Most visitors to Croatia head straight to the Adriatic coast, but the inland region of Slavonia -- bordering Bosnia, Hungary, and Serbia -- is also worth a visit. With its rambling rivers, forests, verdant farmland, and storybook villages, Slavonia has a more rustic vibe than its more popular counterparts like Dalmatia and Istria.
Slavonia’s cultural heritage is distinct, as well. The region’s namesake Slavic tribes first settled there back in the 7th century, but Ottomans, Germans, Ukrainians, and Hungarians have all settled in the region at some point.
As the home of so many ethnic groups, Slavonia was deeply mired in conflict when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s. Today the physical scars of the war are mostly healed, and more and more visitors are starting to discover Slavonia. Thanks to the Danube running through it, it’s already a stop for certain river cruise routes by Emerald Waterways, Viking, and UniWorld. But independent travelers should give it a shot, too.
Use the Slavonian capital of Osijek as a jumping off point. Take in the Old World charm, indulge in the rich food heritage, and plan some side trips. Here are five reasons why you should add a stop in Slavonia on your trip to Croatia.
1. The food
The cuisine of Slavonia reflects a mixture of Slavic and Hungarian elements. Think hearty and spicy dishes kicked up with tons of paprika and garlic. Seek out the local seafood dish paprikash (fish stewed in a paprika-flavored sauce and served with noodles) with a side of gypsy music at Kod Ruze in Osijek. Or try the Shepherd’s Stew containing slow-cooked pork, beef, and veal with tomato, hot peppers, and white wine.
2. The history
Slavonia has been a cultural crossroads since the 7th century. Unfortunately, that has resulted in plenty of conflict. A towering monument along the Danube commemorates the Battle of Batina that took place when the Soviet and German armies encountered each other here during World War II.
More recently, the first aggressions of the Croatian War of Independence began in Slavonia culminating in the siege of Vukovar that ultimately decimated the city. Learn about the battle at several sobering sites around the newly rebuilt city. The Vukovar Hospital Museum recalls a tragic massacre that occurred there in 1991, and the still-damaged Vukovar water tower looms over the city as a reminder about the destruction of war.
3. Osijek exploration
Osijek was also shelled relentlessly during the wars in the 1990s. But, unlike Vukovar, most of its historic attractions have been fully restored. The bustling university town is arranged around a main square flanked by vast baroque buildings. Pop into the neo-Gothic church of St. Peter and St. Paul and wonder around the 18th-century military fortress built by the Austro-Hungarian monarchs to protect against invading Ottomans. Also, visit the Museum of Slavonia to get well-versed in the region’s history and see a huge collection of Roman artifacts.
4. The rivers
It might not be the Mediterranean, but Slavonia has pleasant waterfront views of its own. Relax at one of the many bars or cafes set along the River Drava’s long promenade in Osijek.
In the summertime, you’ll want to check out the Island in the middle of the Danube in Vukovar. Because the river now acts as the border between Croatia and Serbia, the island is in dispute. But it was finally opened to the public in 2006, and the makeshift beach is a now a favorite swimming destination. It’s accessible by a short boat ride from the city center.
5. The nature parks
About thirty minutes from Osijek, Kopački Rit Nature Park lies in a floodplain where the River Drava meets the Danube. It offers some of the best birdwatching in Europe, as almost 300 species have been recorded here. The park’s visitors center can arrange a group boat tour to look for eagles, black storks, egret, and woodpeckers. Further east, the mountainous Papuk Nature Park is valued for its 500-year-old oak trees, hiking trails, and geological diversity.