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Given its recent history from the Communist era to war in the early 1990s, continental Croatia's emergence as a destination of style and substance is impressive.
However, the sensory pleasures that Croatia's heartland offers -- from hearty comfort food and superb wine to sweeping Baroque architecture, nature reserves and cutting-edge fashion -- gain depth and relevance when considering how Israel and Americans to pay tribute to the Jewish presence there.
Currently, the Jewish population numbers around 3,000, with most of the community concentrated in Zagreb (where a new Jewish center and synagogue exist) and Osijek.
Additionally, there are smaller clusters of Jewish Croatians in smaller villages who still maintain their traditions and keep word of their history alive in this predominantly Catholic country.
Varazdin, for example, is home -- quite literally -- to a handful of Jews, according to city guide Tihomir Golub. Yet musicians and music lovers from all backgrounds flock to this picturesque village in August for an internationally renowned music festival, which gets co-sponsored by a different country every year. In 2008, it teamed up with Israel for the production, in part to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary and its great classical musicians.
While finding signs of Jewish life and remembrance takes some effort, it's a treasure hunt that's worth immersing oneself in -- whether it's a Holocaust memorial, an expertly restored cemetery, or a cemetery or synagogue awaiting restoration.
While many of the restored synagogues have or will take on new lives as cultural centers or academic institutions (such as a now-empty shul in Koprivnica, with special signage explaining that the building is poised to become a concert hall, or a Jewish community center restored in Osijek that the community is renting to the local university's law school), it's important to recognize that Croatia's Jewish community, which is overcoming the wounds of war, is in a way similar to how Croatia at large is coming out of their conflict with the Serbs in the early 1990s.
Hub of Activity
The hub of Jewish activity in Zagreb is based at the Congregation Bet Israel (www.bet-israel. com). Sites worth seeing in the city include the former site of the synagogue at 7 Praska Street, where a new synagogue and Jewish community center is in the works; Mirogoj Cemetery; and a small collection of Judaic art at the Museum of Arts and Crafts.
However, most Croatians I met during my journey across the country's heartland were well-versed in the various landmarks and reconciliation efforts put forth by the Croatian government and volunteers.
Darko Mrkonjic -- the guide who took us through Osijek, Djakovo, Pozega and Nasice -- not only knew the exact locations of Jewish restorations, monuments and points of interest, but also the history behind them (especially since he worked in tandem with Shmuel Tennenbaum, a prominent Israeli journalist, on documenting these activities).
Menorah in a Monastery
One particularly intriguing monument -- a six-pronged menorah designed by Israeli sculptor Aaron Bezalel, symbolizing the six million Jews lost during World War II -- sat proud in the heart of a Franciscan monastery in Osijek's old city. Former Osijek Mayor Anto Djapic, after a diplomatic trip to Israel, got behind the initiative to erect it as a way to reflect shared values of peace and tolerance among Jews and Christians (according to American Rabbi Jacob Bemporad, who helped deliver the sculpture to its current spot).
Mrkonjic brought me there at sunset, where the last rays of daylight added dimension and drama to the sculpture's impact. The next day, he took me beyond the cafe-laden center of Pozega to show me a beautifully restored Jewish cemetery that he mentioned was reopened as a cultural site last year, complete with a ceremony that included Jewish dignitaries from Israel and the United States, as well as key members of Croatia's Jewish community.
Just as Jewish life continues in a meaningful way in Croatia, so does life for a general populace still recovering from the ravages of the Serbo-Croatian war in the early 1990s. Though many of the buildings remain scarred from shells and warfare, the sense of joie de vivre in Zagreb, Osijek and the smaller villages is so strong -- especially with the presence of younger people -- that the first thing that strikes you visually is the positive energy of the crowds, as well as a solid sense of community that will remind American Jews of their own communities back home.
The restaurant and cafe scene throughout continental Croatia is particularly enticing, especially as the streets literally fill to the curbs with people of all ages after the work day, on holidays and weekends. In Zagreb, for example, the perfect evening includes a leisurely stroll around the "Upper Town," followed by a laid-back dinner with good wine and a great view of Pod Grickim Topom, and a nightcap or two along the coffee bar-laden Tkalciceva.
If you have a sweet tooth instead of a cocktail craving, the locals point out that Millennium is the place to enjoy some of the lightest, most unusually flavored gelati you've ever tasted. It has a great night-club vibe to boot.
Osijek's nightlife, meanwhile, is just as jovial, especially in the city's old town. Kod Ruze, one of the neighborhood's most famous restaurants, is so for a good reason -- the food is fresh and flawless, and the people-watching is just as memorable.
Meanwhile, the Baroque villages that dot the highways between Zagreb and Osijek are more "daytime" in nature. However, when you are surrounded by charming 18th-century palaces, sprawling parks and other charming structures, there is nothing more pleasurable than taking your place among the crowds at one of the many interconnected sidewalk cafes for a Franck coffee-based cappuccino or perfect hot chocolate.
That said, a visitor's balanced intake of local flavor should also include not only some of the 50 museums that call Zagreb home, but also the small, well-maintained galleries of "Naïve Art," in addition to architectural points of interest in the villages.
Hlebine Village in the Podravina Region is the cradle of this genre of art, which boasts vibrant colors, simple shapes, slice-of-life themes and compelling political messages. The Old Town Gallery in Djurdjevac is also worth exploring from the inside (another prolific and well-designed gallery of Croatian art) and out (the restored medieval building housing it).
The food and wine culture is a real discovery, even as Croatian wineries are just beginning to gain recognition outside of its borders. Krauthaker Wineries' vintages (noted for exceptional whites, especially the Grasevina, or Italian Riesling varieties) has limited distribution in the eastern United States, and is worth experiencing for its gorgeous surroundings.
The Hotel Picok in Djurdjevac is well worth a detour. While its rooms are simple, its restaurant is excellent, as is its lovely pool and spa; the area's thermal waters are integrated into every aspect of the spa menu.
Another stellar and romantic place is the Zdjelarevic hotel, winery and restaurant (www. zdjelarevic.hr) -- possibly one of the most comfortable, charming and well-appointed bed-and-breakfasts in Croatia, right down to the excellent food, wine and endless rolling hills.
A short distance away from Zdjelarevic, Stara-Kapela (www. stara-kapela.hr) is as inspiring as it is charming. Under the care of founder and physician Tucic Antun, who personally financed the restoration, the destination is emerging as Croatia's answer to Colonial Williamsburg. Stara-Kapela begins the new year offering guests and day-visitors craft and cooking classes.
For more information, log on to: www.croatia.hr.