The Comeback of Croatia

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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.

Twelve years ago, for eight memorable months, Serbian rebels shelled Dubrovnik from the hills above while residents cowered in the city's 700-year-old fortresses. Most of the damage has been repaired and aside from the glow of new roof tiles, most visitors wouldn't know. Disaster has long courted Dubrovnik, anyway; a 1667 earthquake did still worse damage.

Old Town is the fortified area bisected by the gleaming avenue Stradun and capped everywhere by those famous earthen tiles, and it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with attractions: the Franciscan Monastery, with its delicate arches and 700-year-old pharmacy; Ono-frio's Fountain, from 1444, festooned with spitting faces; the assiduously carved Rector's Palace; the Dominican Monastery's priceless art and the well that quenched the thirst of residents during the war; the cathedral's polyptych by Titian (shockingly, exposed to sunlight) and its overstuffed reliquary of withered martyrs' bones and fingers. Nothing's more than 15kn/$2.15 to enter. You could roam here for days.

Dubrovnik's singularity, manifest in the spectacular medieval walls that encircle it for one-and-a-quarter miles (don't miss walking them for 15kn/$2.15), is hard to dismiss. Some claim just being on its white stone streets, with no cars or skyscrapers to shatter the illusion of time travel, verges on a mystical experience. People come to stroll, loiter at cafZs, and swim where the Adriatic laps gently at ancient fortifications. (And when cruise ships disgorge the hordes, they escape to the beaches.)

As one wanders the alleys and bright squares, all the outdoor cafZs seem identical-risotto for around 50kn/$7.15, meat dishes for 90kn/$13, and so on-but locals whisper praise for the one called Moby Dick, beneath the last remaining medieval balconies on Prijeko. Also sample the local taste for strolling with ice cream; at 10kn/$1.45 a cone, dessert covers a lot of ground.

As is often the case with postwar societies, Croatians come across as a touch numb, showing few signs of the passion that fueled the recent bloodshed. Inland, farmhouses remain bulletpocked and burnt, but in Dubrovnik, emotional scars lie deep. When I told one resident I live in New York City, she murmured with solidarity. This woman, a survivor of the Dubrovnik terror, had the single most sympathetic question anyone ever asked me about September 11. "Did it make a terrible sound?" she asked, and perhaps remembering her own trauma, probed no further.

Room & Breakfast: Most low-cost/package hotels land you three miles west of Old Town, by the beaches and away from the magic. There are two hotels within city walls, but one charges $226 a night and the other $150. So one of the cheapest options (still a 15-minute walk west from the Pile Gate) is Fadila Vulic« B&B (Dr. Ante Starcÿevic«a 54, 020/412-787), 250kn/$36 to 300kn/$43 per room, breakfast 20kn/$2.85. Five minutes farther, the front-facing rooms at Hotel Lero (Iva Vojnovic«a 14, 020/341-333, hotel-lero.hr) have distant sea views; B&B rates are 290kn/$41 a person, double, and 420kn/$60 a single, and high summer costs 25 percent more. The best option, though, is to rent a villa owned by absentee western Europeans. Consult the British brokers Croatian Villas (011-44/20-8368-9978, croatianvillas.com) or Hidden Croatia (011-44/20-7736-6066, hiddencroatia.com), for summer flats for as little as $350/week. Up that to $100/night for abject opulence. To get a famous view of Old Town, you must splurge; I loved Grand Villa Argentina (Frana Supila 14, 020/440-555, hoteli-argentina.hr). Cascading down a cliff to the very lip of the Adriatic, it's where reporters stayed during the siege in 1991-92, so its sensual Old Town panorama was made iconic by CNN. Outside of summer, its modern (renovated in 2003) rooms are in the middle $100s-money you can avoid paying by choosing a cheaper place, but far less than comparable quarters at home. For Dubrovnik area information, see tzdubrovnik.hr.

Split: Roman holiday

If the Palace of Diocletian were in the middle of, say, London, it would be a beloved treasure. Instead, in Split, two thirds of the way down the coast of Croatia, it's furniture. The Palace was built for a Roman emperor in a.d. 295. Still inhabited, it's now an open-air warren of boutiques, hidden pubs, and smoky shrines. Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and the port for its most appealing islands. It's also perfect for hanging out. Simply sipping espresso under the weathered porticos and Corinthian columns is one of the finest diversions I've had in Europe.

Croatia's glittering swatch of the Adriatic-glassy smooth and because of natural currents, among the cleanest of the whole Mediterranean region-was once just an outer borough of Rome. North of the Palace are more Roman remnants, and three miles inland are the ruins of the city of Salona, complete with a still-working aquaduct (free).

In addition to the Palace (free), tony shopping, and all those seafront cafZs, there's Trogir, a seaside village (and, like the Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) of Renaissance-era glory. It's 30 minutes away via the port's bus station (14kn/$2 each way) and makes for a film-gobbling day out. The sculptor Mesÿtrovic«'s estate, a 25-minute walk west of town, is a showcase for his arresting handiwork (15kn/$2.15). Croatia's main highway runs perilously but spectacularly along the coast in both directions from Split, and it makes for a world-class multiday drive.

Room & Breakfast: Don't be afraid, here or anywhere in the country, to lodge in private residences. Older women who have lost their sons and husbands offer sobe, or rooms, for pocket money (think $15 to $35). Bargain, but ask how far from town the house is. Lodging within the Palace: the basic but warm Prenoc«isÿte Slavija (Buvinova 2, 021/347-053), hidden up a staircase behind Jupiter's Temple; rooms with shared bath are 317kn/$45 double, 233kn/$33 single; private baths are 70kn/$10 more. The impressive Bellevue (J. Bana Jelacÿicc«a 2, 021/347-499) is humdrum but ideally located, and some rooms face the Riva quay; 560kn/$80 double, 375kn/$54 single, summer about 70kn/$10 more. Croatia is one of the few places you can afford luxury; Hotel Park (Hatzeov perivoj 3, 021/406-400, hotelpark-split.hr), a former palace on a trendy section of the sea, costs E61/$70 to E67/$77 per person double, E93/$107 to E103/$118 single. Split info: visitsplit.com.

Hvar: Adriatic relic

In a country with 1,185 islands, there are plenty of choices for offshore escapes. No Croatian vacation is complete without a stop on at least one. Korcÿula has sword dancing, Pag is renowned for tart cheese, and Mljet is a forested national park. Here is the Adriatic of Jason and his Argonauts, of pirates, and of Marco Polo. Even the region's stone is famous; nearby quarries dressed the White House and the U.N.

Hvar, though, may be the quintessential Croatian isle. Scented by fields of wild lavender, its heart is the hamlet Hvar Town, which curls around a row of coves and is adorned with Venetian architecture, a knot of narrow streets, and a hilltop fortress.

Hvar Town's lures, besides authenticity and a ban on cars (park outside the city walls), include a seafront Franciscan monastery with its century-old cypress garden and over 200 pristine Greek and Roman coins; a theater dating from 1612 said to be the first in Europe to admit commoners; a glorious central square full of soccer-playing kids; and the castle above it all. All tickets cost 15kn/$2.15, tops.

Room & Breakfast: Arrive via a 90-minute Split-Stari Grad car ferry (E29/$33, each way with car) and drive 30 minutes across the island. Croatians are aggressive drivers; let peevish bumper-huggers pass. For Hvar Town, book early. Hotel Slavija (021/741-820) is 157kn/$22 double in winter to 420kn/$60 double B&B in summer. Hotel Palace (021/741-966) is $7 to $15 more and closest to the square; full board costs about $7 more per night if you stay three or more nights. Hotel Amfora (021/741-202), a 15-minute walk past town on the water, is a very '70s megaresort on a private beach charging 188kn/$27 to 503kn/$72 double, with breakfast, depending on season and view. Either Hotel Palace or Hotel Slavija remains open for winter. All three hotels are online at suncanihvar.hr. Hvar info: hvar.hr.

Rovinj: Venetian charmer

A vacation in Istria, or northwest Croatia, might as well be one in Italy, such are the slouching brown buildings, olive-oil-washed cuisine, and laconic company. Rovinj ("roe-VEEN-ya") is one of the most striking images of nautical Europe: A lordly cathedral with a jumble of houses gathered in its skirts, all rising abruptly out of the azure sea. Rovinj was developed by the Venetians, and the Italians can't seem to let go; thousands drive in (Trieste is less than an hour north) to throng its winding, cafe-lined waterfront, where floating markets sell sponges, shells, and other knickknacks.

Most tourists plant themselves on a beach or on an outlying island for at least a few days of a stay. But a 45-minute southerly drive brings you to Pula, home to one of the world's largest Roman coliseum ruins (16kn/$2.30), still used as a theater. Other relics: the Arch of the Sergians (30 b.c.; free) and the Temple of Augustus (about 2 b.c. but rebuilt; free).

Room & Breakfast: Book early to beat the Italians. There are few cheap options in town. The only high-capacity hotel with the requisite view of the Old Town is the concrete package-tour mill Hotel Park (I.M. Ronjgova bb, 052/811-077), E31/$36 to E60/$69 per person, with breakfast; for all meals add 20 percent. Hotels within the Old Town aren't cheap but might be worth it, since fussing with parking in this car-free town is a trial. The Hotel Villa Angelo D'Oro (Via Svalba 38-42, 052/840-502, rovinj.at) is a richly accented Venetian charmer, E55/$63 a person, winter, to E96/$110 a person, summer, with breakfast. Hotel Adriatic, on the noisy main square, is a good choice (E31/$36 to E52/$60 a person in a double, with breakfast, seasonally; 052/815-088, adriatic@jadran.tdr.hr). Private flats are the least expensive route; they range E20/$23 to E45/$52 a night for two, based on season, and can be arranged via inforovinj.com. Regional info: tzgrovinj.hr (Rovinj), istra.com (Istria).

Croatia: tips and quirks

Phones When calling Croatia from North America, first dial 011-385 and drop the first zero. It's six hours ahead of our East Coast.

Hotels Most were communist-designed, so midpriced ones are often as good as top-price ones; guests are required to surrender their passports, usually over the first night, to be registered with police; on May Day (May 1) and in July and August, book ahead. Languages Croatian; also widely spoken are German, Italian, and English.

Eating Restaurants fill after 7 p.m.; waiters allow patrons to linger all night if a bill isn't requested; always ask if "service" is included to avoid stiffing the waiter; if liqueur is offered, it's not a swindle-it's a traditional post-meal courtesy.

Driving Major names like Avis and National rent compacts ($20 to $30/day); add $10 a day for automatic transmissions, and choose a vehicle tiny enough to navigate those medieval alleys; towns are well marked but roads aren't, so find a map packed with names.

Shopping On the coast, businesses close in mid-afternoon and reopen for evening. Inland, they observe regular hours.

6 ways to get there from home or Europe

Air Croatia Airlines (croatiaairlines.hr) flies to Zagreb from major European cities (London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Frankfurt). Internal flights are cheap (Dubrovnik-Zagreb one way: about $60).

Ferry Routes from Italy include Venice-Rovinj (Venezia Lines, 21U2 hours, E42/$48 one way, venezialines.com) and Ancona-Split (multiple companies, 41U2 hours or overnight; E47/$54 to E79/$91, traghettionline.net). Domestic routes are covered by Jadrolinija (jadrolinija.hr).

Trains Zagreb-Budapest (five hours, $39, raileurope.com), Vienna (six hours, $57, raileurope.com). Many people train to Trieste, Italy, and drive or bus from there (about 30 minutes). There are no high-speed capabilities, and the coast is not adequately served by rail.

Packages Go-today.com now sells Dubrovnik, including air on Lufthansa, transfers, and a hotel for six nights with breakfast, for $599 from November to March (from New York; other cities available for slightly higher rates). Or fly to England to catch a British package, which are plentiful; in 2003's peak season (July), there were weeklong stays in Dubrovnik, with airfare, for £395/$649 by Holiday Options (011-44/870-013-0450, holidayoptions.co.uk).

Charter yacht Croatia-based ABEO (011-385/33-800-833, croatia-yachtcharter.com) rents boats sleeping four to six from E1,100/$1,265 a week (motorboats), E1,600/$1,840 a week (sailboats).

Cruises Costa (800/462-6782, costacruise.com), Royal Olympia (800/872-6400, royalolympiacruises.com), and MSC Italian (800/666-9333, msccruises.com) are moderately priced lines that visit Croatia on wider itineraries, but unfortunately, none stay long.

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