Enthralled by a first visit to Croatia

This article appears on page 68 of the November 2008 issue.
Serene setting in the hamlet of Otočac.

Michael Zufolo, New York, NY • Photos by Susan Raphael

Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about Croatia, in addition to its diverse regional cuisine, thematic paintings by native artists and storied 18th- and 19th-century architecture, is the quality of its air and the quality of its water. And there is water everywhere in Croatia, particularly in the region of Lika.

Departing New York on Virgin Atlantic, we arrived in London and continued on Croatia Airlines to Zagreb, the country’s capital city. Like the rest of the country, it’s been relatively undiscovered, at least by visitors from this side of the Atlantic.

So on our April ’08 visit, my wife, Susan, and I enrolled in “Croatia 101” as given by our driver and the guides we encountered over seven days traveling in our rented van ($120 per day through National Car Rental [www.nationalcar.com]).

A bit of background

First settled by the Croats in the seventh century, the country has been plagued by a succession of invaders from adjoining lands, including the Ottoman Turks, the Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, the armies of Napoleon, German forces during the Second Word War, the Communist regime of Marshall Tito in the post-war years and, finally, the insurgents from Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia. Needless to say, Croatia has had its fill of spoilers.

In the shadow of the country’s conflict with Bosnia and Serbia, Croatia has pressed on in terms of its economic stability. It is now a presence in the commonwealth of nations, having applied to become a member of the EU in 2003, and is ready to take its place among the leading nations of Europe.


Cascades at Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Starting off in Zagreb, a city known for its historic character and also the hub of political life since the seventh century, we discovered its subtle charm, lively lifestyle and noble bearing.

Zagreb is well polished, culturally, and has a lot to offer. In addition to a number of 5-star hotels, including the recently renovated Regent Esplanade, a 1925 historical property with a dazzling oriental theme and formerly managed by Orient Express Hotels, there’s the Palace Hotel, the city’s oldest, plus the Sheraton, and the Westin, where President George W. Bush stayed last April.

A bevy of 3- and 4-star properties as well as smaller hostelries are also competing for travelers’ euros. Including B&Bs, apartments, private dwellings and campsites, there are over 40 properties from which to choose. We chose the Regent, where our deluxe room cost $180 (plus 22% tax) per night.

The city also boasts a number of public parks — seven of them in all — where the city’s festivals abound 12 months a year. Set in a horseshoe pattern, the parks offer unobstructed paths and walkways festooned with colorful flowerbeds, each providing a staging area for concerts and dance and theatrical performances.

Zagreb is also a city of churches, and, like the rest of the country since the ninth century, more than 80% of it inhabitants are Roman Catholic. While Christianity was introduced in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries, the church finally took root by the ninth century through the efforts of Christian missionaries, foremost of whom were the Byzantine Greek brothers St. Cyril and St. Methodius.

City sights

We visited the city’s main church, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a 13th-century monument rebuilt in 1888 after a destructive earthquake leveled it in 1880. Its twin towers, the city’s highest, can be seen for miles.

The cathedral contains a world-class organ built in the last quarter of the 19th century, an assembly of 6,600 musical pipes. The late Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960), a thorn in Marshall Tito’s side, is buried there. The cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic reconstruction in Europe today.

Across the plaza from the church and past the city’s open-air market, Dolac (open daily), sits St. Mary’s, a smaller yet very distinctive church complete with a recently restored cupola painted in 14-karat gold leaf. The church and its onion-shaped dome are a tribute to the Austro-Hungarian builders who labored there in the 19th century.

We also paid a visit to the Mirogoj Cemetery, which rivals Paris’ Père Lachaise. Built in 1880 at the height of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, it too has undergone extensive restoration. The cemetery’s gardens were vividly planned as an English park.

The museums

The city also heralds its museums, and there are more than 30 of them. One noteworthy example is the Museum of Naive Art (Sv. Cirila i Metoda 3; www.hmnu.org), popularized by local artists whose genre is reflected in colorful native themes. It has been referred to as the world’s first museum of peasant art. Opened in 1952, it holds more than 1,700 works. Admission is 20 kuna ($4) per adult, and it is closed Mondays.

There’s also the Mimara Museum (Rooseveltov trg 5), perhaps the city’s most renowned art center for works ranging from ancient to modern. The creation of Ante Topic´ Mimara, a powerful international post-war collector and native of Dalmatia, it contains 3,750 pieces of mixed art spanning the last 2,500 years, including an extensive exhibition of glass and ceramics from around the world.

Housing 42 salons, the building, a stunning example of classical architecture in the Neo-Renaissance style, was opened in 1987. It provides a comfortable setting to see some great art without the usual bustling crowds of the larger European capitals. Admission is 20 kuna and the museum is closed Mondays.

The food

A potpourri of meat, cooked under hot coals at Licˇka Kuc´a.

If you’re searching for a fine meal in Croatia, you won’t be disappointed. We counted over 200 restaurants of every flavor and stripe, from native Croatian cuisine to macrobiotic and vegetarian fare, with a number of pastry shops, wine cellars, coffeehouses and tavernas thrown in.

With some guidance from the first cookbook on local cooking by Marija Kumicic, a serviceable text on what there is to know about food and wine in Zagreb, we selected a handful of dishes that are still going strong.

Flour soup is an everyday starter. Good and hearty, it is usually served with homemade bread. Strudel in every variety, especially kremsnite (custard), paprenjak (spiced cookie) and gingerbread hearts with liquor or honey are also typical for the region.

For a heartier meal, a variety of meats prepared any number of ways can be found. Selections include Zagreb steak (veal with local cheese and ham); sarma (stuffed cabbage); krpice (square pasta with roasted cabbage and sausage); turkey with mlinci, served with potatoes, minced veal and mushrooms; kotlovina (fried pork chops and sausage with onions, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes), and zagorski sˇtrukli (salty dumplings stuffed with pumpkin, poppy or apples, served as an accompaniment).

And don’t forget the fish. Anything that swims in local streams, rivers and lakes is available, though trout is a favorite.

Most meals cost around $25 per person, without wine.

Water, water everywhere

Less than two hours from Zagreb by car or express autobus lies one of the world’s natural wonders, Plitvice Lakes National Park (www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr), the country’s largest and, arguably, most beautiful. It is located in Lika, the lake region between Zagreb and Zadar on the eastern shoulder of the country.

Established in 1947, the park is open 12 months a year and has been recording record numbers of visitors over the past five years. (In 2007, 960,000 visitors passed through its gates.) In the summer, the average daily number of visitors reaches 11,000, with the Japanese, English and Germans traditionally leading the pack.

Zagreb's cathedral.

Since there’s a total absence of industry in the park, there’s relatively no pollution. The area known as Corkova uvala, a term for the virgin forests that abound there, has been described as one of the most significant and most appealing in Europe. It contains 1,267 types of plants, including 72 endemic plants and 55 species of orchids, plus 321 species of butterflies, 161 species of bats and abundant wildlife, including the European brown bear.

According to Ivo Pevalick, a noted 20th-century Croatian academic, “there are water, lakes, waterfalls and forests everywhere (in Croatia), but Plitvica Lakes are unique.” At last count there were more than 100 waterfalls and 18 lakes throughout the park, depending on the season.

The lake terrain is divided between upper and lower lakes. Cascades of water come from the Bijela and Crna rivers, which in the south of the park join with Proscansko Lake to flow into the Korana River close to Sastavci Falls.

You walk through the park using a number of wooden slat bridges and stone-cut stairs. These invariably lead to the lakeside and several mini-ports located throughout the park. From there you can hop on an electric ferry for the short ride across. If speed is your game, there’s a battery of small vans leaving every quarter hour from the main gate.

Thanks to our able guide Helena, who has been with the park for 27 years, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were fascinated with what we found. In fact, we booked a local hotel for the night so we could return the following day. Jezero ($110 plus tax) is a 3-star property located inside the park.

After a long day, our only choice for a traditional Croatian dinner was Licˇka Kuc´a. Thankfully, it was a good one. This restaurant, located across from the main entrance of the park, is noted for its djuvec, a native dish of rice, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and onions served in a pot. Six of us shared this hearty dish that was accompanied by homemade bread and butter.

My own choice, however, was a sizzling selection of broiled meats — a potpourri of wild turkey, lamb and loin of pork prepared under a hot metal bell jar covered with fire-red coals from an assembly of large oak logs placed in vertical formation. As the oak timbers broke down into searing briquettes, the “pit boss” would take a large coal shovel and pour them onto the head of the bell jar, lifting the bell with a long metal rod to check the readiness of the meats under cover. This took no more than 30 minutes.

The result was an extraordinary plate of charbroiled meat served scalding hot with an accompaniment of salad and fresh stewed vegetables. The taste was unforgettable.

Local hospitality

Less than one hour away in the same mountain region of Lika, we found the charming village of Otocˇac.

Originally a mill site, the village is entirely self-sufficient. Each household cures its own pork, produces the country’s freshest creamy-white spoon cheese (which is prepared daily using fresh milk from local herds), bakes their own bread, combs their own wild honey and provides an amazing variety of grappas and homemade wines.

As at the park in Plitvice Lakes, there’s no industry in these parts to speak of, so the water from its mountain streams and rivers is so pure that you can take it right from the ground. Cascades of water run throughout the hamlet.

On the way into the village, my driver, Mladen, and I met an old farmer named Simatic Juraj, who, at 78 years old, was one of the youngest in the area. “Here,” he said, “they live to be 100.”

He showed us his prized “cat,” a small Caterpillar tractor that was “his baby,” plus his stock of hens and pullets, his herd of sheep and young lambs, his orchids, his wine-making apparatus and his country house, where we were treated to a glass of his own grappa before leaving.

Yet only a few steps away was the hamlet’s only restaurant, Vrilo Gracke, which sits between two small rivers. The proprietor of the place greeted us warmly and proceeded to serve us, a party of six, a board of his own sˇkripavac, the creamy pot cheese that so easily spreads on homemade bread, along with local wild honey and fresh fruit.

Added to this was a full plate of charcuterie with a field of greens and farm-fresh tomatoes. The beer, Velebitsko, made by the regional producer Licanka, was ice cold and added a nice touch. This late-afternoon repast was indeed a joyful experience for us.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the local people of this region for offering us their wisdom, their history and their pride, but most of all for allowing us into their homes to talk about the country of which they are so proud. For us, this was a discovery and we are most grateful.

For more information on visiting Croatia, contact the Croatian National Tourist Board (New York, NY; phone 800/829-4416, fax 212/279-8683, www.croatia.hr).