A northern Balkan country that in its current incarnation emerged from the break-up of former Yugoslavia
. Croatia was one of the first two countries (together with Slovenia
) to break away from the federation and in the process it got entangled in parts of the wars that shattered the region during the 1990s – see especially Vukovar
and cf. also Bosnia-Herzegovina
This left various sites that may now be of interest to dark tourists, including both fully commodified memorial sites as well as totally uncommodified, raw war scars and ruins. In addition there are also plenty of places related to earlier dark phases of Croatia, namely during the communist era under Tito, and before that Croatia's rather grim role in WWII, the Holocaust and Nazism (see below). In addition there are a few further sites that are of interest for different reasons.
Here's the list of sites covered on this website, ordered roughly from north to south and east to west:
Obviously there is yet more to discover in Croatia, especially for those searching out the monuments of former Yugoslavia (there are specialist resources and even dedicated guided tours for this – contact me for details!). And those generally into abandoned places have plenty to see here too, including former submarine tunnels (on the peninsula south-west of Šibenik) and ruins of former resort hotels and such like.
Note that the name of the country in Croatian is quite different, namely Hrvatska, hence also the abbreviation “HR” on cars and the Internet country domains (.hr) and of the currency: “HRK”, which stands for Hrvatska kuna (but in spoken language simply “Kuna” is used).
A bit of history:
The territories of today's Croatia changed hands in convoluted ways many times through the centuries, and during most of these Croatia wasn't even a state of its own, but part of larger empires, from the Romans in Antiquity to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of WW1, and after that the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
During WWII, Croatia fell under the spell of Nazism, so to speak. First both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy occupied Yugoslavia, and Italy annexed parts of it (see also Slovenia), especially coastal areas (while other parts in the east were seized by Hungary, itself another Nazi ally). Yet the middle part, including most of the territories now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, became a protectorate state of the Nazis/Fascists, under the grand name of “Independent State of Croatia” ('Nezavisna Država Hrvatska', in Croatian) or NDH for short.
The NDH was led by one Ante Pavelić (see Villa Rebar), who also headed the infamous ultra-nationalist, fascist organization Ustaša, also spelled 'Ustasha' and 'Ustashe'. Despite the 'independent' in its name, the NDH was essentially a Nazi puppet state. Yet Pavelić, who bestowed the title of “Poglavnik” upon himself, meaning 'leader' (just as “Führer” in German), was more than a Quisling.
He and the Ustashe did their utmost in helping Hitler and the Third Reich in the Holocaust, by targeting Jews and Roma, either killing them themselves or handing them over to the Nazis for deportation to their extermination camps. The estimates vary, but it could be that only 10 to 20% of Jews in the NDH survived.
The Ustashe's ultra-nationalism, however, also made another, and even larger section of the population their targets, namely ethnic Serbs (also for religious reasons, as Serbs are predominately Orthodox Christians whereas Croats are mostly Roman Catholics). And, obviously enough, political opponents, including communists, were on their target lists too. Several concentration camps, following the German model, were set up to incarcerate these victims. The very largest and deadliest of these was Jasenovac.
There was also concrete resistance against fascist rule in Croatia. It sparked the formation of a formidable partisan movement which eventually ended up victorious (they also had support from the Allies) towards the end of WWII. The leader of the partisans was one Josip Broz Tito, and after the defeat of the Nazis and the end of WWII, it was Tito, a Croat by birth, who was instrumental in the formation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
This new state united the various ethnic groups and different territories of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia. The state was under a single-party rule, and with Tito at the top it was effectively a dictatorship – though many see Tito as a rather benevolent dictator. He certainly acted cleverly on the international stage, especially through spearheading the formation of the Non-Alignment Movement, by which he managed to side with neither the West nor the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War. Yet the country remained a communist state, albeit with somewhat greater freedoms (e.g. regarding travel) than the USSR and the other Eastern Bloc states.
However, Tito's rule also had its dark sides, and especially after the split from Stalin in the late 1940s, he too adopted repressive methods to quell any pro-Soviet views or anti-communist opposition. These repressive measures were particularly harsh throughout the 1950s. The infamous former political prison island of Goli Otok is testament to this dark side of the Yugoslav regime.
The bright side, the Tito cult of personality (see also the House of Flowers in Belgrade), in contrast, is still held up high on his former “personal” island Brioni, where he hosted a glamorous plethora of heads of state, royalty and celebrities, including Western film stars.
After Tito died in 1980, his unifying power within Yugoslavia evaporated, and indeed over the following ten years nationalist sentiments in the various ethically different constituent parts of Yugoslavia began to re-emerge. At the same time communism in the Eastern Bloc was increasingly losing its grip first in Poland and culminating in the revolutions and overthrowing of the old regimes in the GDR, CSSR, Romania, etc. in 1989, and eventually the collapse of the USSR itself a couple of years later.
The increasingly brittle Yugoslav federation began to break up when Slovenia held a referendum in late 1990 and declared its independence the following summer. The Yugoslav central government in Belgrade was not amused and sent in troops, but after a merely ten-days-long minor war (and some Western intervention) Slovenia was released into independence.
When Croatia followed suit and declared its independence too at roughly the same time (June 1991), it fared far worse, though. Croatia came under full-on attack by the Serbian/Yugoslav military, including even air strikes on Zagreb in October 1991 (see Memorial Centre).
The most destructive battle ensued around Vukovar in the far east Slavonia part of Croatia. Vukovar fell to the Serbs in November 1991, and together with Slavonia large parts of Croatia along its south-western borders as well as Dalmatia in the south ended up de-facto occupied, under Serbian control (as the secessionist Republic of Krajina) and out of the reach of the new Croatian government's influence, even though a ceasefire was achieved by 1992.
This was unstable, though, and intermittent military confrontations continued over the following year, with Croatia eventually making increased advances. Things got more confusing and bewildering to outsiders when Croatia started fighting against Bosniaks within its southern neighbour Bosnia & Herzegovina, while both were still fighting Serbs – see especially Mostar.
Over the next two years outbreaks of fighting followed by ceasefires continued as Croatia was slowly gaining military strength while support for the Serbian Krajina waned. In May 1995, Croatia launched attacks on the Serbian region – to which the other side responded with retaliatory rocket attacks on Zagreb (see, again, Memorial Centre).
The war was eventually ended in 1995 – and Croatia had managed to reclaim most of its territories it had lost in 1991, except for eastern Slavonia (with Vukovar) which was only returned after a three-year transition period supervised by a UN mission. Similarly, Croatian-controlled territories in Bosnia & Herzegovina were also returned to the state of BiH.
While the war, which the Croats refer to as the Homeland War but which is also known as Croatian War of Independence, was over, this did not mean that all ethnic tensions were too. To this day these simmer under the lid of international agreements and peace on the surface, including especially in and around Vukovar, where there are still many ethnic Serbs.
Otherwise, however, Croatia has made significant steps forwards, with reconstruction, democratization, and eventually the county joined NATO in 2009, and the EU in 2013. Economically, tourism is the single most important sector, bringing in a solid 20% of the country's GDP alone (far more than any other). Most of the mainstream tourism takes place on the coast – or just off the coast (nautical tourism). With dark tourism it is the opposite way round – there's more inland than on the coast. This takes us to the general geography of Croatia.
Geography & travel basics:
The odd shape of Croatia on a map is quite distinctive, like a claw wrapping itself around most of Bosnia & Herzegovina ending in the east at the Danube River (which forms the border with Serbia here), and with a long coastline to the west reaching all the way from Montenegro in the south to the small bit of Slovenian coast in the north near Trieste in Italy. This coastline is interrupted only by a tiny little corridor north of Dubrovnik allowing BiH a meagre bit of access to the sea at Neum.
The Croatian coastline on the Adriatic is splintered into countless islands, peninsulas, deep bays and coves and all this is where most of the tourists head for. It's quiet out of season, but in the summer, this is where Croatia gets seriously crowded with foreign tourists. This is one of the reasons why I went in March/April (in 2018), specifically to avoid the masses … and I have no interest in the beach holiday “culture” and its infrastructure anyway.
The hinterland, on the other hand, remains largely out of reach of conventional tourism, except for the No. 1 crown jewel in terms of mass tourism in the whole of Croatia: the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice National Park. Here it rarely gets quiet and in high season you can barely walk for the throngs of selfie-stick wielding hordes. Due to its World Heritage statues, Plitvice is an extremely popular stop not only for individual visitors but also for organized package tours (especially with the Chinese it seems). The rest of the interior east of the coast and the mountains that run along the mainland parallel to the coast are much less visited.
The capital city Zagreb lies in the north, and has less of a Balkan feel than many other places in former Yugoslavia, thanks to its long history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The city, which wasn't really on international tourists' radar for a long time, has over the past few years gained a lot more popularity, but it's not on a par with the coast or Plitvice.
Travel to Croatia is easy, by plane, rail, road and even water – most islands are connected to the mainland (or to each other) by ferry services and there are also international ferries to Italy, mainly, but the sea also provides access for way too many cruise ships, which frequently congest beauty spots like Dubrovnik.
The latter has its own international airport, as do other larger places such as Split, Pula and of course the capital Zagreb. These are served by various carriers, but it's not necessarily the cheapest way of getting to the country.
Coming from central Europe there is absolutely no need to fly. The international rail network is a good means of getting to Zagreb from the north. Coming from the east or south is slower, but there is e.g. also a scenic rail route to Sarajevo in BiH. Yet rail transport within Croatia still has to see a lot of modernization to be able to compete with road transport, both by private cars or by bus. Bus transport is the most popular inner-country form of public transport and it's quite cheap.
Roads are mostly fine, in particular the new fast routes between the major hubs, whereas smaller country roads can be quite slow. Motorways are toll roads – with two parallel systems, a) automated electronic toll collection but also still b) old-fashioned staffed booths collecting cash from drivers. So if you use these you don't need to arrange anything in advance other than having some smaller cash. But if you get behind the wheel yourself (in your own or a – comparatively affordable – hire car) note that there is a 100% strict no-drink-driving policy in place in Croatia as well as many speed cameras, and police can charge fines on the spot. So better stick to the rules – even though many of the locals do not! Don't follow bad examples.
This is something Croatia is renowned for. Along the Adriatic coastal areas, fish and seafood are naturally king, especially squid/calamari and octopus, often prepared simply grilled, but with hefty helpings of garlic on the side. Inland the fare gets meatier, and a common staple is the typical Balkan minced meat roll ćevapčići also common in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries. A typical condiment is ajvar, made from minced grilled red peppers, sometimes spicy. In the north certain influences from the Austro-Hungarian heritage are palpable, in heavier, stodgier dishes such as štrukli, large stuffed pasta pouches in a heavy cream sauce. Vegetarians have it a bit harder than meat and fish eaters (vegans even more so), but can get by with salads, some stews, pastries and pasta dishes.
One of the crown jewels of Croatian cuisine is truffles, competing in quality with those from Italy and France (in Croatia, by the way, dogs rather than pigs are used for sniffing out truffles). One simple way of using truffles is shaved over a plate of pasta such as f
uži, popular especially in Istria in the north-west (and also across the border in Slovenia
!). Another, very seasonal speciality of Istria in particular is wild asparagus – which is quite different from its much larger cultivated equivalents, and looks more like samphire. One of my personal favourites of Croatian cuisine is also creamed salt cod (though the salt cod is imported it is a popular item here too, like in Spain
), a distinctive, soft and very moreish dip often served as a starter with bread.
Those with a sweet tooth (unlike me) can feast on a wide range of sweet pastries and cakes and other sugary products. But I'm the wrong person to consult on those things.
As for drinks, Croatia is first and foremost a wine country, with white wines more common than reds – and with two rather distinct styles. The wines from the east, especially Slavonia, are typically crisp, dry and acidic, often of superb quality. The wines produced in coastal areas, especially Istria and Dalmatia are mostly made from the grape variety Malvasia, which yields quite flowery, often almost perfumey wines. In addition there are other indigenous grape varieties, including the red Plavac, as well as a smaller percentage of international grape varieties such as Sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay or Merlot.
As for other drinks, beer is popular – and at least in Zagreb
and its environs, the craft beer scene is burgeoning with some superb quality brews into the bargain. Elsewhere it's the usual bland lagers. For something stronger, Croatia is famous for a variety of spirits that come under the collective term of “rakija”, often made from plums but also a range of other fruits and there are additionally flavoured variants too.
As for the softest of drinks, water, Croatia is blessed with an exceptional availability of pure drinking water (thanks in part of the karst geology). Hence tap water is perfectly fine to drink, in fact usually better than anything you could buy in bottles.
- Croatia 01 - with flag
- Croatia 02 - Plitvice
- Croatia 03 - the great waterfall of Plitvice
- Croatia 04 - real dangers at Plitvice
- Croatia 05 - mountains
- Croatia 06 - Adriatic coast
- Croatia 07 - Adriatic idyll
- Croatia 08 - Adriatic islands
- Croatia 09 - cruising boats
- Croatia 10 - snow-capped mountains and sunny coastal town
- Croatia 11 - tourist capacities
- Croatia 12 - Ilok, in the far north-eastern corner of the country
- Croatia 13 - accross the Danube is Serbia
- Croatia 14 - dilapidated church in Slavonia
- Croatia 15 - one of many war ruins
- Croatia 16 - inland
- Croatia 17 - eagle
- Croatia 18 - probably a partisan
- Croatia 19 - seafood starter platter
- Croatia 20 - grilled calamari
- Croatia 21 - stodgier northern specialities
- Croatia 22 - tuna with wild asparagus in Istria
- Croatia 23 - wine country