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.