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Croatia is considered one of world’s top tourist destinations. We think it’s not an exaggeration to say the nature is astonishing.  You’ve certainly seen photos of its crystal clear sea. And its long tradition of culinary expertise and recent restaurant revolution are all the rage among locals and travelers. But what about the nation’s history? What is the story behind the gorgeous defense walls of Dubrovnik or the charming castles of Zagorje? Today, these are sites of beauty, but their initial role was to guard Croats against the perils of history.

The beginning

Croats arrived to their present home from the Far East, possibly from the area of the present-day Karpatia Mountains. Upon their arrival, they formed two distinctive realms, which historians call White and Red Croatia. These kingdoms gave the colors to the chessboard of the national emblem, still in use today.

However, it took some time for foreign countries to form bonds with Croats. The Papacy, at that time the crucial power in diplomacy, acknowledged the country in the 9th century when calling King Branimir Dux Croatum (the pope was probably pleased that Croats built St. Donat’s Church in Zadar). However, King Tomislav is usually considered the first sovereign ruler of Croats (crowned in 925). If you visit Zagreb by train, his statue will be the first thing you see once you leave the main station. Tomislav also gave the name to one of Croatia’s well-liked dark beers.

Between Venice and the Ottoman Empire

Tomislav’s bloodline flourished up to the late 11th century.  At that time, Croats formed an alliance with the neighboring Hungarians, acknowledging their king as their ruler. The newfound friendship was tense on the political front, but the common folk were enjoying themselves. After all, Hungarians are known for their great stews.

The middle ages were violent in the Balkans, as constant struggles between Croatia and Venice kept peace out of reach. However, these skirmishes came to a halt once the Turkish forces invaded Croatia.  Other nations understood the threat of the Ottoman Empire, and had sent reinforcements to the land. In just a few decades, Croatia received the title of the “Walls of Europe,” as it bordered powerful foe across all the continent.

Despite the scent of war in the air, Croats were busy building landmarks and forming cultural heritage for future generations such as Sibenik’s Cathedral and the Moreska Warrior dance. Some of these managed to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

However, things were not bright for Croats, as invaders became more aggressive. The country was rapidly losing territory, and not until the Battle of Sisak in 1593 did Croats manage to achieve a considerable victory on the field. One of the reasons for military success was Sisak’s Old Town fort, which today serves as a restaurant. In the following years, Croats, with the help of their allies, managed to secure their territory (apart from present-day Bosnia). However, the battle was long from finished.

For Empress and Country

One of the most influential females in history, Empress Maria Theresa, stepped on to the Croatian throne in the 18th century. Despite good relations in the beginning, most historians agree that she favored Hungarians and Austrians over Croats. Yet her rule provided much needed security as the political climate was still very tense. Although Ban Jelacic (yeah, that guy on the horse) helped Austria during the Hungarian uprising, Croatia lost its autonomy after the conflict was resolved. However, that didn’t last long, as the country regained its status as autonomous state in 1868.

World at War(s)

The Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled after losing World War I, so Croats decided to seek new allies. At that time, the idea of uniting Slavs was circulating, so they formed an alliance with Serbs and Slovenians, forming the new kingdom. This realm, officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians was not very stable, but remained functional up to Hitler’s invasion. The Nazi regime promised Croats an independent state, which seemed acceptable at the time. However, Croats soon learned the real nature of Nazism, and rebelled under well-known communist leader Marshall Tito.

Tito ruled Yugoslavia with an iron fist, but also managed to achieve a diplomatic balance in the shaky world of the Cold War. After his death and the crumbling of communism, Yugoslavia fell apart, leading to Croatia’s war for independence. After achieving victory and securing its territory, the country began looking towards a brighter future, proud of its past and cultural heritage.

It is difficult to put all the past 14 centuries of the country in a medium-sized article on the internet. And in fact, the best way to learn about Croatia is to visit, which is exactly what you should do.

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