...white truffles has earned it favourable comparisons with Tuscany. In the north of the country, the historic castles of Zagorje and more rolling green hills await.
The oft-ignored region of Slavonia, in the east of the country, rewards a visit with the stately riverside city of Osijek and the unquashable spirit of Vukovar, which is still fighting back from the worst ravages of the Homeland War, as well as vineyards and castles of its own. First-time visitors to the country's capital, Zagreb, quickly shrug off anachronistic images of communist-era deprivations, as they are greeted by a vibrant and grand metropolis complete with all the trappings of modern-day life, an attractive old town and lush green spaces.
Croatia stretches along the Adriatic coast, narrowing north-south; the major ports being Rijeka, Pula, Zadar, Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik, with a larger inland area running west-east from Zagreb to the border with Serbia. The northern two-thirds of this border are formed by the River Danube. The country borders Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Serbia to the east, Montenegro to the southeast and Bosnia & Herzegovina (southeast from Zagreb; northeast from the Adriatic coastline).
A haven for gastronomes and sun worshippers alike, Croatia is also emerging as an adventure destination. Unspoiled countryside lends itself to cycling and hiking, as well as serious mountaineering, while the expansive coastline is perfect for almost every type of watersport imaginable. The Island of Brac even hosts the annual Vanka Regule extreme sports festival. When it comes to sailing, Croatia is legendary, with myriad marinas and islands on hand up and down the coast.
Location: Southeastern Europe
Population: 4.4 million
Language Spoken: Croatian, Serbian, Italian, Slovene, Slovak and German
Country Diallig Code: +385
Currency & Money: Croatian Kuna (HRK; symbol HRK)
Foreign currency can be exchanged in banks, by authorised dealers and post offices. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted. ATMs are widespread. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in US Dollars, Pounds Sterling or Euros
Weather: Croatia's climate varies from Mediterranean along the Adriatic coast, to continental inland. The sunny coastal areas experience hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters, while the interior regions are warm in summer and cold in winter. Wind patterns cool the coast with refreshing breezes in the summer, but high mountains shield the coast from bitter winter weather. The sea stores heat in the summer and radiates the heat onto the land in the winter, warming the surrounding air. In spring and early summer, the maestral keeps the temperature down along the coast. It generally starts blowing at around nine o'clock, increases until early afternoon and dies down in late afternoon. This strong, steady wind makes good sailing weather. Winter weather is defined by two winds. The southeasterly sirocco from the Sahara Desert brings warm, moist air to the mainland and can produce a heavy cloud cover. This wind also has the steady strength that sailors love. The northeasterly bura blows from the interior to the coast in powerful gusts, bringing dry air and blowing away clouds. Sun-lovers should note that the island of Hvar gets 2715 hours of sun a year, followed by Split with 2697 hours, Vela Luka on Korčula Island with 2671 hours, and Dubrovnik with 2584 hours. The lack of rainfall along the coast, especially on islands further removed from the mainland, has produced severe water shortages in Dalmatia throughout its history. Summer dry periods can last up to 100 days, nearly as long as in Sicily and Greece. Before pipelines to the Cetina and Neretva Rivers were laid, islanders often had to collect rainwater in cisterns.
WHEN TO GO
Most people visit Croatia between April and September. Although the coast is too cool for swimming in April, you'll enjoy warm, clear skies south of Split and rock-bottom accommodation prices. Zagreb is likely to be comfortable and the cultural season is in full swing at this time. May and June are great months for all outdoor activities (except skiing). Watch out for battalions of school students on class field trips at the end of May and beginning of June.July and August are the most expensive months to visit Croatia as the tourist season swings into gear. The advantages of high-season travel are the extra boat lines to whisk you to the islands, and organised excursions to take you to out-of-the-way highlights. September is probably the optimum month since by then the crowds have thinned out, off-season rates apply and fruits such as figs and grapes are abundant.
TOP THINGS TO DO
• In Zagreb, visit the Museum of Arts and Crafts, which traces Croatian craftsmanship through the centuries, and the Mimara Museum's rich collection of painting, sculpture and ceramics from abroad. Admire Mestrovic's dramatic sculptures at the Mestrovic Atelier.
• Unearth Dubrovnik's turbulent history at the Rector's Palace, The Memorial Room to the Dubrovnik Defenders (located in the Sponza Palace), War Photos Unlimited and the Maritime Museum.
• See fine examples of early Croatian religious art at the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments in Split. Appreciate more of Mestrovic's 20th-century sculptures in the city's Meštrovic Gallery.
• Enjoy Dubrovnik Summer Festival, which takes place each summer, from mid July to late August, featuring various cultural events plus open-air evening performances of theatre, jazz and classical music. Zagreb and Split also have summer festivals.
• Dine in some of Croatia's best restaurants in the gastronomic enclave of Volosko, just outside Opatija, while soaking up attractive Adriatic sea views.
• Sunbathe on the golden sands of Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape); one of the few sandy beaches in Croatia is located just outside the tourist resort of Bol on the island of Brac.
• Escape the crowds on the Kvarner Gulf island of Cres, famous for its colony of Griffon Vultures, the historic settlement of Valun and laid-back Cres Town.
• Hike or climb in the Risnjak National Park, located in the mountains of Gorski Kotar, or on the Velebit Massif of Northern Dalmatia's Paklenica National Park.
• Tour the Kornati National Park, an archipelago of more than 90 islands scattered over an area of 300 sq km (116 sq miles). Virtually uninhabited, the islands display a harsh, rocky landscape practically devoid of vegetation. Several renovated stone cottages provide ‘Robinson Crusoe'-type holiday accommodation.
• Join the jet-set on the increasingly exclusive island of Hvar, renowned for its rugged coastline, excellent wines and lavender fields. Drink coffee or sip cocktails in Hvar Town, a Venetian settlement, built around a picturesque harbour presided over by a hilltop fortress.
• Dive in the ethereal Blue Grotto and explore the shipwrecks sunk off the island of Vis, Croatia's most remote inhabited island.
• Island hop between the largely traffic-free Elaphite Islands of Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan, with their secluded and sometimes sandy beaches and good-value restaurants.
• Follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo (maybe) in Korcula Town, a marvel of medieval urban planning which has charmed foreign visitors since the first tourists arrived on the eponymous island in the 1920s.
• Cycle around Mljet National Park, located on the green and unspoiled island of the same name. The park boasts dense forests, two interconnected saltwater lakes and, in the centre of the larger lake, the exquisite St Mary's Island and Benedictine Monastery.
• Watch the birds in Slavonia's Kopacki Rit Nature Park, a vast expanse of wetland frequented by myriad migrating birds and well away from the tourist crowds.
TOP THINGS TO SEE
• Zagreb Croatia's economic, cultural and administrative heart. Visit Gornji Grad's historic monuments: the Cathedral, St Mark's Church (noted for its tiled roof) and the Sabor (Croatian parliament). Be enthralled by Donji Grad's 19th-century buildings.
• Head for the undulating hills and vineyards of Zagorje just north of Zagreb. Explore the historic Veliki Tabor and Trakošcan castles.
• Meander through Dubrovnik's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old City, which is enveloped by 13th-century walls and overlooks the Adriatic. Tour its fine monuments such as the Rector's Palace, the Franciscan Monastery (home to Europe's oldest pharmacy) and delightful baroque churches.
• Travel back in time to Split the economic and cultural capital of Central Dalmatia which was founded in the third century AD by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Its historic centre lies within the walls of Diocletian's Palace - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
• Stroll around the tiny medieval city of Trogir founded by the Greeks in the third century BC. Discover the beautiful Venetian gothic stone buildings that have helped it earn a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
• Continue a discovery of Roman Croatia in Pula Istira's administrative centre and chief port. See a concert at the fifth-century BC Arena, a well-preserved Roman amphitheater.
• Sail around Brijuni National Park an archipelago of 14 unspoiled islands located off the west coast of Istria. Stay overnight on the largest island, Veli Brijun, where a range of tourist facilities are available.
• Built on a small peninsula, the Istrian town of Porec dates back to Roman times. Climb the tower of its star attraction, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Euphrasius Basilica. Admire the Basilica's stunning sixth-century Byzantine mosaics.
• Drive around Inland Istria, whose romantic hill towns like Motovun Buje and Groznjan, make an ideal day trip from the coast.
• Visit the historic centre of Zadar, the chief city and port in Northern Dalmatia. Stroll around its narrow cobbled streets, drink coffee on a ruined Roman Forum and listen to classical recitals in the ninth-century Church of St Donats.
• Northern Dalmatia's second city is Sibenik, worth visiting for its 15th-century UNESCO-listed Cathedral of St James alone. Appreciate the distinctive architecture of its Old Town which, because it was not built by the Romans or the Venetians, is uniquely Croatian.
• Take a boat ride in the Krka National Park, where the eponymous river has sculpted a picturesque canyon, famed for its spectacular Skradinski buk (Skradin Waterfalls) and the islet of Visovac, home to a Franciscan Monastery.
• Join the throng at Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of Croatia's premier tourist attractions. This UNESCO World Heritage tree-shrouded wonderland of 16 turquoise lakes and waterfalls more than makes up for the crowds.
TRAVEL TO CROATIA
Flying,all major airlines including Ryanair, Easyjet, Croatian Air, British Airways fly direct to Croatia, the destination over the past few years has become increasingly popular because of easy access from all major European cities
Zagreb (ZAG) (Pleso International) (website: www.zagreb-airport.hr) is 17km (10 miles) southeast of the city. To/from the airport: An airport bus runs to the city centre (journey time - 25 minutes); taxis are also available (journey time - 20 minutes). Facilities: Left luggage, banks/bureaux de change, restaurants, snack bars, bars, business lounge, duty-free shops, post office, tourist information and car hire.
Dubrovnik (DBV) (website: www.airport-Dubrovnik.hr) is 18km (11 miles) southeast of the city. To/from the airport: An airport bus runs to the city (journey time - 20 minutes). Facilities: Banks/bureaux de change, post office, bars, duty-free shop, shops and car hire.
Split (SPU) (website: www.split-airport.hr) is 25km (16 miles) northwest of the city. To/from the airport: An airport bus runs to the city (journey time - 40 minutes). Facilities: Banks/bureau de change, post office, car hire, duty-free shops and bar/restaurant.
Pula (PUY) (website: www.airport-pula.com) is 8km (5 miles) northwest of the city. To/from the airport: An airport bus runs to the city (journey time - 15 minutes). Facilities: Bureau de change, car hire, duty-free shop and snack bar/restaurant.
Rijeka (RJK) (website: www.rijeka-airport.hr) is 27km (17 miles) from the city on the island of Krk. To/from the airport: Buses runs to the city (journey time - 45 minutes). Facilities: Car hire, duty-free shop, ATM, left luggage and snack bar/restaurant.
Main ports: Split (website: www.portsplit.com), Dubrovnik, Rijeka, Zadar and Ploce (www.port-authority-ploce.hr).
Passenger and car ferry services run to Italy. The main routes are: Split-Ancona, Zadar-Ancona, Split-Pescara and Dubrovnik-Bari. Fast hydrofoil services operate on some routes. Jadrolinija is the main service provider.
Dubrovnik is an established cruise destination and the city is visited by hundreds of vessels and thousands of passengers each year.
Croatian Railways (tel: 060 333 444, within Croatia only; website: www.hznet.hr) operates trains in Croatia. Direct trains run from Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. Express services run from Zagreb to major cities including Berlin, Budapest, Munich, Venice and Vienna.
InterRail: offers unlimited first- or second-class travel in up to 30 European countries for European residents of over six months with two pass options. The Global Pass allows travel for 22 days, one month, five days in 10 days or 10 days in 22 days across all countries. The One-Country Pass offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month in any of the countries except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe (website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).
There are routes from all neighbouring countries. Hrvatski Autoklub (the Croatian Automobile Club) (website: www.hak.hr) can provide information.
Bus: There are regular international buses connecting Croatia with Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Slovak Republic. Eurolines (tel: 0870 580 8080, in the UK; website: www.eurolines.com) runs regular coach services from the UK to Croatia.
TRAVEL AROUND CROATIA
Zagreb (ZAG), Rijeka (RJK), Split (SPU), Pula (PUY) and Dubrovnik (DBV) international airports all receive domestic flights (see Getting There by Air). Domestic services also run to Zadar (website: www.zadar-airport.hr) and Osijek (website: www.osijek-airport.hr), which both handle some international traffic, and the smaller airports on the island of Brac (www.airport-brac.hr) and Losinj (website: www.airportmalilosinj.hr).
The main domestic routes operated by Croatia Airlines (website: www.croatiaairlines.hr) are Zagreb-Dubrovnik and Zagreb-Split.
Jadrolinija website: www.jadrolinija.hr) is the main provider of car and passenger ferries and catamarans in Croatia. There are regular connections between the main ports and the offshore islands. A coastal service runs all the way from Rijeka in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, via Split, Korcula and Dubrovnik.
Croatian Railways (tel: 060 333 444, within Croatia only; website: www.hznet.hr) operates trains in Croatia. The network connects all major cities except Dubrovnik. However, it is often quicker to travel by bus. An upgrading of the track between Zagreb and Split now means that this journey can be done in 5 hours 25 minutes.
InterRail One-Country Pass: offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month within Croatia. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe (website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).
Traffic drives on the right. The last decade has seen considerable investment in Croatia's roads and the country has an extensive network of highways (designated as E roads) and unclassified roads. Motorway connections are continually improving, and Croatia's 11 motorways are designated with the numbers A1 to A11. The A1 is the main artery between Zagreb and Split; sometime after 2008 it will extend beyond Dubrovnik. Roads are generally sealed and in good condition. A toll is payable on motorways.
Coach: There are regular services to destinations throughout Croatia. Autotrans; website: www.autotrans.hr) is a key service provider. Timetable information is available from Zagreb Central Bus Statio
Car hire: International and local car hire firms have offices in Croatia's cities, bigger towns and leading resorts.
Regulations: The minimum driving age is 18. Speed limits are 130kph (81mph) on motorways, 100kph (62mph) on highways, 50kph (31mph) in built-up areas and 80kph (50mph) outside built-up areas. Heavy fines are imposed for speeding. It is compulsory for front and rear passengers to wear seat belts. It is illegal to use a handheld mobile telephone while driving. Headlights should be turned on at all times.
Documentation: National or International Driving Permit. All motorists should also carry a valid passport or national identity card as proof of identity at all times. A Green Card should be carried by visitors (except EU nationals) taking their own car into Croatia. National registration in the country of origin is required for all foreign vehicles. Third-party insurance is mandatory when hiring a car and a valid credit card is also needed.
Town and City Transport
Zagreb: The centre of Zagreb can easily be navigated on foot. It also has a good network of trams and buses run by ZET, as well as a funicular and taxis.
Dubrovnik: Dubrovnik's Old City is pedestrianised. Libertas operates efficient bus services, with stops just outside the Pile and Ploce gates
POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT
Dubrovnik: is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed gem sandwiched between sheer limestone crags and the azure waters. Dubrovnik's medieval walls which are still intact today were built between the 13th and 16th centuries, and are arguably the finest city walls in the world, they are 25m (82ft) high, with 16 towers. Within these walls, there is a multitude of baroque churches and ornate palaces waiting to be explored. The old town of Stari Grad is worth a visit, with its marble-paved squares, steep cobbled streets, tall houses, convents, churches, palaces, fountains, and museums, all cut from the same light-coloured stone. Although heavily shelled in 1991 and '92, the city has been largely restored.
Split: which overlooks the Adriatic Sea and is backed by the rugged Dinaric Mountains is a splendid Dalmatian city resembling a living museum. Ancient Roman architecture forms a backdrop to modern-day life, with boutiques displaying imported designer wear and cafes playing techno amid the stones of an imperial palace. Split has long been an important tourist hub, the main gateway to Dalmatia, with an international airport, daily ferries from Italy and local boat services to the nearby islands.
Zagreb: is the capital of Croatia, with just over a million inhabitants (a quarter of the nation), and is the country's economic, industrial and administrative powerhouse. This city is finally coming into its own as an intriguing combination of Eastern and Western Europe. The sober Austro-Hungarian architecture in the town centre houses newly opened boutiques displaying the latest fashions from France and Italy.