Tourists anticipating a trip to Croatia rarely include the regions east of Zagreb in their plans. That's too bad because frequently their reasons are based on misinformation or lack of accurate details. It is true that many of the towns between Zagreb and the country's eastern border on the Danube were battlegrounds during the 1991 war. And it is true that some of those towns have not completely recovered from the devastation. However, for anyone who tracks more than the brightest blips on the tourism radar screen, this delightfully relaxed area is a mother lode of experiences and attractions steeped in history and tradition.
If you are inclined to cross inland Croatia off your "places to visit" list because it doesn't offer the glitzy Dalmation beaches, exotic islands, or romantic ports of call that get most of Croatia marketing kunas, you could be missing out on a rich experience. Or, if you nix this region because you assume it lacks attractions comparable to Istria's knockout restaurants, Zagreb's lively nightlife, or Plitvice's stunning beauty, you could be passing on the opportunity to become acquainted with authentic, grassroots Croatia.
Inland Croatia is home to a collection of unique natural wonders, historic sites, and gastronomic delights capable of wowing even the most experienced traveler. If you go there, you can walk through Cigoc, a village in the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park where whole families of storks nonchalantly regard you from their mammoth nests atop centuries-old timber cottages. You can visit solemn Jasenovac and its poignant monument to victims of World War II's ethnic violence and feel the sadness in the air. On the road to Dakovo, you can gawk at the horizon where red-brick bell towers of the Cathedral of St. Peter rise in the distance above acres of yellow sunflowers for miles before you get to town. In Osijek, you can take a turn around the promenade along the mighty Drava, walk the perimeter of the city along the top of what's left of the medieval walls surrounding the Old City, and smile at the ornate gewgaws that decorate the Austro-Hungarian mansions along Europska Avenue. It's almost a certainty that you'll cringe at the devastation still visible in Vukovar and you'll shake your head at the unspeakable cruelty that the town's citizens suffered when you visit the touching memorial to victims of a 1991 hospital massacre there. In Ilok, you'll feel exhilaration when you walk 30m (100 ft.) into the Earth to see the second-oldest winery in Europe. Its owners will tell you how they frantically bricked in bottles of the best vintages to save them from invading Serbs during the Homeland war. Then you can taste history in a glass of golden liquid poured from those precious bottles.
Inland Croatia isn't Las Vegas excitement or Disneyland illusion. It isn't an all-inclusive package of hedonistic services or an adrenalin rush of physical tests. Rather, inland Croatia's rewards are more subtle and lasting than frolicking in the sea or playing roulette.
This infrequently traveled region is the sum of all the "ah-ha!" moments that happen as you imagine the horror of war while gazing across the Danube at Serbia from a bluff in Ilok. It is the light bulb that goes off in your head while you stroll through Bjelovar's Norman Rockwell-perfect town square or as you stroke the soft gray muzzle of a horse at Dakovo's Lippizaner barn and stud farm. It is the amazing sensation that rolls over your tongue when you dig into a bowl of peppery fis paprikas (fish stew with peppers) in Osijek or when you sip a new vintage from a vineyard in Baranja wine country. It is also the grim realization that overtakes you when you see workers removing land mines along the road to fascinating Kopacki Rit Nature Park. The payoff from a trip to inland Croatia isn't a transient thrill, but the total of many experiences that end in the understanding that something important happened there, something that formed Croatia's soul.