There's more to Croatia than its beautiful coast. Venture inland and you'll discover ancient castles, thermal spas, stunning scenery and great wine. Here's just a taste of what’s on offer
For many people, Croatia conjures up images of clear blue water, sail boats gliding along the horizon and islands simmering in a distance haze. Certainly, the Adriatic coast - from Istria in the north, down through Kvarner and Dalmatia to Dubrovnik in the south - delivers on this idyll, and more. But it is well worth while exploring the hinterland, where another country is waiting to be discovered.
The lands north and east of Zagreb, along the Slovenian and Hungarian borders, are redolent of a bygone age, when the Austro-Hungarian empire was at its zenith and its subjects were citizens of a central Europe with few borders. The region is littered with the castles and palaces of a long-gone aristocracy.
The perfect base
Base yourself in Varaždin to explore the region. This baroque town boasts an attractive castle dating from the 14th century, with towers, Renaissance-style courtyards and a moat. It's now a civic museum displaying weapons, costumes, clocks, folk crafts, ceramics and furniture, and both the building and the exhibits are worth a visit.
The pink Cathedral of the Assumption, with adjacent monastery and elaborate altar, was built in the 17th century and hosts baroque music evenings. On Tomislav Square, in the heart of the old town, the Town Hall (in use as such since 1523) has a changing of the guard ceremony every Saturday morning. Stucco-decorated palaces are scattered throughout the town, including the Drašković Palace on Tomislav Square and the Patačić Palace. The Sermage Palace houses the Gallery of Old and Modern Masters; most of the works are Croatian but there are also some fine paintings from the Flemish and Dutch schools. The impressive Croatian National Theatre, built in 1873, was designed by Viennese architects Helmer and Fellner.
Varaždin hosts two major festivals each year: the Špancirfest, a street festival with 10 days of music and street theatre (21-30 August 2009) and the Baroque Evenings Music Festival (18-27 September 2009).
Trakošćan Castle is one of the most picturesque in Croatia. It is just inside the border with Slovenia, a short detour off the main Maribor-Zagreb road. This fairytale castle, perched atop a hill, has a central square tower and is surrounded by a curtain wall, with round towers at each corner. It’s not known when the castle was built but mention of it exists in documents from the 15th century. For most of Trakošćan's life, it was occupied by the Drašković family, one of whom carried out a major restoration in the mid-1800s, including gardens, park and an artificial lake. Today, the castle is furnished and contains an armoury and an excellent collection of Drašković family portraits.
Other castles in the region are Veliki Tabor, the old and new castles of Čakovec, and the Opeka Castle, whose arboretum contains rare and exotic trees from all over the world.
Not to be missed are the five thermal spas between Zagreb and Varaždin - if not for their health benefits, then for their curiosity value. The oldest and closest to Varaždin is the Varaždinske Toplice. The spa was known as Aquae Iassae in Roman times and the remains of the Roman complex can still be seen. In the 1820s, the spa was opened to the public and has remained open since. Other spas are Sutinske Toplice, Krapinske Toplice, Tuheljske Toplice and Stubičke Toplice.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site can lay claim to being the most beautiful natural attraction in Croatia. Sixteen lakes, in shades of blue and green, flow over karst cliffs to produce spectacular waterfalls. Over centuries, the plants, which feed on minerals from the rock, become coated in lime, forming travertine, so the rocks themselves are growing. The forest, mainly beech with some fir, pine and spruce, supports a wide variety of wildlife. The water is incredibly clear and contains legions of brown trout who manage to evade their predators despite the lack of camouflage.
Other than winter, when snow results in a beautiful uniformity, there is no prime time to visit. The budding trees and rushing waters of spring or the attractive colours of autumn can more than hold their own against the full glory of summer.
Electric buses transport visitors to the trailheads, and the largest lake can be crossed by ferry. Wooden walkways cross over lakes and streams, and you can even walk behind some waterfalls - though this may be slightly damp!
If wine is your thing, then Croatia has plenty for you to try. The coastal areas of Istria (Teran), Peljesac (Dingač and Postup), Hvar (Babić), Korčula (Pošip), and Krk (Žlahtina) are justly famous, but don’t forget the continental wine areas around Zagreb and Slavonia.
Zagreb County is famous for its white wines, such as Graševina (a variety specific to central Europe), the well known Chardonnay and Riesling, or those that go by their local names: Kraljevina (Grau Portuguiser), Rizvanac (Muller Thurgau) and Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris).
Ilok, the easternmost city of Croatia, has been known since Roman times for wine production, especially its dry white Traminic (Gewürztraminer). Also worth visiting is Kutjevo: in 1232 the Cistercians built a monastery here and their wine cellars are still in use. Kutjevo d.d. is the largest wine producer in Croatia, with many varieties.