From the hilltop Motovun where the ancient relics of Rome stand watch over the winding Mirna River, to the rocky outcrops of the Kamenjak Peninsula and the sunny reaches of elegant Dubrovnik on the cusp of the Dalmatian coast, enjoy this list of Croatia’s top 10 towns, loaded to the brim with unadulterated Balkan beauty.
Draped elegantly over the hilltops of central Istria, the historic heart of medieval Motovun glimmers like a jewel amidst a sea of rolling olive fields and truffle-rich forests. Often hailed as the most handsome town in all Croatia, this mountaintop centre has kept watch over the winding valleys of the Mirna River since it was first raised on the ruins of ancient Kastelijer sometime after the 10th century. Today, it buzzes with an indelible Italian-come-Slavic charm, the aromas of frying white truffles and pizza pies alike moving between its crenulated fortifications, and the mellifluous cadences of the Latin tongue echoing under its truly exquisite city gates.
Set in the shadow of the rising limestone and dolomite ridges of the Dinaric Alps, Korcula is a true gem of Dalmatia. It can be found clinging elegantly to a curved spit of land on the northern cusp of Korcula Island, encompassed by the lapping waves of the Adriatic Sea on three sides and verdant groves of swaying palm trunks and evergreen pines on the other. Within its streets, marble-clad homes glow with gradients of faded beige and alabaster white, red-tiled roofs conceal earthy eateries touting fish stews and super-dry Croatian wines, and boats bob melancholically between the stone walls of the age-old port.
Behind a wall of modern high-rises and clusters of brilliant white yachts, Zadar’s old town continues to hum with life in the gentle breezes of the Adriatic Sea. It’s a smorgasbord of styles and tastes, with layers upon layers of history coalescing between its marble-clad alleyways and open squares. On one corner, the much-rebuilt façade of the Church of St Simeon fuses the Gothic and the provincial Baroque; nearby, the Byzantine rises of the Church of St Donatas’ Church stand stoic and strong, side-by-side with the crumbling remnants of a Roman forum. Where the town meets the crystal-clear shore waters, the rumbling tones of the Sea Organ issue forth from beneath the marble steps.
Straddling the mainland and a rocky island over a small naval channel two-thirds of the way down the country’s Adriatic coast, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trogir, is steeped in the histories of ancient Greece, imperial Rome, republican Venice and trendy modern-day Croatia alike. The centre of town is cut by narrow lanes where swaying laundry lines drift in the maritime winds and overhanging timber balconies play host to Italian pizzerias and open-air wine bars. Nearby, the formidable walls of the mighty Kamerlengo fortress and the Romanesque rises of the city’s cathedral stand tall, watching over the clusters of bubbling beach shacks and pebble coves that pepper the inlets of Okrug Gornji island across the bay.
Crowned by the mighty colonnades and archways of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre outside of Italy, ancient Pula is much more than just the gateway to the shimmering beaches of the Verudela Peninsula and the windswept coves of Kamenjak (although they certainly are two good reasons to visit). In the summer, warm breezes caress the marble forums of the historic town centre; two-thousand-year-old temples loom large; orthodox churches glimmer white in the sun; triumphal archways honour the city’s age old luminaries and clusters of Slavic locals sip frothy beers in the open-air bars that line the narrow side streets all around.
Hugging its yacht-dotted inlet on the extreme western edge of Hvar Island, the locals of this staple for sun-seeking travellers along the Croatian Adriatic, are half rustic Italian farmers and half jet-setting gentlemen. Its centre is a den of glossy marble squares, shady stone alleyways and steep stairways that give way to a hub of ochre roofs and medieval frontages. Meanwhile, behind, rugged hillsides vanish into the blurring heat haze of the Mediterranean, awash with curious limestone outcrops, rolling vineyards, winding coastal paths, hidden coves and hedonistic beach-side partying shacks. No wonder nearly 200,000 visitors hit Hvar every year!
A sea of terracotta-tiled roofs, sun-kissed waterside walkways and stuccoed Italian-style homes that cascades down to the edge of a rocky, pine-dotted shoreline, medieval Rovinj juts out into the turquoise waters of the Adriatic midway down the Istrian Peninsula. The heart of town is a labyrinthine maze of winding cobblestone alleyways and tight-knit piazzas concealing rustic seafood konobas (taverns)—the very picture of traditional coastal Croatia. Above the swaying washing lines and shady streets here, the soaring tower of St Euphemia’s Basilica keeps watch; the aromas of freshly cooked truffles twisting between its Roman relics and haunting Gothic carvings.
No line-up of the most beautiful towns in Croatia could possibly be complete without a mention of Dubrovnik, which rises dramatically from the Adriatic cliffs in the far south of the country. Cut through by the bustling thoroughfare of Stradun, this is a place where vaulted Baroque ceilings can be seen mixing with touches of the Ottoman influence; the soaring keeps of the old Ragusa Republic still crown the hilltops, and the legends of Balkan knights persist between the aged city gates, palaces and bell towers. More recently the town has figured as the backdrop for the monarchic capital of King’s Landing in the epic TV drama, Game of Thrones—a regal role for a truly regal town.
In spite of its status as the de facto capital of Dalmatia and all the unceremonious urban sprawl that goes with it, sunny Split has done well to cling to its rich historical veneer. The architectural pièce de résistance of the city is unquestionably the central kernel of Diocletian’s Palace—a medley of marble arches, tight-knit alleyways, glimmering piazzas and peristyle constructions that bears a well-deserved UNESCO tag and draws floods of photo-hungry visitors in the high season. As if that wasn’t enough, Split’s idyllic harbourside, the Riva,flaunts swaying palm trees and chic cafés, while all around, rugged hills rise and snorkellers splash between the salty reefs and lapping waves of the shore.
Forgetting the Stalinist sprawl of Zagreb’s outer districts and focusing in on its core of Austro-Hungarian elegance, travellers to this buzzing Balkan capital are invited to lose themselves between cobblestone streets and rattling trams, subterranean beer bars and opulent Baroque palaces. In the city’s more historic Upper Town, a web of criss-crossing roads sits enfolded between the rises of the Kaptol and Gradec hills, rich with 13th century church spires, hipster cafés and winding lanes dotted with overhanging street lamps wrought in steel filigrees. On the horizon, Mount Medvednica dominates—a treasure trove of ski runs, hiking trails, lichen-clad forests and mysterious medieval fortresses.
By Rich Francis