – “ti to!” means “you [do] that!” in Croatian – although it’s equally possible that he took it from the eighteenth-century Croat writer Tito Brezovacki.
Tito’s finest hour came following the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, when he managed to impose communist control over an emergent antifascist uprising. Despite repeated (and often very successful) German counter offensives, he somehow succeeded in keeping his movement alive – through a mixture of luck, bloody-mindedness and sheer charisma. He also possessed a firm grasp of political theatre, promoting himself to the rank of marshal and donning suitably impressive uniforms whenever Allied emissaries were parachuted into Yugoslavia to meet him. The British and Americans lent him their full support from 1943 onwards, thereby condemning all other, noncommunist factions in Yugoslavia to certain political extinction after the war.
Emerging as dictator of Yugoslavia in 1945, Tito showed no signs of being anything more than a loyal Stalinist until the Soviet leader tried to get rid of him in 1948. Tito’s survival – subsequently presented to the world as “Tito’s historic ‘no’ to Stalin” – rested on his ability to inspire loyalty among a tightly knit circle of former Partisans while eliminating those who disagreed. Having resisted Soviet pressure, he concentrated on affirming Yugoslavia’s position on the world stage and left the nitty-gritty of running the country to others. Forming the Non-Aligned Movement with Nehru, prime minister of India, and President Nasser of Egypt after 1955 provided Yugoslavia with international prestige. In domestic affairs he presented himself as the lofty arbiter who, far from being responsible for the frequent malfunctions of Yugoslav communism, emerged to bang heads together when things got out of control. Thus, his decision to bring an end to the Zagreb-based reform movement known as the Croatian Spring in 1971 was sold to the public as a Solomonic intervention to ensure social peace rather than the authoritarian exercise it really was.
A lifelong dandy who loved to wear expensive watches, dyed his hair and used a sun lamp, Tito enthusiastically acquiesced to the personality cult constructed around him. May 25 was declared his official birthday and celebrated nationwide as “Dan mladosti” (“Day of Youth”), enhancing Tito’s aura as the kindly father of a grateful people. He was also a bit of a ladies’ man, marrying four times and switching partners with a speed that dismayed his more puritanical colleagues. Affection for Tito in Yugoslavia was widespread and genuine, if not universal. There’s no doubt that Titoist communism was “softer” than its Soviet counterpart after 1948: many areas of society were relatively free from ideological control and, from the 1950s onwards, Yugoslavs were able to travel and work abroad.
For most Croats, Tito’s legacy is ambiguous. Tito was fortunate enough to die before Yugoslavia’s economy went seriously wrong in the 1980s, and for many he remains a symbol of the good old days when economic growth (paid for by soft Western loans) led to rising living standards and a consumer boom. However, the authority of the party – and Tito’s leadership of it – was never to be questioned, and many dissenting voices ended up in prison. Tito is also seen as the man responsible for the so-called Way of the Cross (Križni put) massacres of 1945 (when thousands of Croatian reservists were put to death by avenging Partisans), the repression of Croatia’s Catholic Church, and the crackdown on the Croatian Spring. Despite keeping national aspirations on a tight leash, Tito’s Yugoslavia also ensured Croatian territorial continuity by establishing borders still in existence today. For this reason alone, many streets and squares in Croatia continue to bear Tito’s name.
Squeezed among lumpish, green hills, the busy town of Krapina, 65km north of Zagreb, has been propelled into the premier league of Croatian tourism thanks to the Neanderthal Museum, a boldly contemporary collection whose visitor-friendly mix of archeology and evolutionary science draws coach-loads of visitors from all over the country. The museum commemorates so-called “Krapina Man” (krapinski čovjek), a type of Neanderthal who lived in caves hereabouts some thirty thousand years ago. The bones of these hominids were excavated by Dragutin Gorjanović Kramberger in 1899 on Hušnjakovo hill, a short walk west of the town centre on the far side of the River Krapinica.
Ambitious, well designed and thought-provoking to boot, the Krapina Neanderthal Museum (Muzej Krapinskih Neandertalaca) is nothing short of a museum of life on Earth. The building itself is well suited to the task, with a glass-walled atrium leading to a cylindrical structure built into the Hušnjakovo hillside – visitors ascend the cylinder by spiral pathway, confronting stages in the Earth’s development as they go. A light display reruns the Big Bang theory of the universe’s creation, and life-sized models of mammals, monkeys and missing links illustrate how we got to where we are now: as a tour de force in evolutionary theory, the museum seems guaranteed to send creationists squealing for the exits. By far the most entertaining aspects of the museum are devoted to the Krapina Neanderthals themselves – a film featuring human actors in prosthetic masks re-creates a day in the life of a Neanderthal tribe, and the display culminates in a diorama featuring startlingly lifelike Neanderthal dummies.
Outside the museum, pathways lead up onto the wooded hillside towards the exact spot where Krambeger first excavated the bones, nowadays marked by life-sized statues of a Neanderthal family.
Seventy kilometres northeast of Zagreb, Varaždin is one of the best-preserved Baroque towns you are likely to find anywhere in Central Europe. An important military stronghold for successive Hungarian and Habsburg rulers, Varaždin grew fat on the profits of the Austrian–Turkish wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s, and many noble families built houses here. From 1765 to 1776 it was actually Croatia’s capital, until a disastrous fire (allegedly started by a pipe-smoking local youth who fell over while chasing a pig) forced the relocation of the capital to Zagreb. Following the fire, life slowly returned to the town’s opulent Baroque palaces, many of which remain resplendent in their original cream, ochre, pink and pale-blue colours. There’s also a postcard-perfect castle, now home to northeastern Croatia’s most worthwhile museum, and quite a few churches – all crammed within the compact Old Town. An additional reason to visit is provided by Varaždin’s graveyard, famous throughout Croatia for its towering topiary and strollable park-like feel. A large student population ensures that modern Varaždin has a vivacious, youthful edge – the presence of an information technology faculty has made the town into one of the most prestigious places to study outside the capital. Varaždin’s final remaining claim to fame is the extraordinarily high level of bicycle use among its inhabitants, giving it the air of a prosperous provincial town in the Low Countries.
About 1km west of the castle, down Hallerova aleja, Varaždin’s municipal cemetery (Gradsko groblje) is one of Croatia’s greatest horticultural masterpieces. Begun in 1905, it was very much the life’s work of park keeper Hermann Haller, a serious student of European graveyards who believed that cemeteries should be life-enhancing public parks rather than the sombre preserve of wreath-laying mourners. He accordingly planted row upon row of conifers, carefully sculpted into stately green pillars that towered over the graves themselves – thereby providing “quiet and harmonious hiding places” for the deceased, as Haller himself explained. In among the greenery are some outstanding grave memorials, notably Robert Frangeš-Mihanović’s 1906 Art Nouveau relief of Death, angels and grieving relatives atop the tomb of Vjekoslav and Emma Leitner – it’s in the eastern end of the cemetery, and is marked as attraction no. 10 on the map at the main entrance.
Varaždin is at its liveliest during the Špancirfest (late Aug/early Sept), a week-long arts festival featuring street theatre, open-air rock, world music and jazz gigs, and carnivalesque costume parades. During the last two weeks of September the town’s churches and palaces provide suitably ornate venues for the Varaždin Baroque Evenings (Varaždinske barokne večeri), with international conductors and soloists performing a rich repertoire of early classical music.
Nestling beneath the eastern spur of the wooded Samobor hills around 25km west of Zagreb, Samobor is every Croat’s idea of what a provincial inland town should look like: a tidy, prosperous agglomeration of pastel-coloured houses, largely unsullied by industry and modern architecture, and with an abundance of hilly woodland on the doorstep. Samobor rivalled Zagreb as a trade and craft centre in the Middle Ages, though it’s nowadays very much a dormitory suburb of its big neighbour, attracting a smattering of day-trippers keen to explore the woods above the town or sample the local delicacy, samoborska kremšnita, a wobbly mass of vanilla custard squeezed between layers of flaky pastry. Other local goodies include samoborski bermet (Samobor vermouth), a brownish, stomach-settling spirit that tastes like cough mixture, and the sharply flavoured samoborska muštarda (mustard).
The town centre revolves around the long, extended triangle of Trg kralja Tomislava, beside which flows the Gradna – a minor tributary of the Sava, and here more of a swollen brook than a river – spanned by a succession of slender bridges. Lined by sober, beige townhouses and overlooked by a canary-yellow parish church, the square has a character that’s overwhelmingly Baroque, which renders the Art Nouveau pharmacy at no. 11 all the more striking – note the haughty, starch-winged angels high up on the facade.
One of the best times to be in Samobor is immediately preceding Lent, during the Samobor carnival (Samoborski fašnik). One of Croatia’s best-known and most authentic festivals, it dates from the early 1820s and – apart from a short period in the wake of World War II, when it was suspended – has been a permanent fixture in the town calendar ever since. On the weekend before Shrove Tuesday floats rumble through the streets in lively parades and hedonistic locals run around in masks, creating an impromptu party atmosphere. On Shrove Tuesday itself, an effigy named Princ Fašnik (“prince of the carnival”) is blamed for everything that has gone wrong over the previous twelve months and is ritually burned on the main square.
Perched on a hilltop on the old Zagreb–Split road, the small town of Slunj hovers above the confluence of the Korana and Slunjčica rivers, with the rushing waters of the latter dropping into the Korana gorge through a series of burbling rapids. In times past this natural power source led to the development of a riverside watermilling settlement known as Rastoke, where several traditional buildings still survive – solid structures with stone lower floors and timber upper storeys. It’s a delightful area for a stroll, with wooden bridges crossing gurgling torrents of channelled water, although many of Rastoke’s most picturesque spots are on privately owned land. Otherwise, there are excellent views of the gorge from the path above the north bank of the Korana, visible when entering the town by road from the north.
Just over an hour’s drive southeast of Zagreb lies a particularly beautiful stretch of seasonally flooded wetland known as the Lonjsko polje, an enchanting area of ancient timber houses, rustic lifestyles and – most famously of all – nesting storks. Marking the Lonjsko polje’s southern end, the town of Jasenovac was the site of a notorious concentration camp in World War II and is now home to a dignified memorial park.
Lonjsko polje can be treated as a day-trip from Zagreb if you have your own transport, although the area's bucolic B&Bs provide sufficient inducement to linger. However you approach the region, you’ll find yourself on a badly surfaced road which winds its way along the banks of the River Sava, passing through a sequence of single-street villages characterized by their chicken-choked yards and the kind of tumbledown, timber-built houses that seem to have jumped straight out of an illustrated book of fairy stories. The polje’s dyke-top roads are perfect for cyclists, and many of the B&Bs rent out bikes.
The polje (which means “field”) is at its wettest in spring and autumn, when the tributaries of the River Sava habitually break their banks and the area is colonized by spoonbills, herons and storks. The area’s oak forests and pastures are also home to the Posavlje horse (Posavski konj), a stocky, semi-wild breed, and the spotty-hided Turopolje pig (Turopoljska svinja), which lives off acorns. The villages of the polje contain more in the way of nineteenth-century wooden architecture than any other region of Croatia, and are protected – alongside the flora and fauna – by the Lonjsko polje Nature Park (Park prirode Lonjsko polje).
The village of Čigoć is a world-renowned migrating stop for white storks, which head here every spring (usually arriving late March or early April) ready to feast on the polje’s abundant supply of insects, fish and frogs, and nest on chimneys and telegraph poles throughout the village. You stand a good chance of seeing baby storks during the hatching season, which falls in late April or May. According to tradition, the storks leave Čigoć for the wintering grounds of southern Africa (an eight- to twelve-week journey) on St Bartholomew’s Day (August 24), although a handful of creatures stay in the village all year, their migratory instincts weakened by food handouts by soft-hearted locals.
Most of the houses in Čigoć are traditional two-storey structures with shingle roofs, overhanging eaves and a main entrance on the first floor, reached by a covered outside staircase known as a ganjak; many also have elaborately carved porches or balconies.
Stretching from the Lonjsko polje to the Danube, which forms Croatia’s border with Serbia, the rich agricultural plain of Slavonia has an unjust reputation as the most scenically tedious region of the country. All that most visitors ever see of it is the view from the Autocesta – the highway originally built to link Zagreb with Belgrade, and still the main route into the eastern corner of the country – as it forges across unbroken flatlands. However, the region does have its attractions, not least a distinctive and often captivating rural landscape, characterized in summer by a seemingly endless carpet of corn and sunflowers, with vineyards on the low hills to the north.
Slavonia’s main urban centre is Osijek, a former Austrian fortress town which retains a dash of Habsburg-era elegance. It’s around Osijek that the best of Slavonia’s scenery lies, a patchwork of greens and yellows dotted with dusty, half-forgotten villages, where latticed wooden sheds groan under the weight of corncobs and, in the autumn, strings of red paprikas hang outside to dry. Just north of Osijek, the Kopački rit Nature Park, with its abundant birdlife, is Croatia’s most intriguing wetland area, while in the far southeast the siege-scarred town of Vukovar is slowly regaining its provincial Baroque charm. Elsewhere in Slavonia there’s plenty in the way of history and heritage, notably in the pleasant provincial towns of Ilok, Vinkovci and Đakovo.
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. A park-filled city hugging the banks of the River Drava, Osijek has an easy-going 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 city to a nine-month bombardment. Osijek survived, but memories of life on the front line are still fresh.
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 fantastically well-preserved 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 devastating 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 – coffee-swilling students fill the local cafés on weekdays.
The neat and tidy plains town of Đakovo, 60km south of Osijek, is dominated by the skyline-hogging, 84m-high twin towers of its neo-Gothic, red-brick cathedral. The town’s other main claim to fame is the Lippizaner stud farm, home to a sizeable community of the famously handsome white horses. Đakovo is worth a day-trip from Osijek but probably doesn’t merit a longer stay.
Đakovo is the scene of one of Croatia’s most important festivals of authentic folk culture, Đakovački vezovi (literally “Đakovo embroidery”; early July), which features a weekend-long series of song and dance performances by folkloric societies from all over Croatia. Performances take over the town park from mid-morning till mid-evening, after which there’s usually some sort of live music and revelry in the town centre.
North of Osijek, the main road to Hungary forges through the pastel-coloured villages and corn-rich fields of the Baranja, a fertile extension of the Slavonian plain which fills the triangle formed by the Drava to the west, the Danube to the east and the low hills of southern Hungary to the north. The main attraction here is the Kopački rit Nature Park, although the region possesses enough in the way of picturesque villages, paprika-cuisine restaurants and wine cellars to justify a more extensive trip. With a largely flat terrain and well-signed cycling routes, the region is perfect for touring by bike, though sights are of a disparate nature and to explore further afield you really need a car.
Stretching east of Bilje, the Kopački rit Nature Park (Park prirode Kopački rit) covers an area of marsh and partly sunken forest just north of the point where the fast-flowing River Drava pours into the Danube, forcing the slower Danube waters to back up and flood the plain. The resulting wetland is inundated from spring through to early autumn, when fish come here to spawn and wading birds congregate to feed off them. At this time you’ll also see cormorants, grey herons and, if you’re lucky, black storks, which nest in the oak forests north of Bilje. In autumn the area fills up with migrating ducks and geese, while the surrounding woodland provides a year-round home for deer and wild boar. Watch out for mosquitoes in summer, when it’s a good idea to anoint yourself with insect repellent.
The main route into the park is along the dyke-top road that heads north from the visitor centre and runs past commercial fish ponds before eventually arriving at the magisterial sunken forest of Lake Sakadaš, where wading birds stalk their prey among a tangle of white willows. North of here, tracks continue through Tikveš, an area of oak forest where you stand a good chance of spotting wild pigs and deer. Josip Broz Tito used the fine villa of Dvorac Tikveš as a hunting lodge; it was neglected during the Serb occupation (when most of the furnishings disappeared), but you can still see the balcony where Tito and guests waited, rifle in hand, while servants drove forest beasts out onto the lawn in front of them.
Set amid wheat and cornfields on the west bank of the Danube, Vukovar was until 1991 the most prosperous town in Croatia, with a quaint Baroque centre, a successful manufacturing industry, and an urban culture that was lively, open and tolerant. However, the town’s proximity to the Serbian border and ethnically mixed population (of whom 44 percent were Croat and 37 percent Serb) conspired to place Vukovar at the sharp end of the Croat–Serb conflict. The resulting siege and capture of the town by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian irregulars killed hundreds of civilians, left the centre of town in ruins, and did untold emotional damage to those lucky enough to escape. In January 1998 Vukovar was returned to Croatia as part of the Erdut Accord, though Croats driven away seven years earlier were initially slow to return, either because their homes were still in ruins or because the local economy wasn’t yet strong enough to provide sufficient jobs. There are currently about 18,000 Croats and 9000 Serbs living in Vukovar – about two-thirds of the original population – although social contact between the two communities is virtually nonexistent. Today, the town is limited and mutual suspicions remain.
For the visitor, however, the signs are increasingly positive. The town’s cute historic centre has been almost fully restored, while the opening of both a much-restored town museum and a new archeological museum at nearby Vučedol, have propelled the city into the tourist limelight. These, along with a brace of memorial sites commemorating the 1991 siege, mean there is plenty to see in Vukovar.
Inter-ethnic tension flared in Vukovar at the dawn of the Croat–Serb conflict in April 1991, when barricades went up between the Croatian-controlled town centre and the Serb-dominated suburbs. The firing of a rocket at the Serb district of Borovo Selo by Croat extremists was a calculated attempt to raise the stakes. Croatian policemen patrolling Borovo Selo were shot at by Serbian snipers on May 1, and when a busload of their colleagues entered the suburb the following day, they were met by an ambush in which twelve of them lost their lives. The JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) moved in, ostensibly to keep the two sides apart, digging into positions that were to serve them well with the breakout of all-out war in the autumn.
On September 14, 1991, the Croatian National Guard surrounded the JNA barracks in town. Serb irregulars in the outlying areas, supported by the JNA, responded by launching an attack. Croatian refugees fled the suburbs, crowding into the centre. Aided by the fact that many of the outlying villages were ethnically Serb, the JNA swiftly encircled the town, making it all but impossible to leave (the only route out was through sniper-prone cornfields), and subjecting the population to increasingly heavy shelling. By the beginning of October the people of Vukovar were living in bomb shelters and subsisting on meagre rations of food and water, their plight worsened by the seeming inactivity of the government in Zagreb. Some of the town’s defenders suspected that Vukovar was being deliberately sacrificed in order to win international sympathy for the Croatian cause. Vukovar finally fell on November 18, with most of the inhabitants fleeing back to the town hospital or making a run for it across the fields to the west. Of those who fell into Yugoslav hands, the women and children were usually separated from the men – many of the latter simply disappeared.
The worst atrocities took place after Yugoslav forces reached the hospital, which they proceeded to evacuate before the agreed arrival of Red Cross supervisors. Those captured here were bundled into trucks and driven away to be murdered, finishing up in a mass grave near the village of Ovčara, 6km southeast. About two thousand Croatian soldiers and civilians died in the defence of Vukovar, and those listed as missing still run into the hundreds. The fact that Vukovar held out for so long turned the town into an emotionally powerful symbol of Croatian resistance, and also put paid to the JNA as an effective army of conquest.
Long considered the kind of provincial town you race through en route to the Serbian border, Danube-hugging Ilok is fast emerging as one of eastern Croatia’s most compelling destinations. With wine cellars galore grouped around an imposing hilltop castle, it certainly promises enough to keep you occupied for a day or two. The town can also boast a great choice of affordable accommodation, making it a far better base for exploring the region than either Vukovar or Vinkovci. With the bridge to the Serbian side of the Danube only 2km downstream, it is also a good jumping-off point for Novi Sad and Belgrade.
Much of modern Ilok huddles around the fortress (tvrđava), its ruddy walls dominating a ridge overlooking the Danube. It owes its shape to Nikola Iločki (1415–77), the local power baron who turned the town into a major strategic point in Europe’s defences against the Ottoman Turks. Occupied by the Ottomans in 1526, Ilok became a Habsburg possession in 1688 when it was presented to the Pope’s nephew Livio Odescalchi, who built a fine Baroque palace (now the Ilok Museum) inside the walls.
The fortress walls and towers are in a good state of preservation and can be admired by walking through the park that runs around its western and southern side.
Although Iločki podrumi is the most famous of Ilok’s wine producers, it is the large number of independent wineries that give the town its flavour. These are by and large family businesses, selling wines directly to visitors to their cellars. Visitors are welcome (you can taste wines by the glass and might also be offered cheese-and-ham nibbles).
One of the most enterprising and innovative boutique producers in Ilok, producing good Graševinas and Chardonnays, as well as a highly regarded Merlot.
Friendly family house with cellar and tasting room, offering Chardonnay and red Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) alongside the usual Graševina.
A family winery with a two hundred-year tradition right in the centre of Ilok, with cellars built into the hillside. Known for good-quality Graševina and Rhine Riesling.
Top image: Waterfalls in Plitvice National Park © Fesus Robert/Shutterstock