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Few visitors to Croatia include the region east of Zagreb in their itineraries. While many of the towns between Zagreb and the country’s eastern border on the Danube have not recovered fully from the 1991 war, a visit to this region will help you build a fuller picture of the real Croatia, far away from the hedonistic Dalmatian beaches, exotic islands, and romantic harbor towns.

Inland Croatia is home to vast flat plains and the country’s most fertile arable land, along with historic towns, rural wetlands supporting rare bird species, and gastronomic delights capable of wowing even the most jaded traveler. Visitors can walk through Čigoć, a village in the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park, where whole families of storks nonchalantly regard you from mammoth nests built atop centuries-old timber cottages. You can visit solemn Jasenovac and its poignant monument to victims of World War II’s ethnic violence and feel the sadness in the air. In Osijek, the biggest city in Slavonia, you can take a turn around the promenade along the mighty Drava, and walk the perimeter of the city along the top of what’s left of the medieval walls surrounding the Old Town. Then, in Ilok, you can taste local wines in a vast, centuries-old wine cellar. It’s almost a certainty that you’ll cringe at the devastation still visible in Vukovar, and you’ll shake your head at the unspeakable cruelty that the town’s citizens suffered when you visit the touching memorial to victims of a 1991 hospital massacre there.

Inland Croatia’s rewards are subtle. This infrequently traveled region is the sum of all the “ah-ha!” moments that happen as you imagine the horror of war while gazing across the Danube at Serbia from a bluff in Ilok. The payoff isn’t a transient thrill, but the understanding that something important happened there, something that formed the soul of contemporary Croatia.