From a historical point of view, Vukovar is an important stop on any tour of Croatia, but until recently there wasn’t much for tourists to see except ravaged structures languishing after the War of Independence. That’s changed dramatically thanks to an infusion of grant money from the Croatian government, in recognition of the area’s historical and archaeological significance. Today Vukovar is teeming with archaeologists working to uncover significant vestiges of long-gone civilizations, including Bronze Age settlements on the Danube. Vukovar once was known for its elegance and culture, and until 2006 it served as a powerful, living antiwar advertisement because of the rubble left over from the almost total devastation it suffered during the war that swept through Slavonia in 1991. Some say the city was offered to the Serbs and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) as a sacrificial lamb and left a shambles for years as a reminder of that event.
Before the war, Vukovar was a center of industry and manufacturing in Croatia, anchored by the Borovo tire factory. The city also enjoyed a modest tourism trade thanks to its Baroque center, its lovely riverfront location, and its vibrant society. However, Vukovar’s large Serbian population (37 percent), and its position just across the river from Serbia, made it a prime target during the war. The result was a three-month-long siege in 1991 that all but leveled the city and emptied it of people.
Vukovar was finally returned to Croatia in 1998, but not all its citizens have come back, perhaps because there isn’t much to return to. Many local businesses and homes lie in ruins, jobs are scarce, and some say the government has been slow to rebuild Vukovar because it wants the ravaged city to remain a physical symbol of the brutal siege.
About 39km (24 miles) east of Vukovar, Ilok is the easternmost city in Croatia, home to a 13th-century fortress and palace currently under excavation. Ilok also boasts an 18th-century Franciscan monastery that was built inside the walls where St. Ivan Kapestran (St. John Capistrano), a Franciscan warrior monk, successfully defended the banks of the Danube against invading Turks. St. Ivan died at the monastery after a battle in 1456. In 1526, another wave of Turks attacked and eventually prevailed. They held Ilok until 1697, when Austria took over. Subsequently, the Hapsburgs gave the entire town—perhaps as a reward—to Livio Odescalchi, an Italian military officer who helped defeat the Ottoman forces.
Ilock’s Fruška Gora area has been known since Roman times for its microclimate, which supports lush vineyards and robust wine production. Ilok was taken by the Serbs during the War of Independence, but it was not as badly damaged as Vukovar because almost all its citizens were given the opportunity to flee before the attack. Today, several high-powered investors have become interested in Ilok and have been acquiring its vineyards and wineries. Ilok’s wine industry is finally approaching prewar production levels.