Croatia: Sunshine and History on the Adriatic Sea
Life moves at a relaxed pace in Croatia, not only on the islands, but also on much of the mainland. Sailboats glide on the glittering Adriatic Sea and on palm tree-lined promenades, residents sip coffee as lavender and rosemary aromas fill the air.
A member of the European Union since 2013, Croatia lies in southeastern Europe, across the Adriatic from Italy. Part of the former Yugoslavia until 1991, today, it borders Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Hungary.
Similar in size to West Virginia, but, with a staggering array of landscapes, there is something for every taste in Croatia.
If it’s island living you seek, Croatia boasts more than 1,000 islands (only a few dozen are inhabited). Some, like Hvar, have long been popular with the jet set, while others are virtually unknown to North Americans. On many of the islands, vineyards and olive are ubiquitous. Though lively in the summer, the islands can be especially quiet during the winter months, when tourists go home and some residents head to the mainland. However, many of the islands’ larger communities have year-round ferry connections, offering a lifeline to the rest of the country.
In the northern part of Croatia’s mainland, the Istria region offers coastal communities with Mediterranean flair and hilltop towns reminiscent of Tuscany. In fact, Istria was part of Italy until 1947, so some locals still speak Italian. The region is celebrated for its outstanding truffles, seafood, and olive oil. Biking, hiking, and sailing are popular activities in Istria. Cosmopolitan Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana, and Zagreb are not far away, making them perfect day-trips from Istria.
South of Istria is the famed Dalmatian Coast, home to Croatia’s second largest city, Split, as well as historic Dubrovnik. As you drive the coast, you’ll encounter picturesque towns like Zadar, Primošten, and Makarska, each with a characteristic limestone bell tower punctuating the sky.
The Dalmatians are passionate about food that is domaći — or homemade. At outdoor markets, you’ll find copious amounts of fresh seafood, cheese, olive oil, and organic produce. Many recreational activities revolve around the sea like sailing, swimming, and kayaking. However, for the land-lovers, there are many opportunities for walks in the rugged countryside, or along the seaside.
For those who prefer cosmopolitan city life and cooler winter weather, look no further than Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The city is situated inland and has a continental climate. Zagreb has the kind of energy you’d expect in a country’s capital, and has an award-winning Christmas market. Elsewhere in continental Croatia you’ll find majestic castles, dense forests, and rich agricultural areas.
While Zagreb offers a dramatic change of seasons, Split’s climate is unabashedly Mediterranean. Split is well-known for its Ancient Roman past. More than 1,700 years ago, Emperor Diocletian had a grand retirement palace built on the edge of the sea. After the fall of the Roman Empire, locals sought shelter within the abandoned palace. Over the course of several centuries they chipped away at the palace walls, eventually constructing buildings within its shell. Today, trendy boutiques, restaurants, and holiday apartments fill the former palace core.
And it wasn’t just the Romans who left behind a cultural legacy in Croatia. In some spots along the Dalmatian Coast, the architecture hints at the country’s Venetian heritage. The symbol of Venice, the Lion of St. Mark, adorns old city walls and water wells. Elegant palaces often flaunt Venetian Gothic flourishes. Croatia was also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. You’ll see evidence of this in many of the country’s stately buildings.
Tourism is an integral part of Croatia’s economy, so real estate prices tend to be higher in tourist hot-spots like Dalmatia and Istria. Still, you can find apartments with sea views for less than $125,000, making Croatia an affordable spot for a Mediterranean vacation retreat or a sunshine-filled retirement.