Croatia's epic coastline has inspired rhapsodic praise from time immemorial - strike inland and you'll find landscapes just as worthy of exploration.
for food and drink
With aviator sunglasses, a customised 4WD and a stash of Cuban cigars in his tasting room,
Bruno Trapan says that
he’s recently been dubbed the ‘rock star of Croatian winemaking’. Bruno’s
curiosity led him – a party animal turned horticulture student – to build a DIY
winery in his garage after inheriting a vineyard from his grandfather. A few
years and a cabinet full of awards later, Bruno is among the most acclaimed
producers in his native Istria – a tooth-shaped peninsula at the western corner
‘This isn’t marketing bullshit’ says Bruno, glugging on a glass of
cabernet sauvignon. ‘We’re at the end of a peninsula, so we’re exposed to winds
from the east and the west. This is good for the vines, and makes for great
Wine production is old news in the region. The Romans once considered
these vintages among the best in the empire – one empress was said to have
lived to the age of 86 after insisting on only drinking Istrian wine every
day. Even today, scraps of smashed up Roman wine containers are periodically
found in the earth, relics of messy nights out a few millennia ago.
Ever since, Istria has been synonymous with Epicurean living: plentiful
seafood and fine wine, late nights and mid-afternoon naps. It’s become one of
Croatia’s classic seaside destinations – a miniature Côte d’Azur on the
Adriatic, with grand hotels interspersing fishing villages along the coast, and
local trawlers competing for moorings with oligarchs’ yachts.
Holidaymakers may come and go, but Istria’s gastronomic traditions have
endured. To the north, the town of Buje claims the world’s biggest white
truffles – hunted, until recently, with pigs on leashes. To the south,
centuries-old olive groves are still harvested by hand – their branches rattled
by generation after generation of the same family.
Bruno takes me across the Istrian countryside to his vineyard. It feels
like a place where life goes on in slow motion – with sluggish creeks
meandering through the biscuit-coloured earth and tall cypress trees swaying in the
breeze. We arrive and Bruno wanders up and down rows of vines like a schoolteacher
inspecting his class. He shows me a chunk of vine, recently mangled by an
intruder. ‘Sometimes wild boar get into the vineyard and start nibbling at the
grapes, so we have hunters come here to shoot them for us.’
It seems the boar are turned into sausages for their sins – so they,
like Bruno’s wines, inevitably wind up on Istria’s dinner tables.
Bruno’s vineyard, Vina Trapan, is set
just outside the city of Pula in southern Istria.
Where to eat
Close to Rovinj, a fishing town on Istria’s western coast, Restaurant Blu offers an experimental take on Istrian
cooking (evening mains from £8).
Where to stay
A boomerang-shaped hotel at the southern edge of Rovinj, the recently
opened Hotel Lone has fashionably sparse
rooms arranged around a central atrium. Most rooms have large balconies
offering superb sea views (from £120).
Lakes: Best for waterfalls
The Plitvice Lakes National
Park is a place of such otherworldly beauty, you get the feeling that a CGI
artist would be proud of it. Spread over a green valley in the Croatian
interior, a series of waterfalls tumble down from one spectacular cascade to
the next, pausing in the occasional turquoise lake before slipping down a sheer
karst canyon and out of sight.
As geology goes, Plitvice is still breaking news. These lakes took shape
only 12,000 years back – mere moments ago in geological terms – when
subterranean rivers flowed out of the hills and began depositing limestone to
form natural dams. Even today, Plitvice’s landscape is one of Mother Nature’s
ongoing construction sites. Watercourses regularly switch about: as one waterfall
dries up, another roaring cataract will spring up unannounced nearby, like a
burst water main.
‘It’s a bit like your friends,’ explains park ranger Ante Bionda.
‘Sometimes you lose them, sometimes you gain them. Sometimes an old friend goes
away, but you know that they’ll be back.’
An easygoing man with a furious-looking stuffed bear growling outside
his office, Ante Bionda has spent most of his adult life working as a ranger in
the park. We take a walk and Ante points to waterfalls past and present. Overhead
is the king of them all, the appropriately named Veliki Slap – shooting over a
cliff edge and slapping noisily on the valley floor below. Meanwhile, tiny
streams babble about beneath our feet, running into small ponds where shoals of
rainbow trout flit about in the shallows.
These aren’t Plitvice’s only residents: Ante shows me nestholes from
which kingfishers emerge to divebomb the ponds, and an anthill at which a black
bear recently took a swipe in search of a snack.
‘When you work here for a while, you begin to notice the seasons
changing,’ he tells me. ‘And now, it’s school trip season.’
Confronted with an incoming party of teenagers, Ante veers off the path
and treads through a small copse. He soon approaches the crest of a waterfall
that spills into one of Plitvice’s Upper Lakes, glowing electric blue in the
afternoon sunshine. ‘This is where I come to think sometimes.’ he says
wistfully. ‘I’ve worked here for 25 years, so maybe I should think about
working somewhere else. The problem is, I don’t think there is anywhere else in
the world that’s quite so beautiful.’
Where to eat
Located a mile south of the park entrance, Pansion Etno House offers some of the
best accommodation in Plitvice, with 10 rooms in a stone and timber mountain
lodge. Breakfast and dinner are served in the bucolic dining room downstairs
(closed Nov–Mar; rooms from £50, evening mains from £13).
National Park: Best for nature
A region of deep canyons and scrubby badlands, Paklenica National Park almost looks like it’s
been involved in some geographical mix-up – a chunk of the American West
accidentally transplanted to the Balkan Peninsula. In fact, it counts among
Croatia’s wildest corners – a remote stretch of the Velebit mountain range home
to bears, wolves and wildcats, and a place whose remotest reaches were known
only to roving shepherds until roads reached here in the 1950s.
The air turns hotter and the terrain becomes harsher on the walk down
Velika Paklenica, the jagged canyon that cuts squarely through the middle of
Sunbeams reach across its sheer limestone walls and the path ahead
wobbles in the heat haze. Lizards scamper fitfully about the rocks, and if you
glance up, you might be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle wheeling overhead,
like some ominous outtake from a Sergio Leone movie.
Paklenica once had a career moonlighting as a lookalike for the Wild
West, serving as the location for one of the most successful Western movie
series of all time, albeit one little heard of in the English-speaking world.
The German Winnetou movies of the 1960s saw steam trains, frontier towns and
Indian camps all imported to what was then Communist-era Yugoslavia, with local
comrades enlisted as cowboy extras. Fifty years on, coaches full of German
tourists periodically turn up at Paklenica dressed in Wild West costumes to
relive the shoot-outs of their childhood: estate agents playing outlaws, bank
managers turned braves.
The frontier spirit has never quite left Paklenica. Rangers strut about
the park entrance relating anecdotes about the park’s dangerous wildlife with
wellpractised indifference, warning visitors to be wary of branches where
horned vipers are particularly fond of sunbathing. Recent years, however, have
seen a new set of pioneers come to the park. High up above, Spiderman-like
climbers shimmy up the cliffs, scaling walls of rock that lean forwards at
baffling angles. Each route is named by the first person to ascend it, and it
seems that much of Paklenica was conquered by a Fleetwood Mac fan; Black Magic
Woman and Albatross both look equally impossible.
‘You don’t get scared’ says Marta Gozdz, a Polish doctor preparing to
scale a cliff-face with the dimensions of a minor skyscraper. ‘You feel that
the rock is looking after you, and that it won’t let anything happen to you.
Sometimes you feel you aren’t even climbing, just dancing with the rock.’
Where to eat
Fosa is an accomplished seafood restaurant in the
nearby town of Zadar, with a spectacular terrace overlooking the harbour (mains
Where to stay
The Hotel Alan offers comfortable rooms
in a modern tower block in Starigrad, just outside the national park. The hotel
served as the base for the actors and crew working on the Winnetou movies – the
Winnetou Museum is located on the edge of the car park (from £60).
It is just after lunchtime on Mljet island,
and most of its residents seem to be fast asleep – or if not asleep, at least
in advanced stages of dozing. Window shutters are fastened closed, and empty
rowing boats jostle about their moorings in the quays. Cats and dogs are
engaged in a permanent state of siesta – those human residents who do venture
out into the midday sun do so largely to shuffle from one shady doorway to
Few places can induce a state of happy torpor like Mljet. One of the
southernmost and the most beautiful of Croatia’s islands, it is a grand finale
to the succession of mighty headlands, sweeping blue bays and meandering inlets
that stretch south from Split along the Dalmatian coast.
Less than an hour by ferry from the mainland, Mljet is an island of just
a few hundred souls, a dozen villages, two tidal lakes and one solitary road
that scrambles its way across the thickly wooded hills of the interior. It is a
place where the pace of life seldom nudges above the lower end of the
speedometer; where fishing, eating and napping have been priorities for as long
as anyone can remember, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Mljet’s capacity to lull visitors into a state of idle contentment is
nothing new. Local legend has it that Odysseus loitered here for seven years
before he decided he really ought to be getting back to his family on Ithaca.
Back in the 12th century, Benedictine monks from Italy decided they liked it so
much, they built a grand Romanesque monastery in the middle of one of the
island’s lakes. It’s still standing today; visitors can see where monks could
have cast fishing lines out of their windows without so much as getting out of
bed. Yet of all tales of visitors to the island, one story in particular stands
out – a yarn worthy of a Dan Brown novel.
‘When I first discovered these ruins, I felt a mixture of happiness and
fear,’ Baldo Kraly tells me, squinting at a pile of stones in the afternoon
sunshine. ‘You weren’t supposed to discover these things during communist times.’
A local fisherman, Baldo Kraly is Mljet’s answer to Indiana Jones,
though he wouldn’t admit it. Just over 20 years ago, Baldo discovered the
foundations of an early Christian church in the undergrowth near his home.
Investigations followed, and Baldo’s discovery gave credence to a legend passed
down by generations of pious islanders – that Mljet is modern-day Melita, the
place named in the Bible as the site of St Paul’s shipwreck on his journey from
the Holy Land. The saintly connection has long provoked head scratching within
Croatia’s religious establishment. The Vatican accepts Malta as the site of St
Paul’s shipwreck, but local theologians have championed Mljet’s case since the
Baldo heads to the rocks where he suspects St Paul’s ship may have run
aground. We climb into a small fishing boat, and the sound of chirping crickets
gives way to the splashing and gulping of the Adriatic beneath the hull.
Looking back to land, it’s not hard to see how inviting this virgin island must
have seemed after weeks adrift at sea. Shady forests of juniper and Aleppo pine
spill down to the shore – trees that lean over the aquamarine-blue waters as if
they are about to dive in.
In the event, St Paul would have set sail for Rome soon after arriving on
Mljet. It’s a small wonder he didn’t stay forever.
Where to eat
Triton is a rustic tavern filled with nautical paraphernalia in the
village of Babino Polje (00 3852 074 5131; open Jun–Sep; mains from £5).
Where to stay
Located in the village of Saplunara on the eastern edge of Mljet, Stermasi offers comfortable, modern apartments
set on a hillside overlooking a rocky bay. The adjoining restaurant is among
the best on the island – the octopus salad is a triumph (stermasi.hr;
apartments from £50).
Best for history
Night is drawing in, and a bura – a cool, northerly wind – is blowing
through Dubrovnik, dipping down the
alleyways of the old city, rattling the laundry lines and threatening to carry
pairs of pants and socks over the battlements before setting them adrift on the
Adriatic. By degrees, the streets empty of their crowds, and the city’s majesty
quietly reveals itself. The creaking of moored boats and the slosh of the tide
sounds around the old harbour, while statues of saints, warriors and cherubs
glower down on the marble streets, still warm from the day’s sunshine.
Dubrovnik is perhaps the most beautiful town on the Mediterranean –
encircled by fortifications, battlements and towers stacked on top of each
other with the silliness of a massive sandcastle. Twenty years ago, however,
the Yugoslav Army besieged the city, killing almost a hundred civilians and
destroying historic buildings in the process. As a Unesco-listed town of little
strategic value, Dubrovnik was an unexpected target – as unlikely a scenario as
the United Kingdom suddenly splitting up and Wales bombarding the city of Bath.
Two decades on, Dubrovnik closely resembles its former self – the Renaissance
city-state once renowned across the Mediterranean for its democratic
principles, rich culture and philosophy. Churches, palaces and townhouses that
were blown apart by shells have been patched up and restored, and today host
concerts and exhibitions. Tourists have returned to the town in droves, but
traces of old city life survive: the surge of customers to cafés after Sunday
mass; the food stalls that set up shop in the town square on weekday mornings.
Even now however, many locals are reluctant to talk about the siege.
Those who do relate the experience with a gritty black humour – you might hear
the tale of a parrot that learned to mimic the whistle of an incoming shell,
unwittingly sending people diving for cover. But of all accounts of heroism
from this time, the story of Đelo Jusic, a man introduced as the ‘Croatian John
Lennon’, surely counts among the most remarkable.
‘The air is full of rock music in Dubrovnik,’ he says, sitting in a café
in the Old Town. ‘High in the sky above Dubrovnik, I believe there is a kind of
garden, and every time I write a melody I am picking flowers from that garden.’
A rock musician turned classical composer, Đelo is a man of many talents
– he performed for Pope John Paul II and even represented Yugoslavia in the
1968 Eurovision Song Contest, competing with Cliff Richard singing
Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, was during the siege. While
the city was cut off from the outside world, Đelo dared to organise a schedule
of children’s choir rehearsals and recitals, practising everywhere from
apartments to inside Dubrovnik’s medieval towers. He recounts holding secret
rehearsals in empty theatres – the frescoes above the choir illuminated by
candlelight – and conducting string quartets as Yugoslav Army propaganda
speakers blared out from the slopes above the city. ‘We defended ourselves with
music,’ he tells me solemnly. ‘It was the only way we knew how in Dubrovnik.’
Music still runs through Dubrovnik’s DNA. Strolling the city’s streets after
dark, I hear the splash of a piano chord from an upstairs window and the
strains of jazz music from a distant café, carried along by the gusts of the
Where to eat
Lucin Kantun in Dubrovnik’s Old Town serves some of the most creative
cooking in the region (00 385 20321003; closed Jan; dinner mains from £7).
Where to stay
Sprawling over a hillside at the western edge of Dubrovnik’s Lapad
Peninsula, the modern Dubrovnik Palace is one of
the smartest addresses in town, with a glitzy array of swimming pools and
restaurants. Rooms have panoramic views of the Adriatic (closed Dec–Feb; from
The article 'The perfect trip: Croatia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.