Croatian Renaissance

When I told my daughter I was going to Croatia, her dark eyes were anxious. “Is that safe?” she asked, recalling war reports of the 1990s. I soon discovered she wasn’t alone in her concern, but most friends were envious. “Croatia? Cool!” they said.

And it was cool to be part of the scene on a June evening, listening to rock bands bounce music around a first-century Roman forum in Pula, a city of 62,000 in the Istrian peninsula that juts into the northwest corner of the Adriatic Sea. In front of the ancient Temple of Augustus, young people flirted over drinks or danced, and families enjoyed ice cream while watching the action from outdoor cafés.

A few streets over and nearly two thousand years ago, the Romans staged bloodier spectacles in the Roman amphitheatre, Pula’s number 1 attraction. A dominating presence near the harbour, it currently seats 5,000 for various performances (Pavarotti sang there a week after our visit), but back in the first century AD, 23,000 screamed for their favourite gladiators throughout three weeks of annual combat. Today, its vaulted underground houses an exhibition of olive oil and wine vessels. Back then, it was filled with fear and excitent, where men and animals were readied to fight or were unceremoniously dumped after fatal injuries in the arena above.

History and contemporary life constantly rub up against one another in Croatia. The beautiful Istrian island of Brijuni once served as the summer residence of Marshall Tito, premier of the re-united Yugoslavia after the Second World War. The island is now part of a national park popular with tourists who arrive by ferry. Visitors play golf on Tito’s nine-hole course (there’s one other 18-hole course in the country), take tram rides through his private zoo and have pictures taken in his 1960 Cadillac. They clamber over the ruins of a Roman villa and marvel at a venerable olive tree planted 1,700 years ago that still produces olive oil.

Scars of invasions remain
Istria escaped damage during the recent 1991-1995 war. But hilltop towns such as Grožnjan testify silently to the foreign invasions that have occurred throughout history. Following the end of Austro-Hungarian rule, the area was given to Italy in 1920, then returned to Yugoslavia in 1945. Grožnjan’s Italian inhabitants fled after the Second World War. On this day, the town is buzzing with teenage energy, celebrating the end of the school year. Music is blaring from a muscular sound system, and soccer balls are flying hazardously.

Olive groves, fig trees and vineyards flourish in Istria, often enclosed by laboriously laid dry stone walls called gromače. Fruit trees, flowers and vegetables crowd the yards of most homes along our route. At the roadside, a small table laden with orderly rows of honey jars and rounds of cheese awaits travelling gourmets. But we are in a hurry to head south along the bay of Kvarnertoward Dalmatia, Croatia’s prime tourist region.

We pass the island of Krk, part of an archipelago said to have been created when Medea flung the limbs of the brother she betrayed to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father. While Krk is mostly under cultivation, Rab and Pag — islands just to its south — appear starkly barren, hostile stone deserts stripped of vegetation by the bora winds that blow off the continent. The seaward side of the islands is green and arable though, and Pag cheese is a much-prized delicacy in Croatia.

The highway snakes between blue-green coves and stark, rocky hills. White stone towns seem ancient. In Rovinj, I climb through cobblestoned streets that circle up to the cathedral dedicated to St. Euphemia, whose remains are sealed in a Roman sarcophagus. The 200-foot-high bell tower adjacent to the cathedral dominates the town. Below the cathedral’s terrace, the blue Adriatic sparkles, and fishing boats and yachts cluster in the harbour.

Sculpted from stone
The Romans understood the enduring strength and beauty of Croatian stone. Especially valued in this rocky land is the type quarried on the island of Brač, south of the country’s second largest city, Split. It was used in the construction of the White House in Washington, D.C., while Canada’s powerful memorial at Vimy Ridge in France commemorating the country’s role in the First World War is carved from stone extracted north of Split.

Water erodes this calcium-bearing stone (our Vimy memorial is currently under repair because of water damage), and over eons, it has sculpted landscapes of singular beauty. Plitvice Lakes National Park, which lies inland, is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site with 16 pristine lakes connected by waterfalls, 160 bird species and wildlife that includes brown bear, lynx, and otters. Non-polluting electric boats ferry tourists around the largest lake but to see the falls, we walk along log pathways.

In Krka National Park, further south and closer to the coast, I compulsively take photos as I scramble over boardwalks meant to keep visitors from trampling vegetation or slipping into cascading water. Everything is lushly green or wet. It’s probably the most intensely beautiful place I’ve ever been.

Our progress down the Dalmatian coast includes tours of Zadar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Šibenik, the only city on the eastern Adriatic founded by Croatians (more than 1,000 years ago). Both were shelled in the 1990s. The interlocking construction of the distinctive dome of Šibenik’s Cathedral of St. James has been repaired, but its Gothic doorway still bears shrapnel holes.

War wounds linger/b>
We go no further south than Split, whose old town centre incorporates the third-century retirement palace built for the Roman emperor Diocletian, a religious man who brutally persecuted Christians. In the seventh century, his mausoleum became the Cathedral of St. Domnius and his remains were replaced with those of the saint. The Temple of Jupiter became the Baptistry of St. John.

Palace walls today incorporate shops and apartments, and its inner courtyard is bustling with residents and tourists, walking atop travertine stones laid by Romans and smoothed through centuries of footsteps.

Ships come and go in the harbour across from the palace. More amusing are the bathers enjoying the city’s fine beach. While I savour a lunch of pasta at one of the many cafés, I watch the shenanigans of boys struggling to toss one another off the quayside, hoping to catch the attention of cool, sleek girls determined to ignore them.

As we head inland and north to Zagreb, something seems wrong. Farmers in the broad valley we’re crossing should be busy cutting hay, but there’s no evidence of any activity. We drive through two villages still in ruins, with roofs gone, and perhaps a lone inhabited house. Evidence of lives shattered by war, stories not yet finished. Although removal of landmines and other detritus of war has long been underway, wise travellers should continue to stick to recommended paths.

New look for Zagreb
Zagreb provides a tonic for such sad sights. Croatia’s capital since 1991, the city is shedding its communist-era drabness, dressing up in warm pastels the graceful 18th- and 19th-century buildings at its centre. There’s a maddening amount of graffiti about, but I feel safe in streets and parks. I go walking at 7 p.m., when it seems most of Zagreb’s population is strolling under the plane trees in its horseshoe of eight central parks, and the balance converging on cafés.

Many of the city’s attractions are within walking distance of its centre, the Lower Town area that includes many of its 20 museums and the Viennese-style National Theatre. Zagreb began as two medieval towns built on adjacent hills but Kaptol and Gradec, now the Upper Town, meets the Lower Town at the vast Ban Josip Jelačić Square. (After banishment by the Communist government, the viceroy’s distinctive equestrian statue was re-installed as the square’s focal point in 1991.)

The twin spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary and St. Stephen tower over the older section. Among the treasures inside are Golgotha, a 15th-century painting by Albrecht Dürer; a relief of two martyred Croatian patriots and a carved stone panel of ninth-century Glagolitic script, the early form of written Slavic language. At the only remaining town gate, a small shrine honours a painting of the Blessed Virgin and Child, left miraculously unscathed when a 1731 fire destroyed the wooden structures on the site.

The bright roof tiles on the Church of St. Mark’s display the coats of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, as well as that of Zagreb. St. Mark’s Square is bounded on the east by the historic Sabor, the Croatian Parliament. A short walk south brings us to the Museum of Naïve Art and then the Gallery of Contemporary Art.

In order to bring Croatia into the European Union, its government is currently working to conform to EU standards. It has received funding to aid in repairing war damage and duty-free access to the EU market. A steady flow of weekend traffic streaming south along its coast testifies to a recovering tourism industry.

In a last-minute hunt for souvenirs, I dive into a shopping mall tucked underground near the train station. It is crowned with a fountain above, thronged with shoppers below. When I emerge, the sun has poured honey over King Tomislav Square; the yellow Art Pavilion at its far end glows. At this moment, it’s easy to believe that with its rich cultural attractions and beautiful architecture, a refurbished Zagreb will quickly be the rival of any of Europe’s celebrated cities.