Gems of Europe 2009: Croatia

The country’s rich history provides travelers with a unique vantage point of the Old World and the new

By: By Marissa Tinloy

Gems of Europe

Gems of Europe (2009.10.12) CoverClick here to download a full PDF version of our Gems of Europe supplement.


This country’s vibrant past is one of the many things that makes visiting Croatia interesting and exciting. Spanning back to the seventh century, its history has produced a modern landscape that is brimming with stories to be told, places to be seen and ruins that, simply, aren’t in ruins — they are quite well preserved. As visitors will soon discover, Croatia has emerged from a rich, riveting and, at times, tumultuous history to become a cultural and tourist hub in the modern world.


2009 Gems of Europe: Croatia // (c) 2009


In Dubrovnik, Dalmatia’s southernmost city, the main attraction is the construction of the city itself. Encompassed by 6,363 feet of stone wall that reaches 82 feet at some points, this seaside city looks like a fortress but feels like a charming villa. In the early 1990s, Dubrovnik faced significant damage during the Croatian War of Independence. However, with the assistance of UNESCO and the European Union, the artistic city was quickly and beautifully restored.

Today, Dubrovnik flourishes inside of its impressive wall and equally sturdy ramparts, which date from the 10th century. With a few reinforcements that have been installed over time, the trademark wall stands strong today. For a small fee, tourists can climb it and get a bird’s-eye view of the blue Adriatic and the bustle of the thriving compound. Exploring above and within Dubrovnik’s winding corridors, a person may find themselves overwhelmed by the Old World city, aptly known as “The Pearl of the Adriatic.”

Nearby, the modern city of Split resides in one of the largest and best-preserved Roman palaces, which was built in the third century. Diocletian’s Palace encompasses the bustling port city, making Roman, Renaissance and Baroque architecture part of modern life. For example, in the 15th century, the Renaissance Town Hall on People’s Square was the center of business life and now, in the 21st century, the same picturesque locale functions as the center of daily existence. The Golden Gate and the Peristyle, which is the  interior courtyard of the palace, are must-sees.

The ancient town of Salona, whose name is derived from the salt works in the area — sal means salt in Latin — resides three miles from Split. In the first century, when the Romans built a plethora of amphitheaters, theaters, baths, temples and the like, Salona became one of the most populated city in the mid-Adriatic. Visitors can make the excursion to the old town a day trip, touring impressive baths; the Caesarea Gate, constructed of two octagonal towers with an arch in the period’s popular Roman style; the Forum, which once thrived as the city center; and more.

Guests in Sibenik may find it particularly interesting that the city’s monuments, which include four forts, have Hungarian, Italian, French and Austrian influences; each of these powers ruled the region at some point. Arguably, the city’s most notable sight is the Cathedral of St. James, which was completed by Dalmatian and Italian artists in 1535 and declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. A tour of the Cathedral, including the Door of Lions which supports dual statues of Adam and Eve, the 72 faces lining the arch and the looming, symmetrical facade, makes visitors feel as if they have been transported back in time.

Travelers interested in the region’s fascinating military history will also find Sibenik’s four protective forts captivating. The Forts of St. Anne, St. John and Subicevac surround the city by land, while the Fort of St. Nicholas protects from an island just beyond the entrance to the Sibenik Harbor.

On the Istrian peninsula, which is known for the Mediterranean feel that lingers from its former Venetian occupants, visitors will discover the city of Pula.
Initially, Pula appears as a bustling, modern metropolis but, upon further exploration, travelers discover that it is an epicenter of ruins from the Roman era. The Pula Amphitheater is one of the six largest Roman amphitheaters in existence today. In addition to touring the vast arena, which once held up to 23,000 spectators for gladiator fights, naval battles and the like, modern travelers can attend shows in the now popular concert venue. During the spring and summer months, the ancient venue hosts performances ranging from opera and ballet to rock and film.

Found in the coastal city of Porec, The Porec Museum complements a historic tour of the country, offering visitors a little Old World education to accompany their
explorations. It is housed in a classic Gothic structure and showcases Roman and early Christian archaeology.

The nearby Basilica of Euphrasius, a traditional sixth-century church, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that gives a glimpse of the life of yore. It displays a large collection of mosaics, an octagonal baptistery and a marble ciborium, which is a traditional receptacle for the Eucharist.

Central Croatia
Zagreb, the country’s capital, which emerged out of the famous historical city of Belgrade, is a metropolis where modern entertainment and sophisticated dining abound. At the same time, Upper Town Zagreb, also known as Gornji Grad, reveals an entirely different perspective on the city, literally. The views from this neighborhood’s cozy medieval alleys are breathtaking. Neo-Gothic monuments, such as the Cathedral of St. Stephen, remind visitors that, as Croatia develops, at least part of its rare beauty derives from its rich and complicated past.

With such an abundance of ancient and impressive monuments, it might be easy to forget that what Croatia has to offer is something wholly unique: a terrain for
exploration that is both historically rich and currently developing.