The spectacular coastal regions of Croatia deserve every one of the myriad accolades they receive. High profile destinations like Dubrovnik, Split, Pula and the Dalmatian islands have become firm favourites with the discerning traveller and, with no dearth of history, culture and breathtakingly beautiful beaches on offer, it’s not a surprise. But in your haste to soak up the vistas of the enchanting coastline, make sure you don’t overlook the “inner beauty” of this magnificent country.
One of the great pleasures of my job is introducing my clients to a destination or experience they might otherwise not have known about. When someone comes to me for advice on a holiday to Croatia, I often suggest they consider a self-drive, multi-centre holiday (we can organise everything) including some of the inland resorts as well as the coastal ones. To date, I’ve not received any complaints from those who have taken me up on it. And I’m not expecting any…
Zagreb really is a tale of two cities: the so-called “Upper Town”, where you can step onto its history-laden medieval streets and be transported back through the centuries, and the “Lower Town”, where this quirky, progressive city displays its more contemporary side.
The Upper Town is the historic heart of the capital and it is every inch the charming host, with a wealth of wonderful architecture and cultural attractions. I suggest starting from the lovely central square, Trg Bana Jelacica, then taking a leisurely stroll through the open-air markets. Without even trying you’ll come to the most iconic landmark of the city, the famous thirteenth-century Zagreb Cathedral, whose neo-Gothic twin spires dominate the Gornji Grad precinct.
Other notable historic attractions include the Church of St. Mark (distinguished by its fabulous red and white tiled roof), and the centre of Parliament, Hrvatski Sabor. In terms of museums you’ll have your pick of quite a few, as the city prides itself on its cultural maturity. My top recommendations for old and new art are the outstanding Musej Mimara (for a bit of Renoir and Van Dyck) and the Moderna Galerija (nineteenth- and twentieth-century Croatian art). My personal favourite, however, is the lesser-known Atelier Mestrovich, which showcases the sculptures of the man they call the Croatian Rodin.
Once you’ve paid your respects to the medieval history of the city, the Lower Town is ready to show you its modern face. Explore its beautifully laid out streets and green spaces, as well as its cultural offerings like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the poignant and highly original Museum of Broken Relationships. Tissues at the ready!
Alongside its considerable natural beauty and bucolic charms, the highlight of Brtonigla, in northwest Istria, is the amazing cuisine and wines born from such a fertile landscape and culture. At Prestige Holidays we’ll not only organise you the perfect accommodation on a multi-centre holiday, we can also arrange for a hire car to get you around.
Having the independence of your own wheels means you’ll be able to explore the full potential of Brtonigla’s picturesque vineyards and olive groves – stopping as you like along the way to sample the authentic bounty of the Istrian landscape (easy on the wine tasting of course if you’re the designated driver!).
While of course you can’t try everything (or can you?), my top tasting tips to give you a feel for just how special the gastronomy of this region can be is to visit one of the authentic agriturismi, where you’ll wine and dine at the source. Meals are heavy on seafood and fresh local produce, particularly the humble potato – it’s potato but probably not as you know it! I also suggest trying some of the wood fired specialities (the boškarin is truly mouth-watering) and a selection of the local sheep cheeses, honey and olive oil.
In terms of the wines, the local makers produce some excellent and diverse varietals from grapes yielded from the four different types of soil found in Istria. “4 Soils, 4 Wines” is the region’s catchphrase and you owe it to yourself to at least try a taste of each of the Malvasias you’ll encounter at the local cellar doors.
No matter how many times I visit (and it’s been a few over the past three decades) I never cease to catch my breath at the incredible natural beauty of the UNESCO-listed Plitvice Lakes National Park, just a short hour-and-a-half drive from Zagreb. It’s not for nothing that this is the country’s most visited attraction, but if the idea of rubbing shoulders with too many other tourists worries you, I highly recommend planning to visit the lakes in autumn.
Not only are there far fewer visitors in autumn, but, in my opinion, this is the time of the year the lakes look the most picturesque – with the tawny hues of the turning leaves offsetting the brilliant aquamarine colours of the 16 lakes of the National Park. Serious amateur photographers, take note.
While it’s doable in a day from Zagreb, I always recommend that my clients spend at least two or three in the region to make the most of the experience. Covering 300m², the park’s lush woodland is punctuated by lakes and waterfalls, offering constant head-turning views wherever you go. It’s a bit too big to explore entirely on foot, so the park provides ferries and a little train (included in your ticket) to get you around.
Whether you choose to hike, cycle, horse ride or hitch a ride on the boats and train, if you’re a nature lover, you’ll find a lot to love about this stunning natural park. As someone who’s visited numerous times, my “don’t miss” tip is to follow the signs to the “Big Waterfall” (Veliki Slap), to the lookout that overlooks the massive waterfall – it drops an astounding 70 metres – and take in the jaw-dropping elevated views.