If you’re confused by the many notes and coins you find in your wallet in Croatia, there’s no need to be. The Croatian kuna is an easy currency to use, once you get used to the denominations. However, its history is every bit as tempestuous as the country it finances.
A clue as to the age of the traditional Croatian currency can be found in its name. Kuna is the Croatian word for ‘marten’, the highly prized pelts of which were a form of tax in Roman times. A currency of that name was used in many Slavic countries during the early years following the great Slavic migration. What would become the modern lands of Croatia went through a great number of currencies as foreign occupiers came and went, although this changed with ever-decreasing autonomy. By the 14th century, Croatia’s finances were entirely out of its hands.
The modern Croatian kuna came into being on 30 May 1994, and, much like most of Croatia’s industry, it found itself pegged to the German mark. The kuna then transitioned to being pegged to the euro when the continental currency was established in 1999. Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 and has pledged to join the eurozone, but little progress has been made since, and the kuna remains the official currency of Croatia.
The smaller denominations of the lipa (lp) aren’t much use unless you are buying sticks of chewing gum at bus stations in tiny villages. The lipa comes in denominations of one, two, five, 10, 20 and 50, although it is unlikely that you’ll use too many of these during your time in the country.
The kuna coins are more than useful. Coming in denominations of one, two and five, these may well make up the bulk of your small spending in the country and are generally useful to keep in the purse. Each comes with a different featured animal on the reverse, namely the nightingale, tuna and brown bear. Any coin with a bear on it is a winner in our books.
The notes of Croatia are going to be your main source of spending while you’re in the country and they feature a host of the country’s greatest leaders and artists, along with some of its finest architecture.
We start with the five-kuna note, although you are more likely to be faced with 5HRK coins than 5HRK notes. The obverse features 17th-century poets Fran Krsto Frankopan and Petar Zrinski standing side by side, with the magnificent Varaždin Castle on the reverse.
Up next is the 10-kuna note, which features Bishop Juraj Dobrila on its obverse. Dobrila was a 19th- century bishop who fought tirelessly for the rights of the Croatian people in the Habsburg Empire and encouraged education among the peasants of Istria. The reverse features the Pula Arena, one of the largest surviving Roman arenas on the planet.
The 20-kuna note comes in a delightful shade of red and has the moustachioed face of Ban Josip Jelačić staring out from its obverse. Jelačić is one of the greatest Croatian leaders in history, although his fantastic military skills and commitment to the Austrian Empire often hindered the Croats as much as it helped them. Vukovar takes centerstage on the reverse, in particular the impressive Eltz Manor.
Blue tones replace red on the 50HRK notes, as we return to honouring the creative minds of Croatia’s past. The marvellous curly locks of Ivan Gundulić take pride of place, Croatia’s most celebrated Baroque poet finding himself revered in financial form nearly four centuries after his death. The reverse highlights the old city of Dubrovnik, arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the whole country.
The kuna moves into three figures with the vibrant orange 100-kuna note and the spectacular sideburns of Ivan Mažuranić, a major name in 19th-century Croatian culture. Mažuranić was the first Croatian leader to come from outside the nation’s nobility, and was also one of the country’s finest writers. The Cathedral of St Vitus in Rijeka features on the reverse, but even that impressive structure pales in comparison to Mažuranić and his mighty chops.
Now we’re getting into the big notes – the ones that will bring looks of consternation from distressed waiters when you try and pay for a single beer with them. What would 20th-century Croatian politician Stjepan Radić, who is commemorated on these brown notes, do in such a situation? Seeing as he was assassinated in parliament, it might be best to try a different strategy. The reverse of the note features Osijek’s General Command building.
If you get a 500HRK note, it might be wise to nip into the bank or post office in an attempt to get it changed for smaller denominations – that is, unless you are planning on splashing out. Marko Marulić, known as the father of the Croatian Renaissance, is the featured hero on these olive green notes. Marulić was born in Split (his birth house is now a fantastic jazz bar), so it is only right that Diocletian’s Palace takes pride of place on the reverse.
When traveling around the Balkans it can often feel as if the biggest notes are the most useless, and Croatia is no different in this regard. The 19th-century writer Ante Starčević is commemorated on the blue, red and grey notes, the father of modern Croatia rightly chosen for this honour. Zagreb’s cathedral features on the reverse, although the seemingly ubiquitous scaffolding is nowhere to be seen.
Time to get those calculators out. Some exchange rates are easily worked out, but the Croatian kuna isn’t one of them. £1 will get you 8.33HRK, €1 is 7.42HRK and $1 brings 6.40HRK to the table. Here’s hoping you know your 6.40 times table!