Croatia – People, Places, History, Food and more
In this article I’m taking a look at Croatia, an increasingly popular holiday destination in the Balkans region of Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of the fall of Communism there were several years of strife and struggle for independence, but although some of the scars remain, Croatia has put that behind it and looks now to the future as a part of Europe and the EU.
Where is Croatia?
A Brief History of Croatia
People have been living in Croatia for thousands of years – with Greek colonies and then Roman occupation. One Roman emperor, Diocletian, built a palace in the country, and one of the last Western Roman Emperors ruled his declining empire from there. Croatian history really starts around the 7th century when Avar and Croat tribes from Asia invaded, destroying almost all the Roman settlements and setting themselves up in their place. Croatia first enters the historical record as a vassal state of Francia, but in the 9th century it achieved autonomy with the Pope recognising Croatia’s first King, Tomislav, in 925. Over the next two centuries Croatia’s power and influence grew, reaching it’s peak in the 11th century.
When a Croatia King, Stjepan II, died in 1091 without an heir, there was a predictable period of squabbling over the succession, complicated further by the usual intermarrying of different royal families. As a result in 1102 Croatia entered a personal union with Hungary, which lasted four centuries, all the while maintaining a high degree of independence. In the early 1500s, conflict with the Venetians and particularly the Ottoman Empire led to loss of lots of territory, resulting in the Croatian parliament chose to invite the Hapsburg Empire to be ruler of Croatia, in return for protection from the Ottomans and respecting Croatia’s political rights. This arrangement lasted until the end of World War I in 1918. After this, Croatia merged with Serbia and Slovenia into what was to become Yugoslavia, which became a Communist state after World War II, led by Josep Broz Tito and under the influence of the Soviet Union. After Tito’s death in 1980, nationalist interests started to become resurgent. This came to a head after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia broke up into its constituent countries, with Croatia declaring independence in June 1991. It took several years of fighting before in 1995 it achieved a decisive victory. Since then it has gone on to join NATO in 2009 and the EU in 2013.
Croatia and the EU
So what about Croatia in the EU? Membership of the European Union has been a goal of the country ever since it became independent, and the accession process lasted over a decade leading many in Croatia to feel a little jaded over the whole process. Those who hoped that membership of the EU would offer immediate relief from their economic woes will have been disappointed, as Croatia is still struggling to come out of recession, and has the third highest level of unemployment in the EU. Many recognise the benefits will just take a while to come however. The problem with trying to provide a brief summary of a country’s history is that it misses out all the interesting facts and stories, the larger than life characters, that really make history interesting. Did you know that the Croatian Parliament, the Sabor, is over 700 years old? Or that Dubrovnik was for much of its history the Republic of Ragusa, a great trading rival of the Venetians for many centuries? How about the story of the Croats setting up the first military unit by a resistance unit in Occupied Europe during the Second World War. Anyway, time and space do not permit right now so we must move on…
Some Croatian Places – Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik & more
The capital city – also Croatia’s largest city – is Zagreb. It dates back almost a thousand years and has many historic buildings and museums to visit. It also has a great coat of arms – a white castle surrounded by blue sky and with a moon and star above. If I was to design a coat of arms for myself it would probably look much like this one. There is much more beyond the capital to interest visitors to Croatia. On any itinerary there should be a trip to Split to visit the remains of Diocletian’s Palace. Built by the eponymous Roman Emperor at the start of the 4th century, it has survived today largely because it is too big and solid to easily knock down. Over the centuries residents have found it much easier to build their houses and set up businesses within the palace’s walls, incorporated into its structure. Many buildings, including a cathedral was built from ruins of the palace, and today the historic palace complex takes up about half of the historic city centre of Split.
Not far down the coast from Split is another Croatian wonder, the walled city of Dubrovnik. It’s red roofed, white walled buildings jut out into the deep blue waters of the Adriatic, making this one of the most beautiful of ancient cities. It’s warm, sunny summers old add to Dubrovnik’s appeal.
If you are travelling from Split to Croatia, down the Adriatic coast, you will encounter a strange quirk of Croatian Geography. Although they aren’t far apart, and both are part of the same country, you simply cannot get to them on land without crossing through Bosnia & Herzegovina. There is a 9 kilometre wide section of land – The Neum Corridor – which neatly intersects Croatia, splitting in in two, making Dubrovnik and surroundings a virtual enclave. The important factor is no doubt Bosnia’s access to the sea – I wrong assumed that this was as a result of agreements reached after the break up of Yugoslavia, but apparently it is as a result of the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz so they have had a while to get used to the idea now!
Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split may be great places to visit, but they are by no means all Croatia has to offer. It is a very varied country geographically, ranging from the mountains of the Dinaric Alps to river plains, dense forests and deep caves (there are caves in Croatia more than a thousand metres deep). It also has a long coastline along the Adriatic Sea, just across the water from Italy, and over a thousand islands offshore including the extremely popular islands of Hvar and Korcula.
I am left with a dilemma now. Where to pick to go off the beaten track, what random place should I pick? I was tempted by one or two of the seaside towns on the Adriatic coast, but ended up plumping for Sisak, a sizeable town about 35 miles from Zagreb. Like many places in Croatia it has a lot of history with a Roman mint here producing coins for a succession of Roman Emperors, and many historic buildings. Fortunately for is residents, it has moved on a pace since then, and now has the largest oil refinery and metal refinery in Croatia. It is on the confluence of several rivers, and is Croatia’s biggest river port, so there is a lot going on. It also has lots of hot mineral springs nearby, which sounds lovely for a leisurely dip.
As usual I went on Trip Advisor to see what there is to do in the area. The top thing to do in Sisak is the interestingly named Sportski Plesni Klub Top Step. The photos look rather bizzare, men and women in assorted costumes – I wondered what on earth this place was. Apparently it’s a – non dodgy – dance club where you can learn to dance. Other attractions include a beautiful 16th century fortress, built to commemorate a great victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1593, and the ruins of the Roman city. There’s also some Wooden Houses, a “fairytale village” and “a must see in north Croatia”. Unfortunately, the only photos on Trip Advisor are of an assortment of drinks, and one of a grumpy looking man in a moustache and a beanie hat. So I guess I’ll just have to use my imagination… I asked a friend of mine whose family comes from Croatia to tell me a bit about the country. The first thing he had to say about Croatians were that they love good food and love cooking good food. My friend gave as an example the island of Lokrum, a tourist hotspot which has only one café and one restaurant, but the food is great. In many countries, having a captive audience like that would be an excuse for high priced junk food, but not in Croatia.
Food & Drink in Croatia
What is typical Croatian cuisine however? This is a question I found difficult to answer, not because of a lack of information but the complete opposite. There were so many great Croatian foods which I read about, and each region has their own specialities. Along the coast unsurprisingly fish is often on the menu, and pasta is very popular too. Inland, the cuisine is heavily influenced by the Turkish and Hungarian cooking amongst others. What to pick? It’s like going to a restaurant to find a menu not dissimilar to a small paperback novel, you just can’t work out what to have. Never mind the foods, I love the names – Zagrebacki odrezak, Janjetina, Strukli. It’s not just that I don’t know what these foods are that’s amazing, it’s that I can’t even begin to hazard a guess. So many delicious dishes that I’ve never set eyes on, let alone eaten…
Finally I have to choose. I like the sound of Sporki Makaruli – it’s a traditional pasta with cinnamon flavoured meat sauce. Familiar pasta which I love, but the rest I’ve never thought of. I’m intrigued as well by Escalope a la Baron Trenk, which is a spicy rolled Schnitzel. Who was Baron Trenk I wonder? I’m always fascinated too by different ways of cooking food so Pod pekom appeals to me. Rather than one particular recipe, this is a way of cooking – it is a type of dish that is put into a stone oven under a metal cover, then hot coals are put on top so the meal cooks slowly in its own juices. Lamb, veal and octopus are apparently pod pekom specialities.
Unsurprisingly, Croatians are drinks too (and drinking apparently, I am told they can hold their liquor much better than the British, and are much better behaved when they do get drunk!). Beer is popular in Croatia, ones to look out for include Croatia’s oldest beer Osjecko, first brewed in 1697, and the dark beer Tomislav, named after … you were paying attention earlier weren’t you!? There are a number of good local wine producers, although the Croats are not known internationally for their wines.
Beer and wine is not really what it’s all about in Croatia though, spirits is what they’re really good at. I read a tourist guide to Croatia that said everyone and their dog distils some kind of fruit brandy, or rakija, at home, or knows someone who does. They also warn that these drinks are VERY strong. I can attest to both of these facts, having sampled some Croatian spirit passed round the group at university in a plain plastic pop bottle – potent stuff.