The Croatian Mindset
With Germanic influences in the north and larger-than-life Mediterranean tendencies in the south, Croats aren't completely cut from the same mould. Yet from one tip of the Croatian horseshoe to the other, there are constants. Wherever you go, family and religion loom large, social conservatism is the norm, sport is the national obsession and coffee is drunk in industrial quantities.
Croatia: West or East?
The vast majority of Croats have a strong cultural identification with Western Europe and draw a distinction between themselves and their ‘eastern’ neighbours in Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia. The idea that Croatia is the last stop before the Ottoman/Orthodox east is prevalent in all segments of the population. Describing Croatia as part of Eastern Europe will not win you any friends. Some locals even baulk at the term 'Balkan', given the negative connotations that it carries. They'll be quick to point out that Zagreb is actually further west than Vienna; that the nation is overwhelmingly Catholic, rather than Orthodox; and that they use the Latin alphabet, not Cyrillic.
Despite the different alphabet used, Croatian and Serbian are more akin to related dialects than separate languages. This doesn't stop both sides stressing the differences between them, though. In Croatia in particular, a French style of linguistic nationalism has seen old Yugoslav-era words like aerodrom (airport) dropped from signs in favour of the Croatian-derived zračna luka (zrak means air and luka means port) – but most people still say aerodrom regardless. And should you ask for hljeb or hleb (the Montenegrin and Serbian words for bread, respectively) instead of kruh when you're dining in Dubrovnik, it won't go down well.
In 2014, a petition garnered 500,000 signatures calling for a referendum to restrict the use of Cyrillic on public signs in Croatia. At present Cyrillic is used alongside the Latin script in areas where Serbs make up more than 30% of the population, but the petition sought to increase this minimum to 50%. A court rejected the petition, stating that such a referendum would be unconstitutional. However, in 2015, the city of Vukovar (the war-battered city where Serbs number 34.8%) passed an ordinance exempting itself the need to provide bilingual signs – a move condemned by the Croatian prime minister, president and the Council of Europe.
All of this stands in contrast to the popularity of Serbian turbo folk in Croatia, a type of music frowned upon and avoided during the 1990s war. It seems that ethnic tensions have eased to the point where connecting Balkan elements are again being embraced in some unexpected aspects of Croatian society.
Croatia’s Split Personality
With its capital inland and the majority of its big cities on the coast, Croatia is torn between a more serious Mitteleuropean mindset in Zagreb, Zagorje and Slavonia (with meaty food, Austrian architecture and a strong interest in personal advancement over pleasure) and the coastal Mediterranean character, which is more laid-back and open. Istrians are strongly Italian influenced and tend to be bilingual, speaking both Italian and Croatian. The Dalmatians are only slightly less Italianised and are generally a relaxed and easygoing bunch: many offices empty out at 3pm, allowing people to enjoy the long hours of sunlight on a beach or at an outdoor cafe.
Most people involved in the tourist industry speak German, English and Italian, though English is the most widely spoken language among the young.
Family is very important to Croats and extended-family links are strong and cherished. First cousins tend to be very close and connections are maintained with more distant cousins as well.
It’s traditional and perfectly normal for children to live with their parents until well into their adult life. This extends particularly to sons, who in rural and small-town areas will often move their wives into their parents' home when they marry. The expectation that you'll stay at home until you're married makes life particularly difficult for gays and lesbians, or anyone wanting a taste of independence. Many young people achieve a degree of this by leaving to study in a different town.
Most families own their own homes, bought in the postcommunist years when previously state-owned homes were sold to the tenants for little money. These properties are often passed down from grandparents, great-aunts and other relatives.
Lounging in cafes and bars is an important part of life here, and you often wonder how the country’s wheels are turning with so many people at leisure rather than work. But perhaps it’s all that coffee that makes them work twice as fast once they’re back in the office.
Croats like the good life and take a lot of pride in showing off the latest fashions and mobile phones. High-end fashion labels are prized by both women and men – the more prominent the label, the better. Even with a tight economy, people will cut out restaurant meals and films in order to afford a shopping trip to Italy or Austria for some new clothes. For young men, looking good and dressing well is all part of the macho swagger. Croatian men don't like to lose face by acting stupidly in public, so although they drink, they generally don't drink to get drunk. Most local women don't drink much at all.
The cult of celebrity is extremely powerful in Croatia – the trashy tabloids are full of wannabe celebs and their latest shenanigans.
Manners & Mannerisms
Croats can come across as uninterested and rude (even those working in the tourist sector) and some people find their directness confronting. False pleasantries are regarded as just that – false. Smiles and exhortations to 'have a nice day' are reserved for people they actually care about. The idea of calling a complete stranger 'dear' at the start of a letter just seems weird to them, as does the Antipodean habit of referring to people they've only just met as 'mate'.
This is just the way Croats operate, so don't take it personally. At least you'll always know where you stand. Once you graduate from the stranger category to friend, you'll find them warm, gregarious, generous and deeply hospitable. You might even make friends for life.
Never ask a Croat how they are if you don't want to know the answer. 'Fine' just doesn't cut it. Dalmatians, in particular, are prone to the dramatic: they'll either be full of the joys of life or in deep despair. Either way, if you ask, you'll hear about it.
According to the most recent census, 86.3% of the population identifies itself as Catholic, 4.4% Orthodox (this corresponds exactly with the percentage of Serbs), 4% 'other and undeclared', 3.8% atheist and 1.5% Muslim.
The main factor separating the otherwise ethnically indistinguishable Croats and Serbs is religion: Croats overwhelming adhere to the Roman Catholic faith, while Serbs are just as strongly linked to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The division has its roots in the split of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century. Present-day Croatia found itself on the western side, ruled from Rome, while Serbia ended up on the Greek-influenced eastern side, ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul). As time went on, differences developed between western and eastern Christianity, culminating in the Great Schism of 1054, when the churches finally parted ways. In addition to various doctrinal differences, Orthodox Christians venerate icons, allow priests to marry and do not accept the authority of the pope.
It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which Catholicism shapes the Croatian national identity. The Croats pledged allegiance to Roman Catholicism as early as the 9th century and were rewarded with the right to conduct Mass and issue religious writings in the local language, using the Glagolitic script. The popes supported the early Croatian kings, who in turn built monasteries and churches to further promote Catholicism. Throughout the long centuries of Croatia’s domination by foreign powers, Catholicism was the unifying element in forging a sense of nationhood.
The Church enjoys a respected position in Croatia’s cultural and political life, and Croatia is the subject of particular attention from the Vatican. The Church is also the most trusted institution in Croatia, rivalled only by the military.
Croats, both within Croatia and abroad, provide a stream of priests and nuns to replenish the ranks of Catholic clergy. Religious holidays are celebrated with fervour and Sunday Mass is strongly attended.
Equality in Croatia
Women continue to face some hurdles in Croatia, although the situation is improving. Under Tito’s brand of socialism, women were encouraged to become politically active and their representation in the Croatian sabor (parliament) increased to 18%. Currently 19% of the parliament is comprised of women, and Croatia has a woman president, the first in the country's history.
Women are underrepresented at the executive level, and working women are still expected to perform most of the domestic duties when they return home.
Women fare worse in traditional villages than in urban areas, and were hit harder economically than men after the Homeland War. Many of the factories that closed, especially in eastern Slavonia, had a high proportion of female workers.
Both domestic abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace are quite common in Croatia. Despite signing a 2011 Council of Europe convention aiming to reduce violence against women, at the time of writing, it was yet to be ratified – with commentators pointing to opposition from conservative groups as a reason for the delay.
Although attitudes are slowly changing towards homosexuality, Croatia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with highly conservative views of sexuality. Many gays and lesbians are closeted, fearing harassment or violence if their sexual orientation is revealed. In 2013 a group called U ime obitelji (In the Name of the Family) campaigned for a referendum in which 65% of voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The following year, parliament passed a law creating civil partnerships for same-sex couples, granting partners the same rights as married couples in every aspect but adoption.
In 2017 Croatia was ranked the world's 7th-greatest sporting nation per head of population. Football, basketball and tennis are enormously popular, and sporty Croatia has contributed a disproportionate number of world-class players in each sport.
Football (soccer; nogomet in Croatian) is by far the nation's most popular sport. In 1998, only seven years after declaring independence from Yugoslavia, Croatia's men's team stunned the world by finishing third in the FIFA World Cup.
In 2018 they went one better when the squad, coached by the Zen-like Zlatko Dalić, made it to the final and captain Luka Modrić was awarded the Golden Ball trophy as the best player of the tournament. Although they lost to France, they returned home to the kinds of scenes usually reserved for conquering heroes.
This injection of positivity couldn't come at a better time for Croatian football. Corruption scandals saw Modrić's early mentor Zdravko Mamić, the former director of the Dinamo Zagreb club, flee the country after being sentenced to 6½ years in prison for tax evasion and embezzlement in relation to player transfers. Modrić himself was widely suspected of perjury in his testimony in Mamić's defense.
Fan behaviour has also been a recurring problem, with racist and fascist chants and banners resulting in reprimands for the national team. Matches between Dinamo Zagreb and arch-rivals Hajduk Split regularly result in violence.
Croatia's top-flight footballers play in professional clubs all over Europe. The current golden crop threatens to displace even the legendary Davor Šuker – rated by Pelé in 2004 as one of the top living players – as the biggest name in Croatian footballing history.
Croatia has produced – and continues to produce – some mighty big players, in every sense of the word. The 2001 victory of 6ft 4in Goran Ivanišević at Wimbledon provoked wild celebrations throughout the country, especially in his home town of Split. The charismatic serve-and-volley player was much loved for his engaging personality and on-court antics, and dominated the top-10 rankings during much of the 1990s. Injuries forced his retirement in 2004, but Croatia stayed on the court with a 2005 Davis Cup victory led by 6ft 4in Ivan Ljubičić and 6ft 5in Mario Ančić.
Croatia's top current player (ranked third in the world in 2018) is 6ft 6in Marin Čilić, who won his first Grand Slam title, the US Open, in 2014. The only other Croat listed in the Men's Singles rankings in 2018 was 22-year-old Borna Ćorić.
On the women’s side, Zagreb-born Iva Majoli won the French Open in 1997. Four Croats are currently featured in the Women's Singles rankings: Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, Ana Konjuh, Donna Vekić and Petra Martić.
The Croatia Open, part of the ATP World Tour series, is held in Umag (Istria) in July. However, tennis is more than a spectator sport in Croatia; the coast is amply endowed with clay courts.
The most popular sport after football, basketball is followed with some reverence. The teams of Split, Zadar and Zagreb’s Cibona are known across Europe, though none has yet equalled the Cibona star team of the 1980s, when they became European champions.
The most accomplished skier to have emerged from Croatia is Janica Kostelić. After winning the Alpine Skiing World Cup in 2001, she won three gold medals and a silver in the 2002 Winter Olympics – the first Winter Olympic medals ever for an athlete from Croatia. Aged 20, she also became the first female skier to win three gold medals at one Olympics. In 2002, Kostelić had been plagued by a knee injury and the removal of her thyroid, but this didn’t stop her from winning a gold medal in the women’s combined and a silver in the Super-G at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. In 2007, Kostelić announced her retirement from competitive racing.
Maybe it’s in the genes. Her brother Ivica Kostelić took the men’s slalom World Cup title in 2003 and brought home a silver medal in the men’s combined in each of the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and a silver in the slalom in 2010.
Feature: 'Normal' People
The word ‘normal’ pops up frequently in Croats’ conversations about themselves. ‘We want to be a normal country,' they might say. Croats will frequently make a distinction between rabid, flag-waving nationalists and ‘normal people’ who only wish to live in peace. This is among the reasons why Croatia bowed to international pressure to turn over its suspected war criminals.
Sidebar: Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), the father of the radio and alternating electric current technology, was born in the Croatian village of Smiljan to Serbian parents (his father was an Orthodox priest). Both Croatia and Serbia celebrate him as a national hero.
Sidebar: Etiquette Tips
- Dress modestly when visiting churches.
- Wait to be invited to use a person’s first name.
- Whoever does the inviting (for dinner or drinks) pays the bill.
Sidebar: The Glagolitic Alphabet
The Croatian church once fought with Rome to retain the use of the Glagolitic alphabet, upon which Cyrillic was partially based. It continued to be used on the island of Krk until the 19th century.
Sidebar: The Right to Vote
Croatian women weren't granted the vote until 1945. Following this election, Yugoslavia became a one-party state. Elections continued to be held but the League of Communists selected the candidates; sometimes there was only one name on the ballot.
Sidebar: Croatian Football Stars
The current crop of football stars includes Luka Modrić (who plays for Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić (Juventas), Danijel Subašić (Monaco), Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), Ivan Perišić (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid), Marcelo Brozović (Inter Milan) and Dejan Lovren (Liverpool).
Sidebar: Football Teams
Be like the sporty locals and keep up with Croatian football by following the fortunes of Hajduk Split (www.hajduk.hr), Dinamo Zagreb (www.gnkdinamo.hr) or HNK Rijeka (www.nk-rijeka.hr).
Sidebar: Sandra Perković
The brightest star in Croatian athletics is Zagreb's Sandra Perković, gold-medal winner for women's discus in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. At the time of winning her second gold she was also serving as an elected member of the Croatian Parliament.
After they came, saw and conquered, most of Croatia's conga-line of invaders stuck around long enough to erect buildings. From the walled towns of the coast to the baroque splendour of Varaždin in the north (via Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance palaces and Viennese villas), Croatia's architectural legacy is varied and extremely impressive.
No substantial buildings survive from before the Romans' arrival, but reminders of the 650 years of Roman rule are scattered all over the country: an intact archway in the centre of Rijeka; a turf-covered amphitheatre in Krka National Park; columns from an ancient forum in Zadar.
All of these pale in comparison with what is one of the best-preserved remnants of Roman architecture still standing in the world today: Diocletian's Palace in Split. The emperor moved into this oversized complex when he retired in 305 AD, and although it was converted into a walled town and has been continuously inhabited for nearly two millenniums, some parts are still wonderfully evocative of the era in which it was built. Quite unlike the crumbling ruins we associate with Roman remains, the former Mausoleum and Temple of Jupiter even have their roofs intact.
Croatia's other Roman highlights can both be found in Istria. The remarkable amphitheatre in Pula is Croatia’s answer to Rome's Colosseum. This imposing 1st-century AD arena still has a complete circuit of nearly 30m-high walls and is once again used for public entertainment – albeit of a less bloodthirsty kind than that for which it was built.
After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire eventually took control of parts of present-day Croatia. The greatest surviving architectural treasure from this time is the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, Istria. Built in the 6th century, this early Christian church incorporates layers of older buildings within its walls, and a precious mosaic decorates its apse.
The Slavs arrived in Croatia in the early 7th century, heralding what is known in architectural terms as the Old Croatian, pre-Romanesque period. Not much survives from this time as most of it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. The best remaining examples are found along the Dalmatian coast, beginning with the impressive 9th-century St Donatus' Church in Zadar, built on the ruins of the Roman forum. It has a round central structure, unique for late antiquity, and three semicircular apses.
Two other considerably smaller, but similarly curvaceous, churches survive nearby. The 11th-century Holy Cross Church in Nin has a cross-shaped plan, two apses and a dome above the centre point. Just outside of Nin, teensy St Nicholas' is a postcard-perfect fortresslike stone church perched atop a small hill.
Gothic & Renaissance
The Romanesque tradition of the Middle Ages, with its semicircular arches and symmetrical forms, persisted along the coast long after the pointy-arched Gothic style had swept the rest of Europe. In the 13th century the earliest examples of Gothic were still combined with Romanesque forms. The most beautiful work from this period is the portal of St Lawrence's Cathedral in Trogir, carved by the master artisan Radovan in 1240. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Zagreb was the first venture into the Gothic style in northern Croatia. Although the cathedral has been reconstructed several times, the remnants of 13th-century murals are still visible in the sacristy.
The late-Gothic period was dominated by the builder and sculptor Juraj Dalmatinac, who was born in Zadar in the 15th century. His most outstanding work was Šibenik’s St James' Cathedral, which marked a transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance period. Dalmatinac constructed the church entirely of stone, and adorned its outer walls with a wreath of realistically carved portraits of local people. Another beauty from this period is the 15th-century St Mark’s Cathedral in Korčula.
The Renaissance flourished in Croatia, especially in independent Ragusa (Dubrovnik). By the second half of the 15th century, Renaissance influences (harking back to ancient Roman architecture) were appearing on late-Gothic structures. The Sponza Palace is a fine example of this mixed style. By the mid-16th century, Renaissance features began to replace the Gothic style in the palaces and summer residences built in and around Ragusa by the wealthy nobility. Unfortunately, much was destroyed in the 1667 earthquake.
Baroque to Brutalism
Northern Croatia is well known for the baroque style, which was introduced by Jesuit priests in the 17th century. The city of Varaždin was a regional capital in the 17th and 18th centuries, which, because of its location, enjoyed a steady interchange of artists, artisans and architects with northern Europe. The combination of wealth and creativity eventually led to Varaždin becoming Croatia's foremost city of baroque art. You’ll notice the theatrical, sometimes frilly style in the elaborately restored houses, churches and especially the impressive castle.
In Zagreb, fine examples of the baroque style are found in the Upper Town, including the Jesuit Church of St Catherine and the restored mansion that is now the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art. Wealthy families built their baroque mansions in the countryside around Zagreb, including at Brezovica, Miljana, Lobor and Bistra.
The influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is also on display in the capital, particularly in the grand neoclassical public buildings, but also in smaller art nouveau apartments and townhouses. Other examples are the former governor's palace in Rijeka and the holiday mansions of the Viennese elite scattered around neighbouring Opatija and some of the nearby islands.
During the modernist period, Croatian architecture fell in sync with the International Style. The socialist period saw many highly sophisticated and aesthetically mature examples of residential and civic architecture produced, particularly in planned suburbs such as Novi Zagreb. However, the more brutalist concrete structures, once seen as futuristic and modern, aren't to everyone's taste and many have been left to decay. Sadly, the sepia-tinged nostalgia surrounding 1970s Yugoslavia hasn't extended to preserving the wonderfully evocative hotels of the period.
Sidebar: Cathedral of St Domnius
The Cathedral of St Domnius in Split (built as the 3rd century transitioned into the 4th) is the oldest cathedral building in the world, thanks to it inhabiting the original mausoleum of the Emperor Diocletian.
Sidebar: St James' Cathedral
St James' Cathedral in Šibenik (built 1431–1536) is the only building of its time that was constructed using the technique of mounting prefabricated stone elements.
Sidebar: The Croatian Pleter
The first distinctively Croatian design was pleter (plaited ornamentation), which appeared around AD 800. Resembling the interlaced squiggles found on Celtic crosses and in medieval manuscripts, pleter features on church entrances and furniture from the early medieval (Old Croatian) period.
Sidebar: Architecture Today
Today's Croatia has a vibrant architecture scene. In the rebuilding that followed the 1990s war, numerous open competitions were organised and young architects were given an opportunity to show their talents. Some of the more important examples of their work are the Gymnasium in Koprivnica and Hotel Lone in Rovinj.
Croatia views itself very much as a cultured central European nation, steeped in the continent's finest artistic traditions and imbued with its own unique folk styles, but equally unafraid of the avant-garde. Even if they're virtually unknown elsewhere, local artists are highly regarded at home.
The Croatian language developed in the centuries following the great migration into Slavonia and Dalmatia. In order to convert the Slavs to Christianity, 9th-century Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius learnt the language and put it into writing. This became known as Glagolitic script. The earliest known example is an 11th-century inscription in a Benedictine abbey on the island of Krk.
Poets & Playwrights
The first literary flowering in Croatia took place in Dalmatia, which was strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The works of the scholar and poet Marko Marulić (1450–1524), from Split, are still venerated in Croatia. His play Judita was the first work produced by a Croatian writer in his native tongue. The plays of Marin Držić (1508–67), especially Dundo Maroje, express humanistic Renaissance ideals and are still performed, especially in Dubrovnik. The epic poem Osman, by Ivan Gundulić (1589–1638), celebrated the Polish victory over the Turks in 1621, a victory that the Dubrovnik-based author saw as heralding the destruction of Ottoman rule.
The most significant figure in the period after the 1990s war was the lyrical and sometimes satirical Vesna Parun. Although Parun was often harassed by the government for what they considered decadent and bourgeois poetry, her published work Collected Poems has reached a new generation, which finds solace in her vision of wartime folly.
Croatia’s towering literary figure is 20th-century novelist and playwright Miroslav Krleža (1893–1981). Always politically active, Krleža broke with Tito in 1967 over the writer’s campaign for equality between the Serbian and Croatian literary languages. Depicting the concerns of a changing Yugoslavia, his most popular novels include The Return of Philip Latinowicz (1932) and Banners (1963–65), a multivolume saga about middle-class Croatian life at the turn of the 20th century.
Mention should also be made of Ivo Andrić (1892–1975), who won the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature for his Bosnian historical trilogy The Bridge on the Drina, Bosnian Chronicle and Gospođica. Born as a Catholic Croat in Bosnia, the writer used the Serbian dialect and lived in Belgrade, but identified himself as a Yugoslav.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, by Slobodan Novak (1924–2016), was originally published in Yugoslavia in 1968, and has been translated into English. The book is set on the island of Rab, where an elderly lady is dying, and her carer – the narrator – reminisces about life, love, the state, religion and memory.
Some contemporary writers have been strongly marked by the implications of Croatian independence. Goran Tribuson uses the thriller genre to examine the changes in Croatian society after the war. In Oblivion, Pavao Pavličić uses a detective story to explore the problems of collective historical memory. Canadian-based Josip Novakovich’s work stems from nostalgia for his native Croatia. His most popular novel, April Fool’s Day (2005), is an absurd and gritty account of the recent wars that gripped the region. Slavenka Drakulić writes novels and essays that are often politically and sociologically provocative, and always witty and intelligent; look out for How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992) and Café Europa: Life After Communism (1999).
Expat writer Dubravka Ugrešić has been a figure of controversy in Croatia and is acclaimed elsewhere. Now living in the Netherlands in self-imposed exile, she is best known for her novels The Culture of Lies (1998) and The Ministry of Pain (2006). In 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Neustadt Prize Laureate.
Miljenko Jergović, born in Sarajevo but living in Croatia, is a witty, poignant writer whose Sarajevo Marlboro (1994) and Mama Leone (1999) powerfully describe the atmosphere in prewar Yugoslavia.
By far the most prominent person in the Croatian film industry is Branko Lustig (b 1932), winner of Academy Awards for producing both Schindler's List and Gladiator. Born in Osijek to Croatian Jewish parents, he survived Auschwitz as a child and went on to work for state-owned Jadran Film alongside the likes of director Branko Bauer (1921–2001).
Another luminary is writer and director Veljko Bulajić, whose debut movie Vlak bez voznog reda (Train Without a Timetable) was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1959, while Bitka na Neretvi (Battle of Neretva) was nominated for an Academy Award 10 years later.
Bosnian born and of Montenegrin descent but based in Croatia throughout his career, Dušan Vukotić (1927–1998) won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1961 for Surogat.
More recently, Vinko Brešan’s Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku (How the War Started on My Island; 1996) and Maršal (Marshal Tito’s Spirit; 1999) were massively popular in Croatia. Goran Rušinović’s stylish Mondo Bobo (1997) was the first independent feature film made in Croatia, while his Buick Riviera (2008) went on to win awards at the Pula and Sarajevo film festivals.
Although Croatia has produced many fine classical musicians and composers, its most original musical contribution lies in its rich tradition of folk music. This music reflects a number of influences, many dating back to the Middle Ages when the Hungarians and the Venetians vied for control of the country. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was born near a Croat enclave in Austria and his compositions were strongly influenced by Croatian folk songs.
The instrument most often used in Croatian folk music is the tamburica, a three- or five-string long-necked lute that is plucked or strummed. Introduced by the Turks in the 17th century, the instrument rapidly gained a following in eastern Slavonia and came to be closely identified with Croatian national aspirations. Tamburica music continued to be played at weddings and local festivals during the Yugoslav period, too.
Vocal music followed the klapa tradition. Translated as ‘group of people’, klapa is an outgrowth of church-choir singing. The form is most popular in Dalmatia, particularly in Split, and can involve up to 10 voices singing in harmony about love, tragedy and loss. Traditionally the choirs were all-male, but now women are getting involved, although there are very few mixed choirs.
Another popular strain of folk music, which is strongly influenced by music from neighbouring Hungary, emanates from the region of Međimurje in northeastern Croatia. The predominant instrument is a citura (zither). The tunes are slow and melancholic, frequently revolving around themes of lost love. New artists have breathed life into this traditional genre, including Lidija Bajuk and Dunja Knebl, female singers who have done much to resuscitate the music and gained large followings in the process.
Pop, Rock & the Rest
There’s a wealth of home-grown talent in Croatia’s pop and rock music scene. One of the most prominent bands is Hladno Pivo (Cold Beer), who play energetic punky music with witty, politically charged lyrics. Then there’s the indie rock band Pips, Chips & Videoclips, whose breakthrough single ‘Dinamo ja te volim’ (Dinamo, I Love You) referred to Tuđman’s attempts to rename Zagreb’s football team, but whose music has generally been apolitical since.
The band Gustafi sings in the Istrian dialect and mixes Americana with local folk sounds, while the deliciously insane Let 3 from Rijeka is (in)famous for its nutty tunes and live performances at which the band members often show up naked, with only a piece of cork up their backsides (yes, really). TBF (The Beat Fleet) is Split’s answer to hip hop, using Split slang to talk about current issues, family troubles, heartbreak and happy times. Flying the flag for Croatian women in hip hop is Mirela Priselac Remi from Zagreb's Elemental.
The fusion of jazz and pop with folk tunes is very popular in Croatia. One of the more prominent names in this scene is talented Tamara Obrovac from Istria, who sings in an ancient Istrian dialect that is no longer spoken.
The Croatian queen of pop is Severina, famous for her good looks and eventful personal life, which is widely covered by local celebrity and gossip magazines. Gibonni is another massively popular singer, and his major influence is Oliver Dragojević, a legendary singer of lovable schmaltz who died of cancer in 2018. In 2017 the two collaborated on Familija, which won the Album of the Year gong in Croatia's Porin awards.
Painting & Sculpture
The painter Vincent of Kastav was producing accomplished church frescos in Istria during the 15th century. The small St Mary's Church near Beram contains his work, most notably the Dance of Death. Another notable Istrian painter of the 15th century is John of Kastav, who has left frescos throughout Istria, mostly in the Slovenian part.
Many artists born in Dalmatia were influenced by, and in turn influenced, Italian Renaissance style. The sculptors Lucijan Vranjanin and Frano Laurana, the miniaturist Julije Klović and the painter Andrija Medulić left Dalmatia while the region was under threat from the Ottomans in the 15th century and worked in Italy. Museums in London, Paris and Florence contain examples of their work, but few of their creations remain on display in Croatia.
Vlaho Bukovac (1855–1922) was the most notable Croatian painter of the late 19th century. After working in London and Paris, he came to Zagreb in 1892 and produced portraits and paintings on historical themes in a lively style. Early-20th-century painters of note include Miroslav Kraljević (1885–1913) and Josip Račić (1885–1908), but the most internationally recognised artist was the sculptor Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962), who created many masterpieces on Croatian themes. Antun Augustinčić (1900–79) was another internationally recognised sculptor, whose Monument to Peace is outside New York’s UN building. A small museum of his work can be visited in the town of Klanjec, north of Zagreb.
Post-WWI artists experimented with abstract expressionism, but this period is best remembered for the naive art that began with the 1931 Zemlja (Soil) exhibition in Zagreb, which introduced the public to works by Ivan Generalić (1914–92) and other peasant painters. Committed to producing art that could be easily understood and appreciated by ordinary people, Generalić was joined by painters Franjo Mraz (1910–81) and Mirko Virius (1889–1943), and sculptor Petar Smajić (1910–85) in a campaign to gain acceptance and recognition for naive art.
Abstract art infiltrated the postwar scene. The most celebrated modern Croatian painter is Edo Murtić (1921–2005), who drew inspiration from the countryside of Dalmatia and Istria. In 1959 a group of artists – Marijan Jevšovar (1922–88), Ivan Kožarić (b 1921) and Julije Knifer (1921–2004) – created the Gorgona group, which pushed the boundaries of abstract art. Ðuro Pulitika (1922–2006), known for his colourful landscapes, was a well-regarded Dubrovnik painter, as were Antun Masle (1919–67) and Ivo Dulčić (1916–75).
The post-WWII trend towards avant-garde art has evolved into installation art, minimalism, conceptualism and video art. Contemporary Croatian artists worth seeing include Lovro Artuković (b 1959), whose highly realistic painting style is contrasted with surreal settings, and video artists Sanja Iveković (b 1949) and Dalibor Martinis (b 1947). The multimedia works of Andreja Kulunčić (b 1968), the installations of Sandra Sterle (b 1965) and the video art of Zagreb-based Renata Poljak (b 1974) are attracting international attention. The performances of Dubrovnik-born multimedia artist Slaven Tolj (b 1964), including his installations and video art, have received international acclaim. Lana Šlezić (b 1973) is a Toronto-based photographer whose excellent work is often shot in Croatia.
Feature: Recommended Folk Recordings
- Croatie: Music of Long Ago is a good starting point as it covers the whole gamut of Croatian music.
- Lijepa naša tamburaša is a selection of Slavonian chants accompanied by tamburica (lute).
- Omiš 1967–75 is an overview of klapa (Dalmatian a capella) music.
- Pripovid O Dalmaciji is an excellent selection of klapa in which the influence of church-choral singing is especially clear.
Feature: Folk Dances
Look out for the drmeš, a kind of accelerated polka danced by couples in small groups. The kolo, a lively Slavic round dance in which men and women alternate in the circle, is accompanied by Roma-style violinists. In Dalmatia, the poskočica is also danced by couples creating various patterns.
Like folk music, Croatian traditional dances are kept alive at local and national festivals. The best is the International Folklore Festival in Zagreb in July. If you can’t make it to that, not to worry: music and folklore groups work on a circuit in the summer, hitting most coastal and island towns at one point or another. Ask at a local tourist office for a current schedule.
Sidebar: Greatest Poets
Ivan Gundulić (1589–1638), from Ragusa (Dubrovnik), is widely considered to be the greatest Croatian poet. A more recent contender for the title is Tin Ujević (1891–1955), whose work remains extremely popular today.
Sidebar: Female Writers
Award-winning writer Dubravka Ugrešić and four other female writers were accused of being ‘witches’ for not wholeheartedly supporting the Croatian war for independence.
Sidebar: Vedrana Rudan's Night
Vedrana Rudan’s novel Night (2004) perfectly illustrates the strong language and controversial antipatriarchal themes that are often ruffling feathers in the Croatian literary establishment.
Sidebar: Famous Croatian Actors
On the world stage, Croatia's most famous actors are Mira Furlan (Babylon 5, Lost) and Goran Višnjić (ER, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Actors of Croatian heritage include John Malkovich, Eric Bana (born Banadinović) and Joe Manganiello.
Sidebar: Croatian Nirvana
Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic was born in California to Croatian parents and spent part of his teenage years living in Zadar. Also of Croatian heritage is New Zealand's pop megastar Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O'Connor); in 2017 she announced that she had been awarded Croatian citizenship.
Sidebar: Cultural Events
For a thorough rundown of cultural events in Croatia, check out the informative www.culturenet.hr.
The Natural Environment
Croatia is shaped like a boomerang, curving from the fertile farmland of Slavonia in the north, down through hilly central Croatia to the Istrian peninsula, and then south through Dalmatia along the rugged Adriatic coast. Most visitors focus their attention on the narrow coastal belt at the foot of the Dinaric Alps and the numerous gorgeous islands just offshore, but there's a whole lot more natural beauty to explore back up the boomerang.
Karst Caves & Waterfalls
Croatia’s most outstanding geological feature is the prevalent, highly porous limestone and dolomitic rock called karst, which stretches along the coast and covers large parts of the hinterland. Karst is formed by acidic water dissolving the surface limestone, which then allows the water to seep into the harder layer underneath. Eventually the water forms underground streams, carving out fissures and caves before resurfacing, disappearing into another cave and eventually emptying into the sea.
Caves and springs are common features of karstic landscapes, which explains Croatia’s Pazin Chasm, Plitvice Lakes and the Krka waterfalls, as well as the Manita Peć cave in Paklenica. When the limestone collapses, a kind of basin (known as polje) is formed. These are then cultivated, despite the fact that this kind of field drains poorly and can easily turn into a temporary lake.
When the Yugoslav federation collapsed, eight of its finest national parks ended up in Croatia. The national parks cover 1.3% of the country and have a total area of 961 sq km, of which 742 sq km is land and 219 sq km is water. Around 8% of Croatia is given over to its protected areas, including nature parks and the like. The fantastic Parks of Croatia (www.parkovihrvatske.hr) website lists all 19 national and nature parks in Croatia.
On the Mainland
By far the most popular of the eight national parks is Unesco World Heritage–listed Plitvice Lakes National Park, near the Bosnian border, midway between Zagreb and Zadar. Its chain of exquisitely picturesque lakes and waterfalls were formed by mosses that retained calcium carbonate as river water rushed through the karst. The falls are at their watery best in spring. The park's popularity comes at a price though: the main paths get terribly congested in the peak months.
Krka National Park is an even more extensive series of lakes and waterfalls set along the Krka River, north of Šibenik. The main access point is Skradinski Buk, where the largest cascade covers 800m. Like Plitvice, this part of the park can get uncomfortably crowded in July and August, but there are many stretches that are more peaceful. The park also includes important cultural relics in the form of a Serbian Orthodox and a Roman Catholic monastery.
The dramatically formed karstic gorges and cliffs make Paklenica National Park, along the Adriatic coast near Zadar, a rock-climbing favourite. Large grottoes and caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites make it an interesting park for cave explorers, and there are many kilometres of hiking trails. Tourist facilities are well developed but there are large tracts of wilderness.
At the other end of the same mountain range, rugged Northern Velebit National Park is a patchwork of forests, peaks, ravines and ridges that backs the coast on the mainland opposite the island of Rab.
Risnjak National Park, northeast of Rijeka, is the most untouched forested park, partly because the climate at its higher altitudes is somewhat inhospitable, with an average temperature of 12.6°C in July. The winters are long and snowy, but when spring finally comes in late May or early June, everything blooms at once. The park has been kept deliberately free of tourist facilities, with the idea that only mountain lovers need venture this far. The main entrance point is the motel and information facility at Crni Lug.
On the Islands
The Kornati Islands consist of 140 sparsely vegetated, uninhabited islands, islets and reefs scattered over 300 sq km, 89 of which are included in the Kornati National Park. The unusual form and extraordinary rock formations of the islands make them an Adriatic highlight. Unless you have your own boat, you’ll need to join an organised tour from Zadar or other places nearby.
Mljet National Park, on the northwestern half of the island of the same name, incorporates two highly indented saltwater lakes surrounded by lush vegetation. Maquis shrubland is thicker and taller on Mljet than nearly anywhere else in the Mediterranean, which makes it a natural refuge for many animals.
The Brijuni Islands are the most cultivated national park, as they were developed as a tourist resort in the late 19th century. They were the getaway paradise for Tito and now attract the glitterati and their yachts. Most of the animals and plants were introduced, but the islands are lovely. Access to the islands is restricted – you can only visit on an organised tour.
Of the 59 mammal species present in Croatia, seven are listed as vulnerable: the garden dormouse and six species of bat. Red and roe deer are plentiful in the dense forests of Risnjak National Park, and there are also chamois, brown bears, wild cats and ris (Eurasian lynx), from which the park gets its name. Rarely, a grey wolf or wild boar may appear. Plitvice Lakes National Park, however, is an important refuge for wolves. The rare Eurasian otter is also protected in Plitvice Lakes National Park, as well as in Krka National Park.
Two venomous snakes are endemic in Paklenica: the nose-horned viper and the European adder. The nonvenomous leopard snake, the four-lined snake, the grass snake and the snake lizard can be found in both Paklenica and Krka National Parks.
The waters around the islands of Lošinj and Cres are home to the Adriatic's only known resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. Striped dolphins and basking sharks are sometimes also sighted here. A centre devoted to rehabilitating injured loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles has been set up in Mali Lošinj.
The country’s richest plant life is found in the Velebit Range, part of the Dinaric Alps, which provides the backdrop to the central Dalmatian coast. Botanists have counted around 2700 species and 78 endemic plants there, including the increasingly threatened edelweiss. Risnjak National Park is another good place to find edelweiss, along with black vanilla orchids, lilies and hairy alpenroses, which look a lot better than they sound. The dry Mediterranean climate along the coast is perfect for maquis, a low brush that flourishes all along the coast, but especially on the island of Mljet. You’ll also find oleander, jasmine and juniper trees along the coast, and lavender is cultivated on the island of Hvar. Mediterranean olive and fig trees are also abundant.
The lack of heavy industry in Croatia has had the happy effect of leaving its forests, coasts, rivers and air generally fresh and unpolluted. An increase in investment and development, however, brings problems and threats to the environment.
With the tourist boom, the demand for fresh fish and shellfish has risen exponentially. The production of farmed sea bass, sea bream and tuna (for export) is rising substantially, resulting in environmental pressure along the coast. Croatian tuna farms capture the young fish for fattening before they have a chance to reproduce and replenish the wild-fish population.
Coastal and island forests face particular problems. First logged by Venetians to build ships, then by local people desperate for fuel, the forests experienced centuries of neglect, which have left many island and coastal mountains barren. The dry summers and brisk maestral (strong, steady westerly wind) also pose substantial fire hazards along the coast. In the last 20 years, fires have destroyed 7% of Croatia’s forests.
In 2014 the Croatian government called for tenders for gas- and oil-exploration licences in the Adriatic. Two years later environmentalists were heralding a victory for people power, after public pressure led to the government declaring a moratorium on exploration.
The griffon vulture, with a wingspan of up to 2.6m, has permanent colonies on the islands of Cres, Krk and Prvić. Paklenica National Park is rich in peregrine falcons, goshawks, sparrow hawks, buzzards and owls. Krka National Park is an important winter habitat for migratory marsh birds such as herons, wild ducks, geese and cranes, as well as rare golden eagles and short-toed eagles. Kopački Rit Nature Park, near Osijek in eastern Croatia, is an extremely important bird refuge.
Sidebar: Thousand Islands
There are 1244 islands and islets along the tectonically submerged Adriatic coastline, only 50 of them inhabited. The largest are Cres, Krk, Pag and Rab in the north; Brač, Hvar, Dugi Otok and Vis in the middle; and Korčula and Mljet in the south.
Sidebar: Sea Temperature
The temperature of the Adriatic Sea varies greatly: it rises from an average of 7°C (45°F) in December up to a balmy 23°C (73°F) in September.
Sidebar: Environmental News
The website of the Ministry of Environment & Energy (www.mzoip.hr) is the place to go for the latest news on Croatia’s environment.
Sidebar: Nose-Horned Viper
Reaching up to 95cm in length, the nose-horned viper is the largest and most venomous snake in Europe. It likes rocky habitats and has a zigzag stripe on its body and a distinctive scaly 'horn' on its nose. If you're close enough to spot the horn, you're probably a little too close.
From the tip of Istria to dazzling Dubrovnik, Croatia is blessed with one of the most unrelentingly gorgeous stretches of coast in the entire Mediterranean region. The crystalline waters provide a constant presence as the backdrop changes from mountains to walled towns to low-slung islands and back again.
Although it's only about 600km long as the crow flies, Croatia's Adriatic coastline would stretch for 1778km if someone were to iron out all the indentations and unwind the numerous islands. The lure of the clear water and the balmy weather sees literally millions of tourists descend on the beaches each summer, with the peak being during the European school holidays in July and August.
If you're expecting long sandy beaches to compete with Bondi, Malibu or Copacabana, you'll be disappointed. Mostly you'll find pretty little rocky or pebbly coves, edged by pines, olive trees or low scrub. There are some beautiful sandy beaches – mainly on the islands – but the water is often painfully shallow, requiring a lengthy walk to get even your knees wet. It's partly for this reason that the locals tend to prefer the deeper rocky bays.
What is particularly striking all the way along the coast is the clarity and colour of the water, at times seeming almost unnaturally blue or green. Currently there are over 90 Blue Flag–rated beaches in the country (a measure of water quality and environmental standards), with the majority in Istria and the Kvarner region.
Swimmers should watch out for sea urchins, which are common along the coast. The sharp spines are painful to tread on and can break off in your skin and become infected. If you're planning on swimming, you're well advised to wear water shoes, which are easily purchased on urchin-infested beaches.
Croatia is not short of places to let it all hang out, with naturist beaches all along the coast, often accompanied by campsites. Look for the signs reading 'FKK', which stands for Freikörperkultur, meaning 'free body culture' in German. Just don't forget those water shoes!
Croatia's 1244 islands range from little more than rocks poking out of the sea, to large, populated places supporting agriculture and small towns. Two of the biggest, Krk and Pag, are joined to the mainland by bridges, yet they still maintain their own distinct island culture and way of life.
The more popular and populated islands are well served by ferries year-round, although there can be lengthy queues for the car ferries in July and August, and during weekends in June and September. If you're planning on island-hopping at those times, you're better off doing so as a foot passenger and hiring a car or scooter when you arrive. Note that locals only tend to use the term 'ferries' when talking about car ferries; the faster passenger-only boats are generally listed on schedules as 'catamarans'.
For the clusters of smaller islands, such as the Kornatis, organised tours are popular; enquire at travel agencies, tourist offices and marinas anywhere along the coast. Yachties will find themselves in sailing heaven, with plenty of deserted bays on unpopulated islets to seek out. If you've left the yacht at home, it's possible to hire one – either with a skipper or without (provided you have a licence). There are numerous island-hopping package sailing tours available, including some specifically targeted at backpackers.
Since ancient times the people of this coast have encased their towns in sturdy walls of stone as a protection against the attacks that came all too frequently. Although the purpose may have been purely defensive, the end result is spectacular: the sight of these stone bastions rising from the sea is one of the most memorable images of the Adriatic coast. Even when the walls themselves have been largely removed, exposing the nest of medieval streets within, they still make for an impressive sight.
Most people know all about Dubrovnik, but there are many mini-Dubrovniks scattered all along the coast. One of the most magical is Trogir, west of Split, occupying a little islet anchored by bridges to the mainland. Split itself has at its heart an ancient fortress growing out of the remains of a Roman imperial palace – although from the water it's hard to distinguish from the sprawl surrounding it. Šibenik's fortified old town arcs up a hill to an imposing castle, while at Ston the fortifications rise up and over the mountainous terminus of the Pelješac Peninsula.
Historic Rovinj was once an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel that was subsequently filled in – much like Dubrovnik itself. In Zadar's case the walls enclosed the tip of a peninsula – although these days only about half of them remain. The islands, too, have many such impressive sites; the old towns of Cres, Krk, Rab, Pag and Korčula being principal among them.
Apart from all the well-known places, you might find yourself stumbling on your own little walled treasure. Like sleepy wee Osor, watching over the channel separating the islands of Cres and Lošinj. Or pretty little Primošten, jutting out over a rocky shore south of Šibenik.
Do yourself a favour and pack your mask and snorkel – the clear, warm waters and the abundance of small fish make for lots to see. Serious divers will also find plenty to keep them busy, with numerous wrecks (dating from ancient times to WWII), drop-offs and caves. Popular sites include the wreck of the Taranto near Dubrovnik, the Margarita Reef off the island of Susak, the wreck of the Rosa off Rab and around the islands of Brač, Vis, Dugi Otok and Lošinj.