Fairy-Tale Living On The Continent (That, Yes, You Can Afford)
Croatia is my other top pick (alongside France) for spending time in Europe.
This is a country of impossibly beautiful blue-green waters that, unfortunately, is better known for its tumultuous history. The fighting, though, in this part of the world is nearly two decades in the past, and the cultured, educated people of Croatia have been working hard ever since to rebuild their 1,000-year-old country.
Croatia has captured my imagination since my first visit nearly 10 years ago. The entire family, in fact, was so taken with the beauty, the history, the culture, and the lifestyle of this country that, during that very first visit, we bought a tumbledown stone farmhouse on the side of a mountain on the Istrian Peninsula. It was an impulse buy that we haven’t regretted for an instant. I daydream often about spending time in this special spot overlooking an expanse of olive groves and vineyards with a view across the valley of a medieval village built entirely of the white stone the region is known for.
Our architect-friend in Croatia, who drew up the plans for the renovation of the pile of stone rubble we’d bought so impulsively, told us a story years ago that helped to put the history of this complicated country into perspective.
“My father,” Levorko explained, “lived to be nearly 100 years old. He lived his whole life here in Istria, in the same town. He died living in the house where he’d been born.
“And, in his lifetime, my father lived in nine countries.”
Croatia was ruled briefly by France under Napoleon. It was part of the Hapsburg Monarchy. It was part of Serbia. Part of Yugoslavia. It was ruled by the Venetians and occupied by the Italians, who left behind their cuisine and their language (some street signs even today are in Italian). And it was organized into a series of republics, culminating in the current Republic of Croatia.
Here’s something else you may not know about Croatia: It’s the birthplace of the necktie. The Croat contingency of the French service wore their traditional knotted handkerchiefs during the Thirty Year’s War (1618 to 1648). The Parisians took a fancy to them and called them “cravat”—a cross between the Croatian and French words for Croat (Hrvati and Croates).
So began a cravat fashion frenzy. In the 17th century, these kerchiefs became so intricate that they were tied in place with strings and made into bows that took forever to arrange.
Croatia has a great climate, which is why it’s able to produce increasingly sought-after Zinfandel grapes. Croatia’s mild winters and sunny summers make for perfect Zinfandel weather.
Croatia is a sailor’s paradise. All up and down its long coast, you see flotillas of white yachts offshore from ancient towns hidden behind thick walls. This is a fairy-tale land of fortresses and bell towers that so attracted and impressed the Romans they invested in some of their best building here, including, for example, a large and largely intact coliseum at Pula where lions and Christians once entertained.
How would I thin-slice this enchanting land?
First, Istria, where Nature and man have worked together over many centuries to create something very special, almost magical. The ancient Romans named it “Terra Magica.”
The hinterland of Istria is a beguiling patchwork of meadows, vineyards, and olive groves, plus carefully tended gardens where trees hang heavy with ripening cherries, figs, and walnuts. This fertile land also grows wild asparagus and truffles, for which Istria is becoming famous. High in the hills, behind more medieval walls, are yet more toy-town settlements of fountains, chestnut trees, and frescoed churches. Frankly, I defy you not to fall in love with Istria. Both the landscapes and the way of life rival the best of Tuscany or the French and Italian rivieras, but this place is still undiscovered and therefore affordable. Renovation projects (centuries-old stone farmhouses on hillsides overlooking valleys of olive groves and vineyards) can start at less than $100,000.
Next, Zagreb. As capital cities go, this one is just about perfect. And here’s why:
First, its location. It’s tucked in southeastern Europe, bordering the Adriatic Sea, between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia. It’s a prime location near Vienna, Venice, Budapest (all spectacular cities in their own rights), plus skiing in Austria and golf in Slovenia.
Second, its size. Zagreb’s manageable size enables you to enjoy every corner of the city and the surrounding areas on foot or bike or using its easy transportation system. Zagreb is one of those rare capital cities where you can enjoy a morning of skiing or hiking, visit several museums or swim on a nearby beach after lunch, and then enjoy a play or an opera that same evening.
Third, it’s fun. Croatia’s tumultuous history has created an enormously diverse culture.
Finally, like all Croatia, Zagreb is inexpensive.
Like France, this isn’t one of the world’s cheapest places to live. But it’s one of the most affordable options on the Continent, delivering extraordinary lifestyle for the cost.