MULTICOUNTRY RIVER CRUISES elegantly reconcile our lust for the culturally rich, interactive vacation with an escape dedicated to unhurried leisure in sumptuous surroundings. Perhaps the biggest luxury built into the river cruise experience, however: You can leave the logistical issues to the professionals and instead concentrate on how you choose to experience each destination. Options include historic sightseeing, a hike or bike tour or grabbing a table at an outdoor café to drink in the locale through people-watching and window shopping.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that Eastern European itineraries are hotter than ever, thanks to the many options such opulent Old World port cities like Prague and Budapest offer. Croatia, however, proves unique because it integrates several facets of Eastern and Western European culture due to its history as a political and economic crossroads. These range from the Roman Empire to its years as Venetian territory (1420–1797), an Austro-Hungarian kingdom (1867–1917) and part of the former Yugoslavia.
What makes this Croatian quilt even more impressive is its recovery from 20th-century wars and political turmoil to emerge in the 21st century with much of its architectural, artistic and culinary assets intact. Dubrovnik perhaps remains the most prominent of Croatia’s Adriatic cities because of its enduring reputation as one of the continent’s great beachfront playgrounds. But those wanting to avoid crushing crowds will delight in knowing other waterfront communities to the north fulfill the river cruise vacation’s promise: to enable one to discover a destination on one’s own terms and pace.
Thanks to a little television series called Game of Thrones, Split picked up momentum a few years ago. With the show wrapped and fan pilgrimages waning a bit, all visitors get to appreciate everything that made it Venice’s lushly landscaped backyard, from the sweeping expanse of Diocletian’s Palace (which appeared in the show) and several jewel box-sized museums (Ethnographic Museum, Split City Museum) to waterfront gin-and-tonic destination Brasserie No.7 and the Marcvs Marvlvs Library Jazz Bar, created by Argentine-born Croatian Tin Bokanić. Though it initially got on the map as a GOT backdrop, it stands on its own with a nicely curated list of Croatian wines, live and DJ music and the cool owner’s presence.
If a visit to Split lasts just a day or two, spend your time wandering around town to see history and a pan-cultural landscape come to life between sphinx statues, churches and a grand old city clock with 24 digits. Beaches, boardwalks and marinas flow into narrow streets that in turn pour into several large, open-air town squares similar to those in Spanish and Italian medieval towns.
Other hidden gems in Split’s city center include the façade of its old synagogue, a small weekend antiques market on the back end of the palace walls, the imposing Gregory of Nin statue (aka the Harry Potter wizard) and Luca Ice Cream. The latter rivals some of Italy’s best gelaterias with its inventive ice cream and sorbet flavors, rich coffee and fresh pastries.
After getting your fill of Split’s splendor, venture on to other Dalmatian cities including Salona, Polača and Zadar. Explore Roman ruins, medieval castles, cathedrals, terraces, statues and natural wonders. Zadar hosts the Zadar Archaeological Museum, containing relics from the Paleolithic era through the 11th century, and the Zadar City Museum, covering the 13th century to the present day. The Museum of Ancient Glass, located in the former noble Cosmacendi family home, features glassblowing demonstrations as well as sparkling treasures, including glass kitchen objects, medicine and perfume bottles, funerary objects and jewelry.
Trogir, on the small island of Čiovo, earns its UNESCO World Heritage designation through its preserved medieval fortification walls; Renaissance, Baroque and Romanesque buildings; and picturesque bridges connecting it to the mainland. St. Lawrence Cathedral, dating to the 13th century, houses the Renaissance Chapel of St. John bell tower, noted for its breathtaking views.
Wine lovers and gourmands should make time for the many wineries best known for bold expressions of Tribidrag, the ancestral grape of California Zinfandel and Southern Italian Primitivo. One standout winery in Petrčane — Kraljevski Vinogradi (Royal Vineyards) — rolls out like a 19th-century painting … and not only because it occupies an 11th-century monastery whose monks were devoted to viticulture Today its vineyards nurture Dalmatian varietals Pošip, Plavac Mali and Crljenak (another Zinfandel cousin) and perfect backdrops for sunsets. The restaurant, featuring simple, hearty, local fare, serves dinners that prove the perfect foils for its various wine offerings.
With vineyards emerging from Brač Island’s rocky hillsides and a 1903 winery building whose entrance appears to float on the sea on a stormy day, one can expect the wines from Stina Winery (whose name is inspired by the limestone that impacts its wines’ aromas and flavors) to be dramatic. A session inside the sleek tasting area does not disappoint, with flights of Stina Pošip, Plavac Mali Rose and Plavac Mali varietal wines. While Stina’s winemaking operations are outfitted with the latest equipment, the historic legacy of the area’s wine production and century-old “First Dalmatian Wine Cooperative” are nicely preserved.
Osijek, Croatia’s fourth-largest city, lies on the opposite side of the country along the Drava River, which acts as a border between Croatia and Hungary. To say the region feels like a completely different country states the obvious, as it is defined by its ornate-yet-sturdy architecture, streets and a cooler climate. The city radiates out from Tvrda, established during the Middle Ages as an autonomous town. Walls and barracks constructed around its perimeters projected its might to outsiders while maintaining a genteel ambience inside the walls prized by the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s elite.
Key sites in the present-day university town offer a deeper look into its varied history and include Museum of Slavonia, Franciscan Monastery and Church of Elevation of the Holy Cross (or the Church of St. Anthony, as the locals call it). Constructed on top of the remains of a church from the Middle Ages, it was later rebuilt into a Turkish mosque during the Ottoman occupation, 1526–1687. In Osijek’s Upper Town (Gornji Grad), a visit to the Neo- Gothic Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul proves fascinating, revealing a far more ambitious structure than the average neighborhood church. Its 300-foot-high bell tower — Croatia’s tallest building outside the capital city of Zagreb — was constructed at the end of the 19th century. The statement-making structure dominates the urban skyline thanks to its 40 stained glass windows and stonework by noted Viennese sculptor Eduard Hauser.
At this church and elsewhere, pride of place shines through in spite of cracks and bullet holes scarring some of the buildings from the Homeland War that tore up Croatia in the early 1990s. Graceful mansions — including yellow structures which once identified the status of their original owners — are made more inviting through the storefronts of local businesses. These include busy cafés serving beloved national brands Franck coffee and Osječko beer, whose recipe dates to 1664. Restaurants serve traditional or reinvented versions of kulen (sausage), čvarci (fried meat bites), slanina (the local equivalent of bacon), freshwater fish with sides, and fiš paprika (spicy fish and paprika stew). Hit the town square at the right time and you may stumble into a paprika cook-off, offering the rare opportunity to sample different family recipes.
Osijek also boasts 17 parks covering nearly 100 acres. Forests surround the city, including one giving way to Kopacki Rit Nature Park, one of Europe’s best-preserved wetlands. Explore it casually on hiking and walking paths or in a more structured way through tours on bike, boat or horse to view and photograph some of the area’s 260 species of birds, 40 species of fish and more than 140 species of plants.
BOUTIQUE HOTEL TVRĐA
Contemporary art, light fixtures and furnishings make this downtown Osijek inn a stylish nod to the city’s years as a Viennese enclave. Slavonian and Istrian wine selections add to its charm.
Franjevačka ul. 7, Osijek $$$
BROWN BEACH HOUSE
Amsterdam designer Saar Zafrira transformed a former tobacco shipment station into a glamorous 25-room boutique hilltop property with a 1950s Riviera-jet set sensibility, exceptional mixology and stellar views of Trogir.
Put Gradine 66, Trogir $$$$–$$$$$
HOTEL PARK SPLIT
This hotel, opened in 1921, is like stepping into a Jazz Age travel poster with its palm-lined terrace, access to Bačvice Bay beach, glass-enclosed dining area, spa and impeccable rooms and suites.
Hatzeov Perivoj 3, Split $$$$
INFO TO GO
More than a dozen Viking River Cruises itineraries include stops in Dubrovnik, Split and other Dalmatian cities, while Osijek and Slavonia feature on the line’s Passage to Eastern Europe and European Sojourns voyages. Other luxury cruise lines with Croatia stops include Regent Seven Seas, Celebrity, Variety and AmaWaterways.
For those interested in adding a more in-depth pre- or post-cruise stay, Truly Croatia Tours stages customizable land and sea itineraries through Croatia’s cities, villages and wine country. Although no airlines originating from the United States fly directly to Croatia, carriers with efficient routes to Zagreb, Split and other cities include Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Air France, Alitalia, Swiss International Air Lines and KLM.
The family-owned restaurant puts a fresh Catalonian/Spanish tapas twist on the Adriatic food-and-wine experience with flavorful nibbles and generous share plates crafted with seasonal components from area farms, fish- mongers and markets.
Domaldova ul. 8, Split $$$
RESTAURANT KOD RUžE
“The Rose Shop’s” chef, Dražen Čamić, proves Austro-European recipes are anything but stodgy. Game meats, fish, sausage, stews, baked goods and spicy condiments are served with a side of energetic waiters and live music.
Ul. Franje Kuhača 25a, Osijek
UJE OIL BAR
The popular eatery features changing daily specials and expertly wrought charcuterie, cheeses and marinated fish. House-made olive oils and condiments are offered for sale, providing guests inspiration to recreate a Dalmatian- style feast at home.
Dominisova 6, Split $$$
United Airlines’ environmentally friendly efforts lessen the impact on local U.S. communities.
Tribute Portfolio helps friends celebrate Friendsgiving with special stay bundles available through Nov. 30. The limited-time bundles feature locally inspired Thanksgiving dinners and amenities.
TAP Air Portugal is adding 15 new weekly flights from the United States and Canada by summer 2020, a new record for the carrier of 71 weekly flights between North America and Portugal.
Marriott recently announced the purchase of W New York – Union Square. The company paid $206 million for the 270-guestroom property, with intentions to transform the hotel into a better representation of the W brand.
Now, travelers in United Polaris class enjoy complimentary baggage delivery service when flying between Newark (EWR) and London (LHR) and staying at one of five Marriott properties.
Experience a big-city hotel stay that doesn’t feel like your typical urban visit at Chicago’s Claridge House, nestled in the sought-after Gold Coast neighborhood. The hotel’s sophisticated décor and serene residential ambience foster the atmosphere of an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of a busy metropolis.
Believing human connection makes life more meaningful, Kimpton recently launched its Stay Human Project in Europe. As part of the project, the brand transformed one guestroom from each hotel with the aim of using it to help guests connect to each other, themselves and locals. The unique guestroom experiences are currently available for booking in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands until the end of the year.