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  • Writer's pictureMark

Eastern Croatia - Wine Country

From the capital of Zagreb we head east, to the border with Siberia, and right into one of the best corners of Croatian wine making in their country. When we were at the wine bar in Zagreb and getting a very informative introduction to the wines of Croatia we head about the town of Ilok as one of the best in the country for nice dry white wines. So, being open at to our immediate travel plans we looked at a map and said, “Let’s do it.”

We planned to spend a night in Ilok, and before that to stop in the town of Osijek for the first night we had out of Zagreb. We choose Osijek as a good stopping point to keep the drive time from getting to much – our goal being to limit city to city drives to around 3 hours with the only the occasionally necessary 5+ hours drives. When we looked online into Osijek and what it offered with an old city and a new, still old, city center, we booked a night there. For Ilok, again since we were told this is where to get your white wines, we booked a stay at a winery.

We pulled into Osijek in the mid afternoon and, after obtaining wi-fi and contacting our hosts, checked into our AirBnB for the night. This is one I’ll mention here, the bridge, and would recommend to anyone willing to listen to me – it was perfectly located, centered in about a 5-10 minute walk from both the old and new town. The kicker is that the place was perfect, the hosts were great and friendly, and they left us with a fully stocked fridge of local beers and wines. Later that night we enjoyed a nice white wine they provided while sitting in the kitchen of the apartment.

When we arrived we headed to the old town of the city, the short walk along the river passes the old fortress and city walls and then we enter into the center of the original center of the city. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and yet again unbelievably hot outside, and as such there was hardly anybody out at all. The center square was empty and we wandered around in the heat taking a few photos, the center square has a monument to those lost during the plague in the 1700’s. It’s an oddly disturbing monument, with a full presence over the whole square. We stopped in one of the local eateries and enjoyed lunch, and then took a slow stroll back up to the newer section of town.

The city shows a lot of scars of the war in the 90’s, when Yugoslavia was breaking apart and then Serbia attacked into Croatia. Buildings in the city, and even more so in the small towns in the surrounding area are still riddled with bullet holes. It’s moving to see, you get chills as you walk through the streets and alleys.

We detoured on the return path to walk through one of the older neighborhoods and found an old mansion that wouldn’t have been out of place in Chicago or any once wealthy city, we looked it up and the stories are hard to follow – purchased to upgrade, abandoned, purchased, legal problems, ongoing legal issues – the story is the same around the world. We wandered through the old, crumbling, beauty, wondering how in this smaller city anyone would be able to afford to refurbish the place, but hoping that they eventually can.

Our brief stint in exploring the abandoned urban home done, we headed to the new town. The new town has the church, also undergoing repairs, but open for us to view. And then a cute little downtown with outdoor café’s and a river walk that is full of people as they finish their day of work. We enjoyed the center and then headed back along the river walk to enjoy the sunset and then return to our apartment for the night.

Ah, then then this is where the story gets better – we left the apartment with their fridge still (mostly) fully stocked and headed to the winery in Ilok.

This was one of our shortest drives, and soon we were parked in a city park and checking into a winery hotel. Worried about our parking job, they ensured us that just pulling onto the grass across from the old castle was perfectly legal.

We checked in and walked into town in search of lunch. That should sound easy, but the first place we sat only had drinks – it was packed at 2 in the afternoon on a Thursday – and the waitress pointed us down the hill for food. A long walk downhill in the heat to find a place that tells us they’re closed. Another hotel across the street was still serving food and we were able to get some pizzas for a quick lunch.

Bellies full it’s time to explore, we are now at the lower section of the town, near the banks of the Danube river, and with the old castle and city walls towering above us. I choose to walk around to the east and get a photo looking up at the castle walls, as we saw in paintings at the hotel where we had just had a pizza lunch. Bad idea, as Tina will attest to, as it’s just too damn hot out, the sun is blaring into our eyes over the castle walls, and the vegetation now hides most all of the city walls from the lower viewpoints. It was a long and, unfortunately unnecessary, walk back around an up a long staircase that was all in direct sunlight.

We toured the church, wandered the town and then we returned to the winery for the afternoon tour of their cellars.

The winery we stayed at, Ilocki Podrumi, is one of the best known ones in all of the area – their wines were severed at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. They were also selected as wines that needed to be severed at Prince William and then Prince Harry’s weddings, that’s more then enough of a sell for us. Well maybe not enough to sell us, but the tasting of the wines made us really appreciate it.

It was a tough tour, as we said this is a country just coming out of a fairly recent war, there are stories – remarkable as they are – of a local man walling up and hiding the old bottles of wines that they had provided to the queen at her coronation. This is a man that they were holding a celebration for in the next few weeks, some of these bits of information are that indescribable hits in the weirdly moving world, to risk one’s life to protect bottles of wine that really have no meaning other then that bottles from that same vintage were served to the queen. Yeah.

At one point they showed us their largest wine vat. a wooden one they don’t use, and then they explained how it was one of their smallest 20 years ago, but with the war the Serbians emptied all their storage tanks of wine and the hundreds of years old tanks all dried out, cracked, and split. They had to start again once the hostilities were over.

It was a great tour, and afterwards when sitting outside enjoying some wine we talked to a whole group of English speakers, mostly from Australia that were there for a wedding – the one woman was engaged to a local Ilok man and they were now living in Zagreb. We all talked about how wonderful Ilok was as a quaint city, and they questioned how we ended up there. We told them how we heard about the winery from a knowledgeable waiter in Zagreb, and they just told us we were lucky to have met him. They’re right, we were lucky, getting into Ilok and spending a day here is amazing and the wines were beyond amazing.

Seriously, when we asked for a bottle a wine to take back to the room they laughed, their wine is fresh, not bottled, and they poured us a carafe of their recent batch for us to sit out and enjoy. A great way to spend out final night in Croatia before heading in Serbia…..

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