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With a tangled and complex history of wars, invaders and more battles, all far too complicated to unravel in this short space, the synopsis is that as far back as the 4th century BC, what is known today as Croatia was inhabited by Illyrians. The Celts, Romans, Huns, Ostrogoths and Byzantine Empire all had their hand in the country’s history. Croatia first appeared as a duchy in the 7th century and by the 10th century became a Kingdom. Bitter struggles with the Ottomans occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries and then Hungary and Austria became involved. For most of the 20th century, the country was incorporated into Yugoslavia. Finally this small country in the southeast part of Europe regained its independence in 1991 becoming a democracy. Croatia’s new history is uncluttered since that bloody war and now is as clear and free from warring waves as the gleamming Dalmatian coast’s water.

Starting in the inland capital, on my way to the UNESCO World Heritage Listed historic city of Dubrovnik, Zagreb has always been overshadowed and rivaled by that walled coastal city. But by passing Zagreb would be a mistake.

Far from being ordinary, this busy metropolis of 1 million is so manageable. For a large city, the surprise is to see several inner city green parks, many pedestrian streets and an area that still has an evening lamp lighter for the city centre’s 267 gas lamps. It’s also a Mecca for the arts. Unfortunately, some art is really low level with buildings covered with uninspired, sloppy graffiti.

Mimara Museum, an arts and crafts museum with a large private collection was donated by its namesake family. When it opened 21 years ago this 19th century building was a high school. And now, only part of the massive building is shared with school kids. The other section has over 3750 works of art, all with history and most with religious themes. Caravaggio, Bosch, Rubens, Van Dyck are a few artists but there is also more recent art by Renoir, Degas and Manet.

One would expect The Museum of Naïve Art to be less sophisticated but it is considered a very important segment of 20th century modern art. The artists are untrained and mostly from the northern part of the country in the village of Hlebine. This artwork has produced the Hlebine School. Think Grandma Moses and these simplistic, oversimplified canvases, sculptures and painted glass, express ideas that are extremely evocative.

Zagreb’s Cathedral holds a prominent place – not unexpectedly filled gilt, fine art panels and stain glass windows. I thought a fast walk through would be enough But in fact, it is a great neogothic monument and probably the most famous building in the city

For a country that is known for the unflappable, imperturbable disposition of the people, they seem to find much enjoyment since every month there is a festival ranging from dance and film to street festivals..

As we drove along the long scenic stretch of the Adriatic coast., my guide, Mlanden, proudly stated we would see just a few of the 48 lighthouses built in the 19th century by the long reigning Austro Hungarian monarch, Franz Joseph. Every statement by Mlanden seemed to manifest his great pride as he quickly pointed out that local limestone was used not only for these round structures but on many of the now heritage listed buildings.

Located between Zagreb and Dubrovnik and with close to a million visitors each year, Plitvice Lakes is Croatia’s best known national park. Over 100 years ago, natural scientists were emphasizing the necessity of protecting this beautiful area where 80% is covered by forest. It’s definitely worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage title and the sites with 16 lakes (called the string of sixteen pearls) are interconnected by a series of high waterfalls set in the deep woodland – great living habitats for moss and higher plants. From start to finish, it’s an extremely long walk ending with over 200 stairs to climb. To trick the brain into thinking that this is really a stroll in the woods is to listen to the tweeting of some of the 161 bird species and the rustling of unknown animals hidden in the thicket. Admittedly, I didn’t see any of the animals but I was assured that there are common hares, wolves, foxes, otters, wild boar, red deer, brown bears and lynx along with reptiles and amphibians weasels and nocturnal badgers.

There’s a world of colourful butterflies and birds flying above the lush forest and I actually saw a Peregrine falcon but not one corncrake bird. Walking along the narrow, leaf strewn path were some of the over 55 species of orchids.

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Water falls at the UNESCO listed park, Croatia
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Split, Croatia

Row boats can be rented and in what seemed like a nano second had us on the opposite bank of the small lake by a constantly traversing ferry. There’s an acceptable but not luxurious lodge, Jezero Hotel, for overnighters. And for meals, Licka Kuca restaurant is where most of the meat and veggies are uniquely cooked under a bell over hot coals. Clearly, a nap after the long trek and the endless meal would have been in order, but with the sky becoming darker, that would have meant miss the short trip to the authentic water mills on the River Gacka where the wheat is still ground to flour in the old traditional way.

It was difficult to say no when asked if I wanted to see the museum in memory of one of the country’s hero, Nikola Tesla. The very small village of Smiljan honours the birthplace of world renowned inventorn..

Next stop, Split was well worth the tortuous drive. Another UNESCO World Heritage Protected city, Split goes back 1700 years. The centerpiece is the rectangular Diocletian’s Palace, so named after one of the greatest Roman emperors. This dominant centerpiece was built as his retirement home…some home!! Building this huge edifice took a decade. Any visitor should certainly put aside a few hours to see just part of the building that is in this friendly slow paced city. Although the palace may be crumbling and damp in parts, this mighty site with massive stone blocks, marble columns brought from Greek and Egyptian looted temples, has walls over 2 metres thick.

Football (soccer) is the national sport and Slaven Bilic is a national hero. “Many places in the world are beautiful, but I carry Split in my heart”

Outside on the promenade, Riva, overlooking the Adriatic Sea is a tempting opportunity to relax among the laid back locals at one of a long string of outdoor cafes or shop at the plethora of boutiques set in the ground level of the palace. From what an elegant woman who spoke English very well at the next table told me, this is buzzy place all year round. However, the favourite pedestrian walkway has recently infuriated the residents and I can see why. In front of this wide wonderful area and astonishingly ancient façade are newly placed and extremely gaudy, intrusive and overpowering slanted white iron structures which hold the canopies that obliterates the wondrous façade of Diocletian’s Palace and are as out of place as a flush toilet in the ancient palace.

. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” attitude just isn’t a reality for the Cathedral of St. Domnius, the 7th century. The entrance’s wooden doors are carved from hard walnut and a masterpiece of the Romanesque art with panels that look like an open book of the Life of Christ. The Dome, with Corinthian columns, relief frieze is an architectural triumph. Even local brides replicate their wedding cakes shaped in sugar, of the palace’s bell tower.

In Split, the sea and the sun meet and once there, it’s difficult to leave. On two evenings when we dined at restaurants close to the promenade, the usually calm Mladen was confused and annoyed at the inconvenient tunnel closure without any notice. This was the only straightforward way to get to our hotel in the new part of the city. The few obvious expletives (in Croatian) seemed fair since it took an hour to circle the seaside after going through dark labyrinths of streets and to macho Mlanden’s embarrassment, to ask an inhabitant walking a dog, how to get to the other side of the city. For me it was just a positive since now there was time to see the impressive residential and seriously costly area overlooking the sparkling ocean.

Although getting to Dubrovnik, perhaps one on the world’s best known UNESCO sites. included nausea- making curves and climbs the word captivating was my first impression of this well preserved walled city. The painstaking reconstruction after the earthquake in 1667 was strictly controlled down to the shade of green used on the shutters of the city’s main thoroughfare. The smell of orange blossoms permeated the air, a slight breeze wafted over the open areas from the Adriatic. The no-car restriction make all streets pedestrian zones and even off season, it’s a shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow confrontation with other keen observers. Young students strut their new a la mode, a la Britney Spears style and apparently the meeting place on the main walkway, the Stradum, is at either the statue.

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Zagreb tram, Croatia
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Country side, Croatia

Off one of the main cobblestone shopping streets on a shadowy narrow lane, is the inactive small synagogue. In the past all the Jews were expelled or converted to Catholicism, there is a miniscule community with just a handful of non practicing Jewish families. What has remained is this small 2 storey museum synagogue squished between non- descript buildings on Synagogue Street. The Jews weren’t allowed to have any grand prayer hall and certainly no signage stating what the building was and has now ironically become a popular venue now with bold lettering signs pointing the direction. Up a set of stairs is the first floor filled with Judaica. The second floor is the chapel which is modest. While I was there, at least 20 other tourists were present but the only person available to talk with, was a non English speaking man. At the outdoor café next to the entrance,while having a refreshing cool drink, I watched as visitors looked confused by the modest and hidden doorway thinking they were in the wrong place. I became, until my last sip, the direction guide.

But certainly more well known and popular are the 17th century Cathedral with a treasury of more than 200 reliquaries, the 14th century Church of St. Blaise which survived the 1667 earthquake only to burn down later are only two must sees. This Baroque church’s façade is ornate and with striking stain glass window from the 20th century. But my favourite way to scott this romantic city was a casual walk in early morning before the crowds descended and see the rising sun cast shadows on the cobblestone from the huge stone buildings, stop for a quiet and civilized morning cup of coffee and hunt for a souvenir from Croatia, perhaps a tie, this being the country where they were created.

The poet Byron hit the target by calling Dubrovnik’ The Pearl of the Adriatic’. But George Bernard Shaw said it best– ‘Those who seek paradise on earth should seek it in Dubrovnik.”

Both were right. This Pearl of the Adriatic is like no other city facing the ocean and with fortress walls command attention. And the epitome of tradition are the women who sit on church steps embroidering napkins, table clothes and other items in the traditional Croatian way…slowly, with patience. Croatians have learned these traits well.

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