Croatia / Zagreb / Travel

Croatia 2016: Five destinations, five trends

The Adriatic is increasingly perceived as a place of contemporaneity and innovation rather than just fish picnics and folklore.

Photo: European Coastal Airlines

Claiming Lošinj as a new destination may seem a bit mischievous when one considers that it has been near the top of Croatia’s most-visited charts ever since the 1880s. However the island has undergone something of a Doctor Who-like regeneration in the last few years, a change emphatically confirmed by the opening of Croatia’s most talked-about new attraction, the Museum of the Apoxyomenos.

I spent a large part of the last year preparing a new edition of the Rough Guide to Croatia; what follows is in many ways a reflection of what came up in the course of that research. It’s a very subjective list; and the number of things I never got round to discovering will probably exceed the list of those I did. Dubrovnik, Split and Dalmatia do not feature prominently in what follows, not because there isn’t anything there worthy of comment, but because they haven’t undergone any seriously perspective-changing transformations in the last twelve months. Islands like Hvar, Korčula and Vis are in any case well worth visiting every year; so why bother putting them in a list?

Lošinj

Claiming Lošinj as a new destination may seem a bit mischievous when one considers that it has been lingering near the top of Croatia’s most-visited charts ever since the 1880s. However the green and tranquil island has undergone something of a Doctor Who-like regeneration in the last few years, a change emphatically confirmed by the recent opening (on April 30) of Croatia’s most talked-about new attraction, the Museum of the Apoxyomenos. Discovered lying on seabed near Lošinj some twenty years ago, the Apoxyomenos (‘Apoksiomen’ in Croatian) is an iconically handsome Graeco-Roman statue of a young man cleaning himself after exercise. The museum is itself a work of art, with a sequence of ingenuously designed display rooms leading up to the cocoon-like sanctum occupied by the statue itself. It’s thanks to museums like this that Croatia’s Adriatic fringe begins to be perceived as a place of contemporaneity and innovation, rather than just fish picnics and folklore.

The Croatian Apoxyomenos (photo Maja Bosnić & Ivan Dorotić)

And the Apoxyomenos is far from being the island’s only story: Lošinj’s hotel company has subjected its accommodation stock to a spectacular modernization drive, with the Sixties-era quadrangle of the Hotel Bellevue reinvented as a swish designer retreat. With nearby Habsburg-era Hortensia and Alhambra also benefiting from luxury makeovers, Lošinj has agilely re-positioned itself as the leading spa destination in the northern Adriatic. With more facilities planned for the future (an airport for small planes, a golf course designed by Ernie Els), Lošinj looks set to become more upmarket, and more expensive, in the years to come.

Room with psychedelic carpet, Museum of the Apoxyomenos (photo Maja Bosnić & Ivan Dorotić)

Why go in 2016? The biggest cultural event of the year by a long chalk, the opening of the Apoxymenos Museum immediately caught the public imagination, and generated significant excitement about the island’s new role as a cultural pilgrimage destination. Not to be forgotten is the island’s position at the centre of an island-hopping circuit that’s both more sybaritic and less well travelled than that of the Dalmatian coast further south, with blissfully sandy Susak and car-free Silba a mere hop away by ferry. Currently untouched by industrial-scale tourism, these islands may not remain so for ever.

Šibenik

Few destinations on the Adriatic have reinvented themselves so thoroughly as the central Dalmatian city of Šibenik. In many ways it had to; despite being home to an alley-riven Old Town and UNESCO-listed cathedral, Šibenik’s reputation as a former metalworking town somehow kept it off the tourist trail. Suddenly it’s the biggest surprise package on the coast: of its four (until recently rather forlorn) fortress, two have been spectacularly restored, plans are afoot for the transformation of the third, and a new seaside walkway leads to the fourth - the dramatically-situated island fortress of St Nicholas. Offering further adventures in Adriatic Renaissance culture is the Faust Vrančić Memorial Centre on the nearby island of Prvić, honouring the Šibenik-born humanist with scale models of his fabulously Da-Vinci-esque machines and inventions. The redevelopment of another island, Obonjan, due to open in summer 2016 as a self-contained dance, detox and find-the-real-you resort, has already caught the attention of the international press, although it’s the growing tourist potential of the city itself that really deserves the headlines.

Why go in 2016? Hitherto never much more than a day-trip city, Šibenik has suddenly become a fashionable place to stay, thanks largely to the voluptuous curves of the daringly modern D-Resort hotel designed by Nikola Bašić - creator of Zadar’s famous Sea Organ. Rivalling it in the comfort stakes is the boutique-ish Hotel Life Palace located in a restored Old-Town villa. Reopened in January 2016, the Barone Fortress offers sweeping coastal views and an augmented reality-aided museum of sixteenth-century life. Visitors should check the gig schedule at St Michael’s Fortress, reopened in 2014 as a stunning ambient concert venue. Both fortresses will host the second, much-bigger-than-last-year edition of the Deboto Festival of cutting-edge DJ music and contemporary jazz (June 2-4).

Vukovar

The fastest-emerging destination in inland Croatia is not necessarily the one you might expect. Substantially damaged by Yugoslav army artillery in autumn 1991, and under Serbian occupation until 1998, Vukovar has become a synonym for ethnic cleansing and civilian suffering. The town is nevertheless returning to what it was a quarter of a century ago: a pretty Baroque town sprawled along an attractive stretch of the River Danube. Many of Vukovar’s most handsome buildings have been returned to their pre-1991 splendour, notably the Eltz Palace, home to a spectacularly well-designed town museum. More impressive still is the Museum of the Vučedol Culture, 5km away on the banks of the river. Built into the hillside of Croatia’s most celebrated archeological site, this boldly contemporary structure displays 5000-year-old geometric pottery in a cool-as-a-nightclub matt black interior. Vukovar is best treated as a double date with the historic fortress town of Ilok, 30km downriver: it’s in Ilok that you’ll find local wines, some great B&Bs, and the best of the local river-fish cuisine.

The Eltz Palace, Vukovar

Why go in 2016? This year will see the 25th anniversary of Vukovar’s fall to Yugoslav/Serbian forces on November 18. While focusing attention on themes of heroism, sacrifice and suffering, the anniversary will also serve to underline Vukovar’s ongoing regeneration as a place to visit and enjoy. Evidence of the town’s growing self-confidence will be provided by the tenth, jubilee edition of the Vukovar Film Festival (August 22-29), an increasingly influential showcase for films from southeastern Europe, with projections in outdoor locations throughout the town.

Dubrovnik Riviera

When is Dubrovnik not Dubrovnik? When it’s the Dubrovnik Riviera. This is the handy (if slightly misleading) English label for an area that locals call Župa Dubrovačka (‘Dubrovnik Parish’), a string of pretty coastal villages situated 10km south of the city itself. Popular with tourists in the Seventies and Eighties, the Riviera lost some of its aura in the decades that followed, either due to war damage or under-investment in what was left intact. However it’s an undeniably lovely place, with low-rise housing sheltering under subtropical vegetation, and clean, shallow beaches perfect for family paddling. Heralding a significant upturn in the Riviera’s fortunes are two recent hotel openings: the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera is a graceful three-pointed boomerang of a building that comes with spa facilities and conference centre; while the Boutique Hotel Mlini, rejoices in geometric façades and modern-design interiors. With a new shopping mall behind the Sheraton, and restored beachside walkways along the shore, the Riviera is increasingly a place that locals visit in order to shop, sip coffee or go for a swim.

Why go in 2016? Contrary to Dubrovnik itself, the Riviera retains an air of bijoux relaxation, a mellow retreat for those who do not want to be jostled by crowds of cruise-ship trippers. This may not last forever: ongoing projects include renovation of the Hotel Plat (a modernist masterpiece set to reopen in 2017-18) and the reconstruction of the war-devastated Kupari Hotel complex at the Riviera’s northern end (which looks like being a top tip for the 2020s).

Rijeka

The port city of Rijeka is often dismissed as grey and post-industrial. Luckily for locals and visitors alike, grey and post-industrial are very much back in fashion. In March 2016 Rijeka won the race to be designated European Capital of Culture for 2020, beating tourist-favourite Dubrovnik in the process. So what has Rijeka got that the pearl of the Adriatic hasn’t? A skyline of stately shipyard cranes for a start, coupled with four decades of punk-rock history, a reputation for attracting cultural subversives, and acre upon acre of red-brick industrial heritage - much of which is earmarked for ambitious urban renewal projects. All of which makes a refreshingly abrasive change from some of the twee seaside places further along the coast. Rijeka’s relative lack of sightseers ensures that it’s the locals you notice most, hanging out in characterful bars and seafood bistros, or shopping for plenteous Mediterranean goodies in the spectacularly well-supplied city market. It’s a boldly cosmopolitan place too: Rijeka’s new mosque (completed in 2013 after designs by the late abstract sculptor Dušan Džamonija) is arguably the most stunning single piece of contemporary architecture on the Adriatic. And, lest we forget the obvious, some of northern Croatia’s most compelling islands and beaches are only a short ferry ride way.

Rijeka’s new mosque

Why go in 2016? Rijeka is entering a golden decade in which many long-cherished cultural projects will finally be brought to fruition. Indeed the best advice might be to delay your visit until 2026 when you’ll be able to see how it all turned out. If you simply can’t wait that long, this year sees the 150th anniversary of the world’s first torpedo, invented by Rijeka-based engineers Ivan Lupis and Robert Whitehead. There’ll be a torpedo exhibition in the suitably gritty environs of a former railway yard near the bus station, and a renewed focus on the city’s industrial heritage, subject of the helpful new Rijeka Heritage website.

Festivals: time to get dirty again

The festival scene in Croatia is broadening out but also becoming more predictable. Most of the events covered by the English-language press look increasingly like extensions of the British leisure industry rather than outgrowths of contemporary Croatian culture. High time, therefore, to take a fresh look at what the local underground is up to. The big news here is that Super Uho (August 1-3), the festival of alternative and experimental music which last year took place in Šibenik’s St Michael’s Fortress, has moved down the coast to Primošten, where it has found a beachside location with camping grounds laid on. Up north in the Istrian resort of Umag, Indirekt (June 17-18) describes itself as a “lighthouse of alternative arts”, an eclectic music, dance and mural-painting festival with a uniquely intimate vibe.

Flogging Molly playing at Super Uho Festival, 2015 (Žedno Uho/Tomislav Sporiš Photography)

Two other non-corporate grassroots festivals with beautiful locations include Tide of Youth at Tarej on the island of Cres (June 30-July 3), a dub reggae and psychedelic rave event held out in the coastal maquis east of Cres Town; and Goulash Disko (September 7-10) a cabaret-like swirl of eclectic worldbeat held on a beach near Komiža on the island of Vis. One festival that grew out of the Croatian underground (its organizers started out organizing club nights in a 50-capicity student bar called The Hole) and became an international phenomenon is Zagreb’s InMusic Festival (July 20-22). Despite increasing numbers (80,000 visitors over 3 days was the 2015 estimate), InMusic still has the easygoing feel of a vast garden party; this year sees Florence + the Machine, PJ Harvey and Wilco headline one the best bills in years. Note that InMusic was blessed with plentiful rain in 2014 and 2015 – at least this is one Croatian festival for which it pays to pack your wellies.

Life is better when it’s bitter

Will 2016 be the year when Croatia’s craft beer revolution finally hits the Adriatic coast? The signs are certainly encouraging, with Barba Pale Ale (produced by Lab Pivo) recently coming on tap in Split; and the crowd-funded cooperative Brlog due to start production in Zadar in the next few months. The number of coastal café-bars that actually stock Croatia’s growing stable of boutique beers remains frustratingly small - Kobaje and To je To in Split; Pivnica Pivac in Makarska; and Buzz Bar in Dubrovnik are among the few reliable addresses in Dalmatia.

Lining up the empties

Croatia’s ale culture has certainly been a long-time brewing: Zagreb’s Medvedgrad brewery and pub chain has enjoyed a solid local following ever since opening its taps in 1994, but has only recently embarked on the kind of distribution that allows you to sip on a Crna Kraljica (Black Queen) porter pretty much everywhere in the city. Zagreb newcomers Zmajska pivovara, started production of their quite frankly sensational IPA in 2014 – its distinctive dragon label is an increasingly common sight on supermarket shelves throughout the country. Zagreb craft breweries Nova Runda and Varionica, both of which started up in 2015, are also picking up strong local support. Meanwhile Nick Colgan, founder of the Garden family of summer festivals, is set to start stirring the vats of his Garden Beer in time for the 2016 summer season. The number of Zagreb bars selling craft beers has rocketed in the last twelve months; you can taste almost all of them at the Craft Room, a dedicated craft beer pub on the Tkalčićeva nightlife strip.

More speed

Exploring the Croatian islands has always been a somewhat leisurely affair, dictated by a ferry timetable that is often limited to one or two departures a day, and a route map that frequently sends travellers back to mainland ports and out again rather than from island to island.

The one genuinely game-changing development is the new seaplane service launched at the tail end of the 2015 season by European Coastal Airlines. Using 20- to 30-seater flying boats and Adriatic harbours rather than airports, the service provides fast links from mainland cities like Pula, Rijeka, Zadar and Split to the islands of Lošinj, Korčula, Lastovo, Rab, Novalja on Pag and Jelsa on Hvar. Journey times are a matter of minutes, fares (sliding up and down according to demand) are more reasonable than you might think, and the views are frankly rather stunning.

Photo European Coastal Airlines

As far as sea-level transport is concerned, the introduction of new catamarans by the Krilo Jet company from Split to Dubrovnik via Brač, Hvar, Korčula and Mljet has at least increased travellers’ options – although these services are booked up several days in advance in summer.

Souvenirs are dead: long live Croatian design

Relax, there’s more to shopping than lavender and lace. Croatia’s contemporary designers are increasingly producing their own lines of affordable, practical but aesthetically unique products, and developing retail networks in order to sell them. Signpost store of this blossoming creative landscape is the Croatian Design Superstore in Zagreb, a deftly curated collection which runs the gamut from T-shirts to tables and chairs – many of which look as if they could become collectors’ items in a couple of years’ time. Catching the eye last time I popped in to the store were Amek’s Mediterranean-contemporary tea towel designs, PVC sports bags by Sudar, the Memorizing Croatia children’s game, and the store’s trademark Croatia As It Is shoulder bags (emblazoned with ambiguous slogans such as Between YU and EU, or Similar to Croissant, Different from Donut). All of these things are specifically Croatian and cool enough to carry on using once you get home.

Croatian Design Superstore (photo Marija Gasparović)

The big question is, can you get these things on the coast? Well, sort of. Komo, opened by jewelry designer Iva Stojković in Pula, is arguably the best design store on the Adriatic. Prostor, in the lobby of the Lone Hotel in Rovinj, is another leading outlet for highly individual clothes and accessories. In Split, GetGetGet is an Aladdin’s cave of bags, brooches and intelligent souvenirs. Dubrovnik looks set to get its own design store in the shape of Kawa, due to open just outside Ploče Gate in time for the summer season.

Meanwhile back in Zagreb, the design boom is driving events and festivals too. Set in the increasingly kooky area around Martićeva, where the Design Superstore itself is based; Design District Zagreb will hold its first three-day street festival this summer (June 16-19). It will be preceded by Dan-D (“Design Day”; June 10-12), the other big event of the design calendar, which will have stalls, workshops, lectures and evening DJs in Jedinstvo, a former factory complex with an evocative riverside location.

Cinema Adriatico

Whatever the advantages of your local multiplex there’s nothing quite like watching a film under the stars with a sea breeze tugging gently at your T-shirt. The last few years have witnessed something of a renaissance for small-town Croatia’s traditional open-air cinemas; catching a flick before hitting the café-bars is an increasingly popular way of getting the holiday evenings going. Some of the most evocative al-fresco screens are on the Dalmatian islands: in both Vis Town and Komiža on the island of Vis, Bol and Supetar on Brač, and Jelsa on the island of Hvar. The repertoire is more sophisticated than you might think: the Kino Mediteran programme, launched by the Mediterranean Film Festival in Split (itself evocatively held in the outdoor cinema above Bačvice beach every June), circulates award-winning international films to Adriatic cinemas every year, lending the Croatian coast a decidedly art-house edge.

Model Lamp by Grupa and Neva Chair by Ruđer Novak Mikulić and Marija Ružić; both at Croatian Design Superstore (photo Marija Gasparović)

© Jonathan Bousfield