When English writer Geoffrey Chaucer described April as the welcomed month, ending the drought of March and bringing forth spring flowers and new growth, he might have been talking about Croatia. When I visited the skies had opened up, bathing the land in much-needed rain and returning nature's bounty. Lilacs, narcissus, crocus daffodils and budding fruit trees were lending fragrance to the air. The farmlands were sprouting and the glorious nightingales were celebrating the new season of hope and expectation. At any time of year, this is a destination worth a visit.
It has been 17 years since the fighting in the War of Independence ended, but scars are still visible amidst the new blooming economy and the return of tourism. Bullet-riddled homes and buildings pepper the landscape, even in Zagreb, the country's capital. Some are left as reminders, others have been repaired or are in the process of healing, and still others have been abandoned and are fading slowly into the landscape. More than 12,000 Croatians died in the conflict and 40,000 were wounded.
Croatia is about the size of West Virginia and shaped something like a turkey wing, with the Adriatic's Dalmatian Coast pointing down toward Dubrovnik at the feather tip and Zagreb lying just east of the crook in the wing. The country lies across from Italy, bordered to the north clockwise by Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia. Tucked under the wing is Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro shares a slip of land on the Adriatic. The country is 87 percent Catholic, and English is widely spoken.
I was there to explore the continentally influenced central and eastern regions. This is the breadbasket of the nation, formed between the Danube and Sava rivers, which flood the farmlands on a regular basis, leaving nutrient-rich deposits that over the years have created a deep, rich black topsoil in the Slavonia plain. It grows amazing produce from potatoes to tomatoes, grains to fruits, greens and grasses for animals who graze in the meadows. Delicious cheeses are a result. It's also where the oil deposits are located.
The proximity to the Adriatic provides an abundance of seafood, and the love of pork produces some delicious hard sausages, especially the spicy kulen, which is ubiquitous and hangs from rafters throughout the country. The local farmers markets are filled with produce from these fertile fields.
Nearly a million people live in the capital and surrounding area, one-fourth of the country's population. The nation has the most dynamic economy of any of the post-Yugoslavia countries and is slated to join the European Union in 2013.
Among its more noted accomplishments, Croatia quarried the stone used to build the White House in the United States. The tie (cravat) was invented here along with the fountain pen and the mechanical pencil, and the country's greatest scientist was Thomas Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who has streets dedicated to him all over the country.
Zagreb is a sophisticated city with ornate buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. There are several major museums, a symphony hall and an opera house along with broad squares and avenues. Myriad coffeehouses, cafes and pastry shops offer their wares, and the city is made more beautiful by statuary, an arboretum and manicured parks that make up "the green horseshoe," which spreads in an arch around the city.
I had arrived during the Annual Wine Gourmet Weekend, so thousands jammed the venues over the three-day event, which featured hundreds of vineyards. These sophisticated growers make world-class wine, especially the whites. It is also here that the Zinfandel grape had its origin. It was brought to Italy's southern boot region of Pulia and then transported to America in the mid 1800s, when emigrating Italian winemakers settled in California. It was a secondary grape that never reached its full potential in Europe but was perfected in America.
Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich was one of the winemakers to put America on the map in 1976 at an infamous tasting in Paris, when his Napa white from Chateaux Montelena and Stag Leap's red beat the French in a blind tasting. George Taber, who covered the tasting for the Associated Press and chronicled it in "Judgment of Paris," which became the basis for the movie "Bottleshock," was also in town for the weekend.
My favorite Croatian wine is Grasevina, similar to a dry Riesling, and the beers are Pan, Karlovacko and Osjecko. Croatians are the 15th leading consumers of beer per capita. I had my share at the Bulldog pub in Zagreb. I also enjoyed the fruit brandies, called "Sljivovica."
Thirty minutes from Zagreb was the medieval town of Samobor, where I sampled the Samoborska Kremsnita, a sinfully delicious local dessert. I also dined with Zlatko Puntijar, a restaurant and inn owner who is a compiler of traditional Croatian recipes, many re-created in the restaurant, and who has a collection of 6,000 cookbooks.
Traveling east I visited a number of boutique, medium- and large-size vineyards that were uniformly excellent. In Kutjevo I had lunch at Krauthaker vineyards and was served sarma, a stuffed cabbage in a broth with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an addictive fried bread. That evening I dined at the oldest wine cellar in Croatia, Kutjevo winery.
In Slavonski Brod I tasted the elegant wines of Cikulin vineyards, and in the lovely village house Sobe Tankic the family entertained us with traditional music while we dined on a feast of national dishes that included fish paprikash prepared with red peppers and wine.
Traveling east again through black-soiled fields, I headed for the wine road through the Baranja Hills and the largest vineyard in the area, Belje. I had lunch in the Belje cellar in Knezevi Vinogradi, built in 1526. Their wines are available in the United States at www.belje.hr.
In the nature park Kopacki Rit I had a traditional lunch at Kormoron and in the small village of Karanac visited "the street that time forgot" created by a local family. It is the Croatian version of Plymouth Plantation, with a series of homes designed and fitted as they would have been in past centuries. It was a raw day, and the family treated me to coffee and the traditional dessert, guzvara, a cheese Napoleon made with filo dough and feta.
In the little village of Zmajevac, which is home for migrating storks, I dined and drank in the old Josic wine cellar, which was converted into a restaurant and serenaded by a Croatian mariachi-style band that played familiar folk songs that locals joyously joined. Traditional folk music, dance, costumes and the hair preparations that accompany them are widely appreciated and practiced.
The town of Ilok, Croatia's eastern-most city, suffered quite a bit during the war. Nearby Varazdin was once the capital of Croatia, and next to Prague, its elegant Baroque central square is the most intact in Europe. Unfortunately the Baroque city of Vukovar was heavily damaged, and the scars are still visible. It lies along the Danube across from Serbia. The bombed-out water tower looms over the town as a reminder of war's toll, and a tour of the local cemetery is sobering with all the graves installed between 1991 and 1995.
WHEN YOU GO
In Zagreb I stayed at the Astoria Hotel, www.hotelastoria.hr, and the impressive Palace Hotel, www.palace.hr. In Slavonski Brod I stayed at the Art hotel, www.art-hotel.hr, which lies on the Sava river, the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Osijek, Hotel Osijek, www.hotelosijek.hr, a modern building along the banks of the Danube River.
The kuna is the currency in Croatia, about five to the dollar. The best exchange rates are found at the exchange offices, not the banks or hotels. Tipping is generally 5 percent to 10 percent for restaurants and taxis.
In Zagreb, Korcula restaurant serves some of the best seafood in the area. Also try Pod grickim topom restaurant next to the funicular. Republica is a stunning three-floor art deco restaurant and cafe off Ban Jelacic Square.
In Ilok wine restaurants included Stari Podrum cellar, in Vucedol Silas Goldschmidt and in Varazdin Verglec restaurant and Restoran Palatin. I enjoyed local cuisine at Zlatne Gorice, a country estate that overlooks the vineyards, and I sampled at Principovac Estate winery.
For information on Croatian wines see www.winesofcroatia.com, run by Cliff Rames, sommelier at the Plaza Hotel in New York and of Croatian descent. The Croatian National Tourist Board at www.us.croatia.hr or 212-279-8672 can provide maps, brochures and housing information.