Despite being one of Europe’s most fashionable places to visit, Croatia doesn’t feel like a place that has been thoroughly worked over by the tourist industry. Though development continues apace along the more commercialized stretches of the coast, Croatian tourism has spun off in a number of positive directions. Whether backpackers or touring families, long-distance cyclists, yachters or spa-hotel surfers, all travellers have seen a big leap forward in the range and quality of what the country has to offer.
A renewed respect for natural ingredients has become the watchword of Croatian cuisine, with locally sourced foodstuffs, wines and olive oils standing up increasingly well to globalization. Croatia has a growing reputation for niche festivals – not just in the party-the-weekend-away music events held on beaches and in abandoned factories and ancient sea-forts up and down the coast, but also in the mushrooming number of arts festivals and small-town cultural shindigs. And in Zagreb and elsewhere, a raft of new galleries and art attractions has given the country a cool and contemporary sheen.
Croatia is blessed with a wealth of natural riches, boasting almost 2000km of rocky, indented shore and more than a thousand islands, many blanketed in luxuriant vegetation. Even during the heavily visited months of July and August there are still enough off-the-beaten-track islands, quiet coves and stone-built fishing villages to make you feel as if you’re visiting Europe at its most unspoiled. There’s plenty in the way of urbane glamour too, if that’s what you’re after, with swanky hotels, yacht-filled harbours and cocktail bars aplenty – especially in à-la-mode destinations such as Dubrovnik and Hvar. Wherever you go though you’ll find that Croatia retains an appeal for independent travellers that’s in short supply at more package-oriented destinations elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Most budget and mid-range accommodation is still in the form of private rooms and apartments, and there has been an explosion in the number of backpacker-friendly hostel-type establishments in the major cities.
The country has certainly come a long way since the early 1990s, when within the space of half a decade – almost uniquely in contemporary Europe – it experienced the collapse of communism, a war of national survival and the securing of independence. Two decades on, visitors will be struck by the tangible sense of pride that independent statehood has brought. National culture is a far from one-dimensional affair, however, and much of the country’s individuality is due to its geographical position straddling the point at which the sober central European virtues of hard work and order collide with the spontaneity, vivacity and taste for the good things in life that characterize the countries of southern Europe – a cultural blend of Mitteleuropa and Mediterranean that gives Croatia its particular flavour. Not only that, but the country also stands on one of the great fault lines of European civilization, the point at which the Catholicism of Central Europe meets the Islam and Orthodox Christianity of the East. Though Croats traditionally see themselves as a Western people, distinct from the other South Slavs who made up the former state of Yugoslavia, many of the hallmarks of Balkan culture – patriarchal families, hospitality towards strangers and a fondness for grilled food – are as common in Croatia as in any other part of southeastern Europe, suggesting that the country’s relationship with its neighbours is closer than many Croats may admit.