Croatia's Heartland

While much has been written about croatia's coast—the beauty of dubrovnik and split—the country's interior has slowly been gaining attention. When you towel off the final time after dipping in the Adriatic, and manage to leave the country's 3,600 miles of sparkling coastline dotted with islands and reefs, you'll find the heart and soul of the country, with its farmlands, vineyards and historic old towns. An interesting discovery is the influence of neighboring countries on its cuisine, architecture and cultures of its different regions: While the coast has Italian overtones, Croatia's interior has strong Austrian and Hungarian influences.

The geography is this: Croatia extends from the furthest eastern edges of the Alps in the northwest to the Pannonian lowlands and the banks of the Danube in the east; its central region is covered by the Dinara mountain range, and its southern parts extend to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. The main square of Samobor, a town 14 miles west of Zagreb

Start a tour to Croatia's interior in Zagreb, the country's capital. In a city with more than 900 years of history, the strong Austro-Hungarian influence on local culture can be seen all around, particularly in the rich architecture. We found Zagreb reminiscent of Budapest—in terms of architecture, food, wealth of museums and the energy of the city.

The best way to get to know any city is by foot, and compact and easy-to-navigate Zagreb is no different. We found the cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes charming, but for a quintessential taste of locale, and a perfect place to people-watch, visit the Dolac market, an open-air market located above the main square at the foot of the old town.

Go early in the morning to watch the vendors sell fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread and flowers. Have a coffee at one of its cafes and simply take in the environment, observing negotiations as locals peruse the stalls.

After sunset, Zagreb is bustling with nightlife. Outside cafes, heated with lamps, abound with couples drinking the local beers and eating a mixture of Italian (pasta and pizza) and Croatian (krvavice blood sausage with sauerkraut) fare.

The surrounding Zagreb region, called Zagorje, is also well worth exploring. It's easy to keep your hotel base in Zagreb and visit nearby regions—full of apple orchards, cornfields, meadows, forests and vineyards—as day trips.

Out in the countryside, we spotted older Croatian men and women plowing the fields wearing traditional Eastern European dress, with the women wearing babushkas to cover their heads, for example.

We particularly liked the small town of Samobor, in a wine-rich region with a variety of traditional restaurants serving high-quality Croatian varietals, cured meats and cheeses and local pastries.

A unique way of visiting the region is to focus on wine and castle tours, combining the wonderful rich history of the old fortresses with the beautiful scenery of vineyards. The nations' 57 castles are seeped in history, a portion having been used as hospitals and military barracks. Some of the wineries date to the 12th century, when monks from France came to this region and began planting vineyards.

Two castles not to miss are Trakoscan Castle and Veliki Tabor. Trakoscan is a beautiful fortress surrounded by a lake, extensive park, forest and hills. It looks almost fairy-tale like and the furniture and paintings inside will transport visitors to another time. Veliki Tabor is being renovated inside, but the outside is a magical picture of a 12th-century castle.

As if castles and forts aren't enough to spur a young imagination, if you're traveling with children, stop at the ethno village of Kumrovec. Best described as a Croatian Colonial Williamsburg, it compromises a village reminiscent of 19th-century rural life.

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