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  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're navigating

  • the Adriatic and a lot more. It's Croatia. Thanks for joining us.

  • Croatia is a fascinating land with a hard-fought history in a complex corner of Europe. And

  • as travelers are rediscovering its charms, it's emerging as one of Europe's top destinations.

  • Exploring Croatia, we'll see the Pearl of the Adriatic, sample some island charm, wander

  • Roman ruins, and hike through a watery wonderland. We'll enjoy its thriving capital city, the

  • Italian-like charm of Istria, and that peninsula's enchanting port town.

  • Yugoslavia filled much of Europe's Balkan Peninsula during most of the 20th century.

  • When Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Croatia wound up with most of

  • its coastline. We start south in Dubrovnik, sail along the Dalmatian Coast, stopping at

  • Korcula and Hvar en route to Split. After exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park and

  • the capital city of Zagreb, we travel to the Istrian peninsula, to Rovinj.

  • Spectacularly set Dubrovnik is both historic and a hit with tourists. It's understandably

  • Croatia's top draw.

  • Whether surveying its stout walls, joining the promenade along its main drag, or appreciating

  • its former glory, it's clear this city was a major power in the past and is a major draw

  • today. Exploring its evocative back lanes, relaxing on its pebbly beaches, or just pondering

  • its majestic setting...Dubrovnik is simply delightful.

  • Dubrovnik is the Pearl of the Adriatic. In fact, we'll cover it in more detail in another

  • episode. For this program, we'll leave the crowds of Dubrovnik and explore the less-appreciated

  • corners of Croatia.

  • Boats, big and small, connect Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. We're setting sail along

  • the scenic Dalmatian Coast with its countless islands. They're all variations on the same

  • theme - rugged limestone features with historic port towns and sparsely populated interiors.

  • The rocky soil and persistent sun are good for grapes. And the pebbly beaches with crystal

  • clear water are both pristine and inviting.

  • We're visiting two islands and first up is Korčula. Visitors enjoy its "mini-Dubrovnik"

  • vibe. You'll find a fortified peninsula under a striking mountain backdrop. In the Old Town,

  • narrow lanes come with an easygoing charm.

  • Like other Croatian coastal towns, Korčula has two parts: The functional, practical side

  • - where most people park, eat, and sleep - and the time-warp old town.

  • Rather than stay in a big resort hotel, I'm staying in a sobe - that's a room rented in

  • a private home. I called ahead and my hosts, Lenni and Peter, met me at the boat. They

  • rent six rooms in their house buried deep in Korcula's old town. A 500 year old building

  • can be tight.

  • This room may be small, but it's comfortable, air-conditioned, and half the price of a hotel.

  • And a great location...they claim Marco Polo lived just up the street.

  • The town's charms are all within a few steps. The historic gate is a reminder that Korcula

  • was once a mighty little place. Façades recall its 14th century trading heyday. Each lane

  • contributes to the evocative medieval townscape, dripping with drying laundry and local character.

  • You can savor it all over a cup of coffee.

  • If you want to enjoy the Croatian café scene, it helps to know a few words. For a latte,

  • it's Beila Kava. That's white coffee.

  • We're setting sail again. Both lumbering car ferries and sleek cruise ships carry Dalmatia's

  • many visitors efficiently from port to port.

  • In ancient times Greeks and Romans sailed up and down this coastline - establishing

  • many trade settlements. The island of Hvar was settled and named by the Greeks in the

  • 4th century BC.

  • The island's main town, also named Hvar, nestles under its formidable fortress. Its handy boat

  • connections make this a popular stop. While mobbed with tourists in peak season, we're

  • here in late May and it's more sleepy than chic.

  • Like most major towns along the Adriatic coastline, the fortified harbor of Hvar was a strategic

  • link in a vast 16th century Venetian trading Empire. Its fortress, walls, tower, and palaces

  • all built by and for the Venetians.

  • Activities are low energy. Expertly enjoying this town, seemingly made for relaxing, yachters

  • stern tie into the good life. Visitors nurse drinks on the main square. Stroll the back

  • lanes...where you may come upon a musical surprise.

  • Local a cappella choirs perform Klapa music - the quintessential Dalmatian folk music.

  • Every town has their all male Klapa choir. These songs of seafaring life, of loves lost

  • and loves found, stir the souls of Croatians and visitors alike.

  • (A capella choir singing.) Rick: Bravo. Yeah.

  • When it comes to mealtime, here on the coast, it's gotta be seafood. Hardworking restaurants

  • seem to abide by the local creed: eating meat is food...eating fish, that's pleasure. Our

  • waiter reminded us that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive

  • oil, and finally in wine.

  • After a little island-hopping, approaching urban Split - Croatia's "second city" - feels

  • like a return to civilization. So many Dalmatian Coast towns feel tailor made for tourism,

  • Split is a serious port. It's vibrant with or without its visitors.

  • Split feels modern. But, a close look at the surviving façade of a Roman palace fronting

  • its harbor reveals the city's ancient roots. Today's residents are literally living in

  • a Roman emperor's palace. In the fourth century a.d., when Roman Emperor Diocletian retired,

  • he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia. When Rome fell,

  • Diocletian's palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned

  • shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys - once literally Diocletian's hallways

  • - makes up the core of Split.

  • Local guide Maya Benzon is joining us to help explain the story behind her hometown.

  • Maya: The palace was huge, 200 meters on each side and these were just the basements so

  • you can imagine what was on the upper floor. Roman engineers could build anything.

  • Rick: So they had concrete, they had bricks round arches, they had the technology.

  • Maya: Yes, they had the technology and they had the slaves.

  • Rick: Cheap labor. Maya: Yes.

  • Nearby a grand underground hallway now used as a shopping arcade leads to Diocletian's

  • vestibule.

  • Maya: This is the grand entryway towards Diocletian's private area, private quarters. Roman emperors

  • called themselves the gods. And Diocletian called himself Jovius, son of the god Jupiter.

  • People worship him so they were kissing his robe. They treated him like a god on earth.

  • Diocletian's mausoleum dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original

  • Roman building survives - the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs.

  • Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But centuries later, in the Middle Ages his

  • mausoleum was converted into a cathedral. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built

  • to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims - Christian martyrs...like this

  • one who was tied to a mill stone and tossed into the sea.

  • A few steps away is a temple dedicated to Jupiter.

  • Rick: This is all part of Diocletian's Palace complex?

  • Maya: Yes, we are still walking in the area of Diocletian's palace and you know Diocletian

  • was Jovius. And here in the middle of the palace he erected the house for his father,

  • this is Jupiter's temple and for a Roman building it's very rare that it's completely preserved

  • with the ceiling, with the roof. So on the ceiling you can see really nice Roman carvings.

  • You can see some faces, some flowers. Later on during the history of the Middle Ages this

  • was converted into the church so this was the medieval baptistery. We have St. John

  • the Baptist and here we have the baptismal font. And we have this curious panel here

  • in the front. We have Croatian king from the 11th century. We have a bishop standing just

  • next to him and underneath his feet we have a citizen.

  • Rick: So you've got the secular power, the religious power and the people respecting

  • the power. Maya: That would be it. Because this is a

  • baptistery, here we have a statue of St. John the Baptist. This is a modern work of the

  • 20th century made by the greatest Croatian sculpturist ever, Ivan Musturich.

  • A highlight for me is simply people watching. The sea of Croatian humanity laps at the walls

  • of Diocletian's Palace along the pedestrian promenade or Riva. As on similar promenades

  • throughout the Mediterranean world, the cars have made way for the people. Strolling locals

  • finish their days in good style...just enjoying life's simple pleasures in a city made friendly

  • for its residents.

  • While the coast is Croatia's main draw, some of its best attractions are inland. We're

  • delving into the Croatian heartland.

  • One of Europe's top natural wonders is Plitvice Lakes National Park. Imagine Niagara Falls

  • sliced and diced and sprinkled over a vast and heavily forested canyon. It's a lush and

  • unforgettable valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and miles of

  • pleasant plank walks.

  • Boats glide visitors into the heart of the park. Countless cascades and water that's

  • strangely clear yet full of vibrant colors make Plitvice a misty natural wonderland.

  • Fish seem to know there's not a hook for miles. Carefully maintained trails and boardwalks

  • let you get intimate with the wonder of the place. Observant nature lovers can choose

  • from hundreds of flower types to assemble a photographic bouquet.

  • The stony formations drip down like the foliage because the grass and moss both direct the

  • flow of the water and provide a kind of scaffolding for the slow and steady calcification process.

  • Naturalists call Plitvice a "perfect storm" of geological, climatic, and biological features.

  • The magic ingredient: calcium carbonate, a mineral deposit from the limestone that gets

  • dissolved into the water, then re-deposited - continually breaking down natural travertine

  • dams...and building up new ones.

  • Tranquil as this park is, it was here, in 1991, that the first shots of Croatia's war

  • with Yugoslavia were fired. And, if you know where to look, evidence of the war survives.

  • When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its Serb minority - about

  • 10 percent of the population - was concerned about its rights. So they broke away from

  • the new state of Croatia, which plunged the region into four years of war.

  • While the war barely touched the coastline, here in the interior - which had a sizable

  • Serb minority - the fighting was devastating.

  • In towns like Otocac bullet holes still mar facades. These scars reflect the brutal house-to-house

  • fighting that characterized the war. Seeing bomb-damaged homes rebuilt, makes you ponder

  • loss, resilience and hope. The Croats' Catholic Church, once shelled and now repaired, has

  • a poignant memorial in its garden: Christ crucified on a cross of artillery shells.

  • Taking a little extra time to wander through town gives an insight into people moving on

  • with their lives.

  • While a few Serbs are returning, the reality is the war changed the ethnic make-up of Croatia

  • forever. As disturbing as these reminders of war are, it is uplifting to be here and

  • to actually see how well the country's putting itself back together.

  • Our next stop: the capital city...Zagreb. You can't get a complete picture of modern

  • Croatia without a visit here. This lively and livable city is home to one out of every

  • six Croatians.

  • Jelačić Square - the "Times Square" of Zagreb - is boisterous with modern commerce and local

  • life. The statue depicts the square's namesake, Josip Jelačić - the 19th-century national

  • hero who still inspires Croatians today.

  • Seeing the city buzz with activity, you feel the energy of urban Croatia. Night or day,

  • the streets are a parade of stylish locals - confident and looking good. The people-friendly

  • business zone comes with the energy and bustle you'd expect to find in any prosperous European

  • capital. Whether you're enjoying an outdoor café, window-shopping, or just lounging in

  • one of the city's many inviting parks, Zagreb makes you wonder "where are all the tourists."

  • Zagreb's historic upper town blankets a hill. Its main square is home to Croatia's government.

  • The national parliament building flies both the Croatian and European flags. Dominating

  • the square is the Church of St. Mark - with the colorfully tiled roof depicting both the

  • coat of arms of Croatia and the city seal of Zagreb.

  • Nearby is the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. This charming collection features lyrical

  • landscapes and village scenes painted in the mid-20th-century by self-taught peasant artists.

  • While some are on canvas, most are painted on glass - a cheap and readily available material

  • that was easier to work on.

  • Naïve art is created by untrained artists isolated from the artistic mainstream. They

  • painted in a figurative way while the rest of the artistic world was embracing an increasingly

  • abstract style.

  • Generalic, shown here in a self-portrait, was the father of the Croatian Naive art movement.

  • In 1953, he took his art to a show in Paris as a relative unknown. He was a huge hit,

  • sold everything, and came home rich and famous.

  • These Croatian Naïve artists were outsiders - sought out by art world insiders to validate

  • their notion that artistic ability was more than a learned skill, it was an inborn talent.

  • In places such as rural Croatia, medieval lifestyles survived well into the 20th century.

  • You see a lot of winter scenes because these artists were farmers first...busy tending

  • their fields through the growing season. They painted their village world...isolated from

  • the modern world. In a complex age, many urbanites found this art refreshing for its brute simplicity.

  • Tucked inside Zagreb's only surviving town gate is an evocative chapel. The focal point

  • is a painting of Mary that miraculously survived a fire in 1731. People, young and old, passing

  • through, stop here briefly to worship. Pausing reverently, the faithful bring their concerns

  • to Mary. The many candles represent Zagrebian prayers. Smoke-stained plaques on the wall

  • give thanks - hvala - for prayers answered.

  • Just down the road, is a thriving pedestrian zone - Zagreb's main café street and urban

  • promenade. Comfy seating encourages people to slow down and enjoy each other's company.

  • Sitting here, it's clear...Zagrebians love their city.

  • Thanks to new freeways, the Istrian Peninsula, in Croatia's northwest corner, is just a couple

  • hours drive from the capital.

  • In the Istrian interior you'll find a thickly forested landscape of rolling hills and family

  • farms. Istria is dotted with picturesque hill towns, striped with vineyards, and busy with

  • hard-working farmers.

  • Dramatically situated high above the vineyards, Motovun is Istria's most popular hill town.

  • Its modest main square is the only flat place in town - ideal for budding soccer stars.

  • The church's crenellated tower is a reminder that these towns were built on hilltops not

  • for the view but for protection. But today, strolling the ramparts, it's clear: the panorama

  • is a big part of the town's appeal. As the day ends, the square is made to order for

  • al fresco dining.

  • I find that, sometimes, the best experiences don't come to you...you need to find them.

  • An after dinner stroll with a sense of curiosity gets me a seat at the rehearsal of the local

  • klapa group.

  • (A capella choir singing.)

  • A short drive to the coast takes us to Rovinj - my favorite stop between Dubrovnik and Venice.

  • The town rises dramatically from the Adriatic - as if being pulled up to heaven by its grand

  • bell tower.

  • The church that crowns Rovinj is dedicated to the 4th century martyr St. Euphemia - her

  • statue functions as a weather vane. Scaling the church bell tower's creaky wooden stairway

  • requires an enduring faith in the reliability of wood. From the top is a commanding view...and,

  • if you're here at high noon, an ear-splitting memory.

  • The town's history created its current shape: Medieval Rovinj was a walled island. Because

  • it offered safe harbor from both pirates and the plague, Rovinj became extremely crowded.

  • That explains today's pleasantly claustrophobic Old Town.

  • Like the rest of the Croatian coast, Rovinj was part of the Venetian Empire for centuries.

  • And Istria remained part of Italy until after WWII. That's why this region is enthusiastically

  • bi-lingual an engaging mix of Croatia and Italy.

  • Rovinj's vibrant market is a fun place to shop for a picnic and snack on free samples.

  • Rick: Ora? Ora. Saleswoman: Ora.

  • Rick: ...Nice, thank you.

  • It also has a gifty corner where salesmen tempt visiting tourists with the local specialties.

  • Rick: So white truffle paste. Salesman: Yes, white truffle, yes

  • Rick: Very nice. Dobro. Salesman: Thank you.

  • Rick: No souvenir, eat it, okay? Salesman: Alright thank you.

  • The twisting back lanes of crumbling old Rovinj seem designed for a photo safari: arches span

  • narrow alleys which open into hidden courtyards. The "main drag" leading up to the top of the

  • island is lined with art galleries. Understandably, artists love Rovinj.

  • And so do romantics. At the Valentino Bar the Old Town tumbles right into the sea. It's

  • a memorable place to cap your Rovinj day. Grab a cushion and settle into a cozy stone

  • nook. Enjoy a drink, your travel partner...and the Adriatic sunset.

  • Croatia is clearly coming into its own. With each visit I'm impressed by its complexity,

  • its natural wonders, and its vibrant spirit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until

  • next time, keep on travelin'.

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