The Comeback of Croatia

Take a little bit of Venice, a tiny bit of Rome, and throw in plenty of sunshine and clear Mediterranean waters. Reintroducing Croatia--its conflicts now ended, its tourism restored.

As one looks at Europe on a globe, the little country is practically dead center. Some 60 miles east of Venice, across the flat and crystalline waters of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is a boomerang-shaped nation that soaks up Mediterranean coastline even as it juts deep into eastern Europe's mountains and farmland to Hungary. Until the late 1980s, it was an epicenter of tourism, with some five million foreign visitors flooding the city of Dubrovnik alone each year. That was then. In the early '90s, post-Communism set off a messy power struggle. The last time most of us saw Croatia, it was imploding live on CNN. Peaceful now for nearly a decade, Croatia is again attracting Europeans to her secluded beaches and her tangled streets. Yet for Americans, Croatia remains forgotten. The whims of twentieth-century politics reshuffled it into a blind spot between worlds, but it's gradually reentering the mainstream. A baby democracy of royal parentage, it remains as Italian as Venice, as Austrian as Vienna, and as much Caesar's as Rome.

As a first-time trip reveals, Croatia holds some of vacationdom's biggest surprises: a Roman emperor's palace and one of earth's largest gladiator coliseums. The most spectacular walled city known to Europe. Some of the most scenic coastal drives on the planet. Olive oil, pizza, seafood, truffles. Long afternoon siestas, charming cafes.

Best of all, it presents the U.S. tourist with a refreshing price structure, though not as low as its shambling economy might denote. Businesses are savvy to big-spending Germans and Italians, so prices are not only quoted in the local kuna (kn) but also often in euros (U), so learn the U to kn exchange rate (at press time, about 1 to 8) to guarantee the best deals. ($1.15=U1 and $1=7kn.) Still, in spite of this confusing pricing system, with my help Croatia can give you a dream Mediterranean vacation at $25 a night for a room with a view, $8 for a meal, and $2.50 for attractions. Try beating those prices in haughty France or aggressive Greece. For more information: Croatian National Tourist Board, 800/829-4416, croatia.hr.

Zagreb: Vienna's sister

Tourists touch down either in Dubrovnik or here, the inland capital of Hrvatska (Croatia's local name). Some zoom straight to the coast, but wise ones linger in this fine, manageable city that recalls the Beaux Arts zenith of the Hapsburgs. Actually two medieval towns fused into one and embellished by neoclassicists, Zagreb has zero tourist culture, and so no traps.

There are plenty of authentic elements worth losing yourself in, such as squares of proud Vienna-style buildings and clattering trams, a network of prim parks, and a stash of capital-quality museums. Those include the studio of legendary sculptor Ivan Mesÿtrovic the broad Mimara art collection, beqeathed by a tycoon; and a densely curated city museum (all around 16kn/$2.30 each). But Zagreb's most welcoming feature is a proliferation of unhurried cafZs-its dominant social mode. Bring a book and steep in the atmosphere awhile.

Croatians don't eat out much, so restaurants are priced for foreigners ($8 to $18 a full meal wherever you go). If they eat out at all, Croatians prefer pizza. Here, pizza isn't gloppy with grease like it is at home, but a genuine meal, and every block has a cheap, classy, sit-down pizzeria serving fresh ingredients like prosciutto, chilies, and octopus. It's your fallback, too; expect to pay 20kn/$2.85 to 40kn/$5.70 for a foot-wide pie and expect to leave satisfied.

Room & Breakfast: Unlike on the coast, the concept of quality budget lodging is as fresh to Zagreb as tourism itself. Two-year-old Hotel Dora gets it right, with quiet, pleasant rooms a 10-minute walk south of the train station, at downtown's edge (Trnjanska 11e, 01/63-11-900). Doubles are 277kn/$40 per person, singles 307kn/$44, including breakfast. On the central shopping avenue, Ilica, about a mile west of the main square, Trg Jelacÿic«a, is Hotel Ilica, small but neat and from 449kn/$64 a double, 349kn/$50 a single, including breakfast (Ilica 102, 01/37-77-522, hotel-ilica.hr). Zagreb's HI (Hostelling International) hostel is a grim, Red Star-era tourist prison, so hop the #11 or #12 tram to the custom-built Ravnice Hostel (1 Ravnice 38d, 01/23-32-325, ravnice-youth-hostel.hr; Ravnice tram stop), airy and singing with wind chimes beside the fragrant Krasÿ chocolate factory. In addition to two double rooms, it has what must be the cleanest toilets in the hostel universe, and all beds cost 99kn/$14 a night. Zagreb info: zagreb-touristinfo.hr.

Dubrovnik walled wonder

At the southernmost tail of the country's coast (in the region called Dalmatia, as in the dogs), Dubrovnik has always been special. Its skyline alone, one of the world's most stirring-ranking with Manhattan, Hong Kong, or Cape Town-has awed for centuries. For half a millennium, until Napoleon, it was an independent city-state, accountable to no one and awash in riches, and that age endowed it with treasures.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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