Virtuoso Global August 2018 The Five Faces of Croatia

The Five Faces of Croatia

Paradise found: Zlatni rat beach on the island of Brač. 
Paradise found: Zlatni rat beach on the island of Brač. 
Photo by Ivo Biocina
The Smart and Savvy Guide to Traveling in Croatia in the Autumn

There are some obvious reasons why smart and savvy travelers know that autumn is the best time to visit Croatia. After all, it’s not only the leaves that drop in autumn. Flight fares from North America to this southeast European nation can fall by one-third. The oft-scorching Mediterranean temperatures descend to satisfactory levels too. And the large number of the tourists who overwhelm not just Croatia but the entire continent of Europe dwindles by the time the leaves go from green to yellow to burnt orange.
 
When it comes to this boomerang-shaped country of 4 million people, the smart and savvy let the steamy dog days of summer float by, and wait a bit later to travel to this Adriatic Eden. And they are rewarded – five times over, in fact. That’s because Croatia has more sides than most countries can boast, and autumn is the optimum time to experience its five faces, or just a couple of them if your time is limited.
 
“Croatia is a relatively small country but with so many different locations to explore,” says Sandie Wiesenthal, a Virtuoso advisor based in Beverly Hills. “And going in the fall means you may have this bounty more to yourself.”

The Cosmopolitan Face: Zagreb

Let’s start in the capital, Zagreb, where most journeys begin. It is perhaps the most Croatian of Croatian cities; that’s because citizens from all of the nation’s diverse regions usually end up in Zagreb at some point in their lives. It’s where Dalmatians and Istrians and Slavonians, not to mention native Zagrebians, unite to enjoy this increasingly livable city and its getting-better-every-day restaurant scene. First-timers should take a seat at rustic RougeMarin or chic Noel, both of which are serving creative farm-to-table takes on Croatian fare. There are museums galore, but you should spend an hour or so in the fascinating Museum of Broken Relationships before strolling the cobbled streets of the Upper Town or lingering in the always-active Ban Jelačić Square.

The Central European Face: Slavonia

The old town of Osijek. 
The old town of Osijek. 
Photo by Boris Kacan
From there, travel northeast to wild and bewitching Slavonia, one of the least trammeled swaths of the country, where Austrian, Hungarian, and Balkan elements marry to create a unique culture and culinary tradition. This region will remind travelers of sojourns through central Europe. The plains of Slavonia (the breadbasket of Croatia), the wide Danube river, and the mild climate co-conspire to create crisp-yet-complex graševina white wine and hearty river fish stews like perkelt and fish paprikash. If you visit only one winery, make it Josić, located in the village of Zmajevac, where you can while away an afternoon in the tasting room sipping the soft red Baranjski šiler and creamy and full Rieslings. Visit the town of Vukovar to pay your respects to the lives lost in the 1991 massacre during the Croatian War of Independence and stroll the largely tourist-free cobbled streets of Osijek, Slavonia’s biggest city.

The Rustic Italianate Face: Istria

The region of Istria is known for its truffle-laden cuisine. 
The region of Istria is known for its truffle-laden cuisine. 
Photo by Ivo Biocina
Head due west for the coast to find yet another face of Croatia, one with a distinctly Italian accent. That’s because Istria, a peninsula jutting into the northern Adriatic Sea, was the domain of Italy until the end of World War II. Vineyards, having just gone through the late-summer harvest, stretch out on rolling hills; mountains in the distance are crowned with hill towns such as Motovun and the art-gallery-crammed Grožnjan. Stunning medieval seaside towns such as Rovinj and Poreč and Pula – with its magnificent Roman arena, the other Colosseum – enter chill mode in autumn, kicking their feet up at last. But the real Istrian delight in autumn is its white truffle season. The king of truffles – the prized white truffle – has been around for generations in Istria, but only in the last two decades has the world started to pour into the region, bibs tied around their necks, forks and knives in hand, ready to taste the bounty that is truffle-laden Istrian cuisine. Make a reservation at one of the three Michelin-starred restaurants in Croatia – in this case, Monte in Rovinj – or pull up a chair at Damir i Ornella in Novigrad, where the super-fresh fish is carved up tableside and served deliciously raw.

The Nature Face: Plitvice Lakes and Mali Lošinj

Fall colors in Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Fall colors in Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Photo by Aleksandar Gospic
From the Istrian peninsula, travel inland southeast to see the splendid Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of eight national parks in the country, where emerald-green waterfalls and alpine forests combine to create a magical atmosphere. “The foliage throughout October and early November at Plitvice Lakes National Park is surreal,” says Joanna Kuflik, a New York City-based Virtuoso travel advisor. “With the red, yellow, and orange leaves scattered amongst the scenic waterfalls, it’s truly an incredible sight to be seen only in the autumn.”
 
Back on the coast, consider a hop to the untrammeled island of Mali Lošinj, where you can relax by the seashore at the comfortable, homey Boutique Hotel Alhambra and take a dip into the still-warm autumn Adriatic waters. This part of the coast, called Kvarner, is known as the “lungs of Croatia,” thanks to the clean air and the ample supply of spas, treatment centers, and health resorts.

The Dalmatian Face: The Storied Coast

A view of the coastal, historic city of Šibenik. 
A view of the coastal, historic city of Šibenik. 
Photo by Damir Fabijanic
On the way down the coast, stop in Zadar, a diminutive peninsula densely packed with medieval buildings. Pause at the famous sea organ, which whistles and chirps with the ebb and flow of the Adriatic. Next, make a pit stop in the underrated town of Šibenik to stroll its white limestone streets and to graze on elevated Dalmatian fare at Michelin-starred Pelegrini, before stopping for the night in Split, the second-biggest city in Croatia. In addition to being a major hub for ferries that cruise to fashionable islands like Hvar and Brač, Split is home to one of the most remarkable UNESCO World Heritage sites on the planet (and one of 10 UNESCO sites in all of Croatia): Diocletian’s Palace. Built as a retirement pad for the Roman emperor, the palace fell into ruins after his death in the early fourth century ad. Eventually, the rest of the city moved in, setting up homes, cafés, shops, and bars. Today, you can stroll down Diocletian’s hallways, now limestone-paved streets, pausing for a macchiato or a plate of just-pulled-from-the-sea grilled calamari.
 
Wiesenthal praises the ease of travel within the small country. “You can go from Split and its rich history and old-world charm to the fabulous walled city of Dubrovnik,” she says. “Take a boat to Hvar or Korčula and then travel to the walled city of Ston and have amazing oysters on the bay. And going in the fall means you may have this bounty more to yourself.”
Dubrovnik, known for sixteenth-century walls encircling the city. 
Dubrovnik, known for sixteenth-century walls encircling the city. 
Photo by Ivo Biocina
She’s right. South of Split, follow the meandering road that hugs the dramatic Dalmatian coast, where teal-colored coves reveal farms for oysters that are so good, Roman emperors and the Habsburgs in Vienna used to place delivery orders. Stop in Ston: Its medieval walls – the longest in Europe – mark the beginning of what was once the Dubrovnik Republic, a wealthy and powerful independent city-state. Feast on some of those prized oysters before the one-hour drive to the “Gem of the Adriatic,” as Lord Byron reportedly described Dubrovnik. Then check into Villa Dubrovnik, a cozy and classy seaside property with views of the walled Old Town.
 
The city of 40,000 people has recently stepped up its offerings, making it better for tourists and locals. In 2017 the town’s first craft brewery, Dubrovnik Beer Company, opened; Dubrovnik’s first serious cocktail bar, The Bar by Azur, is shaking up drinks in Old Town; and the first third-wave coffee spot in the city, Cogito, started brewing artisan Joe in 2014. Most recently, the city earned its first Michelin star in the restaurant 360, located on the city walls, where the views are as much a feast for the eyes as the Dalmatian fare is for the palate. Plus, there are classic Dubrovnik activities that every first (or even second) timer should do: Walk the 80-foot walls that circle the Old Town; take the cable car up to Mount Srd to get a jaw-dropping view of the town and the shimmering Adriatic Sea; and do what the locals call a djir, a promenade on Stradun, the main street in Old Town, where for generations locals have been parading up and down, gossiping and meeting new and old friends.
 
After a tour of Croatia, experiencing its many faces in all their glory, you’re certain to have become one of those new friends too.

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