Over the past few years, every foreigner and his yacht has been taking over parcels of land along the Dalmatian coast, creating a market upswing that’s pushed many locals out of the game. Bicvic, for example, lives with his mum Ruzica and younger sister Branka in a small house in Osijek, an old port town on the bank of the Drava river. He earns no more than £320 a month and says it’s tough finding work.
Bicvic, like many locals, feels the foreign invasion is harming the Croats’ national identity, which they fought so hard to build after becoming an independent state in 1991 as part of the breaking up of Yugoslavia and during the subsequent war with the Serbs.
Yet it’s an upbeat nation. Croats make you feel welcome in their corner of the world and have no qualms with most tourists.
“Tell people from Australia and England to keep coming, I hope you enjoy Croatia,” Bicvic says.
Whether or not the number of foreigners owning property should be curbed, it’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with Croatia and want to claim a piece.
The Adriatic Sea has the most translucent blue water I’ve ever seen, and a hotchpotch of 1185 sunny islands and islets decorate its coastline. From simmering party havens to small rustic hideaways, they offer a mix of sandy strips, medieval villages, lush national parks, heavenly produce and delicious wine, the result of an ancient wine-making tradition.
What makes Croatia even more amazing, is its turbulent history. Many walks of life have passed through, invaded, taken over or attempted to. Venetian, Turkish, Hungarian, Slavic, Austrian, Greek, Islamic, Roman – you name it, they’ve all left their mark in some way, ranging from Roman ruins to traces of Venetian architecture.
It’s the kind of place you’ll leave already planning your return.
If not, a sweet-talking local like Bicvic may plant the seed. “I don’t believe in destiny,” he says, “but if it exists I’d like you to come back one more time.” It’s a corny line, but returning isn’t out of the question.
» Kim Smith sailed Croatia with Eastern Trekker (0845-257 8345; www.easterntrekker.com). A seven-day trip from Dubrovnik to Split (or vice versa) starts at £290.
The second largest city in Croatia, Split is a good springboard from which to sail, but you don’t need more then two days here. There are plenty of market stalls and bustling cafés – the food here is tip-top – to keep you occupied, along with some sights. The most important is Diocletian’s palace, which was built at the end of the third century for the eponymous Roman emperor to retire to and is the reason the city exists.
His swanky pad took 10 years to build, and the 220 buildings within its boundaries still serve as homes to 300 people. There’s also a crop of shops and restaurants.
Take some time to meander down the palm-lined harbour front or visit the Archaeological Museum, north of the town centre. Also keep your eyes peeled for tennis greats Goran Ivanisevic and Mario Ancic, who both live here.
Closed in by walls and forts, the ‘jewel of the Adriatic’ deserves its nickname. Despite being pounded by the Serbs in 1991, it’s the country’s best preserved city.
Wind your way around the city walls which run uninterrupted for 1940m. There are plenty of sights to check out along the way, including the Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, the Franciscan Monastery and Museum, St Claire’s Convent, the Maritime Museum and the Icon Museum.
The best way is to tackle them at your leisure, and keep in mind that the city itself is probably the biggest attraction. This means that watching the world go by from one of the many bars and restaurants along the water or in the town square is perfectly acceptable.
If your time in Dubrovnik is limited, try a walking tour with a local guide – you can’t miss them gathered around Pile Gate, the city’s main access point.
Hop to it
The islands dotting Croatia’s coast are a highlight for most visitors – so much so that the last few years have seen a huge rise in tourism for the area, leading to the country being pegged the ‘second Greece’.
A week-long sail will allow you to stop at four or five islands. Here are some suggestions.
Area: 300 sq km
Loved for its climate – an average of eight glorious hours of rays each day make it one of Europe’s sunniest spots – Hvar has become a fashionable destination for a variety of tourists. Backpackers, celebrities and old European men in neon yellow Speedos all flock to this island, which is easily worth a week of your time.
While you’re there, catch a water taxi or hire a boat to the nearby Pakleni islands, a tiny archipelago of about 20 islets. There are plenty of places to have a frolic in the water or simmer in the sun.
Also set aside some time to explore Hvar town. The main sites include the S˘panjol Fortress, which breaks down the island’s rocky history, the Cathedral of St Stjefan, and the town square, where you’ll find a string of stalls, cafés and bars. The place to be when night falls is Carpe Diem, a hip club full of beautiful people.
Area: 276 sq km
A typical medieval walled city with round defence towers and a bevy of red-roofed houses, Korcula town is where illustrious traveller Marco Polo is said to have been born. You can pay homage to the tripper at his old digs while also visiting the nearby Town Museum, which traces the island’s fascinating history.
If you can, try to catch a Moreska show – a world famous folk dance that used to be performed all over the Mediterranean, but these days is only seen here.
Area: 98 sq km
Famous for its natural beauty and indulgences – white and red wine, olives and goat’s cheese – it’s no surprise Mljet is considered one of the most beautiful islands.
Most of it is covered with a blanket of dark green forest, while the rest is studded with fields and small villages.
It’s an easy island to explore on a moped, and your number one stop should be the national park, where there are two saltwater lakes, one which you have to cross to get to the tiny island of Melita. As well as having a fascinating 12th-century Benedictine monastery, it makes a perfect spot for lunch.
Area: 395 sq km
Made up of two major resorts (Bol and Supetar) and a caboodle of snoozy villages, Brac˘ is only a couple of hours’ sail from Split. Its great peak, Vidova Gora (778m), is the highest of all the islands, but the mountain’s real claim to fame is its splendid stone, which was ferried to the US to be used to build the White House.
If you’re staying in Bol – and you should spend at least a night in this unspoiled hotspot – be sure to visit the famous Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape) beach. Stretched out over half a kilometre, it’s a top sunbathing and windsurfing spot. Cool off at Varadero, an alfresco cocktail bar, when you’re back on the main drag. For some serenity, try Milna and Mirka islands.
Interesting facts about Croatia:
Was founded on the ruins of the Roman Empire.
Has roughly 4.5 million inhabitants, about a quarter of New York State’s population.
Allows drivers to zoom along at 130km/h on some expressways.
Has a healthy collection of naturist beaches to tan your tail.
Was at war with Serb rebels for five years after it announced it was claiming independence
Is football mad. Don’t expect to make many friends by mentioning how Australia booted them out of the 2006 World Cup in round one.
Is famous for its brandy and home-made liquor. Most people have a small glass
before or after each meal.
Is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with traditional views on sexuality, meaning most local homosexuals are
in the closet.
Is where the Dalmatian dog breed comes from. Also known as the Dubrovnik hunter, it originally came from Dalmatia.
Has an interesting wedding tradition. On a couple’s wedding day, the bride’s family may playfully try to stall the groom from arriving at the church by putting different obstacles in his path.
Visit the TNT Croatia Travel Guide.