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Article-Photo: HALÛK ÇOBANOĞLU
A geographical mosaic
Croatia will make you feel you’re in Central Europe in its capital Zagreb and in the Mediterranean on its Istra Peninsula and Dalmatian coast.
Only a brief, painless two-hour flight from Istanbul, Zagreb is an historic capital where three geographies converge in a vibrant wealth of history and nature. As you approach the city center from Zagreb Airport, historic structures from the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire begin to appear on either side of the road. These parks, fountains and statues that adorn the environs have stood in place for centuries as the sine qua non’s of Zagreb, a perfect Central European city with nothing missing and nothing to excess. And a second sine qua non are the city’s many cafes here where a bohemian atmosphere reigns side by side with modern life in a strange harmony.
ZAGREB: A CENTRAL EUROPEAN CITY
The painstaking care taken of the city’s delicate architectural fabric in every period of the country’s history is especially apparent in the capital. Although mass housing begins to appear as one gets away from the city center, human proportions have been preserved even in these apartment buildings and an effort made to ensure that they harmonize with the older buildings. Harsh contrasts are at first not apparent in this city of eight hundred thousand people. And the gentle transition between the architectural styles plays a major role in this.
As you stroll down Zagreb’s avenues you will realize it is unlike any other Balkan city. In the Middle Ages Zagreb consisted of two villages, like peas in a pod: Kaptol and Gradec. Today these villages, so-called ‘old Zagreb’, are in the city center. The city has expanded around them in every direction. Museums, parks, the country’s center of government, the cathedral, in short, every venue of cultural or administrative significance is located here in this district, where you will encounter an important building at every step.
Even a few days spent in Zagreb will immediately make you sense the complex sociological and cultural structure created by the country’s history. Regardless of the fact that it is at the same time a Mediterranean country, one is immediately struck by the way Croatia has for centuries been oriented towards a culture based on the mainland. And in this as in everything else, the architectural fabric is a virtual guide.
A MEDITERRANEAN ATMOSPHERE ON THE ISTRA PENINSULA
Leaving Zagreb we turn now in the direction of Pula, a city on the Adriatic’s Istra Peninsula. Following a jaunt through the Adriatic Alps, we are enveloped by a familiar atmosphere upon reaching Pula. For we have left behind Zagreb, a Central European city historically and geographically, and arrived at the Mediterranean. Everything is covered in luxuriant green and a riot of colorful flowers, and the avenues are lined with palm trees. Welcoming you here is the familiar sight of Levantine-style houses, very similar to the kind you might see in the Izmir district of Alsancak. And the pride of Pula, a well-preserved arena from the Roman era with a seating capacity of twenty thousand, has survived to our day.
A must-see on the Istra Peninsula is Rovinj, which is reminiscent of a quintessential Italian port city. A cathedral with giant towers, picture-pretty historic houses, and tiny green islands in the bay are just a few of the features that distinguish this patch of landscape. And losing oneself in the narrow streets of this port city whose people make their living from fishing is pure pleasure.
THE DALMATIAN COAST
After the Istra Peninsula comes the Dalmatian coast. Dalmatia is the name of Croatia’s 375-kilometer coastal strip on the Adriatic. Roman ruins, medieval architecture, inviting beaches, fishermen’s harbors, and the ferryboats plying back and forth between the islands make up this, Croatia’s most touristic region. Zadar, our first stop here, is an old city that has endured aggression throughout history due to its strategic position. Strolling among Zadar’s large number of Roman ruins and monumental Christian structures takes you on a virtual tour of the western religions. You will also enjoy watching the ferryboats that depart from Zadar for Dalmatia’s other islands and coasts. In the period of Chairman Tito, himself a Croatian, these cruises were the most popular in Eastern Europe.
Our second stop in Dalmatia is the large and major city of Split. You may be content merely to tour the historic sector of Split, which has the appearance more of an industrial city. The Emperor Diocletian’s palace is here, an imposing structure built in the 3rd and 4th centuries and a site on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
DUBROVNIK: “A PLACE IN PARADISE”
Finally we come to Dubrovnik, the southernmost point of the Dalmatian coast and therefore of Croatia. An hour by air from Zagreb, Dubrovnik has two sectors worth seeing: the medieval city within the defense walls, and the modern city outside.
The city of Dubrovnik has been described in glowing terms in the narratives of various western thinkers and famous literary figures such as Lord Byron, Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw. Shaw dubs the city “a place in paradise”. And Dubrovnik’s marble-paved streets and staircases, its fountains and palaces - each a work of art in its own right, its churches and monasteries, all surrounded by the city walls, are truly almost too magnificent to be true. With no exaggeration, this city is a living medieval town, all of whose buildings are still in use and open to the public. That they preserve these features and have not been destroyed, despite the fact that they are not for looks only but that living people carry on their everyday lives in them, is astonishing in the strongest sense of the word. To climb the city walls and observe its life from above, to try to picture history in the mind’s eye, to lose oneself in the distance as if waiting for ships to return from a Mediterranean voyage, snatches a person away from the quotidian and plunges him into the depths of history.
THE ISLANDS OF KORCULA AND HVAR
Two full days may suffice for getting to know Dubrovnik. For those who want to discover the islands of the Dalmatian region, or vacation by the sea, two islands can be recommended: Korcula and Hvar. The famed traveler Marco Polo was born on Korcula, and a tower said to have belonged to him there is open to visitors. Hvar meanwhile is touted as Croatia’s sunniest spot. These Adriatic islands are unique for genuine relaxation and tranquility, ready to embrace visitors with their avenues virtually purged of traffic, their narrow streets conjuring up the depths of history, and the myriad tastes of the Mediterranean, mainly its fish, and its endless shades of blue.
You’ll feel you’re in the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Central Europe in Croatia, perhaps in all of them at once. Besides a sunny climate and bounteous nature, it offers friendly people, cities and coastlines just waiting to be discovered and holiday options to fit every budget -- all inviting you to make their acquaintance.