The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The forgotten region that’s making wine for the Coronation
Easier to reach than ever before, Croatia’s Slavonia is the loveliest destination you’ve never heard of, says Jane Foster
Croatia’s glorious Adriatic coast has long been a hit with British tourists – while Slavonia, an inland region in the northeast that’s historically been difficult to reach, has remained off our radar. But with Ryanair set to launch direct flights from London to Osijek in June, that could all be about to change.
Flat and fertile, it’s a destination with much to offer. Slavonia boasts three picturesque riverside towns – Osijek, Vukovar and Ilok – as well as extensive wetlands populated by rare birds; several long-distance bike paths along the Danube and Drava rivers; and a thriving local culinary scene, including excellent white wines, grasevina and traminac, produced at centuriesold wineries. Better yet, one winery even has a special connection to the British Royal family.
But before tasting those wines, what else is there to discover in this little-known spot? Start in Osijek (tzosijek.hr), and head straight for the oldest part of the city, Tvrda, with its car-free cobbled squares and baroque buildings. It centres on Trg sv Trojstva (Holy Trinity Square), originally called Vinski Trg (Wine Square) in honour of the wine that was once delivered here twice weekly – a tipple that remains of great importance to the city, celebrated annually with summer wine and art evenings (facebook. com/Vino.Umjetnost).
Next, head north to the Baranja region (visitslavoniabaranja.com), noted for its fertile vineyards and pretty villages, and home to the wetlands of the Kopacki Rit Nature Park (pp-kopacki-rit.hr). It’s a haven for birds (look out for white-tailed eagles, cormorants, herons, swans and black storks), drawn by an ample supply of freshwater fish, reflected in Baranja’s culinary speciality, fis paprikas (mixed fish in a spicy paprika sauce).
To taste the local wine – the light, fruity grasevina – head for the old cellars in Knezevi Vinogradi belonging to Baranja’s biggest producer, Belje (shop.belje.hr), established by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was given the land by the Habsburgs for defeating the Ottoman Turks in 1697.
Make for Vukovar next, south of Osijek beside the River Danube. On a sunny day, strolling through its baroque old town, it’s difficult to imagine the atrocities that took place here during the Battle of Vukovar in 1991. Learn more at the 18th-century baroque Eltz Manor, now the Vukovar City Museum (muzej-vukovar.hr), which houses a thought-provoking installation.
Finally, save the best for last in magical Ilok (turizamilok.hr), lying between the Danube and Sava, and backed by the gentle hills of Fruska Gora, where vines have been grown since Roman times. The old town lies within 15th-century fortifications and includes the 18thcentury Odescalchi Castle (now the Town Museum), the Church of St John of Capistrano and the remains of an Ottoman hammam.
The traminac grape is king here, introduced from south Tyrol in 1710 by Italian nobles whose wine cellars are now owned by Ilocki Podrumi (ilocki-podrumi.hr), one of Croatia’s biggest producers, and open to visitors.
The aromatic traminac white has won several Decanter awards, but more impressive still, it’s also one of our Royal family’s favourites – one that they’ve enjoyed at various events and anniversaries since the late-19th century. In 1953, Ilocki Podrumi supplied traminac for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; in 2011, they sent ice-harvest traminac for the wedding of William and Kate; and in 2018, berry-harvest traminac for the wedding of Harry and Meghan. In keeping with tradition, they will be sending Traminac Principovac (a semisweet white wine, produced in a limited edition) as a gift to Charles III and Camilla for their Coronation on May 6 2023. What better reason to raise a glass?