Along with Slovenia, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, which triggered a Croatian war for independence. Serbian people living in border areas of Croatia revolted, supported by the Yugoslav Army and the ensuing months saw combat between various Croatian and Serbian armed forces. During this stage of the war, the independence of Croatia was recognized by the international community, while the Serbs proclaimed their own state, and by early 1992 troops were entrenched. This stage of the war left hundreds of thousands refugees on the Croatian side. In 1995, the Croatian Army successfully launched two major offensives to retake the rebel areas by force, leading to a mass displacement of the local Serbian population from those areas. A few months later, the war ended upon the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement. A peaceful reintegration of the remaining Serbian-controlled territories was completed in 1998 under United Nations supervision.
Bosnia-Hercegovina gained its independence during the 1990s as well but the ensuing war took a serious toll on the land and its people. It’s been under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. Bosnia itself is the chief geographic region of the modern state, and forms its historical backbone.
Politics aside, Croatia and Bosnia are beautiful, particularly the former. With four and a half million people in a country the size of West Virginia , Croatia has a rugged and dramatic Adriatic coastline that extends 1,100 miles. But wait, there’s more, because when you add in the 1,185 islands off-shore, the Croatian coastline triples. And it is magnificent.
Two of my favorite communities are at the northern and southern ends of the coast. Opatija, in the north, is often called the Nice of the Adriatic. It is one of the oldest resort towns on the eastern shore of the Adriatic. The Croatian Riviera extends for eight miles. Croatians, and many Western Europeans who’ve been visiting for years, say this region has everything the French Riviera has, at half the cost. Long before the tourists came, Benedictine monks arrived and built St. James Monastery. In fact, Opatija means monastery in the Croatian language. The non-religious began descending on the town more than a century ago. In 1884, Villa Angiolina was the first accommodation for outside guests. Villa Amalia followed, after that, the Hotel Kvarner, and then came people from Western Europe. By the way, all three of those facilities still exist. Opatija has many more hotels, of course, plenty of places to eat, and lots of stores. Although there’s no beach as such, you can still swim in the sea. It’s cold at first but quite pleasant once you become adjusted to it.
At the northern edge of the Riviera, the small town of Volosko seems more interested in fishing and boating than in swimming or sightseeing. And that’s what is so captivating about Volosko. It makes you think you’re visiting in the 1940s. It’s a 30-minute hike from Opatija or about a ten-minute ride. I met David and Barbara Brook of England who describe the region as “absolutely gorgeous”. They come here even though friends back home cautioned them not to visit Croatia because they think the Baltics are still at war. “I tell them not to be so foolish,” says David Brook. He and his wife will continue to enjoy this lovely place for years to come.
Another thing that’s so great about Opatija is that you can travel in either direction and discover outstanding places. Go east and you’ll find the island of Krk, one of the most northern islands of the Mediterranean/Adriatic. It features jagged coasts, bays and inlets, beaches, and rocks. There’s a fierce North wind which is so strong it tears vegetation from the rocks, leaving nothing but stone in its wake. Krk is also a wine-growing region and the town of Vrbnik is the best place to enjoy the fruit of the vine. Don’t expect cabernets or chardonnays, though. Krk has its own distinctive grapes and a savvy traveler will want to explore the new varieties. One other thing to look for in Vrbnik: the narrowest alley in the world. Ask the locals to help you find it.
Off the island of Krk there’s a smaller island: Koshljun. On it you’ll find a small Franciscan monastery, formerly a Benedictine abbey. It’s a quiet respite from the 21 st Century.
Returning from Krk Island, head west, past Opatija and you’ll reach the Istrian peninsula, partially in Croatia and partially in Slovenia. This is a melting pot, where Slavic, Roman, and Germanic cultures intermingle. There’s a very strong Italian influence and, in fact, some towns have both Croatian and Italian names. Italian and Croatian are both spoken there. Italian cuisine is common.
The town of Rovinj is on the western side of the peninsula and features a dramatic harbor and marina, a wonderful outdoor market, as well as red-roofed buildings and the magnificent Church of St. Euphemia, complete with a Venetian bell tower and a figure of St. Euphemia at the very top.
At the southern trip of Istria, be sure to see the Roman town of Pula and its imposing Coliseum, once the sixth-largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire. And don’t leave the peninsula without stopping in Hum, said to be the smallest town in Croatia, and possibly in all of Europe. There are just 16 homes in the village. Along the route to Hum, there is a series of ancient monuments, evoking the history and heritage of the Istrian region.
Driving the Croatian coast is a breathtaking experience and there are interesting towns and beaches along the way.
One such town is Split, wedged between the Mountains and the palm-lined waterfront. Split is replete with Roman ruins and several museums. It was once the residence of Roman Emperor Diocletian. He built a palace here in the 3 rd Century and when it was finished, he stepped down from his royal throne and retreated to Split. His burial mausoleum later became the Cathedral of St. Dominius, one of the smallest cathedrals I’ve ever seen.
At the southern edge of the Croatian coast is one of the most enthralling towns in Europe: Dubrovnik. Croatians say it is one of the world’s most beautiful fortified cities. Author George Bernard Shaw was so enchanted with the city he dubbed it the Jewel of the Adriatic. The jewel was tarnished and damaged heavily during the Yugoslav civil war but international contributions have restored the city to its previous splendor. The Old Town is the main draw; its main thoroughfare, called The Stradun, is a cobblestoned ribbon through the center of the ancient section. Dubrovnik was founded in the 7 th Century when it was actually two settlements, across a channel from each other. In the 12 th Century, that channel was filled in, the Stradun was created, and two towns became one. Dubrovnik is derived from the Croatian word Dubrava, which means Oak Woods, the trees which once grew near the city.
Dubrovnik introduced the first medical service in 1301 and the first monastic pharmacy in Europe in 1317. The city’s been a gathering place of painters, poets, and writers in the past but now it’s tourists who gather here in huge numbers. Dubrovnik is so popular it can be overcrowded on a Summer day when several cruise liners and tour groups come to town at the same time. Mayor Dubravka Suica has developed a plan to spread out the tourist flow, encouraging visitors to come year-round, not just in Summer. She says the weather is mild during Winter months, making the city a great place to visit. Since it is often very hot and sticky in Summertime, Dubrovnik may appeal to many when temperatures cool down. There are shops and restaurants tucked away along side alleyways and they are worth a visit. But my advice to visitors is this: if your health permits, walk the wall all the way around the town. It’s a memorable hike.
Croatia has its charm and natural beauty. It has recovered from war. For Bosnia-Hercegovina, rebuilding will take more time. It was seriously affected by civil strife and is still a long way from stability.
On this episode of The Seasoned Traveler, I did stop in one town with a heartwarming story: Mostar. The settlement itself goes back to Greek and Roman times and in the 15 th Century something significant happened. The townsfolk built a bridge across the Nevetva River-wooden, hung on chains. They recruited men to guard the span, who were called Mostari. That’s probably how the town got its name. After the Turks took control of Mostar, the wooden structure was replaced by a stone bridge in 1566. It stood until 1993 when the bridge was destroyed during the war. Mostar was devastated by eight months of fighting: 3,000 people died, thousands fled town, and 5,000 buildings were destroyed. As part of the recovery, an international effort was undertaken to rebuild the bridge. It was finished and dedicated in 2004. Mostari still guard the sparkling new bridge but they also jump from the center of the span to the delight of tourists (tourists have to pay them, of course). Each summer, Mostar hosts an international bridge diving and jumping competition, bringing athletes from the world over to the small city. As war wounds heal, others are coming to Mostar too. Travelers are discovering Bosnia and are beginning to come for a visit. I think the new bridge alone is worth a trip.