The sea, sun and culture abound in Croatia

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
Pula Arena in Istria is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre preserved in its entirety. It was built in the 1st Century AD. (Photo: fraser yachts)

Pula Arena in Istria is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre preserved in its entirety. It was built in the 1st Century AD. (Photo: fraser yachts)

When people ask me how much time they should spend in Croatia, usually my answer is two to three weeks. You might ask why so much time for such a small country — Croatia is about the same size as Nova Scotia, with a population similar to that of Alberta, at 4.2 million.

The reason is simple. If you really want to experience Croatia, you’ll have to visit regions that are inland and those on the coast. Every region tells a different story when it comes to landscape, culture, history, way of life, food and even mentality.
Croatia is one of the best ecologically preserved parts of Europe. Our eight national parks cover 7.5 per cent of the country’s landscape. There are also 11 nature parks and two arboretums. We have 10 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and 15 more sites on UNESCO’s Tentative List.
Croatia’s Adriatic Coast ranks as one of the longest in Europe, thanks to its craggy nature. Running to a total of 6,278 kilometres, and with 1,244 islands, islets and crags surrounded by crystal clear waters, it’s easy to see why a British newspaper — after comprehensive analysis of Google data in 2016 — determined that Croatia was the most desirable destination in the world.
I’m happy to say that Croatia is a well-known destination among Canadians. In 2017, my country welcomed more than 142,000 tourists from Canada. Since the summer of 2016, visiting Croatia has never been easier. Air Transat’s direct seasonal flights already connect Toronto with Zagreb and Air Canada will start offering the same service in June 2018. And what better excuse to visit than this year, when, on April 14, Canada and Croatia will mark 25 years of bilateral diplomatic relations.

Christmas in Zagreb at Ban Jelacic Square is a reason to visit the capital in December. (Photo: R. MARTIN)

Christmas in Zagreb at Ban Jelacic Square is a reason to visit the capital in December. (Photo: R. MARTIN)

Zagreb: A captivating capital
Zagreb, with a population of nearly one million, is very different from the rest of the country, but the Croatian capital is the perfect starting point to introduce you to the country.
The heart of Zagreb and its most popular meeting spot, Ban Jelacic Square, is a great place to start. A few steps away, you will discover Dolac, the country’s biggest farmers’ marketplace. Bring your camera because this open-air market is picturesque, thanks to traditional red parasols with a pattern you’ll also find on souvenirs in the area. While in Dolac, take a selfie with the bronze statue “Kumica Barica,” which is an homage to the peasant women selling their products here.
The city’s main highlights can be discovered on foot, but try to do at least one tram ride. The squealing sound of Zagreb blue trams adds an extra note of old-world charm to the city’s unhurried pace.
On your way to Upper Town, take the shortest cable car in the world — the Zagreb funicular. In just 64 seconds, you will find yourself at the base of Lotrscak Tower, one of the symbols of Zagreb. This 13th-Century tower houses the Gric cannon, which fires every day at exactly noon. Don’t be scared, just set your watch to it.
In Upper Town, you will find Saint Mark’s Church in neo-gothic style with a uniquely colourful tiled roof. If you are a museum lover, don’t miss one of Zagreb’s quirkiest museums: Museum of Broken Relationships, which is dedicated to failed intimate relationships. In 2016, a second one opened in Los Angeles.
If you find yourself in Zagreb in December, consider yourself lucky because, in 2017, “Advent in Zagreb” was named the best Christmas market in Europe based on an online poll by the website European Best Destinations for the third year in a row. Fabulous street food and the smell of spiced mulled wine will get you ready to experience the largest outdoor ice rink in this part of Europe, various free events, concerts and street performances.

Spicy Slavonian river fish stew is a Croatian culinary delicacy. (Photo: ROMULIC & STOJCIC)

Spicy Slavonian river fish stew is a Croatian culinary delicacy. (Photo: ROMULIC & STOJCIC)

Medieval northern Croatia
From Zagreb, visit the Zagorje region, a romantic landscape filled with Medieval and Renaissance fortresses and Baroque castles. And if you really want to go back in time, visit Krapina Neanderthals site and museum. In 1899, the largest number of Neanderthal fossil bones in Europe were found in a rock shelter near Krapina. The remains date back about 130,000 years. Spend the night in a hiža, a traditional house in the Zagorje region that includes all the charms of the country’s rural elements — it should be an idyllic setting on a hill. Homemade traditional delicacies, such as turkey with mlinci (a thin dough baked on a wood-stove) or bucnica (a phyllo pastry with pumpkin, cheese and sour cream), should be on offer.
Only 80 kilometres from Zagreb, you will find another hidden treasure — Varazdin, a true Baroque gem. Until a disastrous fire, Varazdin was the capital of Croatia during the Medieval period.
Eastern Croatia’s UNESCO draws
Eastern Croatia is the country’s least-explored tourism region, as well as one of the most fascinating. Have an adventure at the UNESCO-lauded Geopark Papuk, with its 35-metre-high waterfall in the flatlands of Slavonia. Sail through Kopacki Rit Nature Park, a bird paradise often called the Amazon of Europe with more than 2,000 animals and insects.
You will be amazed by the Vucedol archeological site. This is a must-see for all archeology lovers. Vucedol gave its name to an entire Neolithic culture — the Vucedol culture — which lasted from 3000 to 2200 BC. The most famous ceramic find is the Vucedol Dove and you can buy a replica as a souvenir.

Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape) Beach on Brac Island in the Dalmatians offers a whole other dimension to Croatian tourism opportunities. (Photo: PAUL PRESCOTT, CROATIAN NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD)

Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape) Beach on Brac Island in the Dalmatians offers a whole other dimension to Croatian tourism opportunities. (Photo: PAUL PRESCOTT, CROATIAN NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD)

While in Slavonia, don’t miss listening to some traditional singing (becarac), which is included on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Try regional specialties such as river fish stew, cobanac (traditional Slavonian meat and vegetable shepherd’s stew) and kulen (sausage). After that, you can’t go wrong with Sljivovica, a plum brandy that is also available at the LCBO. If you are a wine lover, you should know that wine-making in this region dates to Roman times. A 1947 Traminac from Ilok cellars was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Since then, Iločki Podrumi Traminac has been held in the Royal Family’s wine cellars. If you would like to try Traminac, you don’t even have to travel because you can buy it in Canada at the LCBO.

Istria’s treasures
The next step of your Croatian adventure is Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula. Once there, head to the Arena in Pula, the only remaining Roman amphitheatre preserved in its entirety. Constructed in the 1st Century AD, it was used for gladiatorial fights. Today, it serves as a unique concert venue that has hosted musicians such as Leonard Cohen, Elton John and Sting.
Your next hidden treasure is certainly Groznjan. This hilltop town, full of artists, is my favourite while in Istria. I enjoy Groznjan’s Jazz Festival, numerous art galleries and a full glass of Teran wine.
Visit Brijuni Islands to enjoy a safari featuring animals such as elephants and zebras — or simply play a round of golf. Take a tour of the olive oil routes and leave room for a truffle hunt in the oak woods.
Istrian wine is another unique symbol that truly defines the region’s identity. This region grows various wine grapes that reflect the diversity of its climate and soil. They include Istrian Malvasia, Teran, Muscat, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can combine your wine tour with some Istrian delicacies, such as truffle dishes, boskarin (ox) and wild asparagus and I recommend spending a night at a countryside luxury villa in Istria.
On your way to Dalmatia, visit the famous Plitvice Lakes and make a stop at Pag island. On its moon-like landscape, experience an alleged UFO landing site at the Pag Triangle; visit the Olive Gardens of Lun, which are protected as a botanical reserve; eat world-renowned, award-winning Gligora cheese and try Pag’s famous lamb dishes. You can also visit the home of one of the greatest inventors of all time — Nikola Tesla. He was born in the Croatian village of Smiljan and his home has been turned into a museum. His inventions included alternating current (AC) electricity, the electric motor, fluorescent lightbulbs, the radio and the laser. He also contributed to the discovery of X-rays.

Dalmatia’s unique attractions
Discover Zadar’s one-of-a-kind installation — a “sea organ” that produces music powered only by the sea waves — as well as “The Greeting to the Sun,” a colourful structure of 300 solar-powered panels. Both have one thing in common — their use of nature. Without the sea or the sun, neither would work.
Here, you can sip Maraska liqueur, Zadar’s signature drink, and head to St. Donat’s Church, the largest Byzantine building in Croatia. Down the coast, stop at Sibenik. The Cathedral of St. James is also a UNESCO site. And 15 kilometres from Sibenik, you can swim at Krka National Park.
About 50 kilometres further, you will find yourself in Trogir, in front of another UNESCO gem — the Cathedral of St. Lawrence. Half an hour away, the magnificent Diocletian’s Palace in Split will be waiting for you to discover its fascinating history. Then, take a ferry from Split and visit some of the Dalmatian Islands such as Solta, Brac, Hvar and Korcula, which offer lots of opportunities for sailing, biking and hiking. Dalmatian specialties, such as grilled fish, octopus under peka, the bell-shaped metal or clay lid covered in hot coals, black risotto and pasticada, slow-cooked beef, marinated in vinegar and herbs and cooked in wine and Prosecco, combined with world-class island wines await you at every corner. Finish your Croatian adventure in famous Dubrovnik. Explore its Old Town, stroll the Stradun, tour Dubrovnik City Walls and take in a Game of Thrones tour.

Cool Croatia

The Zagorje Hills region in northern Croatia is a romantic landscape filled with Medieval and Renaissance fortresses and Baroque castles. (Photo: JULIEN DUVAL)

The Zagorje Hills region in northern Croatia is a romantic landscape filled with Medieval and Renaissance fortresses and Baroque castles. (Photo: JULIEN DUVAL)

Did you know that Croatia gave the world the pen, the cravat, the parachute and the world’s first electric speedometer? To this day, there is plenty of excellence and innovation to be celebrated, including pay-by-phone parking and Concept_One, a two-seat high-performance electric car. The latter is currently one of the world’s fastest electric cars — not a surprise considering Croatia is Tesla’s birthplace.
The renowned cello duo 2CELLOS is also from Croatia. The pair rose to fame in 2011 when their version of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal took the world by storm. They’ve sold out tours worldwide and perform in Ottawa on April 15.
And did you know that Croatia has become a filmmakers’ location of choice? It was the location for Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Robin Hood and Mamma Mia 2. Who knows what’s next?
You now have so many good reasons to visit Croatia. If you decide to do so, the Croatian embassy in Ottawa will be happy to answer all your questions.

Advent at Christmas in Zagreb was named the best Christmas market in Europe based on an online poll by the website ”European Best Destinations” for the third year in a row. (Photo: ROMULIC & STOJCIC, CROATIAN NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD)

Advent at Christmas in Zagreb was named the best Christmas market in Europe based on an online poll by the website ”European Best Destinations” for the third year in a row. (Photo: ROMULIC & STOJCIC, CROATIAN NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD)

Marica Matkovic is the ambassador of Croatia.

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Marica Matkovic is the ambassador of Croatia. Reach her at vrhotta@mvep.hr or (613) 562-7820.

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