54km (32 miles) SW of Zagreb; 90km (54 miles) N of Plitvice National Park

Leafy Karlovac is 54km (32miles) and less than an hour from Zagreb and it has all the right elements to stand out as a model of Baroque architecture and clever city planning. However, war and neglect have left their marks, and many of Karlovac's treasures are crumbling and in deplorable condition. Karlovac was established by the Austro-Hungarians in 1579 as a military installation to defend against the encroaching Turks. Because of its strategic position between the Kupa and the Korana rivers and its proximity to the Mreznica and Dobra rivers, Karlovac has been on the front line of battles spanning 4 centuries.

Many of Karlovac's stately Baroque buildings still bear significant scars from Serbian artillery, and others are towering examples of the former socialist government's indifference to beauty, but the town is showing signs of renewal.

Originally, its medieval footprint was in the form of a six-pointed star set within a system of moats. Today the star-shaped layout still is intact, but it now is a green space that includes the Franjo Tudman Promenade, a 2.4km-long (1 1/2-mile) path lined with chestnut trees that meanders around the central city.

When you approach Karlovac from any direction, it looks like a blue-collar industrial town ringed by middle-class suburbs. It's easy to miss the Old Town farther in; it once was a wealthy cluster of Baroque homes and businesses. The Old Town is in various stages of dishabille, but it is notable even though damage from the 1991 war still is visible almost everywhere you look. Renovation projects are going on here and there, though they seem inadequate in light of what needs to be done.

Even if some Karlovac residents have not come to terms with the war, there are signs that the town is emerging from hard times. There are two modern hotels in town (Europa and Korana), name-brand retailers (Benetton, Levi's), ubiquitous crowded cafes and pizza places, and even a few tourists taking in the sights before moving on to sun and fun on the coast.

The town's center comprises buildings that still suffer from battle blight, but they are clearly Frankopan or Hapsburg inspired, inspiring anyone wandering past to think of the town's appearance before war left its ugly mark on the facades.

At the west end of town, Karlovacko Brewery might be the town's most recognizable brand name, but Dubovac Castle on a hill above it is probably its main tourist attraction. It can be reached in 10 minutes from the town center by car (or in 30 min. on foot). It once was possible to stay in one of the castle's 10 sobes (rooms), but those have closed and the building is now being renovated. During construction, the defensive tower is home to a permanent exhibition on the history of the castle and the area around it. The banks of the Korana River also are popular and draw crowds at all hours to swim, jog, walk their dogs, or enjoy the scenery.

Dining opportunities in Karlovac range from homey klets (rustic restaurants serving local cuisine) on deserted streets to the elegant Dobra in the Hotel Korana, which also offers alfresco service on its handsome deck overlooking the river.

About 6km (10 miles) north of Karlovac, the town of Ozalj and its imposing hilltop castle offer spectacular views of the Zumberak, a sight that is worth the ride even if the still-under-renovation castle isn't. About 10km (6 miles) northwest of Ozalj, the tiny village of Krasic has become a tourist destination because of its church and museum dedicated to the town's favorite son, Alojzije Stepinac, who was archbishop of Zagreb during World War II and who is something of a folk hero in Croatia. Stepinac was jailed by Communists after being railroaded on charges of collaboration with the Nazis, and he spent the final years of his life under house arrest in Krasic, the town where he was born. There is an imposing statue of Stepinac outside the church, which is open for Mass and tour groups, and for anyone who happens to meet up with the parish priest.

If you continue in the same northerly direction when you leave Krasic, you will see rural villages almost untouched by time (and renovation). You will be in the part of Croatia that is home to a strong Greek Orthodox culture, which is evident in some of the architecture. When you get to Pribic, note the Church of the Annunciation just outside the village: Its architecture is typical of the Orthodox genre.

From here, you can continue farther north into the Zumberak to Socice to see more churches and a small folk museum displaying farm implements and Greek ethnic garb; then proceed to Zumberacko Eko Selo. You can then circle back to Samobor and Zagreb.