Croatia - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Croatia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Croatia is at once a very old country and a very young one.

Inhabited since the early Stone Age, and a linchpin of the Roman Empire, it only became a modern nation in 1991, and parts of the country were still under UN control – following the war – until 1998. And while it was a respectable kingdom of its own in medieval times, Croatia has spent most of the past millennium attached to (or subjugated by) its near neighbours. As a result, the country’s history is unbelievably turbulent; fraught with foreign intervention, plagued by constant strife from pre-Roman times on, and richly textured with assassinations, intrigues, piracy and treachery.

St Blaise Church, Dubrovnik by Croatian National Tourist BoardSt Blaise Church, Dubrovnik © Croatian National Tourist Board

Over the past 2,500 years, a succession of empires invaded, annexed or occupied Croatia, and each left its mark. For example, islands along the Adriatic coast that were deforested by the Venetians in the 18th century are still barren, yet the coastal towns and cities wouldn’t be half as lovely if it weren’t for the Venetian Gothic architecture.

Croatian independence today is remarkable given the sheer numbers of land grabs it’s been subjected to, with Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Franks, Byzantines, Venetians, Hungarians, Tartars, Austrians, French, Italians, Turks, Germans and Serbs all having had their eye on a piece of the Croatian action.

Natural history

In the remoter forests of the interior and in the inland national parks, there are still bears and wolves at large, though you’re unlikely to see them – bears are notoriously cautious, while wolves only come down from the mountains to raid villages for scraps during the depths of winter. Wild boar, however, are still common in the northern and eastern forests, along with red, fallow and roe deer. But you’re more likely to see eagles than griffon vultures or lynxes – lynx being almost shyer than bears, and griffon vultures now being confined to a small colony on the island of Cres.

You might also be lucky enough to see chamois and mouflon in the mountains along the Slovenian border and through Dalmatia.

Krka National Park Croatia by Syrota Vadym ShutterstockKrka, one of Croatia's eight national parks © Syrota Vadym, Shutterstock

Snakes are reasonably common, but there are very few that are poisonous (admittedly one of these, the nose-horned viper or poskok, is very poisonous), and the old saying is worth repeating: they’re much more frightened of you than you are of them. Snakes will mostly avoid regularly walked paths or roads, but if you’re heading across country, it’s as well to wear sensible shoes or boots. In accumulated months of walking in Croatia, I’ve seen several dozen snakes of four or five species, but never anything dangerous, so please don’t kill them out of ignorance or fear.

You’ll see a number of charming species of lizard if you’re out walking, or even sightseeing – they love to bask on warm stone the moment the sun’s shining. Look out, too, for frogs if you’re near water, and several varieties of toad that are peculiar to the woods which grow on limestone mountains. Martens, wild cats and squirrels also live in these forests, but they’re pretty shy.

From early summer onwards, Croatia features several species of butterfly you won’t see often in the UK – look out for swallowtails in the mountains, white admirals on the islands, and hosts of butterflies of all species if you’re here in late spring or early summer.

A total of 44 species of vegetation and 380 species of animal are protected in Croatia.

Most endangered of all is the fast-disappearing Mediterranean monk seal, with only one sighting in the past ten years, off Rt Kamenjak in Istria. These elegant dark brown seals grow to around 2.4m in length and weigh up to 300kg or more. There are also a surprising number of dolphins along the coast, and notably around the island of Cres, as well as further south.

Croatia’s flora is also delightful. Along the coast and on the islands, you’ll find aromatic herbs and abundant bougainvillea. In the woods and forests, there’s a wide variety of plants and trees ranging from orchids to holm oak to pine and beech, while higher up in the mountains, you’ll find beautiful summer pastures, home to tiny flowers and fragrant herbs.

As the summer wears on, the colours fade and everything dries out, leaving an arid impression across much of the country, which doesn’t really wear off until the leaves change to their superb autumnal colours.

For more on Croatian wildlife, check out Bradt’s Central and Eastern European Wildlife.

People and culture

People

Thousands of years of foreign occupiers have left Croatia with an impressive architectural heritage, ranging from Greek and Roman ruins to a wealth of Venetian Gothic to the Habsburg splendour of the cities in the north.

By contrast, there are very few Croatian artists, writers or composers who are well known outside the country, the most famous probably being the sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Which is not to say the Croats are an uncultured lot; on the contrary, it’s simply that most of the country’s culture hasn’t been exported.

What you can see – and hear – is Croatia’s abundant folk music, often as klapa, the quite beautiful Dalmatian a cappella singing, or sometimes as the somewhat eclectic mix known as ‘turbofolk’. Tito’s communist government was unusual in encouraging people to retain their folk tradition, and as a result most of the popular tourist destinations – notably Dubrovnik and Split, and many of the islands – have summer music festivals that highlight the best in folk songs and dancing, along with jazz and classical music too.

Culture

Thousands of years of foreign occupiers have left Croatia with an impressive architectural heritage, ranging from Greek and Roman ruins to a wealth of Venetian Gothic to the Habsburg splendour of the cities in the north.

By contrast, there are very few Croatian artists, writers or composers who are well known outside the country, the most famous probably being the sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Which is not to say the Croats are an uncultured lot; on the contrary, it’s simply that most of the country’s culture hasn’t been exported.

What you can see – and hear – is Croatia’s abundant folk music, often as klapa, the quite beautiful Dalmatian a cappella singing, or sometimes as the somewhat eclectic mix known as ‘turbofolk’. Tito’s communist government was unusual in encouraging people to retain their folk tradition, and as a result most of the popular tourist destinations – notably Dubrovnik and Split, and many of the islands – have summer music festivals that highlight the best in folk songs and dancing, along with jazz and classical music too.

Croatia now has no fewer than 12 traditions inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List, including the Zvončari from Kastav, lacemaking at Lepoglava and on the islands of Hvar and Pag, the Procession of the Cross on Hvar and the Sinjska Alka. For the full list visit www.unesco.org/culture/ich.

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