So what is the coolest, most compelling example of Croatian design? It’s actually a 4500-year-old collection of symbols engraved on a grey pot called the Vinkovci Orion. Looking rather like a superbly conceived set of contemporary pictograms, the symbols are the best-known product of the so-called Vučedol culture, a civilization of pastoralists and metalworkers who settled in the region in around 3000BC.
It’s a story told with passion and verve by the gripping new Vučedol Culture Museum near Vukovar, a bold new building that slants dramatically out of a hillside, rather like a secret base you might have seen in a James Bond movie. The museum has significantly boosted tourism in an area that was already on the rise: in Western Europe people might talk about the Bilbao Effect. Here it’s the Vučedol Effect.
Sat beside a gorgeous stretch of the Danube river, historic Vukovar and the nearby wine-producing town of Ilok have been quietly touted by in-the-know travellers for quite some time. Driven by growing awareness of the new museum, the Vukovar-Vučedol-Ilok strip is now one of the fastest-growing destinations in Croatia, picking up the European Union’s EDEN prize for cultural tourism in March 2108.
Substantially damaged by Yugoslav army artillery in autumn 1991, and under Serbian occupation until 1998, Vukovar has become a synonym for ethnic cleansing and civilian suffering. The town is nevertheless returning to what it was before the conflict: a pretty Baroque town sprawled along a bewitchingly attractive stretch of Europe’s greatest river. Many of Vukovar’s most handsome buildings have been returned to their pre-1991 splendour, notably the Eltz Palace, a gorgeously stately lump of Central-European Baroque that is now home to a spectacularly well-designed town museum.
Hidden away in a dell southeast of town, the Vučedol Culture Museum is much more than just a collection of pots, brings prehistory to life with the aid of dramatic lighting, computer animations and ethereal music. Indeed you might easily lull yourself into believing that you are wandering around a contemporary lifestyle showroom. Dummies clad in replica costumes and jewelry look as if they could have come straight from the window of an edgy London fashion boutique.
They’ve only got a replica of the Vinkovci Orion (for more on that, see below), but this takes nothing away from the engrossing audio-visual treatment of its symbols. Arranged in strips on the surface of the pot, the symbols come in a range of highly decorative wave, star and spangle shapes. According to leading prehistory expert Aleksandar Durman, they signify star constellations and seasonal agricultural activities – the whole ensemble adding up to a complex pictorial calendar whose four bands represent the four seasons. The constellation of Orion occupied a particularly important place in the lives of the Vučedol folk because it was a winter sign, and its disappearance from the night sky signified the start of the spring sowing season.
Vukovar is best treated as a double date with the historic fortress town of Ilok, 30km downriver: it’s in Ilok that you’ll find local wines, some great B&Bs, and the best of the local river-fish cuisine. Best place to sample the latter is the Dunav, a beautifully situated riverside restaurant that has just made its way onto the Michelin Guide’s list for 2018. Picking up a recommendation in the “Bib Gourmand” category (the tag Michelin use for great value, good quality local food), Dunav is in its element when producing steaming cauldrons of fiš paprikaš, a rich red stew made from chunks of pike, perch and catfish, liberally sprinkled with paprika. The Dunav’s other strongpoint is its desserts, with taške (pastry pouches stuffed with jam and covered with icing sugar providing the I-couldn’t-possibly-eat-another-thing conclusion to an expansive meal. Tables are spread out under gazebos in a neat waterside garden, from which you can observe barges floating past, or listen to the faint but discernible hubbub of riverside revellers on the far (Serbian) shore of the river.
Ilok’s other great attribute is its vineyards, which produce some of Croatia’s best dry and medium whites – primarily Graševina (Welschriesling) and Traminac (Gewürztraminer). There’s one major wine producer in the shape of Iločki podrumi and a host of smaller family firms – so you can visit Iločki podrumi’s show-cellars together with the tour groups, or opt for the more intimate experience of popping into one of Ilok’s numerous family wineries for a quick glass or two.
One of the top family wineries to break through on a national level is Buhač, whose successful experiments with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have propelled its reds onto restaurant wine-lists throughout the country.
The other thing that Ilok has in abundance is cute places to stay. Villa Iva, with neat balconied rooms arranged around a central courtyard, is the pick of the B&Bs in the town centre (doubles from 375Kn); otherwise the riverside Dunav, surrounded by greenery, offers plush rooms above its lauded restaurant (doubles from 500Kn).
Forty kilometres west of Ilok, the elegant plain-dwelling town of Vinkovci enjoys the cachet of being one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Europe – the town’s timeline starts somewhere around 6000BC and takes in the Vučedol folk as well as many others. The local museum draws all these strands together, with different periods of this staggeringly long history illustrated by dioramas with suitably clad dummies (acting as models for the dummies were present-day museum staff, so there’s a chance you might recognize them later while wandering around town). And squatting unobtrusively in one of the display cases is the original Vinkovci Orion – it may lack the computer-screen extras you get in Vučedol, but at least it has the mystique of being the real pot.
Come out of the museum and turn northeast up Kralja Zvonimira and you’ll see all of the symbols of the Vinkovci Orion again, this time embedded in the paving of the pedestrian zone. All of a sudden, this provincial town centre splashed with café tables and strolling shoppers seems like the mystical heart of a Croatia that travel writers have, up to now, rather inexplicably passed by.